Stop Toxic Managers Before They Stop You!

By Gillian Flynn

Aug. 1, 1999

You’ve been there. We’ve all been there. The manager who bullies, threatens, yells. The manager whose mood swings determine the climate of the office on any given workday. Who forces employees to whisper in sympathy in cubicles and hallways. The backbiting, belittling boss from hell. Call it what you want—poor interpersonal skills, unfortunate office practices—but some people, by sheer, shameful force of their personalities, make working for them rotten. We call them toxic managers. Their results may look fine on paper, but the fact is, all is not well if you have one loose in your workforce: it’s unhealthy, unproductive and will eventually undo HR’s efforts to create a healthy, happy and progressive workplace.

Why are some managers toxic—and why should HR care?
The looming question surrounding toxic managers is: Why are there so many? In these days of enlightened management, with so much emphasis on communication, interaction and valuing people, why does this breed still exist?

In large part, it’s because our bottom lines allow it. Companies often don’t have a means of rating managers outside of productivity. If a supervisor is churning out the widgets, the questions are kept to a minimum.

“The biggest single reason is because it’s tolerated,” says Lynne McClure, a Mesa, Arizona-based expert on managing high-risk behaviors and author of Risky Business (Haworth Press, 1996), a book on workplace-violence prevention. She believes if a company has toxic managers, it’s because the culture enables it—knowingly, or unknowingly through plain old apathy (see sidebar, “Eight Toxic-Manager Behaviors—and the Cultures That Nurture Them”).

Certain work situations foster toxic managers. When a company has gone through downsizings, pay freezes or other financial crises, negative management tends to thrive. The emphasis is often on get-tough turnaround, and as such higher-ups often turn a blind eye to crude management as long as the numbers are good. Similarly, employees are less likely to speak up about their rotten bosses—they don’t want to sound like whiners or risk their jobs.

Of course, some people are just going to be miserable to work for no matter what. Yet they end up as managers because they’re good employees whose companies lack another way of rewarding them. “There are some people who simply should not be promoted to management,” says Deb Haggerty, head of Orlando, Florida-based Positive Connections, a consulting firm that teaches employees how to deal with personality differences. “Just because someone is a brilliant engineer doesn’t mean they’ll be a brilliant manager. Yet that’s too often how a company demonstrates status.”

Some people are miserable to work for no matter what. Yet they end up as managers because they’re good employees whose companies lack another way of rewarding them.

So a person is difficult to work for—is that really an HR concern? Of course it is, and for several reasons. At the very least, there’s the morale issue. Bad managers tend to infect their departments with bad attitudes. It’s like a disease: They spread despair, anger and depression, which show up in lackluster work, absenteeism and turnover. Workplace guru Tom Bay has written an entire book about how ideas and moods can aid or sabotage the workplace, Change Your Attitude: Creating Success One Thought at a Time (Career Press, 1998). He believes it’s toxic managers—and the cultures that enable them—that are at the core of today’s job-hopping phenomenon. “Turnover is the highest it’s ever been,” he says. “Employees don’t feel appreciated.”

Obviously, turnover, absenteeism and uninspired work cost a company money, even if a department’s output remains level. But there are other dangers of toxic management. Intense bullying over a period of time can cause emotional damage to employees. Says Haggerty: “In addition to being problems in themselves, toxic behaviors create a hostile work environment and can easily escalate to real violence, harassment and intimidation—all of which end up landing a company in court.” And you can imagine how sympathetic a jury would be toward a company that allowed its employees to be terrorized in order to keep a tidy bottom line.

So how does HR address the situation? Help those that can be helped, and excise those who can’t—or won’t. But first comes what’s often the tricky part: finding them.

Every company has them: Identify the bad apples.
Toxic managers don’t always stand atop your building, wearing a black hat and holding a placard telling you they’re the bad guys. HR has to do a little detective work, particularly when employees are often loathe to complain about personality differences, no matter how justified. Certainly, there are some warning signs. Check for instance, turnover in every manager’s department—are employees transferring or quitting a particular area? If so, that’s cause to ask further questions.

“Being communicative and being observant is vital,” says Bay, also a former HR director. “Don’t wait for massive turnover, that’s like realizing you’ve had a heart attack after you’ve died.” At the first increased trickle of turnover or transfers, Bay says, start asking employees what’s happening.

Have discussions both individually for those who need privacy to speak their minds, and in groups to appeal to employees who like peer support. Listen for key words or notions; don’t expect employees to explicitly say they hate their boss. Do ask follow-up questions. For instance, one common flag is for an employee to say their job is fine, but that they’re under a lot of strain or pressure. Ask them why—it’s often an interpersonal problem, and a good way for you to get more information.

At Wescast Industries Inc. in Brantford, Ontario, Wayne Phibbs, vice president of HR, uses a monthly “report card” meeting for employees, designed to measure their job satisfaction. “Picture a union person frustrated with his boss—he’s not listening, he’s not helping,” says Phibbs. “Every month there’s this opportunity to force your leader to be honest. He can’t go in there and buffalo people; it won’t work.” Phibbs thinks such open talks and constant forums contribute to his workforce’s high satisfaction level—even among the Canadian Auto Workers Union, a group notorious for its scrappy members.

Of course, not all employees are going to be publicly forthcoming. So keep the lines of communication open in as many venues as possible. “Exit interviews are helpful, but they’re too late,” says McClure. “I wouldn’t stop doing them, but you need to do other things.”

One common flag is for an employee to say their job is fine, but that they’re under a lot of strain or pressure. Ask them why—it’s often an interpersonal problem.

