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Why are some bosses evil?
June 19, 2006 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Why are there so many bad employers?

It seems like everyone has worked for someone who is awful to work for- not even in terms of the work to do, but the way they treat their employees. Like, I just heard from a friend that another one of our friends has to go back to Mexico, because the wealthy owner of the small company she works for renegged on her deal to pay for her visa. How do people get like that? Is it the power of the job that corrupts them, or were they just nasty to begin with? If it comes in the job, where exactly does it originate? Could poor employer behavior be prevented, perhaps through some form of educational training?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero to Work & Money (42 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Employers get away with this because nobody stands up to them or reports their behavior to the proper authorities. In the case of your friend seeking a Visa, unfortunately there is most likely little she can do besides look for someone else to employ her/pay for her Visa or pay for it herself and then get a new job.

How do people get this way? The same way any sociopath is made. Poor upbringing and social environment.
posted by ChazB at 9:35 AM on June 19, 2006


Could poor employer behavior be prevented, perhaps through some form of educational training?

labor union
n.

An organization of wage earners formed for the purpose of serving the members' interests with respect to wages and working conditions.
posted by matteo at 9:35 AM on June 19, 2006


of course, labor unions are a communistic, atheistic, possibly terrarist concept, so feel free to disregard
posted by matteo at 9:37 AM on June 19, 2006


At the risk of sounding foolish, there are at least two sides to every story and I'm fairly confident that not every 'evil' decision is arrived at with a good measure of maniacal glee. Life is full of shades of gray and I believe it's possible that a number of obviously unpleasant decisions were met with much distaste by their owner, yet for one reason or another they felt compelled to go through with them.

Maybe the reason was financial and the employer was a greedy jackass. On the other hand, perhaps there was some other issue (unseen by the employee) that forced this hand. Not everything can be sweet dreams and jelly beans.

Now that isn't to say that we should all just assume the best of our employers; I'm just voicing the possibility that sometimes good people make decisions that hurt people and even though so many people like to demonize their employers, such characterizations aren't always fair.
posted by Raze2k at 9:40 AM on June 19, 2006


I think there are two questions for the "evil bosses" situation. Why are there bosses with poor management styles?, and, Why do some employers exploit their workers?

For example (only slightly hypothetical), I have had a boss which did not exploit me - great benefits, sensible demands of my time and energies - but had a terrible management style. I would be made to feel incompetent or humiliated, not because of my inability to do my job, but because I was asked to perform impossible tasks which were outside of the scope of my position. Evil? Sure.

Now, a boss that has good "management" skills, but implements hiring/firing policies which exploit the employees (as described by the OP), is a different kettle of fish. To speculate a bit, this has less to do with interpersonal skills of the individual than with larger forces that define the politics of business and the cultural attitudes which lead to exploitation of workers, resources, etc.
posted by pants at 9:49 AM on June 19, 2006


because business is primarily about making money, not about being a good person. Most models for successful business stress profit above anything else. Why do they pollute? because it is cheaper. Why do they pay low wages, fire people before retirement, refuse to offer benefits unless forced to... same answer.
Of course not ALL business operate as such, but most do.

"Where's the money?" Answers many many questions.
posted by edgeways at 9:57 AM on June 19, 2006


Having been an employee and having been an employer, and having read horror stories on all side, I'd like to point out that there are far more bad employees than there are bad bosses. (It's just that the bad bosses affect more people at once.) The problem with both specimens is that they don't realize they're bad. But most bad bosses don't go around complaining about how lousy their employees are. Most bad employees complain about their bosses, even if their bosses are fine.

I think that there are bad bosses and bad employees because people are human. Simple as that. Being a boss doesn't make a person an ass. Most bosses are fine. Many are great.
posted by jdroth at 10:00 AM on June 19, 2006


Mankind is naturally flawed.
posted by vanoakenfold at 10:00 AM on June 19, 2006


Because it's hard to be a good employer. Bad employees treat good employers like utter shit and eventually good employers give up. That's not to say that there aren't employer who are bad right from the beginning though.

