Bad Boss Blues

A recent survey reveals most Canadians feel their bosses are subpar

Work long enough and you'll undoubtedly run into that most loathsome of corporate creatures: the Bad Boss. He's the one taking credit for your ideas. Or blaming you for his mistakes. And while we can all chuckle at the inane head honcho in those Dilbert cartoons, the flesh-and-blood versions aren't nearly so funny. And there are quite a few of them around, according to a survey released in mid-October. The online job-search site found that the more than 100,000 Canadians surveyed generally felt their bosses were subpar, and particularly bad at acknowledging their own mistakes.

But you're just a mere employee, so what can you do? Quite a bit, say workplace consultants. Obviously, you can always quit. But that should be a last resort, says Jocelyn Bérard, managing director of DDI Canada, a human resource consultancy in Toronto. If you run into a problem, your first step should be to carefully construct some feedback for your boss that details what happened, but also, more importantly, what the consequences of his or her actions were. “If you talk about the consequence, it will help make them realize why the behaviour is inappropriate,” says Bérard. Your performance review is an excellent time to provide such feedback, as you should already be talking about how things could be improved at the company. Stick to the facts, don't yell, and never make sweeping value judgments about your boss.

Of course, even Bérard admits that telling the boss he or she is doing something wrong is not quite so easy. Some employees may feel they don't have the right, that they may suffer consequences for speaking up, or that it's inappropriate for them to comment on their superior's behaviour. That's when getting advice from others can help. Maybe an HR person, an employee assistance program, a peer, or ideally another manager can offer pointers.

Often the bad boss is just exhibiting an extreme of the same behaviour that got him or her to the top. Someone who is passionate and energetic may become volatile and hot-headed. Someone who wants things just right can become a control freak. Someone who is well liked may not want to hurt others by making a tough decision–and can end up making no decision at all. These character traits are called “derailers,” Bérard says.

The majority of people who behave inappropriately don't realize they're doing so. But good leaders are receptive to feedback and act on it. There are, however, times when it is inappropriate to give feedback, such as right after a bad quarter. Pick your battles. Also, remember not to dwell only on the negatives. Point out the good things managers do and the results they achieved, otherwise there's a good chance they'll tune you out.

A truly bad boss, though, won't give a damn about anything you or anyone else says. That's when it's time to escalate matters, says Bérard. Tell HR why a situation is not working and they may offer solutions about what can be done. A riskier step is to go above the bad boss to his boss.

According to Randall Craig, who runs, a career counselling site, it's much easier to control your reactions and attitude than it is to get a tiger to change its stripes. So don't waste your time if you're planning to leave your company anyway. Before you quit, make a list of all the things the bad boss does poorly each day and write down how you would have done them differently. Add to your list things the bad boss did well. Remember those lessons, lest you turn into a bad boss yourself.