Workers Vent on Web About Bad Bosses

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The release of The Devil Wears Prada is putting a spotlight on wretched bosses. On the Internet, there's a "My Bad Boss" contest in which people write in with their tales of abuse. You know the types: the relentless micromanagers and the unhinged screamers.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Wednesdays, our business report focuses on the workplace, and you might want to listen to this next report while your supervisor is out of earshot.

Bad bosses are getting lots of publicity in the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, and on the Internet, where the Labor Federation, the AFL-CIO, is running a contest, they're calling it, My Bad Boss.

You know the type they're talking about: the screamer, the micromanager, the saboteur. Nearly 1,300 people have already written in to tell their horror stories, as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

You think you've got problems at work? Consider Andy Sachs, in The Devil Wears Prada. She shows up for an interview at a fashion magazine, Runway, in a frumpy blue sweater. The boss, Miranda Priestly, is played with delicious dismissiveness by Meryl Streep.

(Soundbite of movie "The Devil Wears Prada")

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Miranda Priestly) Who are you?

Ms. ANNE HATHAWAY: (As Andy Sachs) My name is Andy Sachs. I recently graduated from Northwestern University.

Ms. STREEP: (As Miranda Priestly) And what are you doing here?

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Andy Sachs): I came to New York to be a journalist.

Ms. STREEP: (As Miranda Priestly) So you don't read Runway?

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Andy Sachs) No.

Ms. STREEP: (As Miranda Priestly) And before today, you had never heard of me.

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Andy Sachs) No.

Ms. STREEP: (As Miranda Priestly) And you have no style or sense of fashion.

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Andy Sachs) I think that depends on what you're...

Ms. STREEP: (As Miranda Priestly) No, no. That wasn't a question.

LANGFITT: Gini Graham Scott says Priestly is a particular breed of bully boss, the demanding expert who has no use for others' opinions. Scott wrote, A Survival Guide for Working with Bad Bosses. She said this kind of boss thrives in the film and publishing worlds, where allowances are made for people with special talents.

Ms. GINI GRAHAM SCOTT (Author, "A Survival Guide for Working with Bad Bosses"): If you have a boss in a creative position, or a boss where they have certain skills or expertise that is fairly unique, that the boss could get away with a lot of behavior that wouldn't be possible in a corporate environment.

LANGFITT: If you're looking for other bosses from hell, log onto to Working America.org, and prepare to cringe, or nod knowingly. There is tale after tale of bosses who come off as either nasty, arrogant, or clueless.

There's the boss who got so mad at a resigning employee, he pulled the fire alarm so he could yell at his staff in the parking lot. And then there's the boss who tries to spark her sales people by firing a stun gun behind their heads during a meeting.

Mr. PAUL BERNTHAL (Senior Research Consultant, Development Dimensions International): I enjoy that one.

Paul Bernthal is a research consultant with Development Dimensions International, a global human resources firm. He says the lady with the stun gun is a classic case of a clueless boss.

Mr. BERNTHAL: Leaders are trying to change and try to do something new and motivating, and they read about something in a magazine and they say, hey, I'll throw candy at people when they have a good idea! Or I'll, you know, use the stun gun. And that's kind of sending a message about, I'm going to fire you up. And it seems to make sense in their head, but its bad judgment.

LANGFITT: Human resource specialists say bosses are bad for many reasons. Some lack training, others are incompetent and threatened by smarter underlings. Still others never wanted the responsibility in the first place. Bernthal calls them ghosts.

Mr. BERNTHAL: This is somebody who has more or less checked out. They delegate everything. They don't want to be involved and they really get paralyzed by any kind of decision making. Some people would even call them, somewhat cowardly.

LANGFITT: HR specialists say that for all the carping about bad bosses, many actually do a good job. And generally, today's workplace is a lot more collaborative than it was a few decades ago.

Gini Scott says that workers remain critical of their bosses in part because of rising standards. With the growth in MBA programs and in-house management training, employees expect more from their bosses.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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