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6 Types of Toxic Bosses and How To Spot Them in the Wild

August 23, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career

As with parents, you rarely get to pick your boss. If you’re lucky, you get a great one who brings out your best or provides some teachable moments without making you feel like a moron. Second best is the just-fine kind—nothing special, maybe even annoying, but who answers your emails and tries to help out where they can.

There’s another kind of boss you can get, too—and that boss is the number one reason that, according to a recent poll, job seekers want to leave their current positions. You might call this boss a sadist, liar, toddler, or tyrant—all variations on a theme that boils down to one highly noxious thing: toxic.

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You’d think, these days, that most employers would be smarter about dealing with toxic bosses. Between #metoo and new studies that say productivity suffers in unsafe environments, toxicity must be flushed out before it poisons the entire workplace. Still, the toxic boss hasn’t yet made the endangered species list—and perhaps he never will. His survival instincts have been sharpened. He doesn’t need to throw the coffee cup against the wall to make his point. The craftier ones are just camouflaging their heinous conduct in humor or flair or, even worse, business acumen.

Here, we sampled a few of your toxic boss stories and matched your bosses with their spirit animals, if only to bring to life how driven by primal forces they really are. Names and some details have been changed to protect anonymity, but all animal traits are true.

We also tapped some friends in HR—Debra Cavanaugh, a former HR executive in a large media company; Yolanda Kitriss, currently an HR manager for a mid-sized retail business; and Linda Kato, Vice President of Global Human Resources for MarkLogic Corporation—to give us some behind-the-scenes perspective on coping with a toxic boss to get you through the day, up the ladder, or out the door. Their views are used in composite form below.

Toxic Boss #1: The Siberian Tiger

This star cat is a charming showboat—and ready to go for your throat at any moment.
The staffer: Lorraine Hutchins
The job: Assistant editor at a newspaper
The place: Miami Beach, Florida
The boss: Top editor

“I once worked as a junior editor on a daily newspaper. After I started, a new managing editor was transferred to my department and I reported to him. It became very clear that many at the paper thought ‘George’ was a creative genius, and he did have his talents. But he was also revered for picking favorites and playing people against each other. Someone even made a sign that read, ‘Editor Killer,’ and stuck it on his door. There were staffers who openly doted on him and they became a clique, often in his office behind closed doors. I wasn’t among them.

“I was kind of awkward and I had on authority that he made fun of me. Thing was, he could get away with murder. His bosses seemed to get a kick out of him. Luckily, my work was strong enough that I wasn’t fired. But after a year of trying to dodge his demeaning remarks, I got out. Now he’s tormenting someone else.”

A word from HR: “It’s always a personal decision and how much you can tolerate. I often suggest making a run at it, so you can look back and say, okay, I made an effort. I tried to work with this person. Sometimes, bosses who are considered talented are given carte blanche, and their poor treatment of others is seen as part and parcel of their greatness. This man is a bully and likely not to change. You might have called his bluff by seeking him out at a neutral time and saying, ‘I’m not accusing you of anything, but people have given me the impression that you are talking behind my back. I am a professional person, and I’d appreciate it if you could tell me directly if you have complaints about my work.’ Sometimes, that’ll be enough to send someone in another direction. But if not, this kind of behavior can be threatening and ultimately make you sick. You did the right thing by leaving the company.”

Toxic Boss #2: The Canadian Goose

She’s a caustic bird that nitpicks and humiliates. And she drops poop wherever she goes.
The staffer: Daisy Phan
The job: Personal injury attorney in a government office
The place: A small city
The boss: Head attorney

“My boss is second in command in the legal department and manages the trial attorneys, including me. She used to be one of us, then left the job, and then came back as management, so we thought she’d be sympathetic to us. But she’s actually been very cruel.

“I had one case where a person intentionally rammed their car into someone, who was then propelled onto the other side of the street and killed by a bus. I represented the bus company. The estate of the man who was killed said that the Transit Authority was at fault because the bus ran him over. My boss said to me, ‘If anything bad happens in this case, it’s your fault.’ She was trying to throw me under the bus! She told me to bring in someone as a witness, which I didn’t agree with, but I did it, and the judge reprimanded me. I felt like she set me up for failure. She likes pointing the finger at other people, and it reflects badly on the whole department. She also micromanages, sitting in the back of the courtroom texting notes to the attorneys and intimidating us in front of the judge. She’s power-hungry! But I’m never disrespectful. I just keep her at a distance.”

A word from HR: “Try asking for a one-on-one conversation and tell that boss, ‘When you belittle me in front of the court or in front of the other attorneys, it embarrasses me. I wish you would stop.’ Then, if nothing changes, go to HR. I heard a story of an amazing doctor who was a jerk, and the hospital where he worked hired a leadership coach for him. If nothing works, you should look for another job. That will give you back some control over your situation.”

Toxic Boss #3: The Howler Monkey

A strange primate that will sneak up behind you and clock you with a rock to get your attention. Also, he runs around screaming and is often unintelligible.
The staffer: Francesca Rinaldi
The job: Assistant sous chef
The place: New York, NY
The boss: Top chef

“I worked at a hot restaurant in Manhattan. The head chef was always in the back room chatting up the owners, with whom he was both obsequious and grandstanding. He’d come out and hover over me, criticizing me while he was constantly hiking up his pants and adjusting himself—not in an overtly sexual way, but gross. I don’t know if it was intimidation or mindless grabbing.. He yelled at people a lot, and he once balled up a dish towel and threw it on the cutting board I was using. I never learned whether that was a complaint about my skill or just random aggression.”

