When employees are dissatisfied at work, one of their most common complaints is a bad boss. But for employers interested in improving employee morale and workplace culture, the idea of “bad” is too general. What makes a bad boss? What exactly are the most common complaints about bad bosses?
Harvard Business Review Survey Results
The Harvard Business Review actually did a survey on this topic[i], and it created a list of the most common complaints about bad bosses. The Harvard study labeled these items as “The Communication Issues That Prevent Effective Leadership,” and it’s easy to see why: these items clearly would hinder a good working environment.
Here’s what the study found, ranked by frequency:
- Not recognizing employee achievements
- Not giving clear directions
- Not having time to meet with employees
- Refusing to talk to subordinates
- Taking credit for others’ ideas
- Not offering constructive criticism
- Not knowing employees’ names
- Refusing to talk to people on the phone/in person
- Not asking about employees’ lives outside work
Some of them may be surprising to many of us, such as not knowing employees’ names. Such things seem like they would fall under basic courtesy—and when basic courtesy and good management are lacking, employee morale can easily be lacking as well.
More Common Complaints About Bad Bosses
These aren’t the only complaints we hear about bad bosses, however. Here are some more of the most commonly cited complaints from employees about bad boss behavior:
- Lack of attention when talking to employees. This is often evidenced by multitasking during meetings or looking at his or her phone when having a 1-on-1 conversation.
- Micromanagement. This is a tough one, because some bosses hate to give up control. But to an employee, when a boss manages too many of the details, it signals a lack of trust, which quickly erodes the employee’s satisfaction.
- Too much criticism, not enough praise. While we noted above that constructive criticism is important, it’s also important not to take criticism too far—especially if there is never any positive feedback.
- Cultivating any type of hostile working environment. This often comes in the form of subtle harassment, but it can also come in much smaller, insidious actions that add up over time. For example:
- Bosses who don’t seem to value the employee’s time and routinely come to employees with “critical” or “emergency” tasks—that really aren’t—10 minutes before the workday was due to end.
- Bosses who seem to care too much about things that don’t seem to be important in the big picture, such as who among their employees worked 5 minutes longer than everyone else or who was the earliest to arrive each day.
- Bosses who purposefully embarrass employees in front of others.
- Bosses who seem uncaring about employees’ personal lives. For example, having no inclination to help an employee meet a deadline when he or she has to be out of the office for bereavement.
- Not empowering employees to make a difference. When an employee has a good idea and it gets shut down, it can quickly lead to resentment. While not every idea is viable, routinely shutting down new ideas will not only stifle creativity and innovation, it will lead to employees leaving.
- Inconsistent application of policies (aka favoritism). Obviously, many policies will require individual judgement, but when two equally situated employees get treated differently in the same situation, it’s easy to see how this can lead to resentment.
- Unrealistic expectations regarding workload. Asking employees to occasionally go above and beyond for a critical task is one thing. But asking this every day or having an unrealistic view of how much an employee should get done in a given week will quickly lead to employee burnout—and then to employee turnover.
This list is meant to provide some insight into the things employees become dissatisfied with in leadership. It can be used as a thought-starter for employers that are looking for ways to improve employee morale or for topics for managerial training. But naturally, no list can be all-encompassing when it comes to bad boss behavior. What has been your experience with bad bosses in the workplace? How did you handle it?
This article does not constitute legal advice. Always consult legal counsel with specific questions.
About Bridget Miller:
Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.