Emotional Health · Money & Careers

Women with Horrible Bosses

The subject of many a comedy—the bad boss—is a staple for satirists. The stage play “The Front Page,” was made as a film at least three times, including the Cary Grant/Roz Russell classic, “His Gal Friday,” in which things are switched up as the role of the star reporter is played by a woman. It depicts an overbearing editor who has no sense of or interest in his employees’ needs. But this newspaperman is trying to get the big story, so Walter Burns’ selfish curmudgeon is forgiven. More recent workplace satires, including the hit TV show  “The Office” and the enduring farce “Office Space” center on employees who are tormented by their bosses’ cluelessness.

In the former, Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, means well but he is so narcissistic and hapless that he is constantly stepping on everyone’s toes. The office functions only when the rest of the team is able to work around him. In “Office Space,”(1999) the boss (Gary Cole) is not so benevolent. He is constantly circling the workspace, hovering menacingly, delivering nonsensical memos, and generally impeding progress. This film is great if you like broad comedy, especially the priceless finale in which a band of employees goes nuts and blows up the Xerox machine.

Almost everyone has had a bad boss, but it can be a dangerous problem if you are serious about your career. I once worked at an ice cream parlor whose owner cheated customers and was generally nasty, but it was just for a summer. In real life, having a mean or incompetent boss can be a game changer.

Especially if you are a woman. Recently, I have heard in detail about three separate women, in disparate fields, whose bosses have completely undermined them. In one case, after requesting a transfer for two years, the employee gave up and quit. Significantly, this woman is the youngest of the three. As a mid-level employee still in her thirties, she reasoned she could recoup her losses better by moving on.

For the other two, the stakes were higher. Top-level employees in both situations, it became clear that the higher ups were trying to force them to quit. They wanted them out, but didn’t want to fire them because they had no cause, and would have to pay exit benefits or even open themselves up to a lawsuit.

This began a long game of office “Gaslight.” If you are not familiar with it, this term comes from a great film of the same title in which Ingrid Bergman plays the young wife of Charles Boyer. He begins a campaign to convince her she is going crazy so he can steal some precious jewels hidden in the attic by her late aunt. He employs tactics such as moving her things around and saying she has lost them and telling her he has told her things before when he has not  (“You are so forgetful, Paula,” he purrs in his very French accent and smooth voice). Every night he leaves the house, reenters the attic through the roof, and endlessly searches for the treasure. When he is up there, the gaslight in the rest of the house flickers as he turns it on upstairs. When his wife notices this, she thinks it is further evidence that she is going crazy.

The women I know are being tormented in subtle, devious ways—and also for “treasure.” In one case, the boss has let on to many others months ago that she was planning to terminate the woman, a department head, but then did nothing for months as her stress and tension rose. It soon became clear that he was trying to force her to leave, saving the company a large amount if she quit because she would be unable to collect a large severance owed her.

A whisper campaign of rumors, attempting to portray another woman, a top earner, as a demanding diva when she tried to improve her colleagues’ performance (and her own), was particularly pernicious and false. Again, if they could force her out, money would be saved.

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