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This is a series about jerks, blowhards, racists, creeps, narcs, petty tyrants, tenured incompetents, passive–aggressive underminers, Taylorist fussbudgets, Pinkertonish snoops, pious liberal union-killers, and sneering capitalist dickheads, which is to say it is a series about bosses. Maybe even your boss. Well, not literally—unless you work or have worked with the people who told us the stories that make up this package—but in the sense that all bad bosses are essentially the same sort of asshole. They dominate your life in one way or another, and they fight like hell to preserve their privilege to do so. If you’ve had a bad boss in your career, you are sure to recognize at least some aspects of the various bosses described below. 

Many of the stories detail specific wrongs. The boss who did not let servers take a lunch break. The boss who stalked a worker to try to prove that she did not need workers’ comp. The boss who said her employees were as disposable as paper towels (“If there’s a problem, you can just tear off another sheet.”). Others highlight a system—the gig economy, the consultant-industrial complex, American families’ treatment of au pairs.

There are stories that call out for specific reforms. In the case of an undocumented domestic worker, a path to US citizenship. For the Instacart shopper, laws that prevent gig economy companies from gutting longstanding protections for workers. For the stories not told, an end to companies’ use of unjustified non-disclosure agreements.

But we don’t pretend that individual policies would have fixed all the problems you’ll read about. We live in a world in which, unless you are tremendously lucky, you have to work in an economy that runs on desperation. Most people will find themselves working for someone else. That person will determine how much insult to add to systemic injury.

English picked up “boss” from the Dutch word for “master”: baas. As David Roediger has pointed out, “boss” became popular in America as the artisanal context of “master” began to degrade and the word became more tightly linked to slavery. Slaves had masters. For white workers to distance themselves from the plantation, a euphemism was needed.  

The largely unchecked power that bosses hold over workers is what led the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson to conclude that the typical American workplace is, at its core, a dictatorship. It is a place where everything from the clothes you wear to the opinions you express in private messages can be legally controlled and surveilled. When your conduct is found lacking, you are liable to be punished. As Adam Smith understood, you will end up being injured twice over: 

What chiefly enrages us against the man who injures or insults us, is the little account which he seems to make of us, the unreasonable preference which he gives to himself above us, and that absurd self-love, by which he seems to imagine, that other people may be sacrificed at any time, to his conveniency or his humour. The glaring impropriety of this conduct, the gross insolence and injustice which it seems to involve in it, often shock and exasperate us more than all the mischief which we have suffered.

The stories below are told by those who felt they could be sacrificed at any time. Some workers chose to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation from past, present, and future employers. Others wanted to speak on the record. Some pulled in six figures, while others were paid at or below the minimum wage. Some did work that is paradigmatically essential: treating patients in a COVID ICU, carrying mail, preparing and delivering food. Others felt like they were just pushing paper.

Many of the workers you’ll hear from found ways to fight back. They struck. They quit. They sued. They made fun of their bosses behind their backs. They said no with Bartleby-like obstinance.

If there is hope, it might be that abusive employers have a way of energizing protest. After a pandemic killed her husband and children in Memphis in 1867, Mary Harris moved to Chicago. Her job was to make dresses for the families of “lords and barons who lived in magnificence.” Looking out of a window as she worked and seeing “the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking along the frozen lake front,” she found the contrast with her bosses “painful.” Her “employers,” she noted, “seemed neither to notice nor to care.” They lived in luxury. For the rest of her life Harris, for whom this publication is named, would lead a labor movement against the “bosses.”

Bad boss stories from our readers»»

“I once worked for a VP who came to work at noon, took a two- or three-hour liquid lunch, and began to work around 4:30 or 5 p.m. Of course, he expected me to stay late and meet his demands.”

“The restroom at the office had very cheap toilet paper. The boss had his own package of White Cloud toilet paper that he would proudly carry down the hall to the restroom.”

“I typed a nine-page document which was dictated by my boss. He found an error on the last page. He took an orange marker and swiped it over the entire nine pages.  This was before computers. I had to type the entire document again.”