In my own experience managing a helpdesk team, the majority of employees will usually do the absolute minimum required, and a few will do much less than that, regardless of how well they are treated. The employees that do better than the minimum requirement ultimately get moved into management, and the role of employer, leaving the dregs behind.

Further, I've been trying for months to hire a reasonably priced contract worker, and have yet to find someone efficient, hard-working, reasonable, and not attempting to screw me out of money simply because I am in the role of 'employer'. That leaves a pretty bad taste in my mouth, and makes me less inclined to give the "good employer" effort.
posted by Kickstart70 at 10:04 AM on June 19, 2006


You should totally read the novel "Dr. Neruda's Cure for Evil" by Rafael Yglesias. In the book a psychologist is determined to get to the root of the psychology of corporate executives that caused the death of one of his patients. Fantastic book, can't recommend enough.
posted by hermitosis at 10:04 AM on June 19, 2006


You can see why in the answers of the employers here: because they think they deserve more from you than they do. And then they get all upset and jerky when you know, you just treat a job like a job. It's an expectations problem.
posted by dame at 10:12 AM on June 19, 2006


The "evil" behavior you describe is not peculiar to company management. Many insecure people seek to prop up their self-esteem by imposing their will on others. Some become (bad) cops, some become (bad) teachers, some become (bad) managers.

The business world is in some degree different in its reaction to petty tyrants, in that there is no intrinsic control on such behavior. If a cop or a teacher abuses his authority, parents or the public can bring pressure to bear (with varying degrees of success). If a boss is a jerk, little is usually done, and being a jerk to your subordinates is not seen as a bad thing (or as a good thing, either) by upper management or stockholders.

Corporations are amoral entities whose only motive is profit. Employee morale is seldom seen as a tool for achieving profit. Which is why matteo's answer is usually the only effective approach for abused employees.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:15 AM on June 19, 2006


I think it's, at times, owing to the original character of the individual: someone who thinks that a) they are right about everything, b) don't care what anyone else thinks, and c) feels that they should be telling people what to do (usually rather than the other way around), often find themselves drawn to running their own businesses (rather than working for someone else [see (c)]). Coupled with the bully-like attitude you see in some of these people, which discourages many people from standing up for themselves or others, I think many bosses are bosses because they're jerks, rather than jerks because they've attained professional power and status.
posted by penchant at 10:44 AM on June 19, 2006


A drill sergeant of mine used to love to spout this saying whenever someone complained about something:

"It's just a question of mind over matter, private. I don't mind and you don't matter."

Employers treat employees like shit because they they view most people as fungible and expendable. There's very seldom any meaningful negative consequences for mistreating employees, but there's most definitely hell to pay if you don't make your numbers for the quarter. "What have you done for me lately?" could easily be the motto of every company I've ever worked for.

Your friend's boss screwed her, and what will happen to the boss? Nothing. So why wouldn't s/he do it again if she thought it could save a couple of bucks?

(Ironically, employers often bitch about the lack of employee loyalty when people do decide to finally leave)
posted by Gamblor at 10:51 AM on June 19, 2006


This question I asked may be somewhat illuminating.
posted by lovejones at 11:00 AM on June 19, 2006


Because my awesomeness needs balancing on the bell curve.
posted by mkultra at 11:08 AM on June 19, 2006


I have a little more time to answer this question now, and so I'll contribute some various ramblings.

Employers treat employees like shit because they they view most people as fungible and expendable.

This is inane. It assumes the premise is correct -- that most employers treat employees like shit -- and reveals a fundamental lack of business knowledge. It's far more cost-effective, far easier to retain an employee than to continually hire new ones.

There's very seldom any meaningful negative consequences for mistreating employees.

