Or, how to wreck morale and lose employees
I work in an essential business and have a toxic boss. I knew she was toxic before I took the job — it’s all over Glassdoor and Indeed. After she called to schedule an interview, I spoke to colleagues in my industry, and was told that she is a challenging employer. Other people who had worked for her used much less flattering descriptors. Apparently, she knows she is difficult as she offered above-average pay for the position. I accepted, deciding that I would work hard, save money, and leave when it became necessary.
The signs of poor leadership were clear. During my first week, an employee asked to take me out to coffee to talk. A nice gesture, right? But no, the employee had been nominated by the rest of the staff for a specific mission. She was there to tell me the issues at the workplace and ask that I stay for at least a few months before quitting. She went on to explain that the employees needed continuity. With a little research, I understood why the coffee date. At that time, the average employee tenure was less than 90 days. The business had gone through 4 managers (my position) in 9 months. The preferred way of quitting was to simply walk out and not return.
Despite the challenges of a toxic, racist, xenophobic, narcissistic boss, I came to enjoy my job.
I named Friday’s “Fire Fridays” because the boss regularly stormed into my office, demanding that I terminate a staff member for an imagined offense. Somehow, I managed to calm her down and talk her out of every firing. I held regular staff meetings, and we implemented needed improvements. The team was smart and dedicated. Soon we had begun to keep employees longer than 90 days. I felt that the morale and overall atmosphere of the business were on an upswing. Then came COVID-19.
At first, my toxic boss tried to pretend it was business as usual. She told me to stop ordering bleach and sanitizing wipes (I wasn’t hoarding, but we go through them quickly, and I was ordering a little more than usual). She kept talking to the staff about the flu season and how this disease is just the flu. When Italy began to be in the news, she explained that Italy is basically a third world country. Of course, she said, Italy would struggle with Coronavirus. She then told me how Asian culture is just dirty, and that is why this disease began there. The US has the best medical system in the world, she proclaimed, and we don’t have to worry. I pushed back, explaining how none of the employees had concierge medical care like she does. And that in the US only the wealthy, such as herself, have access to excellent medical care.
When employees started asking to wear masks at work, the boss locked the masks and other protective equipment (PPE) in her office.
I liberated the masks and made sure all employees had one fresh one per week (I work in the medical field, but not human medicine). She told me that I needed to count the masks daily because she felt employees were going to steal them and sell them on the black market. I asked her why we employ people she thinks are thieves, and she said, of course, we don’t have thieves on our team, but SOMEONE would steal them, Trump said so. When I pointed out the illogic of her statement, she stormed out of the office.
The order came down from the governor that those over 65 should stay at home. At 67, she decided it didn’t apply to her, nor did the closure of parks and beaches. She still boasts about going walking in the closed parks without a mask because COVID-19 is just the flu.
As we are an essential business, I wrote and re-wrote our COVID safety protocols. I read everything the CDC, the state and our industry- specific resources had published. I solicited input from colleagues. I met with the staff to make sure everyone would feel safe with the procedures we were putting in place. I discussed the safety guidelines with the boss and received her agreement on every point. The next day she ignored the plan, ignored the social distancing rules, and told me I could not work from home because the employees will talk to her instead of me and she hates it when they talk. I told her I had an underlying chronic condition and would work from home or quit, her choice. Grudgingly she gave me permission to work from home, but not before telling me she doesn’t believe I have a chronic health condition as I “don’t look sick.”
Then the governor shut down the state. We all were in panic mode, but worrying about keeping the staff safe and employed helped me to focus on something other than my own worries about my family and my safety. I got the employees situated with the newest protocols from the CDC, the state government, and our industry .
The boss instructed a staff member to listen to the president’s briefing for the facts.
Almost immediately, the texts from employees started blowing up my phone. The boss was ignoring the protocols. The boss was swearing at the staff for wearing masks. The boss was telling the team that they don’t have to worry about Coronavirus as it is “just the flu”. According to the boss, all the employees are healthy; even if they did get Coronavirus, they would recover just fine. The boss was yelling at employees for following our clearly posted safety guidelines. The boss called an employee an idiot for wanting to wear gloves when transferring a pet from the clinic to an owner or vice versa. The boss instructed a staff member to listen to the president’s briefing for the facts. The boss told the team she did the research, and there is nothing to worry about.
I went back to work the next day to talk to the boss. While not wearing a mask, she assured me the country would be open by Easter. After all, she explained, Trump said so, and our governor, who she feels is dumb compared to Trump, would have to fall in line.
After getting agreement (again) to our safety protocols, I left for home but stayed in communication with the employees. Unsurprisingly, the boss’ bad behavior continued, and also unsurprisingly, so did the consequences. The next day almost every staff member called out ‘sick,’ although some didn’t sugar coat it and told me they were scared to come to work with someone so careless about our health. All were uncomfortable working with the boss if she refused to wear a mask and follow the safety protocols. The boss ran the business with a skeleton crew until noon when an employee called me in hysterics during lunchtime, saying she was leaving and not returning until the boss discovered some empathy.
The next moment, I got a call from the boss who had realized she had no staff. She closed the business for a day, and I once again went over the posted safety protocols with her, again getting her agreement on every point. That afternoon I talked to the staff by phone and text. Half the staff decided to come back, a few said they would work on the boss’ day off, and a few decided to take a leave of absence until they felt safer at work. The boss took a few days off while we worked with her associate to perfect the safety protocols. The tension lessened, and we were back in business.
Since then, there has been a litany of constant complaints from the boss. She feels her business is going under, although we are making more money with fewer staff costs than ever. She received a Paycheck Protection Program loan/grant, which means she has months of payroll money for staff without having to pay it back, if she follows the rules. She got her mortgage waived for 6 months. However, according to her, we are spending too much money. Instead of using a budget with industry standard benchmarks, she simply goes with her “gut feelings” about how much we are spending. Rather than discuss the budget with me, she changes the passwords to our ordering websites when she feels too much money has been spent. The inventory manager and I cannot place orders until she decides it is necessary and changes them back. This leads to constant shortages of medications and supplies, especially right now when items are already in short supply due to the pandemic.
When the county required all employees to wear masks at work, I bought cloth ones out of my pocket as the boss refused to purchase cloth masks.
Despite the boss’ beliefs and obstruction, everyone else in the company is following the strict guidelines of our county, including not allowing clients into the business and making sure the place is extra- sanitized. When the county required all employees to wear masks at work, I bought cloth ones out of my pocket as the boss refused to purchase cloth masks. I even gave her a mask I purchased.
PPE is still locked in in the boss’ office, and she still thinks the Coronavirus is an overblown hoax. She can be overheard telling clients how the staff is overreacting. However, we are merely following the government and industry recommendations.
I have been buying the staff lunches, coffee cards, donuts, and giving handwritten notes of appreciation. I’m working hard to mitigate the negativity of the boss’ behavior (all out of my own pay, of course). Yet we have still had employees who have left. Others have told me they are actively looking for new jobs.
Leadership during this crisis is hard
I talk to colleagues in the industry about how stressful it is to manage through this pandemic. Leadership during a crisis is hard. Learning how to do business in a whole new way when rules change weekly if not daily is a challenge. However, not one of my colleagues has a boss who denies the severity of this pandemic, swears at staff, and ridicules staff for following basic safety protocols.
As employees, we understand how hard change is for our boss. As a former business owner, I empathize with the lack of control and worry over finances that she is experiencing. As a leader, I can definitively state that her actions are driving off good employees and damaging the long term morale of the team. As an example of what not to do during a crisis, our business is EXCELLING.