“He was the chief ER doc. He hired and fired. He kept me working full time but I didn’t get benefits. He said ER docs should be male as ‘girls talk too much and have babies.’ He wanted nurses to wear heels. (The union had to be the one to stop him.) He was a boss from darkest hell.”

Some nicknames for bad bosses that we heard»»

Cruella

The Usurper

Snake in the grass

More bad boss stories from our readers»»

“Had a boss who tried to sound like he knew what he was talking about all the time. (He didn’t.) His catchphrase was ‘in reference to.’ He would sprinkle it everywhere. I think the record was three times in one sentence.”

“‘Yes, you’ve been excellent this year, but I can’t give you a 5 on your review because you need to have something to work for.’”

“When my boss was away, the next person in charge told me to spy on employees in the office. I was appalled and said no. When my boss came back he screamed at me, with the other person sitting there. (All of us were in the ‘scream tank’ with him at one point or another).”

“I applied for a job as a roller skate waitress. In the interview, the male boss asked, ‘How are your legs?’ I said, ‘Great…They work.’ Being a little on the chubby side, I was told I was going to be working onion rings.”

“When I had back surgery, my surgeon directed me as follows: physical therapy, back brace, sit-stand workstation, don’t ride a bus for eight weeks. My boss telephoned my surgeon’s office and demanded to see my records. When she was refused, she demanded that I do as she directed.”

“When I handed in my letter of resignation, my boss gave it back to me and asked me to rewrite it to include how grateful I was to have had the opportunity to work there. I handed it back to her. I said, ‘That request is a perfect example of exactly why I am resigning.’”

Nicknames for famously bad bosses»»

El Exigente

Employees’ nickname for Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, who was “a ruthless, crude, arbitrary whip-cracker.” He once “ceaselessly badgered” a man who had a mole into getting plastic surgery.

The Last Business Eccentric

The New Yorker’s name for Gulf & Western CEO Charles Bluhdorn, infamous for his violent temper. Like other yellers, he was heralded as a crazed genius. Employees remember him being so angry he’d be “literally foaming at the mouth.”

Robber Baron

One account tracks the phrase specifically to Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping and railroad magnate. The term was borrowed from feudalism to describe the new lords of the realm.

Million-Dollar Man

A nickname mentioned by one of our interview subjects for a supervisor whose sexual harassment led to a $1 million judgment.

The things bad bosses says»»

“Orientation is very cult-y. It’s like: ‘We’re a family. We love each other.’”

Anonymous, JuiceLand

“We hope those who work in this facility would like to become part of the Walmart family.”

—a spokesperson after Walmart took over a DHL facility, laying off 511 and asking them to reapply for their jobs

“I think unions have had a positive impact on a lot of places, like if you’re working on an assembly line” but a union is not “the right idea” for BuzzFeed.

founder Jonah Peretti in 2015

“If you’re working in a warehouse, it makes sense. But when you’re talking about smart folks who are using their minds for a very creative project, I don’t get it.”

Politico founder Robert Allbritton in 2021, on unions

“Nothing…in all my life, before or since, wounded me so deeply.”

Andrew Carnegie, on his role in violently stopping a strike at the Homestead steel mill in 1892, after saying unions were “sacred” throughout his life


 

Project credits

Project bosses: Noah Lanard, Jacob Rosenberg
Reporters: Becca Andrews, Ali Breland, Isabela Dias, Andrea Guzman, Lil Kalish, Noah Lanard, Hannah Levintova, Michael Mechanic, Samantha Michaels, AJ Vicens
Editors: Tommy Craggs, Maddie Oatman, Jacob Rosenberg, Amanda Silverman, Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, Aaron Wiener 
Web developer: Julia Smith
Art direction: Adam Vieyra
Top illustration: Rami Niemi
Additional illustrations: Grace Molteni
Additional art: Mark Murrmann, Michael Johnson

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

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Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

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