Horrible Bosses: Why Bad References Happen To Good Candidates.

 

horrible bosses coverIf you’ve seen one of the Horrible Bosses movies by now (and chances are good, if you get Showtime, since they’ve pretty much got it on an alternate loop with Childs Play II).

But if you haven’t, then not only are you missing out on Jennifer Aniston playing a dentist and Ron White playing a police detective, but you’re actually missing out on one of the more believable workplace movies to come out of Hollywood in the past couple of years.

This might explain why it was one of the rare comedies to cross the $100 million mark at the box office, score a sequel and a big payday for the participants in the project and portray work in a way anyone can relate to.

If you haven’t seen Horrible Bosses, here’s the Cliff’s Note version. Of a Jason Bateman comedy. Talk about stepping up my content game, right?

Anyway, the plot goes a little something like this – it’s not really all that complicated, so unlike, say, The Wire, I think there are neither spoilers or nuances involved in any of this. In short, it involves three old friends who have, as Lester Bangs once said, “taken the long road to the middle.”

Middle aged and, well, white dudes, these poor bastards find themselves in the kinds of boring ass, white collar, worker drone jobs that aren’t even fun to recruit for (looking at you, cost accountants). Of course, their mundane, mediocre existences are made infinitely worse by the fact that, in short, each of them has a horrible boss – subtle, right? While existential crises are hard to solve, the boss situation, it turns out, is an easy fix. That is after the three amigos make a pact to help murder each other’s horrible boss.

Hilarity and schadenfreude ensue. And while the whole archetype of the terrible boss is nothing new (see: Scrooge, Ebenezer), having a boss so horrible that they’re deserving of a complicated, ill-conceived murder conspiracy might be taking the bad boss thing to another level, but let’s face it.

Who hasn’t wanted to kill their boss from time to time? (Editor’s Note: As Katrina’s boss, she should know this counts as evidence, and I am now watching my back… – MC)

This Is Where I Leave You.

Incompetent bossThe fact that the bad boss is such a standby stock character, and has been for centuries, speaks to the universal truth that most of us, at one point in our career or another, have a boss so toxic that they’re worth taking out, which is probably why they’re so often the antagonist to the little guy suffering under their autocratic, capitalist thumb.

They get rich, the little guy suffers, and only in theatres can we see justice perpetuated, even if it doesn’t actually work out as planned (as happens in Horrible Bosses.

Sorry for the spoiler but it’s way past the statute of limitations for that shit). But not every bad boss is either a sexual sadist, a serial stalker, a sweeping Anna Wintour impersonation or an SPHR. Most bosses’ bad behaviors are a little more nuanced.

While they’d probably mostly make shitty Hollywood scripts, we all have those war stories from our days in the trenches with terrible managers.

You know the type – the ones who think that “leader” is a title and not a mindset, who manage up but step all over anyone at or below their level at an org chart, Frank Underwood meets the Fortune 500.

I’ll give you one of mine – and as an added bonus, risk relapsing into PTSD thinking about how friggin’ awful this lady was, even years after that crazy train chugged out of batshit crazy station. The first word that comes to mind when I think of her is “bitch from hell” (I know, that’s three words; so sue me).

Her de facto departmental nickname among both her colleagues and her managers (not sure she technically had subordinates, since that would imply not being completely inept) was “The Devil,” and I swear we smelled sulfur when that woman walked into the room. In retrospect, it was probably “White Diamonds” by Elizabeth Taylor, but I you get my point. I know you’re thinking, “way harsh, Ty,” but there are a few select people who actually deserve that kind of shade thrown their way. The Devil was at the top of that list, right up with Bashaar Al-Assad, Steve Jobs and Charney.

She was definitely a rapid cycling manic depressive, which I found out about only after spending half my work days on WebMD trying to figure out what, exactly, was wrong with this woman. Her range of moods went from peevish to psychosis, and I’m pretty sure those smile muscles in her face stopped functioning sometime during the Carter administration.

Talk about a sociopath – if EQ is a real thing, this woman was Corky from Life Goes On. emotionally speaking. “Some people call it a switch blade. I call it a Sling Blade, mm hmm. And I’ll stab anyone in the back.”

She’d walk into a room and instantly suck the life out of even the liveliest of occasions, ruining things like team dinners or Christmas parties with her mere presence – days at the office were like building a bridge over the River Kwai, but with slightly less managerial direction, oversight or pay.

From the second she walked off the elevator in the morning, you could see her eyes darting around the office, just looking for her next victim. You could feel the tension in every cubicle as she strolled past, like Father Death dressed in a TJ Maxx pantsuit – visible shuddering, I shit you not.

