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The Impact of Difficult Managers

When responding to employee satisfaction surveys and employee engagement surveys, employees sometimes describe their managers as "difficult to work for". Employee comments typically refer to these hard-to-work-for managers as "difficult managers/supervisors", "the boss from Hell" or "bully". Survey results that identify difficult managers should be looked at as an indication that there may be a problem with the effectiveness of the manager, especially when two or more employees in the same organizational unit describe their manager as difficult to work for.
Surveys should include a range of questions about "the manager you report to" in order to determine if the manager is really a "difficult manager". The objective is to determine if the organization has difficult managers that are negatively impacting the performance of their direct reports through one or more types of abuse, if they are making it uncomfortable for employees to work for the organization, or if they are acting in a way that is unethical or illegal. It is important to differentiate between "difficult managers" that are abusive, and managers that are "tough and demanding, but fair and not abusive to employees".

Why employee satisfaction and engagement surveys are useful in identifying the existence of "difficult managers":

Employees working for difficult managers are often fearful of talking with human resources or a more senior manager about the abusive situation their manager has established. Other employees may know of the difficult manager and their unacceptable behavior, but they may avoid getting involved for fear of retribution. That's where employee surveys come in.
Employee satisfaction surveys provide employees with an opportunity to tell management and human resources about their "difficult manager" anonymously, at least when surveys guarantee that responses will be handled on an anonymous basis. Employee comments in numerous surveys we have conducted have said thank you to their management for conducting the survey and giving employees the opportunity to provide their opinions anonymously. We have found that employees are more likely to respond to surveys and to provide honest, open feedback when surveys are conducted by an outside, independent organization.

Difficult managers typically act in one or more of the following ways:

  • They verbally, physically or sexually abuse, intimidate or threaten specific employees
  • They take advantage of employees, company policies or company assets for their own benefit
  • They block promotions and requested job transfers
  • They play favoritism with employees
  • They turn down reasonable requests for vacation time, attendance in training programs, etc., or they make employees afraid to make these requests
  • They cause workplace tension
  • They usually act in an appropriate manner with all or most of their peers and superiors, masking their behavior with some or all of their direct reports

Difficult managers can negatively impact an organization in many ways:

  • They can be the cause of costly law suits against the organization they work for
  • They lower morale for some or all employees in the organization, sometimes including employees that do not even report to them
  • They negatively impact communications within the department and with other departments
  • They negatively impact the emotional health and well being, and personal life of employees
  • Their difficult behavior negatively impacts employee performance, productivity, quality and customers
  • They can be the reason that valued employees work at reduced performance levels, or decide to leave the organization
  • They hurt their company's reputation as an employer of choice
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