Will Your Company’s Bad Bosses Soon Be Outed?

A new service, Lioness, is helping employees tell the world about bad-boss experiences. Here are some tips to help identify those toxic managers.

While every organization likes to claim it has no bad bosses, it is likely that if an organization is big enough, it almost certainly has more than one. A bad boss, as I define it, is one who is damaging to employees. Bosses can be effective in their work, but if being effective requires them to be unfair or abusive toward employees, I would, nevertheless, classify them as “bad.”

Now there is a service, Lioness, helping employees tell the world about bad-boss experiences, according to reporting by Erin Griffith in The New York Times. Lioness is led by public relations executives Ariella Steinhorn and Amber Scorah. They help individuals who feel they have been wrongly treated by an employer contact media outlets to get the word out. “When an individual contacts Lioness, the pair typically vets and corroborates the story, identifying which parts would be of interest to the media. They work with a law firm that reviews nondisclosure agreements for free. The pair then makes connections to reporters, explains how talking to the press works, checks facts, and follows up,” Griffith writes.

What is the best way to guarantee you don’t have abusive bosses on your payroll?

Managers with many employees can be assessed more easily, as you can collect anonymous feedback. For managers with only a few employees, ensuring anonymity is much harder. What is the solution?

Employees could have one-on-one interviews with Human Resources or Learning professionals once a year in which they are given an open forum to share likes and dislikes about their bosses. And, more importantly, they could be asked revealing questions. You would need to give those conducting these interviews training on the questions to ask, and how to probe further with follow-up questions. Questions such as “How do you like your boss?” or “Do you think your boss is fair?” won’t cut it. Frightened employees will be unlikely to respond critically. Better to request of the employee: “Tell me about a typical workday—what your routine is like when you get to the office until when you leave at the end of the day.”

Other questions that can reveal the kind of boss the employee has include:

  • How does the work process function in your department? How and when do you get assignments and learn about due dates? What kind of lead time do you usually get to complete assignments? What happens if, and when, you miss a deadline?
  • What is the process for addressing errors that occur in the work your department produces? Can you share examples of this process?
  • How does career planning with your manager work? Describe a conversation from the last year or so in which you discussed with your manager your career goals and how your assignments and responsibilities did and didn’t align with those goals?
  • How are new ideas shared in your department? Can you describe a time when you brought an idea to your manager, and the manager explored that idea with you and then collaborated with you to bring the idea to fruition?
  • How often do you have staff meetings or huddles? Can you give me examples of topics you discussed in recent meetings or get-togethers and some of the decisions made as a result of those discussions?
  • How are disagreements in your department handled? Can you give me an example of a disagreement among employees, or between manager and employees, that was discussed as a group and solved in a mutually satisfying way?

After the interviews with employees, those same questions should be posed to the boss. See if the responses the boss gives mostly match what the employees said.

Two keys to making this approach work: Never tell managers and employees when these interviews will be taking place, so there is no time for managers to brief/intimidate employees heading into the interviews. Second, vary the questions year to year, so there is no way for managers and employees to know exactly what they will be asked.

Anonymous 360-degree surveys of managers work well in large corporations with many employees reporting to the same person. In smaller organizations, with just a few reports per manager, try the approach of surprise interviews with probing questions. You may be surprised what you learn—and uncover at least one bad boss, whom you can either retrain or speedily remove.

What is your organization’s current process for identifying and removing bad bosses—or better yet, not hiring or promoting them in the first place?