If you think your boss is out to get you, but can’t point to any obvious incidents of abuse, you may not be paranoid after all. You may, in fact, be in hot water, and the boss is just being stealthy when alienating and antagonizing you. Most managers — even the bad ones — appreciate the importance of maintaining the facade of professionalism at the workplace, so some have become increasingly skilled at being subtle while abusing employees.
These passive-aggressive managers are often highly valued in the modern workplace because many corporations believe they help weed out undesirable employees. Some corporations even create cultures that foster leadership that is quietly ruthless and devious. Research by the University of Buffalo School of Management finds that it actually pays to be a workplace bully. Those who engage in harassment typically receive excellent reviews from their own supervisors and are exceptional at climbing the corporate ladder.
When workers are harassed by their passive-aggressive supervisors, they’re left feeling shamed, isolated, drained of energy, and increasingly haunted by the prospect of being terminated. Toxic bosses might not only compromise your career, they can wreak havoc on your sanity and even ruin your health and personal life. The Workplace Bullying Institute says more than half of those targeted at the workplace have debilitating anxiety and near a third suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Here are eight common traits of toxic managers.
1. They don’t give constructive feedback. The best managers invest in their employee’s development, and that means that they often provide advice and praise your work. They are adept at balancing their position of authority while still having earnest communications with their employees. However, managers who don’t value their employees don’t bother critiquing their work, nor will they provide praise when employees meet or exceed expectations on a project. A toxic manager will avoid creating such a rapport with you out of fear that they’ll let their guard down and reveal their actual contempt for you.
2. They’re way too picky. Rather than avoiding giving feedback, some managers take the low road, always finding fault, no matter how small the matter is. So, despite an employee’s hard labor or the overall quality of their work, the manager looks for a fault on an inconsequential detail. A supervisor may criticize you for a typographical error in a long report or complain about the choice of paper, while ignoring the great care and effort that went into producing it. Such feedback leaves employees second-guessing their skills and value.
Some toxic managers are incessant clock watchers, taking note of the time you arrive in the morning and leave in the evening, and nitpicking about the length of work breaks. If you’re putting in an honest day’s work, your manager shouldn’t be grumbling about 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there; he's watching the clock to build a case against you.
3. They give vague directions. Passive-aggressive bosses often expect employees to anticipate their wishes, no matter how poorly they’re articulated. Employees are then left in a workplace Catch 22: They either risk looking unintelligent or insubordinate by asking too many questions at the onset, or they spend way too much time trying to speculate about their employer’s actual expectations. Should you choose the latter and fail to envision what your boss had in mind, you run the risk of bumbling the task and letting the manager build a narrative that you’re poor at following instructions.
4. They’re "only joking." Even the worst HR department knows that jokes, sarcasm and teasing at the expense of another person constitutes workplace bullying, but they often fail to act, writing off these interactions as benign banter. However, even the most subtle teasing about things such as personality traits, ambitions and hobbies is a mild form of harassment. While you might find a litany of mild barbs flung your way to be cruel, it’s a tough sell to show that they’re a pattern of abuse.
5. They ignore you. Being ignored is perhaps the most subtle bullying tactic. While it’s not news that some managers openly play favorites, it doesn’t make it any less heinous when an employee is routinely brushed off by her manager. An employee at a publishing company shares this anecdote, which sums up her own dilemma: At a meeting about the successful project she spearheaded, her boss listened attentively as one of her team members spoke, but fidgeted and looked at his phone when she took her turn. Later, her boss wrote an office-wide memo heaping praise on her coworker, while failing to mention her at all. Knowing she was not in her boss’s inner circle later impacted her morale, and she subsequently avoided taking leadership roles in teams and became increasingly despondent at work.
This passive-aggressive style of bullying can happen in many other ways. Importantly, you should recognize a pattern to protect yourself. In addition to the meeting brush-off, described above, a toxic manager may target you by leaving you out of email loops, limiting your participation in general workplace conversations, or attending after-hours social functions with other workers while excluding you.
6. They want to be your “friend.” Sometimes a toxic manager is too friendly. Beware the boss who follows you on Twitter or Instagram, or wants to “friend” you on Facebook. As an employee, it’s your choice if you wish to trust her enough to friend her, but beware your boss’s motives for connecting with you on social media. She could be looking into your personal life, tracking your whereabouts or just looking to get dirt on you. Toxic managers also turn to social media platforms look for hints that workers are disaffected or even interviewing for jobs elsewhere.
Further, toxic managers who friend you might ask you to promote the company and its products on social media. However, this practice is frowned on by social media companies. In its terms of service agreement, Facebook explicitly bans employers from having their employees use personal timelines for the company’s commercial gain.
7. They misuse your time off. With cellphones, email and text messaging, it’s sometimes difficult to be off the clock, and some workplaces only interrupt your time off only when there’s an emergency. However, when your employer expects you to work on personal, sick or vacation days without notice, that’s totally unacceptable. Furthermore, it’s wrong for them to pile on work before a planned absence. Working a week’s worth of late nights before a week’s vacation makes it not a vacation, it’s more like flex time from hell. Bad bosses are also notorious for not having your back when you’ve taken sick, personal or vacation time. It’s a crying shame when you take a week off of work only to come back to find yourself another week behind.
8. They’re ass kissers. Managing up is a controversial term. Some workplace experts describe it as a good trait, as managers who practice it not only promote their work, but that of the entire team. But in a toxic workplace, managing up takes on a parasitic twist. Managers begin to cater to the whims of their superiors and confuse advocating for their team with their own self promotion. Soon, they’re playing a political game of brown-nosing, manipulation, backstabbing, and narcissism. Some managers do this by playing the expert for their superiors, sacrificing team morale for personal aggrandizement. While it’s easy to portray the managers who take all the credit for themselves to be insecure and desperate, oftentimes they know this is the quickest way up the corporate ladder.
When toxic managers are pumping themselves up, they’re letting the team down. Having devolved into nothing more than abject sycophants, toxic managers neglect their subordinates. So, when push comes to shove, toxic managers will choose their superiors over their team, failing to be their advocate when organizational leaders come down on them. Worse yet, they may also shift blame from themselves and chide their own instead. Thus, those who work for ass kissers can be left vulnerable to disciplinary actions, layoffs and even termination.