Are You the Victim of a Toxic Boss?

By Tricia Lucas | Leadership

Jul 28
Businessman shouting at his colleague in the office

Have you been feeling overwhelmed lately especially Sunday night before you are due to return to the office? In the beginning, we explain it away and often blame ourselves. As the pattern of incompetence and bad behavior continues, you realize the demon you’re dealing with is actually a toxic boss who has the ability to make your life hell. You begin to question their competence, lose respect, sleep, and motivation. You may like your job, but the emotional toll becomes too much.  Here’s how to identify toxic bosses.

They sap the energy and creativity. They are belittling, petty and intimidating. They consider themselves better than everyone else. All they care about is “getting the job done”, “straightening this place out”, and loudly reminding everyone “where the door is” because “I am in charge.”

Most of us have had at least one toxic boss in our working life. I know I have. A bad or “toxic” boss is one who you dread speaking with, the leader who makes you feel small or insignificant, the arrogant, irritable, or inflexible manager, or the boss who has the ability to instantly suck the life and enjoyment from employees by simply entering the room. Is this sounding familiar?

Tactics of toxic bosses include constant criticism, inflating mistakes, falsely accusing workers of errors, spreading rumors about an individual’s work performance, yelling, threatening, bullying workers, or adjusting schedules in unfavorable ways. A toxic boss tends to micro-manage, intimidate, and instill fear in their subordinates while thriving on it. Working under a person who manages in such a way can lead to extreme job dissatisfaction and illness regardless of other positive company attributes.

Top Early Signs you have a toxic boss:

  1. Your boss damages your self-esteem.
  2. Your boss doesn’t motivate or inspire you.
  3. Your boss ignores you.
  4. Your boss makes you dread work.
  5. Your boss lacks integrity.
  6. Your boss makes you wish you had a better one.

Unfortunately, toxic bosses hurts the morale and productivity of employees. If individual workers are suffering then the organization as a whole is also going to be affected by the toxic leader. The mood of the person in charge determines the tone of the work environment, the tone impacts behavior and behavior impacts results. High operating costs and above average staff turnover rates have been shown to be associated with the presence of a toxic leader. Jim Clifton, CEO of the Gallup organization, found that 60% of employees working for the U.S. federal government are miserable — not because of low pay, poor workplace benefits, or insufficient vacation days — but because they have bad bosses.

Got rewards programs, EAP programs, career paths, and attractive health insurance to entice and retain your employees? Forget it. Toxic bosses will negate these investments and employee programs. None of these programs will make much difference to the people managed by bad bosses.

Each year, the nation’s worst bosses usually end up costing their employers tens of millions of dollars in monetary damages and lawsuit settlement payments.

To date, the 2013 America’s Worst Bosses have cost their employers over $52 million in monetary damages and lawsuit settlement payments. Of this amount, the 33 bad bosses in the public sector have cost their respective taxpayers over $21 million. eBossWatch, the leading career resource that enables people to anonymously rate their bosses and evaluate potential employers, publishes an annual list of America’s Worst Bosses at The managers who made the 2013 list of America’s Worst Bosses were named in workplace lawsuits filed by their employees or were accused of workplace harassment and/or sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and/or creating a hostile work environment.

For some of us, it may help to understand why a boss selects certain individuals to target their toxicity. Most likely, you were targeted because you posed a threat. The perception of threat is entirely in his/her mind, but it is what he/she feels and believes. Targets are often the veteran and most skilled in the workgroup. They are independent and refuse to be subservient. They are the “go-to” person that other employees turn to for guidance. Targets are ethical, honest, well liked, social, and usually, possess greater emotional intelligence. Targets are non-confronting and do not respond to aggression with aggression which unfortunately sets up a nice playground for the bully boss.

Most of the time this behavior has to do with a need for control and respect while masking a deep level of incompetence they are deathly afraid of being discovered by their employees. Once discovered, then the passive-aggressive and vindictive games begin because they’ve been exposed. This appetite for control also has to do with their inability to maintain any semblance of the control in their personal lives. They lie and deceive their employees because their fragile egos are rarely able to handle the truth. These managers tend to have control issues in their own personal lives.