We were all just waiting for the day she snapped and pulled a Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” (although she was definitely way closer to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction). Bathtub or baseball bat, it was always the gorilla in the room – when would The Devil finally lose her shit? And who would be unlucky enough to be collateral damage? This is what we spent our days talking about, since, of course, she was too busy ignoring us to actually tell us what to do.

Unfortunately, I left too early for what I hear ended up being an amazing meltdown, complete with swearing, threats and apparently a lot of weird laughing/crying hysterically at the same time kind of thing no one had ever heard before – my former coworkers say that they’re haunted by this sound to this day, which I believe.

Every time I’m in an office in the morning and I hear an elevator, my pulse picks up. I can’t help it. Which tells you something about how deleterious to your health and well being a bad boss can be, even long after they’ve stopped being your boss. They’re pretty much the worst.

The Change Up.

horrible bossesEvery time I tell one of my manifold stories about my sentence slaving away for The Devil, inevitably that person will share some equally traumatic (or ridiculous) anecdote about their own terrible bosses, past and present. I’ve heard hundreds of these bad boss stories by now, and in my experience, they all really just come down to one deceptively simple root cause: a complete and utter disregard for social mores and manners, and seriously unprofessional behavior in professional situations.

It’s never just one incident that makes a truly bad boss really terrible, no one character flaw or skills gap that solidifies their Hannibal Lecter leadership style.

It’s always a recurring pattern of repeated abuse of power, hogging of credit and Machiavellian instincts. Bad bosses are like modern art – you don’t have to know much to know if something sucks, no matter how much lipstick they may put on that particular pig.

I’ve often wondered how these people got into their positions of power in the first place – they hadn’t written Mein Kampf in jail, after all, or built a real estate empire before headlining a mediocre NBC reality show. They apparently just had so little self awareness that even when everyone around them was running for the exits, they never even thought that maybe, just maybe, they were the problem instead of all of those lazy quitters.

That right there? That’s the biggest consequence companies face putting a bad boss in charge of good people – that top talent and a malevolent (or just mediocre) manager are a formula for disaster. Not to mention a ton of turnover, too.

Trust me, I’ve gotten out before I’ve gotten even every single time I’ve had a bad boss, which fortunately hasn’t always been the case in my career.

Breaking The Rules.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses,” but the truth is, most of the time it’s the boss that quits on them, first. Now, a recent Forbes study suggests about 50% of people have quit their jobs because of a bad boss, which means bad bosses have been the direct cause of turnover for literally half the world’s workforce.

At an average of $15,000 to backfill an exempt position in the US, we’re talking billions and billions of dollars lost because of managerial malice or malignant neglect, professionally speaking. It’s a persistent problem with no easy fix – and a timeless trending topic  that’s going to have a bigger impact on business and bottom line in the coming year than ever before.

Everyone in recruiting is predicting 2016 will be the year where employers really have to switch from aggressive external recruiting to internal retention initiatives by virtue of macroeconomic and job market conditions – good people are leaving, bad managers are staying, and it’s making an already endemic issue even worse.

I mean – 50% of every new hire, statistically, will fail because the hiring manager hired a person who they’d go on and make so miserable that they left the company because of a boss behaving badly. Does that make anyone else’s head hurt a little bit, considering how much time and effort we dedicate into finding and attracting the talent?

Our key stakeholders both desperately need and often actively drive away these otherwise ostensibly great fits, and no technology in the world can fix a broken senior manager or despotic departmental leader.

Sucks, don’t it?

Arrested Development.

2016-01-07_07-17-18The fact is that the worst bosses are the ones who you just can’t leave behind at the office – they’re the ones who cause you to lose sle
ep, turn to drink, or consider online for-profit MBA programs as viable Plan Bs.

A new study on bad bosses from reference check provider Allison & Taylor (whose corporate website will make you nostalgic for the days of Netscape and Flash animation) reinforces the fact that, like herpes, bad bosses never go away – and keep popping back up at really unexpected, really inopportune times.

They’re like the managerial version of the Hotel California; you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.

That is, if you have the misfortune to have to fill out that line on the application requiring you to list your direct supervisor’s name and contact information at all past and current jobs. Which means, often, that your professional fate could well find its way right back to the person responsible for your job search to begin with.

That’s right. Turns out, the Allison & Taylor study shows that even though it’s completely contrary to canonical HR policy, many of these former direct supervisors (and horrible bosses) continue to provide former employees with bad or deleterious information when contacted for a professional reference. No comment? No way. Defer to HR? What the hell do they know? After all, they had the misfortune to manage the candidate in question directly.

Reference checks are one of those things we take for granted, but in this case, The Devil in the details – literally, in my case.

Disconnect: 7 Reasons Former Bosses Give Bad References To Former Employees.

So why do bad reference checks happen to good candidates? There are a ton of potential reasons a former manager could throw you under the bus to a potential employer or reference checker.

