Managers misbehave. Occasionally their digressions spew out in public. A boss humiliates a subordinate in front of 35 coworkers. But in most cases, the nastiness is not obvious and is not displayed for a workforce to see in a public arena. Hurtful managers operate primarily in quiet corridors, behind closed, thick executive doors, in CEO soundproofed suites, or at a secluded private reserved backroom over cocktails.
Frequently nasty bosses view their abusive behavior as privileged, confidential, and morally superior, and only to be witnessed by a carefully chosen, less powerful target. Moreover, when grievances are filed against such an offensive boss, if the bad behavior was out of the public eye and only impacted a single employee in a private venue—you wind up with a “he said, she said” scenario. Accordingly, relatively few abusive bosses are identified. They are scoundrels who have cleverly found ways to perpetuate their horrid behavior, indefinitely. What to do?
Sharp, high IQ, secret offenders are in the majority. Seasoned managers with MBA credentials are well-read, sophisticated, and schooled in the business arts. They have a vivid notion of what politically correct behavior sounds and looks like. But some choose to digress, breaking the rules of business etiquette. Nasty managers cannot control their foul tempers, or choose not to. To trample all over what they see as comical P.C. is their forte. Some soon-to-be toxic bosses dream of a venue to perpetuate bad behavior. When offender wannabes finally reach positions of power, it is time for serious concern. Scoundrels-in-training are hungry animals in quest of power to offend, power to be nasty, and power to be condescending.
A high position issues some bosses the authority to trivialize employee illnesses, spousal and family problems, and otherwise wreak havoc with subordinates who require some iota of emotional support. Such managers thumb their noses at decades of research clearly indicating that motivation and productivity goes up when employees are empowered and are treated with dignity and respect. The nasty boss follows his dysfunctional instincts and minimizes and belittles employees.
On a personal note, I have worked with corporate clients who struggle with bully managers. In one scenario, I was called in to deal with a boss who was quite cocky and gloated over the vile impact of his own nastiness. In fact, some CEOs and executive boards come to the realization that the scoundrel boss is not necessarily easy to identify or work with. Unacceptable language and outlandish behavior in a high-ranking official is difficult to address or curb, especially when he or she is pivotal to cash flow. Abusive words become weapons that wound, disable, and sometimes slay. But what do you do with otherwise successful bosses who smile pretty and dress impeccably?
Facades can be quite fastidious and wildly deceptive. First glances yield allegedly tasteful, successful professionals while a bit of prying reveals human dogs that bark, tear, terrorize, and belittle their employees. Particularly troublesome, however, are those brutish managers who strategically mask and disguise their own wrongdoings. Crafty nasties avoid the bright lights and public arenas, most often only to be heard and witnessed by their victims. Nasty bosses may wait for a private moment, away from the workforce, to scold and reprimand their target subordinate. I have sampled twisted, horrendous bosses imposing edicts and sermons on poor subordinates who have little recourse to reply or escape. By the time I am called in to assess and provide conflict resolution, I may find indignant, almost defeated employees who have suffered enormously. In the presence of nasty bosses, damage control is the highest priority.
Here is a case in point. Hilton St. John, a San Francisco high-tech manager did not take kindly to his outstanding IT specialist’s recent injury. St. John insisted that Ms. Percyman put in her 10 hours per on a Wednesday and Thursday despite the fact that she was in serious pain due to an auto accident after work, on Monday of that week. Immediately following the three-vehicle collision in the Berkeley Hills, across the Bay, East of San Francisco, Ms. Percyman was rushed to ER where she had multiple tests, x-rays, pain treatment and medications administered throughout the night. By noon of the following day, doctors told her that she was quite fortunate as the x-rays did not reveal any clear injury other than multiple contusions and what was identified as “soft tissue” damage and accompanying pain distributed across her neck, upper back, shoulders, and upper chest. Pam Percyman also struggled with her natural breathing as it appeared to call into play muscles, tendons, and organs impacted by the accident.
Ms. Percyman was advised to not return to her workplace for at least one week in order to allow for post-trauma healing and pain treatments at a designated San Francisco outpatient facility. Despite explicit orders from her doctors, Ms. Percyman only missed Tuesday (the day following the accident) at Deep Intuition Technologies in part due to the fact that she was not released until noon that day. Also on Tuesday, Pam had multiple late-night pain treatments. Being a warrior and deeply committed to her work and company Pamela decided to defy her treating doctor’s advice. She immediately returned to work at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning—leaving precious little time for pain management or recovery.
Percyman’s boss, Hilton St. John, was briefed on her auto accident, ER admission, overnight stay, and instructions to not return to work for a week. Upon seeing the bruised up and battered employee, St. John trivialized her injuries and was completely unimpressed that she had defied doctor’s orders, dragged herself to the downtown San Francisco office by 6 a.m. via BART and Uber, traveling all the way from the East Bay.
Within a minute of seeing his employee, St. John circled Ms. Percyman repeatedly as if he was sizing up prey. In an overly articulate, quiet but difficult to mistake rage, he lectured the former Harvard honor student of the virtues of new remedies and the farther reaches of mind conquering pain and the role of new age higher consciousness techniques. Her boss lectured the well-intentioned but injured Ms. Percyman that she needed to immediately start practicing the particular brand of yoga that he was a student of.
Although difficult, Pam got in a few words and explained that in addition to her heavy dosage of both over-the-counter and prescription medications that she always practiced a form of Yoga that she learned during her college days in Cambridge. Unimpressed with a dialogue, St. John raised his voice, got vehement and in full-tilt lecture mode, scolded Ms. Percyman that meds and yoga had rapidly cured 90 percent of his pain when he was “in a bicycle accident in his home country.”