Thus the only place they can maintain control is in the workplace. But as with their personal lives, things eventually fall apart. This certainly seems to make sense. Knowing what I know about my previous toxic boss outside the office I can connect the dots. Multiple failed marriages and a failed support system are taxing whether they are the result of one’s bad behavior or the symptoms. Using their employees like puppets to serve their pathological incompetence is really about filling a need that only psychotherapy can fix. They are simply people that are lacking tools to cope with the challenges that face them in their personal lives and in the workplace.

What makes a boss toxic?

  1. A boss that lacks integrity, breaks promises and is dishonest. My boss asked me to take on another department in addition to my current responsibilities with no additional compensation but with the promise that he would take care of me if I committed to helping him now. He was new to the role so I agreed to help him for the sake of the organization and to give him time to settle in. Needless to say one year after working in this new role he still did not come through and even delayed my review for 5 months. He had no intention of rewarding my hard work or loyalty. Since he was the President I really had no recourse without the fear of losing my job or other repercussions. He was a bully and proud of it.
  2. Causes dissension among staff members by his or her actions and comments. This one really hits home given my experience. I found out from my other peers and employees that my boss went around badmouthing others. It was a disturbing pattern and unfortunately not an uncommon trait in toxic bosses. This form of negative back channeling creates a toxic environment full of distrust.
  3. Speaks loudly, rudely, one-sidedly to staff. Toxic bosses don’t provide the communication time for staff to respond to accusations and comments. They intimidate people and bully staff. They allow other employees to bully employees. We had a senior staff member we shall call Ms. X. She would yell, scream, and berate her employees and they would, in turn, imitate her behavior when interfacing with other employees in the organization. The toxicity multiplied like a bad virus. Our senior staff meetings carried the same tone. Walking into the conference room was like going before a firing squad. Our President always acted like he was better than us and waited to catch us in a mistake or a weak moment. We should have been meeting collectively as leaders to advance the productivity of the teams, create new and efficient processes and procedures to prepare for growth and to create and discuss new market opportunities. Instead, we wasted time and talent discussing the decorations in employee cubicles, who was there at 8 am and who was not, office dress codes, and office coffee consumption patterns. Is it any wonder why this organization repeatedly missed their corporate goals quarter after quarter?
  4. Loves brownnosers, tattletales, and relatives who report to them. Toxic bosses choose favorite employees and cover up and make excuses for the poor work of their incompetent favorites. They ignore select people and discriminate against others. As I mentioned in my previous blog Changing Company Culture- How I Learned the Hard Way,” our President actually assigned and encourage his favorite employee to walk the halls and monitor who was where and when at 8 am, lunchtime, and the end of the day. Can you just feel the love and trust oozing from this office?
  5. Fails to provide rewards or recognition for positive employee performance. Here I refer back to my example of taking on an additional department in number one. My metrics were outstanding. I was an exceptional performer and achieved significant milestones for my hard work. I was a performer, not a brownnoser or tattletale so I got nothing. Somehow Graduate school failed me. I wanted to build a business not play with schoolyard bullies in the sandbox.
  6. Will not accept constructive feedback and suggestions for improvement. The bad boss can’t deal with disagreement from employees who have their own opinions about work-related issues. Yet another reason I was the target of the toxic boss. As a senior member of the organization, I had my own opinions and I provided constructive and honest feedback. I have 25 years of knowledge and valuable experiences to share to collectively build organizations and develop the talent. Toxic leaders are often afraid of people like me when they should be embracing them. People like me won’t stay around toxic leaders for very long. Truly their loss.

If you would like to share your toxic boss experience I would love to hear from you.

Source contributors to this article:

Tricia Lucas has over 25 years of demonstrated success in recruiting, marketing communications, and social media and helps technology companies recruit more efficiently by focusing on Recruiting Efficiencies, Employer Branding, and Social Media.

At Lucas Select, based in Raleigh, NC, we are passionate about technology startups and about sales and marketing as professions and have built extensive national networks of top-performing executives and managers. Unlike typical staffing agencies and headhunters, our recruiting services ensure that your company maintains a sustained growth model that is supported by strong sales management, talent recruitment at scale balanced by on-going people development while aligning with your Company’s core values.


About the Author

Tricia Lucas has over 25 years of demonstrated success in recruiting, marketing communications, and social media and helps technology companies recruit more efficiently by focusing on Recruiting Efficiencies, Employer Branding, and Social Media.

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