Whoever said that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” has obviously never had a horrible boss. Those who have had a bad boss most likely aren’t surprised by Gallup research that shows that a manager accounts for 70 percent of variance in employees' motivation. That's the case for both positive and negative influence.
While some cases of terrible management and behavior are obvious, some types of bad bosses are sneakier. They undermine you in small ways, not necessarily to your face. If something is starting to feel off about your work environment, check your supervisor’s language for these words and phrases.
What are 15 signs of a bad boss?
1. “It’s fine” (when you know it’s not).
According to Rachel Kenyon of Kenyon Services, “Bad bosses don’t unpack and deal with bad situations. They pretend they are fine and let them fester.” This is not only passive-aggressive, but it creates a pattern of repeated mistakes. It’s juvenile, and your boss needs to be able to have these conversations.
2. “How am I supposed to get my work done if I have to train you?”
This response comes from Jennifer Vanderslice, whose boss told her this while she was still very new to her position. She goes on to say the response so shocked her that she put in her notice within the week. If managers aren’t willing to train employees, then they probably shouldn't be managing people at all.
3. Saying “no” without any explanation.
“Saying no like this makes it seem like the employee is one of their children and not an adult,” says Counselor Heidi McBain. Just as employees are expected to give explanations about their work, managers should do the same, within reason. Giving even a brief explanation keeps the two-way street of communication open, while also showing the employee respect.
4. “Everybody is replaceable.”
This one comes from Web Developer Corey Tenney, whose boss said this to not only him, but the entire e-commerce team at his company. While it’s most likely true that many people are replaceable, there’s no need to remind employees of that. It kills morale both in the short-term and long-term.
5. “I wish I could fire all of you right now, and I would.”
This is the kind of thing that someone might think when in a bad mood, but to say it out loud to employees? That’s unacceptable! Good managers never say this to their employees. Speaking while angry not only hurts employee morale, but it also causes staff to lose respect for their angry manager.
6. “That sounds like a personal problem.”
This one is so bad (and common), that it even made a top 10 list by Forbes. A supervisor who says this lacks empathy, apparently expecting employees to be mindless robots while on the clock. While you should always strive to achieve balance between work life and home life, there will always be personal events that bleed into the work environment. Kids get sick, you get sick, accidents happen, and stress happens. Good managers understand this, while bad managers are baffled by it.
7. “We've always done it this way.”
This phrase instantly shoots down any new ideas while also showcasing just how lazy a manager is. Unless it’s followed up with a logical explanation of why exactly we’ve done it this way and why it’s the best way, it shouldn’t be said. It kills innovation and makes employees less likely to share their ideas in the future
8. “We can’t give anyone a raise until the company performs better.”
Three employees from the same company submitted this one, showing just how much of an impact one little phrase has. It’s vague, giving no concrete numbers or KPIs. It essentially says, “Even though you’re performing, not every department is, so we’re taking that out on everyone.”
9. “You just need to figure it out on your own.”
A rule of thumb is for employees to make a good faith effort to accomplish a task on their own. However, there’s a point where asking a manager saves time—and therefore money. Responding like this makes a manager look lazy and incompetent. Managers who take the time to help mentor an employee are more respected, and 95 percent of mentees say their mentor helps drive their productivity higher.
10. Asking how much time a project will take, then cutting it in half.
Heath Shurtleff says this is one that’s happened more than once in his position as a developer. His manager asks how long a project will take, and then after Heath gives the answer, the manager will cut down the project estimate drastically, often by half. While some managers may think this is a great way to motivate employees to work faster, it really pushes them closer to burnout and disrespects their knowledge of their craft.
11. “I almost didn’t hire you, because I thought you’d get pregnant and leave.”
Yes! There are managers who say that! This is another one that was submitted by two women from two different companies. On top of being discrimination, this is also incredibly short-sighted and kills the respect an employee might have had for her boss. Not all women want to have children, and many who do have children return to work. Leave gender assumptions out of work completely. This cannot be stressed enough.
12. “What are your family plans the next five years?”
Similar to #11, this is one of those phrases that need to be left out of interviews and conversations with employees. This is something a previous manager of mine asked me in front of a male coworker. He didn’t ask my male coworker—just me. I was completely shocked. I couldn’t answer because I couldn’t believe he would ask me that. Shortly thereafter, I was asked the same exact question at an interview. The answer is: It’s no one else’s business.
13. “Deal with it.”
This phrase is maddening in how childish it is, almost like a manager is challenging their employee to try and respond. It’s what an agitated parent might say to their child, but should not be something a manager says to their employee.
14. “You’re paid to do a job, and that’s it.”
Nothing explains an employee’s value to their boss like this phrase does. This means you mean nothing, your opinion means nothing, and don’t you dare aspire to anything more than the job you hold now. If your boss says this phrase to you, take it as a serious red flag.
15. “You’re not worth X amount of money.”
Salary conversations can be difficult to have, both for an employee and a manager. Budgets, performance, and ego all come into play here, so caution must be taken to have a candid, respectful conversation. But to say someone isn’t worth a certain amount of money? That’s a great way to chase an employee out the door. A better approach is to weigh skills and to make a plan for skill development as well as KPIs. That helps both parties reach a mutual understanding of what skills and work are worth.
What are some ways to approach your bad boss?
There are several ways to approach a toxic boss, even if it may seem intimidating.
- Send your boss an email. Putting things in writing gives your boss some more time to read and really digest what you're saying.
- Ask to have a one-on-one meeting with your boss. Sitting down to talk with your boss about what you need to thrive in your workplace (and what you need from them!) is important. But make sure you take the time to meet with them individually when they can give you their undivided attention.