Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Calling All Horrible Bosses (and Ye Masses of Horribly Bossed)

My old boss used to make me puke. Literally. The last two times he came to my site for a visit, I became suddenly and violently ill, alarming my Congolese colleagues and prompting me to head to the hospital for a slew of tests. I was so shocked to discover that boss-inspired anxiety could make me sick that I blogged about it, as some of you may recall.

Probably I'd been extremely lucky, but I'd never had a boss that had made me puke before. Far from it, in fact. Many of my previous supervisors had gone out of their way to be, well... awesome. When I started working at a hiker information desk in New Hampshire, my boss sent a coworker and me on a paid fact-finding hike so that we'd be better prepared to answer visitors' questions, and he frequently dropped by our late night shifts with a few pints of Ben and Jerry's. Towards the end of my season as a native plant restoration volunteer in the North Cascades, my boss there demonstrated his remarkable generosity by scoring me a free flight down the Skagit Valley in his friend's ultralight glider.

There were a few exceptions, like the pastry room supervisor who, when I showed him my purple and balloon-sized hand following a near-tragic incident with an industrial dough mixer, said only, "Did you get any blood in the dough?" and an overly intense youth corps manager we nicknamed "Bipolar Billy" for his ability to transform from sensitive steward of personal growth to unapologetic drill sergeant in the blink of an eye. But always, in those cases, I had the comfort of knowing that the job was only temporary, and that in a month or so, I'd never have to deal with their antics again.

But now that I've (ostensibly) moved beyond the world of seasonal employment, horrible bosses are no longer entertaining characters to blog about a couple months down the road. Get stuck with one, and you might be stuck for a very long time. They're also everywhere, or so it seems. The more I talk to friends about their work situations, the more stories I collect - of week after week of 12-hour workdays with no overtime compensation, only the implication that "if you don't prove yourself, I'll find someone who wants the job more," of managers who hired you to develop and implement technical programs  but treat you like a secretary, of grown men "puking their guts out" every morning before work because they so dread coming into the office each day.

What's even more discouraging is the fatalism with which many people seem to accept how badly they're treated. I understood this attitude in Congo, where humanitarian jobs are precious and life-changing for locals, but it's harder to stomach here. Jobs are hard to come by here, too, but the idealistic American in me wants to believe that when something ain't right, we should go about trying to fix it. Even if it means taking the potentially awkward and frightening step of confronting your boss.

I'm becoming more and more interested in this topic the more I talk to people about it. And so I'd like to invite you, or someone you know, to get in touch if you have a horrible boss story of your own.  What it is that makes people, often very nice people in any other circumstance, turn into bullying ogres when they're granted supervisory powers? What's the effect on the ones being supervised, and how do they try to cope? And what have you tried to make a bad work situation better?

If you're interested, shoot me a quick message and we can set up a time to chat. I promise not to divulge any private information, and I plan to share the interesting bits in future blog entries. Contact me here. 


  1. I've been very lucky with bosses, so I haven't much to add. I am looking forward to reading stories though, and will be sure to come back in a few hours to check for updates.

  2. I don't know if you've noticed, but...

  3. Right! That one's worth at least one entry of its own, doncha think?