Great Person—But a Toxic Boss?

Is it possible to be both a great, capable person—and a toxic boss? I asked myself that question when reports began to surface about presidential candidate Senator Amy Klobuchar’s treatment of staff. 

I had been excited for her to declare her candidacy. She always seemed smart, straightforward, and effective. All that may be true, but it also appears, based on reports from more than one person, that she is nota good person to work for. Some might even say she’s a toxic boss. It wasn’t just that she was tough and demanding, it was demeaning put-downs; staffers being told repeatedly that their work was “the worst”; and the senator even asking employees to perform personal chores, such as washing dishes, at her home. 

In another report, a former staffer said she was asked to tell a person at an event that the senator was late “because I’m bad at my job.”

Some have noted that these reports of Senator Klobuchar being a toxic boss are sexist. I usually would agree with that conclusion, except that it wasn’t just one, or even two, staff members who have spoken about mistreatment, but multiple former employees, and she was even rebuked years ago by former Senator Harry Reid for her approach to staff management.

The difficulty in screening for, and removing, toxic bosses from an organization is you often can’t tell a person is a toxic manager until you’ve personally worked for them. What screening process does your company go through before advancing a manager to a higher level?

Not only do 360-degree evaluations help to point out management problems, but they help to seek out candid reports about managers from out-going, and former employees. It’s worth getting in touch with employees who worked under a manager more than a year ago to ask what they most remember about their time working under the person. Toxic managers leave a strong impression, so it’s likely there will be a wealth of horror stories waiting to be shared if the manager mistreated them. Former employees who are contacted should be assured of anonymity, so there is no concern about jeopardizing use of the manager as a reference. A great question to ask former employees is whether they would be excited to work for the manager again. Another helpful question: What tips would you give the manager for improvement?

“Kiss up, kick down” is a common modus operandi for managers and executives, so as smart, funny, and pleasant as a person may be with those working at the same level, or above them, that same person may be a nightmare to those working below them. Without feeling the need to impress underlings, the manager may use them as a catharsis when communicating, letting loose without self-censoring, as some people do when expressing rage at a person they feel they will never need anything from, such as a fellow driver on the road, the wait staff at a restaurant they don’t expect to return to, or a person working at the gate at an airport. The fallacy here, of course, is that a manager’s employees are not people the manager doesn’t need anything from. The toxic manager makes the presumption that employees need him or her more than the other way around. 

The reports of Senator Klobuchar note she has one of the highest staff turnover rates in the senate. Organizations may learn a great deal by studying the employee turnover rates of each manager. What’s learned should be factored into the decision of whether to promote the manager to a higher level. 

Toxic bosses can be great people, who are enjoyable to spend time with—but not to work for. Not everyone is capable of managing others. In cases in which a person is a smart, talented employee, with a lot to give, but lacking the ability to be a good boss, what should an organization do? It doesn’t mean you have to terminate the manager. It just means his or her role should be transitioned to another position that does not involve leading people.

How does your organization screen managers for advancement? How do you ensure you are promoting people who are not just effective in their own work, but in managing employees?

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