Yeah, other than lawsuits and poor productivity and low morale and, if the employees has contact with customers, a bad reputation where you least desire it. One of my largest customers has a huge morale issue and doesn't know it. But every delivery driver that comes into his warehouse knows it! He's a bad boss, and there are most definitely consequences.

As a young man, I was a good employee. I always showed up early, stayed late, did more than was asked, and obeyed the rules. My bosses loved me. I never had a bad boss. Coincidence?

Well, at every jobbed I've ever worked at I've had fellow employees who would show up late, bitch and moan the entire time they were on the job, try to do the least amount of work possible, intentionally contrive to get themselves "hurt", etc. and then they'd complain loudly to everyone who would listen how much of a jerk the boss was. Funny. The only other people who had a problem were employees who acted the same way.

As an employer, I've had people who would come in late, still inebriated, and plod through a day's work. I've had employees who fought with me every time I asked them to do something outside what they were hired to do. (This is a small company, and sometimes the truck driver's going to have to mow the lawn. Sometimes the boss is. Sometimes the shop workers are. Just mow the fucking lawn. It's not a big deal.) I've also had exemplary employees who would do everything in their job description and more. Guess what? The bad apples were weeded out ASAP but the awesome employees receive excellent wages and get all sorts of exceptional treatment. One of my good workers needs an afternoon off to run an errand? You better believe I'm going to let him have it. I need him more than he needs me! And because I let him have it, he sees me as a good employer.

There are certainly bad bosses, just as there are bad employees. (I have a family member who works for a bad boss, no question -- this family member is hardest working, most devoted employee I've ever seen, so the problem isn't with him.)

The employer-employee relationship is just that: a relationship. It's a two-way street. If you go into a job with dame's attitude, you're not going to get much out of it. But if you go into it with broader expectations, with an understanding that working together with your employer can yield mutual benefits, well, then things are peachy keen.
posted by jdroth at 11:12 AM on June 19, 2006


Things are peachy keen until, like your family member, you put your best effort out for a boss who doesn't notice or reward that. If they are one of those who believe that if an employee can produce X, then they must be capable of producing X+1, you'll soon be overworked and underpaid. You may not be one of those, but they definitely exist.

It doesn't answer the question to say either, "all bosses are exploiters" or to say, "all workers who produce have satisfied and grateful bosses."
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:30 AM on June 19, 2006


You can see why employees are bad in the answers of the employees here: because they think they deserve more from bosses than they do. And then they get all upset and jerky when, you know, the boss just treats a workforce like a workforce. It's an expectations problem.

In other words, there's often a self-perpetuating cycle of mismatched beliefs. Both groups believe that their own role is strictly limited ("just doing the job for the money" vs "just giving the orders in exchange for the wage") and yet they have, consciously or otherwise, higher expectations (professionalism, fairness, motivation) of the other group. When those are not met, they ease off on whatever 'extra mile' effort they had been putting in. This is noticed, the other group likewise cut back to the bare minimum (putting in the hours, paying the wages) and resentment takes hold.

In my current workplace, the employees tell horror stories about the lack of appreciation shown for their hard work. The bosses tell horror stories about the lack of appreciation shown for the great salaries / T&C. How remarkable; both are right.

Oh, and a lack of self-awareness can simultaneously lead to assertive confidence and blinkered self-righteousness, the former causing promotion and the latter peccancy.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 11:34 AM on June 19, 2006


"Because it's hard to be a good employer."

This was going to be my exact answer. The more people I meet, the more it seems that hardly anyone ever even tries to do anything that's hard. A lot of people barely even try to do things that are easy. And of all the people who actually do try, not all of them will succeed. This applies to employers and employees.

Also, there are some people who get off on making other people feel uncomfortable, unworthy, unsuccessful, etc. People who like feeling like they've pulled something over on someone. This also applies to employers and employees.

