What Makes a Bad Boss—Bad?

Top 12 Characteristics of a Bad Boss and How to Deal With Them

Factory manager and worker arguing in front of warehouse

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Nothing sparks more commentary than asking employees about what makes a manager a bad boss. And, the feelings of their anger and despair come through in every discussion. Whether your spouse or partner or best friend is dealing with the behavior of a bad boss, you provide a listening ear—and possibly good advice about how to address the less than positive situation.

Consensus doesn't exist about what makes a manager a bad boss, of course, because bad bosses come in so many different shapes and sizes. What one person thinks of as a bad boss may not resonate with a coworker who has different needs from work and their boss relationship.

Many bosses fall into the bad boss category because they fail to provide clear direction, regular feedback, recognition for contributions, and a strategic framework of goals that enable their employees to see their progress. These kinds of bad bosses are what are called "generic bad bosses" because all employees need these types of support and feedback—and they suffer when they don't receive it.

Other bad bosses are bullies. They are nasty and overly critical. These bad bosses badger employees, and employees can never do enough to please them. On the extreme end of the spectrum, bad bosses may harass, physically assault, and throw objects at employees.

But, several themes occur most frequently when employees cite bad behavior on the part of their bosses. 

What Really Bad Bosses Do

If you are thinking of a particularly bad boss, you are likely to experience one or more of the following in your workplace. Very bad bosses most commonly do the following.

  1. Love brownnosers, tattletales, and relatives who report to them about their employees' behavior. They choose favorite employees and cover up and make excuses for the poor work of their incompetent favorites. They ignore selected people and discriminate against many employees. They tend to give their favorites better schedules and assignments, more attention, and pal around with them outside of work.
  2. Fail to communicate, and may not even have clear expectations, timelines or goals. Bad bosses change their minds frequently leaving employees off-balance. Bad bosses change expectations and deadlines frequently. Employees have trouble knowing where they stand and whether they're meeting expectations. Employees fail to feel a sense of accomplishment when expectations don't exist.
  3. Use disciplinary measures inappropriately when simple, positive communication would correct the problem. Bad bosses ignore employees until there is a problem, and then they pounce. 
  4. Speak loudly, rudely, one-sidedly to staff. Bad bosses don't provide the opportunity for staff to respond to accusations and comments. They intimidate people and allow other employees to bully employees. A bad boss frequently talks right over an employee who has put aside their fear and attempted to communicate.
  5. Take credit for the successes and positive accomplishments of employees. They are equally as quick to blame employees when something goes wrong. They throw employees under the bus loudly and in public whenever they need to cover for their own poor performance or lack of leadership and follow through.
  6. Fail to provide rewards or recognition for positive employee performance. Employees rarely feel recognized no matter how much they have contributed or succeeded.

What Less Offensive, But Still Bad, Bosses Do

These are the bad boss behaviors that employees are more likely to commonly see or experience. Taking place more frequently (because the behavior is generally more acceptable in the workplace) a bad boss is also someone who:

  1. Is not qualified for the boss job by either skills or experience. The bad boss doesn't know how to lead and interact effectively with people.
  2. Will not let go of problems or mistakes. The bad boss returns to discuss negative events continually and searches for faults in employees.
  3. Will not accept constructive feedback and suggestions for improvement. The bad boss can't deal with disagreement from employees who have their own opinions about work-related issues. While this bad boss won't openly disparage and abuse their employees, they also will not listen to them.
  4. Lacks integrity, breaks promises and is dishonest. Bad bosses make up stories when they don't know the answer to an employee's question and they are not motivated to find out.
  5. Does not have the courage to deal with a difficult situation, usually a difficult employee who is making the workplace unpleasant for every other person, despite knowing that dealing with the problem is the right thing to do.
  6. Causes dissension among staff members by his or her actions and comments. For example, discussing the work responsibilities or home life of one employee with another employee.

What to Do About Your Bad Boss

If you feel harmed and you've decided it's time to do something about your bad boss, then you should consider taking certain actions such as documenting your boss's bad behavior. You can also take steps to avoid being the target of a workplace bully.

Your first step, however, is to solicit help from your HR department because that's why they exist as a resource for employees. Most likely you're not the only person suffering. Who knows, there might already be complaints filed against your bad boss. 

The worst decision that you can make is to do nothing. The reason? You spend a third of your life at work. You want to make your work in your workplace the best experience ever. You can't do this if you report to and tolerate—a bad boss.