Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How’s this for a hostile work environment?

As a veteran of at least a couple of hostile work environments, I will, of course, be drawn to any headline reading My Boss is Creating a Hostile Work Environment.

My first thought, while clicking through, was ‘now there’s a sob sister headline if ever.’ And, in fact, it was a Job Sister header for an advice column, the Job Doc Blog, on

In the question posed, an HR person (apparently the head of HR) wrote about his/her enfant terrible of a leader:

He yells, swears and uses threatening language as “motivation." He behaves like this with senior leaders, or when meeting with junior level employees. I can’t stand it anymore. He would never be violent, but this is crazy and no one will challenge him.

In response, the Job Doc said:

As the top HR person, it is your responsibility to bring this behavior and the risks it brings to the organization to his attention. I recognize that you may feel you are putting your job on the line by having this conversation, and you probably are. If you have a board of directors, approach the chairman to see if this behavior is visible to the board. Discuss the positive leadership qualities your boss has and the need for a conversation with him; his behavior needs to change to protect the organization. Offer a solution, perhaps this behavior can be changed with the intervention of an executive coach.

Good luck with this one is all I can say.

No one, of course, should have to work in an environment run by tyrannical, psycho bosses, or for an individual psycho boss from hell.

If most of us have avoided the former, we’ve likely run into the latter at some point or another.

Many years ago, when I was a wee broth of a blogger – have I really been doing this for over eight years? Apparently so… – I was inspired by Bob Sutton to write about workplace assholes.

No need to repeat myself, but just seeing the headline reminded me of what was possibly the craziest and most toxic place I ever worked, and the grand poobah of all the psycho bosses I ever worked for.

This was in one of my many waitressing jobs and, while we’re talking about something that happened over 40 years ago, and while the man in charge is long dead (21 years long dead; when in doubt, JFGI), I am choosing not to name names here. If you’re a Bostonian, you can just think Old Boston Tourist Trap. (In fact, I worked at a couple of them.) If you’re not a Bostonian, it probably doesn’t matter.

Anyway, The Boss – as he was unfondly and fake-respectfully referred to – was a complete and utter tyrant: mean, loud, belittling, nasty, irrational, erratic. It sure didn’t help that he was drunk most of the time. It sure didn’t help that he was a massive man who used his considerable heft – he must have been 100 pounds overweight – to intimidate and threaten. And it sure didn’t help his temperament if, as was rumored, he was incapable of having a normal bowel movement and had to go the doctor each week for what was referred to as his Roto-Rooter.

Man, this guy was nuts.

One of his tricks was to change a rule on the fly, and then start screaming at you if you didn’t obey the rule. What he would do was tell the head waitress, who would inform her friends about the new rule, leaving the rest of us out to dry.

One time the rule was that we had to start wearing aprons. (Before this rule was put into place, we all wore napkins tucked into our belted uniforms.) But overnight, aprons were in.

The head gal and all her cronies showed up wearing theirs. The rest of us – mostly college girls – didn’t.

This gave The Boss the opportunity to chase us all around the floor, screaming at us – purple face engorged and flying spittle and all - about our deliberately disobeying one of his commands. He fired a few of us on the spot – a common occurrence, by the way – setting up the usual psycho drama in which the head waitress would jump in and beg him to give us our jobs back. Which he always did.

There was a similar instance when the rule about storing extra napkins on our stations was put into force.

Prior to this rule, we were allowed stow extra napkins on an extra chair at the head of our table. (In this restaurant, most of the stations were one long table where parties all sat next to each other.) I can’t remember why it was such a big convenience to have our extra napkins so close at hand, but it was.

Then, bang-zoom, it was no longer allowed.

More ranting and raving on the part of The Boss.

More firings on the spot.

You just never knew what could happen on any given day.

If you were really unlucky, it was your turn to wait on The Boss when he had his dinner, an hour or so before the dinner rush.

Dinner was typically a giant platter of tomatoes with an inch of salt sprinkled on them; a gigantic fisherman’s fry plate; prime rib; and – to wash it all down – a large tumbler of Crown Royal with an eyedropper of water in it.

God help you if you put in a splash rather than an eyedropper.

One of my favorite encounters with The Boss – which I know I’ve written about before - was this:

Two young women had come in and ordered the poor man’s roast beef special. The poor man’s was a thin slice of rump roast served au jus.

When I went to pick it up in the kitchen, one plate held a nice, medium rare, tasty looking piece; the other had four pieces of blackened, dried up end cuts on it.

I told the chef that I couldn’t bring those plates out together, as it was for the same party.

He told me to try, but that if one of them complained, he’d swap it out for something that looked decent.

Inevitably, the woman who got the yucky serving refused to take it.

While I was bringing the plate back to the kitchen – which (how modern we were) was “open concept - I was stopped by The Boss, who asked where the hell I thought  I was going. I explained the situation to him.

Game on!

He grabbed the plate out of my hand, stormed over to my table, and started screaming at the women.

Actually, it was kind of refreshing to have him go rip roaring after a customer rather than after one of us, but still…

Needless to say, the women left immediately.

As they gathered their things up, The Boss turned to me and yelled, “And make sure you get the ten cents for the corn bread they ate.”

Ah, I could go on…

Fortunately, in professional life, you don’t tend to encounter bosses of quite this overtly tyrannical ilk.

But as the Job Doc question suggests, they can and do happen.

Good luck, Mr./Ms. HR.

I think  you’re going to need it.

But look on the bright side.

You probably won’t ever have to serve your boss his dinner, and have him going into a boil-over rage if there’s a speck more water in his Crown Royal than he might have liked.

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