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Paying the price for a horrible boss
Augusta Dwyer
Special to Globe and Mail Update
Published Tuesday, Aug. 09, 2011 5:00AM EDT

The comedy with a touch of reality in it, Horrible Bosses, has given rise to many an article on the real-life workplace torment experienced by many employees. But what about companies that may have difficult managers and supervisors among their staff?

Companies can and do suffer if their employees are under the thumb of a mean manager, says Christine Porath, assistant professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and co-author of The Costs of Bad Behaviour: How Incivility Damages Your Business and What You Can do About It.

Whether it’s lower productivity or a damaged reputation, Ms. Porath’s surveys found that firms have a lot to lose if they don’t deal with toxic managers. California-based Cisco Systems carried out an audit of the costs of bad bosses based on just three of Ms. Porath’s indicators, and pegged the loss at $12-million annually.

Using Georgetown’s alumni database, Ms. Porath and her colleagues found that almost half of respondents across 60 industries experienced bad behaviour at least once a week, a figure that has more than doubled since 1998. Just as worrisome for companies, however, she learned that 94 per cent of those harried individuals will try to do something to get even. Bad bosses “almost always pay in some way, shape or form,” she said.

Staffing service firm OfficeTeam found similar results in its own survey, with 46 per cent of respondents saying they worked for unreasonable managers. “I would think that the results for Canada would very much mirror what we saw in the U.S.,” said the company’s regional vice-president, Deborah Bottineau, in Toronto.

“Often top performers get promoted into leadership,” she pointed out, “and top performance doesn’t necessarily equate with strong leadership.”

Ms. Porath also found that in almost half of the cases surveyed, employees “will intentionally decrease their efforts at work,” she said. “Then 80 per cent lose time worrying about the incidents. One of the things we’ve seen is that it really pulls people off track. They spend a lot of time and energy thinking, ‘What does this mean about me? Should I go about getting even?’”

The most costly fallout of bad behaviour for companies, however, is turnover. Ms. Porath noted that 12 per cent of respondents with bad bosses quit their job, while the OfficeTeam survey found that 27 per cent leave once they have found a new job, and 12 per cent quit immediately after a distressing incident – leaving their ex-employers with the bill for seeking and re-training new talent.

In Vancouver, Glen Grant, a partner at HRfx Consulting Inc., has been called in by firms to help deal with workplace conflict. In one case, he said, it was the abrasive owner of a small business himself who did so. “He recognized that he had a turnover issue,” said Mr. Grant, “but he also recognized that he didn’t have the tools to address it.”

Mr. Grant has also seen cases where a manager treats his or her own staff extremely well yet is rude to everyone else. The problem there, he warned, is that the manager “was building a unit that was entirely loyal to her, not the organization.”

One remedy is simply establishing guidelines about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace, he added, including a statement of values, as well as mechanisms for receiving and investigating complaints fairly. “A lot of small employers don’t have an employee handbook spelling out the rules of the workplace,” he said.

For Ms. Bottineau, “Step One is investing in an appropriate training and development program for leaders within the organization.” Those can be handled either internally or by a third party, like a professional firm or a trusted business contact. As Mr. Grant pointed out, especially in a small business, “the owner should recognize their ability to manage the business, be open to feedback and listen to criticism.

“In a small business,” he added, “because of the direct contact with clients, and the expense of turnover, it can have a more direct effect on the pocketbook of the business owner.”

“Ideally from the get-go,” said Ms. Porath, “[company owners] should set up expectations. They should recruit and select well. We’re shocked at how few times firms really check references, or go beyond the references.” And she added, they “should teach civility, including skills in stress management, negotiation and, mainly, emotional intelligence.” For big firms, like Microsoft, she said, “it has really paid off.”

While, unlike the movie Horrible Bosses, very few employees will consider resorting to violence, an abusive atmosphere at work is no joke. A series of cognitive tests have shown Ms. Porath that bad bosses are not going to get the best out of their workers, “ because, even if they decide to perform for you, they’re just not. There’s a disruption that wouldn’t be there if you hadn’t behaved that way.”

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