Surviving a bad boss can be a valuable experience. That said, Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that there’s nothing worthwhile gained from learning the same lesson twice.
A good horror story can deliver a profoundly moving experience. Even when the story isn’t original, a good writer’s or a good director’s interpretation of a basic story can move us to experience feelings and to consider ideas that we’d normally not be open to. Ridley Scott’s 1979 thriller Alien was hardly an original tale, but it was well told, beautifully set, and surprisingly scary since you saw so little of the film’s antagonist up until the very end. Similarly, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 interpretation of The Shining can still leave viewers thoroughly disquieted with its wrenching portrayal of a family man degenerating into a homicidal frenzy. 
Along those lines, an experience of working for a thoroughly-reprehensible boss can be surprisingly educational in its own right. No, I’m not suggesting that being bullied by a powerful person is somehow desirable or in any way excusable; rather, I submit that we tend to learn a lot more from terrible bosses than we do from our good ones. We learn coping techniques for workplace stressors, learn how to mask our emotions, learn how to read others’ nonverbal cues… We become more resilient and, therefore, more effective by virtue of having endured an awful workplace ordeal. Nietzsche would be proud.
Both horror stories and horrible boss experiences share one more attribute that should go without saying: once experienced to the point of epiphany, there is no possible benefit left to be gained from enduring a wholly-identical sequel. With that in mind, let’s talk about the boomeranging of an Evil Bob.
I mentioned last week that one such Bob was a thoroughly-hated executive at our company. A dispassionate biographer might have summarized his workplace character (at the time) as ‘sadistic, narcissistic, and inexcusably petty’. To be fair, I never actually saw how he behaved outside of work. It’s possible that the man had a Jeckyll-and-Hyde syndrome going, and that he spent all of his downtime rescuing puppies, feeding the homeless, and changing bandages at the local leper colony. It’s possible… but the overwhelming weight of evidence suggests that Bob’s likelihood of living such an angelic private life was nil. I spent many years suffering under the man’s arbitrary and capricious cruelty, and I got to witness his degenerate appetites far too closely to ever believe that he had a trace of decency left in him. The man was an unrepentant, rabid weasel.
I wasn’t alone in assessing Bob to be a bloody terrible leader. There were nearly 500 workers in Bob’s empire back then. Most people never got close enough to him to incite the man’s wrath. Among his management caste, though, the fellow was universally reviled. Try to imagine, then, how euphoric Bob’s managers felt when the CEO announced one afternoon that Bob was leaving our branch of the company to take over a division in another city several hours away. There were tears. There were hugs. Downtrodden workers greeted one another with smiles and high-fives in the corridors. There may have been skipping, too; wouldn’t have surprised me all.
The day after the departure announcement came down, people all across the company snuck off to unused conference rooms to try and piece together what had happened and what it might mean for us. By the end of the day, I’d managed to work out the following (stated and inferred) facts:
- Bob was stymied in his current position – he’d fallen out of favour with the other executives, and was not going to be considered for promotion when the current CEO retired.
- Bob never truly wanted to be the head of our division; he’d been driven out of the manufacturing arm of the company years before, and had made a new career path for himself in the logistics arm. He’d leveraged that ‘fresh start’ to wrest control of the division away from the previous executive so that he could move further up the corporate ladder.
- The position that Bob really wanted was the comparable C-suite position back in manufacturing. He couldn’t take that billet at our facility, because our city’s incumbent wasn’t the least bit inclined to retire.
- The manufacturing executive billet Bob really wanted had just come open in another city, and Bob – with considerable prompting from our CEO – had won the interview for it. He’d be leaving us within the month. Couldn’t wait to get started, supposedly.
There were some mixed feelings within the staff. Getting rid of the git had always been at the top of every manager’s wish list, but we didn’t feel right inflicting Bob’s malevolence on some other poor folks elsewhere in the company. Therefore, quite a few department heads had quiet chats with their counterparts the next town over concerning what to expect from their in-bound ‘new guy’.
During the weeks leading up to Bob’s departure, all of the work centres were pressed heavily by Bob’s deputy to pony up commemorative (and ‘tasteful’) gifts to present as tribute to the conquering zero at his farewell party. Also, attendance at said party was mandatory for all management-level employees. There was quite a bit of grumbling over it, as you’d expect; people were quite happy to pay cash to help the man vamoose, but weren’t terribly pleased with being forced to ‘reward’ him for his epic track record of employee maltreatment. Still, the party had a receiving line (uncomfortable all round), a dinner (cheap barbeque), some speeches (all lies), and a very definite ending.
Driving home that night, I felt an impossibly heavy weight lift off of me. Bob was gone. Bob’s reign was over. Finally, I thought, we can get on with things without being harassed nearly every bloody day…
[It should be perfectly obvious where this story is going, right? Absolutely no one should be surprised by what’s revealed in the next paragraph, because the entire story thus far has been a slow and obvious build towards the amateurish jump-scare that’s about to happen. Remember, though, that absolutely no one at the time had any inkling about what was about to transpire. Just like the feckless heroine in the cheesy horror flick of your choice, the monster was due another appearance before the end credits finally rolled, and had been practicing his ‘abloogy woogy woo!’ shout.]
Five days after the going-away party, I was strolling nonchalantly through the building when one of my managers came sprinting down the corridor towards me, eyes wide, and clearly distraught. He very nearly ran me down, and said (after catching his breath): ‘Bob… is… back!’
The loathing and revulsion that I’d been living with throughout Bob’s tenure came rushing back in a surge of black bile and sick. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted it to be anything other that what my distraught lad had told me. I couldn’t accept the news… and I had to find out if he was mistaken.