Anonymous hotlines are helpful, and can be set up as cheaply as dedicating one phone line with voice-mail, or more elaborately, through an outside agency that refers issues to HR or an EAP, depending on which is appropriate. “HR has to be careful not to get into counseling issues, and that’s hard because we know how fuzzy that line is,” admits McClure. HR can also encourage employees to send e-mail. Employees need not use their work account; many Internet sites offer free e-mail with anonymous user names–, for instance).

Using multi-source performance reviews, in which employees can give feedback on their bosses anonymously, is also enormously helpful. At Spring Engineering Corp. in Livonia, Michigan, Tim Tindall, president in charge of HR issues, instituted a 360-degree survey based around “servant leadership,” the theory that the best managers are those who serve their employees. In that mode, the questionnaire covered qualities like listening, empathy, awareness and healing. “The culture in this area [of Michigan] is somewhat adversarial between labor and management. It’s a long tradition, and one that’s hard to break, so this helped us get at some issues.” Tindall included himself in the reviews, which were discussed openly, and used to plot next steps.

One word of warning about multi-source reviews: These don’t need to wait for a manager’s yearly review, but they do need to be given to all managers in a department. It’s key, says Haggerty, not to target one particular supervisor, even if turnover and comments have identified that person as problematic.

Finally, talk to your supervisors, says Bay. When you ask a manager how things are going in his or her department, and you hear a lot of “I” rather than “we,” or a lot of blame being dispensed, that can be a flag. So can constant griping about employees in general. Finally, keep your ear to the ground, even if a manager doesn’t strike you as toxic. Says Sharon Keys Seal, a Baltimore job coach: “They’re not going to treat you the way they treat their workers.”

Put your managers into detox.
So now you know who—and what—you’re dealing with. What do you do next? First comes the confrontation: Sit down with this person, and tell him or her about the problem. Be as specific as you can. Don’t couch it in vague terms, like saying the manager has “interpersonal issues.” If the manager is perceived as a bully, say that. If she tends to explode at employees, tell her that. Then explain it must be stopped, and why. Don’t come down too hard: This may be the person’s first whiff of a problem. However, do be firm, and tell the manager that future performance will be noted.

Also set a time period for improvement. “Addressing this during a goal-setting session might be good,” advises Haggerty. “It really has to be done in a positive fashion, because those kinds of individuals tend to take criticism and harbor it and nurture it.”

After the intervention comes training. In many cases, the manager simply doesn’t have the correct tools, particularly if the person’s background is field-specific rather than managerial. “You have to give them alternatives for their behavior,” says McClure. “Say not only ‘You can’t do this,’ but ‘You have to do this.’” If that means they need to go to seminars on employee relations, that’s what they need to do. If the person is a poor manager simply because he’s in over his head, give him some educational opportunities. Collaborate with the supervisor—ask her what she thinks is the problem and what might help. There are seminars and classes for everything from anger management to accounting. Also offer EAP counseling—sometimes a person’s main issues are emotional, alcohol or drug-related, and a good therapist can help.

If, after the intervention and follow-up period, the behavior hasn’t changed, HR must decide what to do. If the person has skills useful to the company and is a good worker, you may consider transferring him out of a managerial position but keeping him at the company. Some people just don’t work well with others, but may blossom when working in a more narrow sphere of interaction.

If that’s not the case—if you actually need to terminate the manager—this can be done, carefully. It’s iffy grounds to fire someone strictly for personality issues. You need to define those issues as work-related performance problems, says Harold M. Brody, chair of the Los Angeles labor and employment practice of Proskauer Rose LLP. That means you don’t just say a person is a bully, but that the person’s bullying management techniques thwart productivity in the department. Once it’s defined in this manner, you can discharge the person the way you would for any other performance problem. Keep a record of the incidents, document that you’ve given the employee time for change, and make the termination. This is actually one case in which, if it should reach a jury, the employer has an advantage. “You get this rare opportunity, if you have the right record, to show you had the guts to go to a manager who’s producing the widgets but driving everyone crazy, and saying, ‘You can’t do that, and if you do, you’re going to lose your job,’” says Brody.

Prevent future problems.
Once you’ve addressed your current toxic managers, you have to make sure more don’t sprout up. To begin with, make sure job descriptions include treating employees in a dignified and appropriate manner. Include behaviors that won’t be tolerated, and hold them accountable for turnover. This not only makes the company’s stance very clear, but it emphasizes the importance of treating people well. “Behavior has to become part of the job description,” says McClure. “That way you can no longer say that manager X is a great manager because they really produce, but they’re terrible with how they treat their people. That way, manager X can no longer by definition be called a great manager.”

Build in pay increases or title changes to reward good work without forcing people to assume positions they’re not suited for or wouldn’t enjoy.

Once the job description includes behavior, HR can effectively reward or discipline managers through performance reviews. “Tell them they’re going to be evaluated, compensated and possibly disciplined based on their ability to effectively meet HR objectives—relating to employees and managing them in positive ways,” says Brody. Although Phibbs of Wescast says he uses performance ratings more as a discussion tool than as a punitive pay measurement, if a manager gets poor reviews and doesn’t improve, he’d take the next step. “If someone kept messing up, we wouldn’t give them an increase.” Adds McClure: “Make it a pocketbook issue; that gets their attention.”

Finally, make sure management isn’t the only way up to advance in your company. Build in pay increases or title changes to reward good work without forcing people to assume positions they’re not suited for and won’t enjoy.

You’ve been there. We’ve all been there. But if you’re in HR, you have the power to help toxic managers, their employees — and ultimately, your company.

Workforce, August 1999, Vol. 78, No. 8, pp. 44-46.


Noted author Gillian Flynn is a former Workforce staff member.

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