Here comes the Bad Boss
“Charles, I think you’ve been falsifying your time sheets.”
I was speechless. It was 1995, and I was in the early stages of getting the National Gulf War Resource Center started, not long after Veronica and I moved to Washington, DC. I’d taken a job at a plastics trade association I won’t name for fear of lawsuits, a quasi-evil outfit that ran a bunch of bogus think-tanks like the “Endocrine Research Institute” and more. I was having a great deal of difficulty with the ethical implications of the job, and knew it wasn’t going to last long. But I also had a new baby at home. Kids to feed changes everything.
My job at the time was administrative assistant to the Director of Government Affairs. I filed, put together databases, made PowerPoint presentations and coffee, wrote letters, and did generally whatever was required by my boss, who we will call “Lauren” because I don’t feel like being sued.
I was very conscientious about my job, even if I hated the outfit I was working for. That’s just who I am—I’m a believer that any job worth doing is worth doing well. It’s a trait I learned from my brother and my Dad, and one that has served me well all my life. In this case, it meant sometimes working some long hours, sometimes off the clock, because on the one hand, Lauren was giving me way too much work, and on the other, she wouldn’t approve 1 second of overtime.
My co-worker Sheryl, who worked in the cube farm a few feet away, related the history of my various predecessors. See, Lauren had gone through more than a few assistants. The real hint that I was in trouble was when she told me about the woman who left right before I was hired: after a few weeks working there, the poor woman could occasionally be found in the ladies room, crying quietly in the stall, muttering “It’s NOT my fault.”
Charitably, Lauren was what you would call a “mean” boss. The kind who doesn’t understand what’s funny about the quote “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”
Things started to get bad for me when one of my co-workers (can’t remember her name now, but she was about 300 weeks pregnant at the time) clipped a copy of the federal register for that day, with the witness list for a congressional hearing to be held the following Monday. The problem was this: a) I’d asked for Monday off for personal business, and b) my name was on the witness list. It took about 2 nanoseconds for Lauren to put those two facts together and arrive at my cube.
“What the hell is this?” Lauren asked, slapping the witness list down on my desk.
“Um… it looks like a witness list?” I replied.
“Come to my office. Now.”
Oh hell. I did. The bottom line was, what the hell business did her administrative assistant have testifying before a Congressional committee, when she, the all powerful director of government affairs, had never been asked to do so. Didn’t I understand that I was merely a plebian?
Of course I explained that I wouldn’t be testifying about plastics: I was testifying about Gulf War veterans’s illnesses. I was doing so in my capacity as the part-time, unpaid executive director of the Resource Center, which had a $14,000 budget that year.
This merely pissed her off even more. If our outfit (which had funders like Monsanto, Dow Chemical and Exxon Mobil), with its tens of millions of dollars of funding, couldn’t get face time in front of congressional committees, what the hell right did some dinky volunteer run outfit of sick, whiny, liberal (probably communist) war veterans have to be there?
From that point on, I was doomed. The harder I worked, the worse she treated me. Nothing, and I mean nothing that I did was good enough to satisfy. Everything was questioned. I was under more and more stress. And not the healthy, motivational kind of stress. The kind that keeps you up at night grinding your teeth. Finally one morning she called me in and announced that I was falsifying my timesheets.
This was the last straw. Questioning my competence was a morale destroyer, true, but I’d grinned and bore it for months (admittedly, I did go in the bathroom and whisper “It’s NOT my fault” more than once). But to have her question my integrity?
For the first and last time in my life, I quit a job with no notice. I did, however, write a three page resignation letter, which I turned in to Lauren’s boss, documenting what an evil, terrible, horrible, no good, bad boss she was.
It turned out to be a good move in the long run, because I shortly found a job in the IT sector for the first time. But at the time, it was rough. Especially since, as I’ve pointed out, I had a kid at home to feed.
I have to think about this stuff a lot nowadays, because, well, I’m a boss. I’ve got 18 people who work for me, and I’ve had to do my share of coaching, correcting, and yes, firing, over the last three years. And I don’t ever, ever want to be the kind of boss Lauren was.
So I’ve tried to focus on what makes a good boss. I’ve tried to focus on the things that will make people want to come to work. I’ve tried to not be a manager, but to be a leader. Here are some of things that I think work:
Work as hard, or harder, than everyone else. I’ve never liked the kind of boss who sits in the back room, relaxing, giving dictates and orders. So that means I have to put in as much sweat and hard work as the hardest working of my employees. It’s better to inspire through excellence than it is to crack the whip from behind.
Communicate constantly. Let’s face it: our jobs are where we spend fully a third of our lives. A bad job can make your life a miserable, stomach turning experience of dread. So I try to regularly communicate with my associates about what is going on, what’s coming up in the future. Surprises will happen always, but as much as possible, I try to lay out the lay of the land for my employees.
Staying calm in times of stress. I struggle with this. A lot. But the fact is, when the boss is stressed out, freaked out, and not managing the stress of events, it is infectious. Everyone else takes their tone from the boss. So staying calm, rational and approachable is critical.
Be open to criticism. There is a tendency, especially in my line of work, for bosses to treat their employees as idiots. They aren’t. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the observations and reflections of my employees. The bottom line is, they’re the ones who are making it all happen. They’re the ones interacting with the customers. They’re the ones who have to make minute to minute decisions that effect everything about our mission.
Praise regularly. This is something I’ve got to work on too. For the record: the people who work for me now are the hardest working, most amazing bunch of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. And it’s important to recognize that, to recognize their contributions and accomplishments.
Coaching, not dictating. I try to think of myself as the coach. Don’t just give dictates, but explain why. Above all, I try to focus on not being the demotivational kind of boss who treats people like dirt. Look, how hard is it to say, “You’re doing a great job. I’ve just got a couple suggestions on how you could be better at it….” Isn’t that so much better than coming down on someone like a ton of bricks?
Deal with problems promptly, fairly, and firmly. If you’ve been a leader, you’ve had to deal with problem people. The kind who are chronically late, who don’t pull their own weight, who aren’t interested in doing a good job. What I’ve found is that allowing those people to continue to drag the team down is a disaster in the making. Your good employees will suffer for it, and eventually you’ll lose the best if you leave the worst. If you have someone who is damaging to the team because of a horrible attitude, then the most effective thing you can do is get rid of them as quickly as possible.
Have you ever had a bad boss? If so, how did you deal with it? What are the things that you believe make a great boss?