I ascended to the executives’ floor feeling like Martin Balsam creeping up the staircase of the Bates’ home in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Instead of a cross-dressing, knife-wielding maniac, I encountered something much worse: Our Bob, wearing his ‘cute little boy’ smile, sitting behind his polished executive desk like nothing had ever happened. He looked at me, I raised one eyebrow, and he sneered. Nothing needed to be said. Not ‘abloogy woogy woo!’ Not even ‘Hello’.
It took me some time and a great deal of political capital to pry the story free, but I finally managed to get the inside scoop on what had actually happened from some of my peers:
- Bob had taken the new executive role in order to achieve his grand destiny: to be an unfettered executive with a clear shot at plant’s top position. Bob also got a decent promotion and a healthy pay rise out of the deal.
- As soon as Bob arrived at the new plant, he assembled all of his new workers together and gave a rousing speech. He said that he’d introduce work reforms, resolve a bunch of longstanding labour disputes, improve working conditions, and bring about a new golden age of prosperity (or something along those lines). The workers were chuffed.
- Once his speech was done, however, Bob learned that morale at the plant was astonishingly low. The plant had recently lost its primary contract, and everyone was afraid that the whole place would soon be shuttered. That wouldn’t do for our ambitious Bob, so…
- In an astonishing feat of bureaucratic kung fu, Bob activated a clause in his contract that allowed him to effectively Ctrl-Z the entire transfer; he called HR and undid the position move before it was cemented in the central personnel management system.
Word around the company was that the HR folks couldn’t find a legal way to interrupt Bob’s clever HR manoeuver. They couldn’t force him to go through with the transfer, and they couldn’t fire him, either. From what I heard at the Christmas party, the executives at corporate HQ wanted Bob’s head on a plate: he’d not only fouled up the hiring action, he’d also made a bunch of wild promises to the workers during his ‘welcome’ speech that management couldn’t live up to. Bob accumulated a truly staggering amount of enmity from the higher-ups that he never managed to overcome. Eventually, his bounce-back stunt cost him his job in the form of an accelerated early retirement… but not before he’d gone on to spend several more years sowing misery and suffering amongst his victims.
Looking at the mess from Bob’s perspective can be educational: even though he’d made promises, had signed contracts, had accepted money, and had even accepted farewell gifts, those factors didn’t matter when compared to the possibility that he might have to deal with a challenging new work environment. The company needed strong leadership during a time of crisis, but that mattered not a whit to Bob; Bob craved power, position, and a plump pay packet. He wasn’t about to put the company’s needs ahead of his own. He certainly wasn’t inclined to care what anyone else thought about his antics. After all, he was Bob… the centre of the universe, the most important man in the world, and God’s own blessed representative to the corporation. It should have been our pleasure to throw ourselves down at his feet so that he’d wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of having his shoes touch the soil (or something to that effect).
Alright, maybe that’s a bit unfair. He never actually ordered us to build him a pyramid so that he could rule over us eternally from the afterlife like a Pharaoh. He always seemed like he was one decree away from ordering it, though.
Realistically, everyone else learned a few good lessons from the ‘Boomerang Bob’ affair: upper management realized that they had a massive loophole in their HR regulations, and immediately set about closing it with new policy directives. No one else would ever be allowed to pull Bob’s there/not-there/there stunt again. I was very glad to see the problem get fixed… although I argued (unsuccessfully) that Bob shouldn’t have been allowed to thumb his nose at the system and get his old management job back. If we absolutely had to take him back, he should have been stuck in a non-leadership advisory role somewhere. Make him the ‘quality guy’, or the fellow who made Equal Opportunity complaints disappear without any semblance of corrective action.
For us in the trenches, we all learned that a bad boss is never truly gone. Just because they’d packed up their belongings and had left for greener pastures, they weren’t guaranteed to be out of our lives forever. Life can get weird, and awful people can circulate back into your path (or you into theirs) under the oddest of circumstances. The smaller your professional niche is, the more likely it becomes that you’ll keep intersecting a loathsome villain time and again, like a minimally-profitable monster movie franchise.
In a broader sense, the affair taught me that there’s no such thing as karma; working hard, keeping your mouth shut, and enduring a sadist’s cruelty may have been virtuous, but it wasn’t going to be rewarded by the cosmos. There wasn’t any grand arbiter of fate who kept track of all the humiliations inflicted and therefore paid out metaphorical compensation further down the road. There was only the workplace and the people in it – good, bad, and Bob-level evil – that made the work environment either tolerable or not at any given moment.
Therefore, my advice to anyone who finds him- or herself suffering under an Evil Bob is simply this:
Don’t wait for the universe to sort things out for you. Don’t count on your Bob getting his or her comeuppance. Don’t hold out for your Bob to leave the company so that you’ll finally be free of his malevolence. You’ll wait too long, you’ll suffer too much in the waiting, and there’s no guarantee at all that your Bob will ever truly leave you. Instead, recognize that your situation is intolerable and pull the eject lever. Escape as swiftly and as quietly as you can to someplace with fewer domineering sadists.
Do everything you can to improve things, and then disengage gracefully. Learn from the experience, but don’t dwell in it. It doesn’t get any better the second time through.  You owe it to yourself. You’ll live longer. You’ll live better. You might also find yourself in a position to help your former co-workers escape as well. No matter what, though, get yourself the hell out of the situation.
 For what it’s worth, I think that Steven King’s original novel delves into the themes of alcoholism and isolation better than Kubrick’s movie version does.
 Unless you completely change tone like the transition from Ridley Scott’s Alien to James Cameron’s Aliens in 1986. That wasn’t really a sequel, and it totally rocked.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.