Meryl Streep's cold-hearted character in The Devil Wears Prada has nothing on real-life bosses gone bad. Consider the boss who gave an employee a written reprimand for "leaving work without permission"--after she passed out in the bathroom and was whisked by ambulance to a nearby hospital.
Or the school principal who forced a teacher to work through the day even after the teacher said her arm was throbbing after slipping on ice outside the school. "He decided there was no way I could have broken my arm, probably just bruised it," the teacher wrote in an e-mail to MarketWatch.
"During first period, my arm hurt horribly, but I continued teaching. But when I reached for chalk, and my fingers would not move, I did go [to the hospital] where my broken arm was set."
Those are just two of the "bad boss" stories MarketWatch readers e-mailed in. But does your demanding boss really fall into the category of a bully?
That depends, said Dr. Gary Namie, a psychologist and senior consultant at The Work Doctor, a consulting firm that helps companies deal with workplace bullying.
Bullying is "repeated, health-harming mistreatment," Namie said, and it usually includes "verbal abuse, behavior that's threatening, intimidating or humiliating, or work interference."
When the behavior perpetrates the boss's own agenda at the expense of the company's goals, you've got a boss who's going too far, Namie said.
It's likely the sales manager who encourages her workers by firing a stun gun behind their heads as they enter a weekly sales meeting would qualify as a workplace bully.
"The crackle of a stun gun firing still crackling in our minds, we sat there mutely staring at our boss as she launched happily into her meeting. The next meeting she tossed candy at us, literally, and told us she was trying a different way to help us make sales," the worker wrote.
That's just one of the horror stories posted at WorkingAmerica.org, a worker advocacy group that is running a "bad boss" contest. Workers e-mail their stories for the chance to win a vacation.
Working America is running the contest because, in its door-to-door membership drives, "we heard the most astonishing stories about what's going on in workplaces," said Karen Nussbaum, the group's executive director. "That inspired us to say we need to get this out in the open."
Working America is not verifying the stories it receives, but "you couldn't make up this stuff," Nussbaum said.
At least one in four firmsHow pervasive is workplace bullying? That's hard to pin down.
About 24 percent of companies said workplace bullying had occurred "within the past year," according to a survey of 516 firms in 2004 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In that survey, bullying is "repeated intimidation, slandering, social isolation, or humiliation by one or more persons against another." It includes workers who bully other workers.
But that's a survey of managers, so it's likely an understatement. The survey respondents "may not be aware of what is going on, or they might want to present the company in a positive light," said Paula Grubb, a research psychologist with NIOSH and researcher on the study. "If they're managers, they tend to identify with management."
Between 10 percent and 16 percent of workers say they are currently experiencing "regular bullying" by their supervisor according to a separate series of studies focusing solely on supervisors who bully subordinates (rather than workers who bully their colleagues), said Bennett Tepper, in an e-mail message. Tepper is a professor of managerial sciences at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
When you ask workers to look back in time, however, that figure skyrockets: 50 percent of workers say they've had an abusive boss at some point in their working career, Tepper said.
Meanwhile, a separate survey finds that workers' top pet peeves hint at some forms of bullying: 44 percent said "condescending tones" are the most annoying workplace situation, followed by 37 percent who said public reprimands are the top pet peeve, according to a survey of 2,318 U.S. adults in February by Harris Interactive for Randstad USA, the staffing firm.
The revenge-seekersWorkplace bullies might want to take note that workers who feel abused don't always take it lying down.
"About six out of ten people who are abused by their bosses plan revenge," said Harvey Hornstein, professor emeritus of psychology at Columbia University and author of Brutal Bosses and their Prey. Hornstein bases that estimate on interviews with workers who say they've suffered with an abusive boss. He's working on a book about workplace revenge.
Workers' revenge ranges from the minor, such as not sending an e-mail when told, to the major, such as calling the boss's spouse to divulge the boss's extramarital affair, Hornstein said.
Wide variety of problem bossesMarketWatch readers shared a variety of bad boss tales, including managers who constantly yell, consistently ignore just one worker, or those who waste hours by micromanaging.
One of the most haunting stories came from a former auto-parts plant manager who said that, years ago, a fire broke out in a restaurant near the factory. "I received a panicky phone call that one of my employee's wives was trapped in the burning building," the former manager wrote in an e-mail.
"That employee ran out of the plant to get to the fire. My boss wanted me to write him up for 1) leaving the plant without proper approval, 2) running through the plant, and 3) running through the plant without his safety glasses on (he left his safety glasses on his machine and took off running as soon as I gave him the message)."
The worker's wife died in the fire. Yet, "after the funeral, my boss put a letter in my file because I failed to take action against an employee who violated work rules," the manager wrote.
Steps to takeIn that situation, most workers would probably just want to quit. But workers who face an abusive boss should consider taking three steps before they quit, Namie said.
1. Acknowledge the problem. "If you name it, you externalize the problem and reduce self-blame," Namie said.
Hornstein agreed, noting that workers should talk about the problem with trusted family and friends. "Don't pretend to be thick-skinned about it," Hornstein said.
Hornstein finds that people who say, "Oh, I can take it" fare much worse over time than those who talk to friends and family. Those who talk are "much less likely to be anxious and depressed, and much more likely to look sensibly for a new position," Hornstein said.
"It allows you to start to come up with ways of managing the problem, rather than holding it in and finally exploding."
2. Take time off if your health is at risk. "Make sure you don't slide into anxiety, panic attacks, depression," Namie said. Get a physical, he suggests, and then start looking into company policies that might offer a solution.
"See if you have any recourse within the company based on laws and internal policies. The antiviolence policy may apply," Namie said.
While you've got time off, gather any data on how your boss's behavior is hurting the company's bottom line, such as turnover rates and absenteeism, he said. That generally requires calling fellow workers to find how long they've been on the job and how often they call in sick.
3. Present your case to the company. Once you've gathered some data, take your case to a higher-up not connected to your boss. "Don't go to the bully's boss. That's the one that supports him or for years has done nothing," Namie said.
That might mean quitting if you work at a small or family-owned firm where everyone is likely to support your supervisor. At a larger firm, he said, "you can make a rational, cost-based argument that this person is a threat to the bottom line."