Workplace Culture

The Last Word: Misery in Your Company

By Ronald Alsop

Aug. 3, 2011

Employees who feel abused at work—and hopeless about escaping their plight—might want to steer clear of the new movie Horrible Bosses. It could give them some dangerous ideas.

I went to see the film last month, expecting a lot of goofy, off-color workplace humor. I wasn’t disappointed. The bosses from hell—played to the hilt by actors Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell—are great fun to watch.

But there’s a more serious message underlying their wicked, over-the-top antics. While other films, such as 9 to 5, have depicted office dictators, the storyline in Horrible Bosses is especially resonant in the job market of 2011.

It succeeds in capturing the desperation of its three persecuted victims played by Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis, who exemplify—to an exaggerated degree—the many mistreated, overworked people in real-world offices today. The traumatized threesome consider quitting and seeking new jobs—that is until an ex-Lehman Brothers employee meets them in a bar and reveals that he has resorted to providing unsavory sexual favors to make a few bucks. At that point, killing the boss but keeping the job seems by far the better course of action.

That choice is clearly far-fetched, but it speaks to the current job climate where some people feel trapped at their companies. They’re afraid to quit and take their chances in a still precarious job market. Without an exit strategy, they feel out of control and downright miserable to the point of mental and physical illness.

Of course, bad bosses aren’t anything new. Most of us have survived at least one awful boss in our careers. They tend to be bullying control freaks who know how to dish out the criticism but are stingy when it comes to giving the praise employees need to thrive. Those managers can do real damage to both their companies and their subordinates, undermining employee confidence, morale and ultimately productivity. I remember a former colleague who said she still had stressful dreams about an intimidating former supervisor—even years after he had retired.

Bosses can make life miserable in countless ways. In a Spherion Staffing Services online study last fall, 45 percent of the surveyed employees said their boss has taken credit for their work, more than a third said their boss has “thrown them under the bus” to save herself or himself, and more than half said they feel their boss doesn’t respect them as professional equals. A separate employee survey by OfficeTeam, another staffing services firm, found that about a third of respondents stayed and tried to resolve issues with an unreasonable supervisor, about a quarter simply suffered through the torment, while others ended up resigning from their jobs.

How do lousy leaders manage to survive and even advance to more powerful positions? They may be producing the short-term results that companies crave in order to keep Wall Street happy. Or perhaps they simply are politically connected to the powers that be. Clearly, bottom-line results and office politics trump workers’ feelings and fates in this uneven economic recovery.

Horrible Bosses reminded me of just how precarious our work lives really are. Bosses have perhaps the greatest impact on employee job satisfaction. Yet who ends up supervising us is quite unpredictable and out of our hands. When the movie opens, for instance, Sudeikis’ character, Kurt, enjoys an almost paternal relationship with his kindly boss played by Donald Sutherland, until a sudden heart attack puts Sutherland’s obnoxious, cocaine-addled son (Farrell) in charge. And as the movie ends, veteran comic Bob Newhart shows up as potentially an even loonier boss than Spacey’s character, who has been carted off to jail.

Movie critics have given Horrible Bosses mixed reviews, but the box office take totaled a healthy $101.3 million worldwide through July 31. It also has provided grist for PR folks. Working America, an affiliate organization of the AFL-CIO, invited entries for its My Bad Boss Contest, and the talent management firm Development Dimensions International Inc. asked employees to characterize their bosses (most frequently mentioned: the know-it-all and the micromanager).

Although the black comedy may hit close to home for some people, they can probably take consolation from the fact that their miserable managers don’t compare to Farrell’s drug-addicted playboy, Aniston’s sexually predatory dentist or Spacey’s homicidal sadist. At least I hope that trio is as horrible as it gets—even in this cutthroat economy.

Workforce Management, August 2011, p. 42Subscribe Now!

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