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When Bosses are Brutal

When he was 14 years old, Harvey Hornstein had his first experience with a brutal boss. He was a delivery boy for a grocer who called the lad foul names and often threw fruits and vegetables. Hornstein, a professor of psychology at Teachers College, writes about the damage done to employees and organizations by abusive superiors in Brutal Bosses And Their Prey, now available from Riverhead Books.

In the book, Hornstein recounts his own experience with the grocer, an experience that made him physically ill. But Hornstein kept working for the grocer for the same reason many people work for brutal bosses today: he needed the salary.

On any given workday, the professor reports, 20 percent of employees report to work for brutal bosses, and 90 percent of employees will experience some brutality from their bosses at some time in their career.

There have always been brutal bosses, but the 1990s, "a period of economic upheaval and organizational downsizing," is a breeding ground for superiors who disrespect their subordinates, Hornstein says.

Some companies even prize bosses for their brutal treatment of employees which is seen as an ability to do the dirty work even though those same bosses are also derided for their styles. These bosses act on behalf of a constituency who are themselves then mercifully freed from doing the organization's dirty work and enabled to self-righteously disapprove of such brutality, Hornstein writes.

Most brutal bosses are not sick personalities. Instead, they are products of a system that has fostered a general disrespect for employees. "Bosses are just you and me," Hornstein says. "Subordinates are most often bosses as well and may be guilty--despite their justifications--of the same abusive disrespect toward their subordinates that they lament in their bosses."

But Hornstein reports that brutality does not make for better management. "Empirical evidence broadcasts a consistent message," he writes. "People reporting to more considerate bosses are less likely to suffer the ravages of burnout and more likely to experience work satisfaction than those reporting to less considerate bosses. In fact, as an innoculation against burnout, respect from the boss offers more protection than salary. Conversely, there is solid evidence that working for unsupportive bosses is associated with higher levels of anxiety, depression and even heart disease."

Hornstein also points out that a tough boss is not necessarily a brutal boss. He includes in his book an assessment on which readers can mark on a scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree" their reactions to items that describe bosses. The 36 statements in the assessment range from "My boss demands that I constantly do high-quality work" to "My boss humiliates me in public."

What can be done about brutal bosses? As a teenager, Hornstein took another job to escape the grocer. That can be done in times when jobs are fairly easy to acquire. But today's workers, Hornstein says, are often trapped where they are by financial and employment fears At such a time, communities must be vigilant to protect employees from brutality and disrespect. "In organizations, we earn income, promotions and perks," Hornstein explains, "but we are entitled to respect. Hostile personal attacks, threats, ridicule and humiliation trash an irrevocable right that we all possess: the right to be treated according to accepted standards of human relations and fairness."

In his book, Hornstein states it bluntly: "Abuse of workers must be outlawed." He suggests that current laws involving sexual harassment in the workplace might be enlarged to cover other kinds of abusive behavior. But, if laws are not written to outlaw abusive bosses, the actions of the community must do so. That's what happened to Hornstein's first abusive boss. Members of the community told the grocer they would not allow him to treat his employees so badly, and they warned that they would be watching him.

And he improved, Hornstein writes. "He was still a lousy boss, but being surly was a step up from abusive."previous page