There are also good employers, but nothing's perfect.
posted by lampoil at 11:35 AM on June 19, 2006


As a young man, I was a good employee. I always showed up early, stayed late, did more than was asked, and obeyed the rules. My bosses loved me. I never had a bad boss. Coincidence?

Perhaps. I'm thinking more of bosses who treat their employees poorly, no matter how hard they work. (I've worked for one, and I've known plenty of people who have or do).

All of your thoughts are very interesting- please, keep 'em coming!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:41 AM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]


some of my thoughts:

some employers have never been employees themselves and don't understand what they're doing (i have rich cousins like these).

some employers see employees as no different from supplies and machinery. the only answer for these are laws, law enforcement, lawsuits and unions.

the saddest part are those who really don't understand that the best way to get the most out of an employee is by treating an employee well and giving credit for good work (and i say this as a person who has worked in both blue collar and white collar jobs).
posted by mirileh at 11:41 AM on June 19, 2006


Busy Old Fool describes the situation well, I think.

Also, in a market system, it's in the bosses' interest to get the most work for the least money, but it's also, with no less moral justification, the employees' interest to get the most money for the least work, so everyone's got their own agenda, subconsciously or not.
posted by furiousthought at 11:42 AM on June 19, 2006


It's far more cost-effective, far easier to retain an employee than to continually hire new ones.

In the long-term, absolutely. Unfortunately, most (larger) companies don't look much past the next quarter's numbers. And many businesses like call centers, fast food, and service industries do view their non-executive employees as fungible, in the same way the military does. They structure their whole businesses around that model.

As a young man, I was a good employee. I always showed up early, stayed late, did more than was asked, and obeyed the rules. My bosses loved me. I never had a bad boss. Coincidence?

And I've seen good employees like this laid off alongside mediocre and poor employees as soon as the company missed their numbers for the quarter.

The bad apples were weeded out ASAP but the awesome employees receive excellent wages and get all sorts of exceptional treatment.

I wish to apply for a position at your company of FantasyLand, Ltd. Your workplace experiences and mine have been polar opposites, it would seem.

There are certainly bad bosses, just as there are bad employees.

Has anyone been arguing otherwise? The question was why do bosses act so poorly towards their employees.

You imply that you've never had a bad boss because you were such an awesome employee, then you state that your family member has a bad boss, even though they're an awesome employee. So what's your point?
posted by Gamblor at 11:48 AM on June 19, 2006


As a continuation of edgeways' comment, employers (i.e, businesses) are not people; they are organizations and, as such, exist outside of human morality. Everything that happens in a business happens to sustain the business, often to the detriment of its employees. Now, some executives are on their own trip, with their own agenda. But by and large, most executives and managers make decisions based on what's best for the company. Some may argue that it's in the best interest of the company to treat its employees well, but considering that there are huge companies that treat their employees like shit, I really doubt it.
posted by lunalaguna at 11:48 AM on June 19, 2006


1. People are, in general, assholes. People in a position of power have more opportunities to express their assholeitude, so you notice it more.

2. Try being an employer and see how you feel about being presented with an impenetrable wall of entitlement.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 11:50 AM on June 19, 2006


Also, in a market system, it's in the bosses' interest to get the most work for the least money, but it's also, with no less moral justification, the employees' interest to get the most money for the least work, so everyone's got their own agenda, subconsciously or not.

furiousthought put it more succincly than me. And I would argue that, for a variety of reasons, currently the scales heavily tilt towards the employers.
posted by Gamblor at 11:56 AM on June 19, 2006


If you go into a job with dame's attitude, you're not going to get much out of it. But if you go into it with broader expectations, with an understanding that working together with your employer can yield mutual benefits, well, then things are peachy keen.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha. I've been a good employee and a bad employee. And you know, I've gotten shafted by crap bosses for both and rewarded for both. So yeah, often when your boss sucks, it's because they have an expectation problem.
posted by dame at 12:03 PM on June 19, 2006


As a note, in most cases the "boss" is a middle-management employee with a "boss" riding his or her ass 7 days a week as well. So a chunk of what is often perceived as evil behavior is often times just the fact that supervisors are stuck between unreasonable demands from employees and management.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:14 PM on June 19, 2006


It's very much about what Penchant said.