A word from HR: “Throwing stuff is not right. Obviously, if your boss were to throw a skillet, he should be fired immediately. But if he’s tossing dish towels, that’s probably not grounds for dismissal—if that’s the only thing he’s doing wrong. If he were admirable in other ways, maybe he could get by with some company-initiated anger management classes. But this guy was toxic in other ways, too—adjusting himself? Someone like this would eventually get himself fired because he can’t control himself. However, if you don’t feel physically or emotionally threatened, better to put in the hours you need to get a job in a different hot spot and get the heck away from him.”

The Emiko top and the Beebe belt.

Toxic Boss #4: The Salt-Water Crocodile

This chilly and inscrutable reptile is silent but deadly. Might make a nice handbag.
The staffer: Gayatri Rajagopal
The job: Social media manager for a large cosmetics company
The place: New York, NY
The boss: Marketing director

“My boss won’t speak to me. It’s scary. She seems very preoccupied and generally uninterested in me and even in my work. She just moves past me as if I’m not there. The company and my department seem to be doing pretty well, but every day I think I’m going to be fired because I get no feedback from her whatsoever. Does she just not like me? I have good relationships otherwise here. Otherwise, I really like the work, but I’m thinking I should just transfer out of this department. I wish I knew what I was doing wrong.”

A word from HR: “Consider this: she might not really be mean but, rather, introverted. Maybe she’s shy and doesn’t realize she’s coming off chilly. Or her behavior may have nothing to do with you—though that doesn’t excuse poor management, of course. She may be more stressed or buried than you know, or she may think she’s doing you a favor by not involving you. I’d make an effort to communicate, to help her understand that you can be more effective with more input from her. Try that first before jumping ship, and don’t personalize the chilliness as if it’s your fault. It’s probably not about you.”

Toxic Boss #5: The Boa Constrictor

With a killer grip, this snake cinches your upper body, then presses hard enough to starve your organs of blood. Can swallow large animals whole.
The staffer: Lucy Gingras
The job: Sales associate at a retail company
The place: Chicago, IL
The boss: Advertising Director

“My boss overshares and wants to know everything about me. She’s like a giant baby, and it’s too close for comfort. She doesn’t just share her vacation plans but details of her children’s issues and her romantic troubles with her husband. I feel like a prisoner. Believe me, I do not share with her this way in return, though she would like me to. She asks probing questions all the time, and I do my best to deflect them or give her simple answers to try to stop her in her tracks. I’ve avoided bringing in any personal items like photos or knick knacks, terrified she’ll ask for their back stories. I like my job, but I want to be her employee—not her best friend. I don’t really want to worry that she’s lonely when I’m trying to do my job.”

A word from HR: “Hmmm, this kind of toxic boss can be just as bad as a screamer or a backstabber. You’ve created some boundaries, but you may have to be more explicit. Tell her, ‘I really enjoy this job, and I admire what you’ve done here. I think I have a lot to learn from you, and I’d really like to concentrate on that. I’m uncomfortable bringing details about my personal life into my workplace, because I find it really distracting.’ You may not succeed in getting her to stay quiet about her own life, but hopefully you’ll protect yours this way. And if you think it’s safe, throw her a bone. When she asks you what you’re doing on vacation, let her know, but keep it simple, and change the subject.”

The Novara dress (coming soon!) and the Capri earrings.

Toxic Boss #6: The Hippopotamus

He sleeps 20 hours a day and still manages to be the deadliest land mammal out there. He’s highly aggressive and unpredictable. He can’t actually swim; he just pushes himself off of other objects.

The staffer: Sandra Meskin
The job: Literary agent
The place: New York City
The boss: Acquisitions Manager

“I work with writers, and I’m out to lunch and dinner with clients a lot. My boss has access to my calendar, so he knows where I am. But when I’m in the office, I never know where my boss is. Sometimes I don’t see him for days or even hear from him. I guess that’s ok, but when I’m busting my butt out in the field, I have it on good authority that he’s spending hours at the gym or shopping, and sometimes he’s home during the day without telling anybody. He’s even had me run over to his place with manuscripts—and I’m an agent, not his assistant. Again, his prerogative, though he does seem to have this reputation among his assistants. The really unfortunate part is that then he takes complete credit for my work, grabbing the best clients once I do the grunt work. I’ve never seen someone so lazy in my life.”

A word from HR: Well, yes, your boss takes credit for your work. Bosses are known to do that, at least to a degree. But it’s true, this one seems extraordinarily, you might say, relaxed. I would try to find ways to communicate your role both to others in the company and in your industry in helping make deals with these star clients, though you may not be able to do that until you’re looking for your next job. Meanwhile, the lazy part is hard to fight. That sounds hard-wired. The best you can do is tell him you’re working so hard working with clients to make him look good that it’s difficult to take breaks to deliver things to him. But you know what? Time to get out.

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Barbara O'Dair is the founder of O'Dair Content. She has been Editor in Chief of Prevention, Us, and Teen People; held top positions at Rolling Stone, Time Inc. Interactive, More, Harper's Bazaar, Reader's Digest, and Entertainment Weekly; contributed to the New York Times, among many other publications; and published two books. Read more of Barbara's posts.

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