No matter how valid those may be, the fact is that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” constitutes legal advice here. Not that there’s much a candidate can do – once bitten, as they say.

As inexcusable as giving any bad reference for a former direct report (or colleague at your current company) is, the Allison & Taylor survey showed that still didn’t stop a bunch of bad bosses from trying to justify their bad behavior. Seriously, that people think any of these make this OK makes the whole situation even more depressing.

On the plus side, at least they seem to be being honest.

  1. Haters Gonna Hate: The manager simply “didn’t like” or didn’t “get along personally” with their former direct report. You know, it just didn’t click…and stuff.

I_don't_like_you

  1. A Dish Best Served Cold: The manager is upset that the person either left or is thinking about leaving the organization, and this is how they’re going to get their revenge. Traitors deserve to be punished, right? Yeah. For you legal types out there, this one’s often called “retaliation.”

traitor

  1. It’s Not You: Sometimes, managers just throw employees under the bus for shits and giggles. As bad as it is that they’d sabotage someone’s career for completely arbitrary reasons, what’s worse is that there are people who are big enough bullies to pull this stuff on their coworkers – and actually confess to doing this when surveyed, like some sick point of pride.

bully

  1. Equal Opportunity for Assholes: Apparently, even if the person’s professional performance was at or exceeding expectations, sometimes, a person’s age, religion, gender, sexual identity or any of those other protected classes are too much for many managers to get over. I mean, sure they’re a top performer and HiPo…but they’re also not the kind of person you’d ask to the country club, ya know? Hey, affirmative action governs recruiting. Retention is time for revenge.

racist

  1. Had A Bad Day: Sometimes, we all get diarrhea of the mouth or are a bit pissy for something or another. And when we get to talking too much, well, we say things we really mean, but don’t really mean to say out loud…

whateva

  1. Jealous Much? Sorry you hate your life. Give someone else the chance to actually be able to look at themselves in the mirror and/or sleep at night, even if you’re stuck in a job you loathe with people you abhor every day until you get to retire. As the saying goes, if you love something, you’ve got to let it leave. If you hate them, well, swallow up the envy and let them fly free – like you wish you could. If not for those damned alimony payments…

jealous

  1. The Truth: Oh, was saying, “I wouldn’t trust him with my money” negative? I was offering constructive criticism, because I just couldn’t help myself from letting those little asshole asides slip in there. Hey, a reference check is like a performance review where you can actually be honest, right?

whatever

How To Beat A Bad Boss Before A Bad Reference.

The fact that there is an entire industry dedicated to reference checking means that they’re not all HR verifications or a bunch of platitudes from preselected cheerleaders, a final hoop to jump through before reaching that offer.

That there were enough negative references to justify this survey, from one of the largest reference checking providers out there, suggests bad references are as widespread as bad bosses (if not as blatant).

The Switch.

2016-01-07_07-19-15So what the hell are you, the finalist for that job, supposed to do about it? Well, for one thing, you should probably be letting employers know what’s up and at least have some chance to beat your bad boss to the punch – and make sure your potential future employer isn’t completely blind sided, either.

If you’re a recruiter, you should probably be talking to candidates about what, if any, sort of negative feedback might come up, why the person would say that and any information that might help provide context for what’s often completely unjustified rants, raves and attempts at revenge.

Bad references are going to happen – what’s important is you know which ones are legit, and which are just some petty BS like the 7 things listed above.

Bottom line: if a former supervisor’s commentary is in any way unfavorable, the candidate will have some form of recourse to discourage the bad boss from offering that commentary again.

For example, they can write a cease & desist letter as a scare tactic, or else request copies of their formal performance reviews or any documentation that might be more objective than a bad boss with a bone to pick. Hey, it’s better than letting the bad guys win – again.

Chances are, whatever recourse you take, the fact that you’re willing to do something to proactively preempt these bad boss behaviors in the reference check process are likely to scare even the worst offenders straight.

After all, the last thing they expect is for you to have the guts to stand up for yourself – because chances are, no one ever does. Which is too bad for all of us. Particularly those employers who keep hemorrhaging good hires because of bad bosses – and turns out, there are a lot more of those out there than most of us would have ever even guessed.

Katrina_Kibben_2015About the Author: Katrina Kibben is the Director of Marketing for RecruitingDaily, and has served in marketing leadership roles at companies such as Monster Worldwide and Care.com, where she has helped both established and emerging brands develop and deliver world-class content and social media marketing, lead generation and development, marketing automation and online advertising.

An expert in marketing analytics and automation, Kibben is an accomplished writer and speaker whose work has been featured on sites like Monster.com, Brazen Careerist and About.com.

A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, Kibben is actively involved in many community and social causes – including rooting for her hometown Pittsburgh Steelers.

You can follow Katrina on Twitter @KatrinaKibben or connect with her on LinkedIn.

 




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