Just to highlight the important distinction, you referred to the "wealthy owner of a small company" being a poor employer. Bad management usually (I've found) go hand-in-hand with the fact that the company is usually still managed by its original owner and founder, and not by a middle manager. As much as people hate managers and there's a whole culture built on poking fun at them, I've found that I've preferred working for a manager or middle manager than directly under the owner of a small business.

The reason, I believe, is that the kind of personality needed to be a business owner (risk-taking, originality, "don't-tell-what-to-do"ish ness) usually makes for poor management skills. The guy or gal who quit his job to make his or her special brand of widgets is usually not going to be a good example of management prowess. A business owner who is both original and risk-taking, yet good at communicating with employees and helping them develop their skills is a rare thing indeed. People who fit this profile are 1 in a million.
posted by 1fish2fish at 12:20 PM on June 19, 2006


Another reason this question was at the forefront of my mind was something I saw at the grocery store yesterday. The woman in front of me was trying to pay for some things with a WIC check (food stamps, basically). I don't think she spoke English very well, and the two teens behind the counter were having a hard time communicating with her. At one point, the girl worker asked the boy worker, "Did she sign the check? Have her sign the check! If she doesn't sign it, it'll get taken out of our paychecks." I was aghast- I couldn't believe the store would go to the lengths of fining their employees for making mistakes (in this case, the check was only for $6.84). It seemed to me to be a poor way of managing employees, but one they could probably get away with, especially with teen workers.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:23 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]


There is the whole idea that bad employers go through more employees than good employers. So even if there are fewer bad employers, there are more people who have been exposed to them than would be expected as a matter of chance.
posted by 517 at 12:25 PM on June 19, 2006


ThePinkSuperhero,

I have visited your profile page. I am now blind. Send help.
posted by 517 at 12:34 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]


A friend asked me to post this on his behalf:

Why are there so many bad employers? Most people suck. On top of that, most people are unqualified. People think that management is a natural skill. It isn't.

How do people get like that? Born that way, self-centered, whatever... tons of ways. Power of job/nasty to begin? My money is on the latter. I know lots of good bosses, and they all try to use their power to make their people happier.

Where does it originate in the job? nasty people who don't really understand how to manage, and then get frustrated that what they're doing doesn't work... and misdirect their frustration.

Could it be prevented via training? In many cases, yes. I think most angry employers/lousy employers are bad at management and planning. Like they'll promise this and that, without following up to get a plan in place to make it happen. Then everybody gets pissed and disappointed. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:48 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]


A few years ago, after a series of organizational related difficulties, I learned this lesson: Always work for yourself. That way the question "Who's to blame, the boss or employee?" is easy to answer.

Actually, I was wrong, when you have your own small business, you get to blame the customer or client.
posted by Xurando at 1:18 PM on June 19, 2006


The good employers don't have any trouble finding staff and rarely even advertise, while the bad ones are hiring constantly.
I don't think you can prevent bad employers, but you can avoid working for one. I'm always amazed at the number of people who fail to carefully interview the employer before accepting a post.
posted by Lanark at 1:28 PM on June 19, 2006


The good employers don't have any trouble finding staff and rarely even advertise, while the bad ones are hiring constantly.

This seems like an important point to keep in mind (although of course in a hot market, even good employers will have trouble finding people). But the general principle that bad employers touch more employees than good employers do is valid. There's a pretty good Joel on Software article on a related topic that might be worth reading.
posted by inkyz at 3:06 PM on June 19, 2006


After reading the many wails from American employees on AskMe, I have to say partly the answer must be cultural and legal. You have many state jurisdictions ("at-will" is the phrase, yes?" where all power resides with the boss, combined with a complete lack of the egalitarian ethic that prevails in other societies. We have bad employers in my country too, but they are restrained by a legislative framework and social mores that punish abusive behaviour towards employees.