Despite several tries, Ms. Percyman could not get through to St. John that not all physical injuries are created equally or respond to similar treatment regiments. St. John proceeded to belittle Pam over the “fact that her injuries were non-substantial and soft tissue.” It was rather the case that Percyman was quite courageous to defy her physician’s advice and come in a week early back to work despite considerable pain.
In addition, St. John loudly demanded that Ms. Percyman edit two of his very long-winded PowerPoints targeted for upcoming executive board presentations. A highly schooled perfectionist, Percyman discovered, cited, wrote up, and corrected 97 mistakes in the first of St. John’s PowerPoints. Infuriated and totally unimpressed by her auto accident and painful injuries, St. John ranted and raged at her that she was an “obsessive-compulsive” and an “editing freak.” He screamed that she was “wildly OCD and attempting to belittle his alleged brilliance and upper crust, excellent English language skills.” (Percyman had meticulously numbered each of the 97 corrections in the 44 page PowerPoint.)
St. John’s fury was entirely behind closed CEO suite doors. Some yelling leaked out, but it largely remained a privileged confidential affair. This dysfunctional skewering of his employee followed Percyman day after day as she received a slew of lectures challenging, explaining, and personally attacking her on numerous editorial items cited in the PowerPoint. There was no end in sight on late Friday afternoon when St. John got further infuriated when Percyman refused to respond to his threats. According to St. John, this was another example of her “repulsive, disgusting, irreverent, holier-than-thou insubordination…of a young lady masquerading as being injured and a victim.”
Following numerous conflicts and debacles with St. John, Ms. Percyman emailed her boss on several occasions attempting to move onward from this hostile, negative face-to-face exchange. In response, St. John was vague in his email responses, talking only in gross generalities. Clearly, Pam was attempting to not only address the conflict but in the event that the conflict was going to escalate, she wanted documentation for same.
Unfortunately, St. John had a handle on his abuse. After consulting with both parties, I later discovered that St. John was quite methodical and pre-meditated in his attacks and belittling of Mr. Percyman. His misbehavior was strictly limited to infractions only behind closed doors. Nastiness required a cover. He was determined to only be a scoundrel away from the eyes and ears of the workplace. His destructive, belittling behavior was intended for Mr. Percyman and Ms. Percyman only. And as Ms. Percyman was to later discover, lacking an audio or videotape of St. John’s offenses and further lacking any substantive email exchange with her boss able to expose the toxic behavior, human resources had no recourse but to view the conflict as another “he said, she said” exchange.
Of considerable interest is the fact that my diagnosis revealed that St. John was, in fact, a serially toxic manager. His nastiness as a boss was not limited to Pam Percyman. My investigation and assessment revealed that she was his seventh target over a three-year span while serving as IT Manager for Deep Intuition Technologies. In all of the cases, he operated only in the corridors, the shadows, behind closed doors and out of the bright lights of the workplace flow.
Resolution in the Percyman-St. John conflict took the form of Pam Percyman being offered and agreeing to a transfer to a Fort Myers, Florida location of Deep Intuition Technologies (DIT). As part of the conflict resolution negotiations, Pam received a promotion and a pay grade hike in conjunction with supportive coaching and consulting provided by DIT.
Turning back to St. John, when questioned, Hilton repeatedly denied questionable behaviors and allegations from Percyman and the additional six undisclosed colleagues. Nine months after Ms. Percyman was transferred St. John finally crossed the line from private to public misbehavior. Unable to maintain his long standing public composure and cool veneer he had a visceral, shouting explosive tirade at a DIT meeting for IT consultants attending from 5 campuses across the U.S. and Western Europe. A video monitor caught the incident on tape and it finally provided some hard data documenting St. John’s destructive behavioral tendencies. Moreover, in the midst of his tirade St. John lost all logic and control and made reference to “losers” such as Ms. Percyman who “was privileged to have been exposed and demoted to Fort Meyers…where she sadly but gladly belonged.” He ranted on even further, mouthing off about “two more losers” who were attending the very meeting in question and who both occupied roles almost identical to that once held by Pam Percyman.
The meticulously controlled nasty boss who cleverly and clandestinely utilized the cover of very private venues to berate his employees was finally exposed and blown. The damage done to Pam Percyman, however, can be a source of long-term professional, emotional and psychological scarring. Indiscretions, verbal abuse, and trivializing an employee’s auto accident, injuries sustained, and demeaning her high-level expertise as an editor—all pointed toward a boss who presents both a psychological and a potential physical threat to the workplace. Motivation, productivity, innovation, employee commitment, retention, and turnover are all directly impacted by what can be described as poisonous managerial behavior that spreads and metastasizes throughout a department, division, and organization.
On a sidebar, one takeaway that particularly struck me in this Percyman-St. John case is the realization that much managerial misbehavior takes place behind the scenes, as a considerable percentage of abusers are hyper-aware of their bullying. Nasty bosses are not only commonplace, they may also be alternately identified as critters in the shadows and strategic scoundrels who avoid the light of day.
It is increasingly pressing that we rapidly develop the tools to identify bosses such as Hilton St. John who perpetuate horrid behavior in the workplace. Ms. Pam Percyman had to fight her way out of her toxic manager’s control. The reach and the depth of the damage inflicted by a St. John should not be underestimated. The trenches of big business require antidotes to such nasty bosses and scoundrels.
NOTE: Names, identities, brand names and details have been altered to preserve privileged information.