The Specter of Our Horrible Bosses

by Chanel Dubofsky

Once upon a time, I had a horrible boss. There were many components to his horribleness, including manipulation, name calling, threats, and other grandiose assertions of power. I defended him, even to those who knew exactly what was going on. I stayed with this boss for far too long — four years too long — and I worked really hard at hiding his horribleness from other people, because I didn’t want to fail, and because I thought I needed this job to get to where I wanted to be. (There is not enough therapy in the whole, entire world.)

A month after I left my job with the horrible boss, I had my first supervision session with my new boss, in a different city, 800 miles away. I was a mess. The New Boss noticed the intensity of my anxiety pretty quickly — maybe it was my tense posture that gave it away, or the fact that I was shaking, or the tears I was holding back in anticipation of being screamed at (yes, screamed at), or given a list of everything I’d done wrong since arriving on the scene, or told that I was inept. It took me a while to tell my new boss what was up, and even longer to realize that I could be good at a job.

I asked some people about their experiences with horrible bosses — how were they coping and moving forward in their next jobs? What, if anything, did they learn?

J: “Mostly I recovered from it by quitting. The experience really changed how I view depression — sometimes there are all sorts of things that we need to work on or work through … and sometimes there is one thing that needs to change, and change immediately. Almost as soon as I left that job I started feeling better. The difference was especially stark because I loved my next job. I’ve also just accepted the fact that I hate this person. I generally don’t hate people in my life, but she’s the exception, and that’s fine.”

F: “I had a boss get drunk in his car at lunch and sexually harass me. I’d told him that if he ever ‘accidentally’ fell against me again, I’d accidentally break his nose. He backed off completely, and I thought the issue was over … until I saw him harassing one of our temp employees. It’s made me much more vocal in future jobs — especially on behalf of people who don’t feel they have the job security to speak up.”

Jess: “It definitely still follows me — even three jobs later, but it’s less than it was. So, I still get a little anxious when I get called into my boss’s office, even for just a progress meeting or whatever, which sucks. My boss likes me, I’m doing fine, but I’m suspicious still. My first job immediately after that one, I was definitely feeling down on my abilities as a worker — like, what if I really am as terrible as she clearly thought I was? But it’s not true. She was just a terrible boss, who hired me without knowing what the job was, and never worked with me to develop skills, teach me protocols, etc. I have a lot of perspective now, especially after grad school, but it was really rough on me and my confidence at the time.”

M: “My second semester of grad school we had these mini internships and I remember totally stressing out about which one I wanted. It’s sort of embarrassing because it shows how colossally fucked up I was, but I remember going to talk to the professor and telling him — shaky and practically in tears — that I didn’t care which one I had as long as it was a supportive environment.

I always ask about team dynamics and supervision in interviews and I’ve been pretty upfront with my current boss (who is amazing) about past supervision issues and about what I need and want support-wise. I think also that I’m just more mature and better at asking for help. And I think I’m also more cynical and hardened in general and I’m sure that carries into my work.”

What about you? What have you learned from your horrible bosses?

Chanel Dubofsky lives in Brooklyn and is interested in your personal decisions.

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