Suppose you are a bad employer in America. Until and unless you have the insight that your behaviour has costs in productivity and staff turnover, there is little incentive for you to change. Why should you?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:34 PM on June 19, 2006


Well, over the past few months, I've had two summer jobs. The first one was gardening (mowing the grass, basically), while the second was in a bar.

The gardening job was working for the council, with an extremely hands-off management style. Employees were reasonably well-paid, well-treated, and generally left to manage themselves of their own accord.

They responded by goofing off at every possible opportunity, doing the bare minimum of work -- going and sitting in the van every time it started raining, taking cigarette breaks every half an hour, going to the shop instead of working, driving round and round for the last few hours of the day instead of doing any work. Of course, I wasn't complaining, because I was on a temp contract at an even higher rate than them and I was getting paid for twice the hours I was actually working. Still, it seems obvious that this is a grossly inefficient way to run anything.

At the second job, the bar, employees are treated much more harshly. There's a top-heavy hierarchy, with three managers and an uncountable number of shift supervisors all taking turns to breathe down your neck at every possible opportunity ("manage from the floor", as the company website has it). They like nothing more than to tell you that you should always be doing two things at once, and any second you're not doing something is a second where they're going to come over and get on your case.

Guess what? People don't goof off -- they can't. Employee morale is generally low, but not that low, and we're just a bunch of expendable students anyway, so who cares? They could hire their entire staff again just from the CVs they get handed in each day, and I doubt they'd see any significant decrease in quality for it. I can't say I'm happy at being treated this way, but from a business perspective, it's entirely justified. The few times people are actually left alone, they goof off just the same way as they did at the other job, all sorts of backlogs start to build up, and customers start complaining.

What am I saying? Basically, I agree, employers are often nasty. The problem is that when they're not, employees take liberties. There are two ways to make your employees work hard: go out of your way to treat them well, or just keep an eye on them and boss them about. Guess which method is easiest?
posted by reklaw at 4:33 PM on June 19, 2006


There are two ways to make your employees work hard: go out of your way to treat them well, or just keep an eye on them and boss them about. Guess which method is easiest?

The weaker, dumber, more short-sighted and reactive method is the easiest. What do I win?
posted by bingo at 5:38 PM on June 19, 2006


For a few years I did short term, short notice temp - mostly going in on admin assistant type short notice or emergency absences, and I probably had about 30 or so bosses (not counting co-bosses or sub bosses). What I saw was this:

1. The definition of being a boss is you are empowered to order people around. This is not the best starting ground for a relationship, though it seems unavoidable in this bad old world (someone has to order those poor boys over the hill, huzzah!)
2. Bad bosses are often passing along unreasonable expectations and pressure from their bosses.
3. Low paid, overworked employees make good business sense from a superficial perspective (check on how much of your shit was made in China and question how this equation is being played out in the global economy).
4. Shitty employees invariably think they have shitty bosses whether they do or not.
5. Everybody has personality deficits, sometimes a boss' and an employee's exacerbate each other and both end up thinking the other is worse than they are.
6. Corporate culture can and does foster a certain kind of jackass. Smooth talkers who are good at passing the buck and taking the credit. They inevitably end up being lousy bosses.
7. Incompetent people are always bad bosses no matter how nice they are.
posted by nanojath at 11:30 PM on June 19, 2006


Thanks, all, for your answers. I've marked as "best" some of the answers that get most to the root of what I was thinking about- maybe they answer the question I wrote down, and maybe they don't; I apologize. You all had very interesting thoughts on the matter.

Not only am I an employee, but I also manage people, and will probably be managing more people as time goes on, so thinking about where bad bossing originates is important to me.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:03 PM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


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