Scary Bosses: Handling the Manager From Hell

Everyone has a story about a boss who makes "The Devil Wears Prada" look tame.

Take Ryan, from Hauppauge, N.Y., a public relations professional whose former boss never missed an opportunity to bite off his head in front of the rest of the office.

"She forced me to come in for two days with a 104-degree fever and threatened to fire me if I didn't (I needed the job) and then screamed when I couldn't work any faster. [She] also forced me to come into the office right after dental surgery (we're talking right after the operation was done)," he said via e-mail.

But the icing on the cake was when his boss "started screaming at me for taking a call from one of my best friends, who was fighting in Iraq."

Instead of walking off the job, Ryan bit his tongue and worked his buns off, which pretty much earned him a Hollywood ending: high-profile industry award, multiple job offers from other agencies and the ability to walk out on his miserable boss with his head held high.

Of course, that was a couple years back, before layoffs lurked around every corner like some oozing, drooling horror movie monster. But a spooky job market doesn't mean you have to sit back and take it when the boss slimes you.

"The scariest people don't know that they're scary," said Genia Spencer, managing director of operations and human resources of employment firm Randstad. "And the reason that they don't know is because they're modeling the bad bosses they've had in their own experience."

If you've never pointed out to a boss that you respond better when you're not being berated at top volume, now would be a fine time to diplomatically do so.

Often, that can lead to "a discussion of style" and even, lo and behold, "awareness" on your boss's part, Spencer said.

But reasoning with a scary boss isn't the only way to keep him or her at bay. Read on.

Your Boss Keeps Butchering the Deadline

Next to bosses who scream, bosses who assign projects or pull in project deadlines without actually conveying this information to you are the biggest fright show around.

Nina, a marketing maven from Manhattan, can attest to this. As was customary in their relationship, Nina's former boss forgot to tell her about a Very Important Project that she needed in hand yesterday.

"She then gave me a deadline of 48 hours to complete three PowerPoint presentations, each over 100 pages," Nina said. "Twenty-four hours later, she comes demanding to see the finished presentations, swearing she had told me 24 hours."

When Nina informed her boss that she was still working on the presentations, her boss threw everything but the computer off Nina's desk, while "stomping on the floor and cursing up a storm," unfazed by the five other cube dwellers Nina shared an office with.

"My desk contents were blocking the door now, locking in my five other co-workers who were too afraid to make a peep," Nina said. "Like a school child, [my boss] told me to sit down, turn on the computer, and step by step for the next three hours we sat working on one presentation. No one in the office moved, even the one who desperately needed to go to the bathroom."

In this situation, the "please turn down the volume" conversation isn't your only option.

"A lot of people who became bosses became bosses because they were very good salespeople but they weren't necessarily the strongest administrators or planners," said Spencer. In other words, every mad scientist needs an assistant. So, it's time to get in touch with your inner Igor.

If you know your manager has a nasty habit of expecting you to read his mind, suggest a Monday morning briefing, in which you probe him for the entire week's to-do list and concrete deadlines for each deliverable. Let him know how long each piece of the puzzle will take to complete so there are no surprises later. Also point out any key meetings or travel dates you know are on his calendar so you can "help" him plan for all the necessary deliverables he'll expect from you.

Liz Ryan, a former Fortune 500 HR executive who runs Ask Liz Ryan, a popular online community for workplace issues, suggests confirming such details right away with a "pleasant, rather than defensive" e-mail.

"This way, your boss won't be able to retroactively saddle you with instructions that he never gave you," she said via e-mail interview.

Our Boss Is an Utter Buffoon

According to a study of 2,337 U.S. adults released this month by Randstad, only half of employees think their boss is competent.

Shane, a communications professional from Raleigh, N.C., knows this all too well. His "terribly disorganized" boss required "daily management from the bottom up," which was both exhausting and maddening.

"I had to regularly re-forward e-mails of great importance to him four or five times," Shane explained, "mostly because he just couldn't keep track of what was going on around him."

For Judy, a former magazine editor from Brooklyn, an ex-boss's terrifying incompetence would often rear its ugly head in the conference room.

"I was at a story meeting once and I pitched an idea," Judy said. "[My boss] ignored me, even though a bunch of other editors liked it. Then, five minutes later -- at the same meeting -- he told them he wanted to do this really great story. And re-pitched my story as his! And he was completely serious. The other editors didn't know whether to laugh or be afraid."

So, what should you do when you suspect the big cheese doesn't know how to do her job (or just wants you to do it for her)?

"You get paid to help your boss meet the company's objective," Spencer said. "So, if that means you need to share knowledge with your boss or help keep your boss from making a major mistake, you have to remember that's what you're there for and that's why you get paid."

At least, "That's the official business answer," Spencer added. The personal answer, however, is to schedule a meeting with the manager who hired or promoted your boss to their current position and say, "I would like to understand your view of my skills and competencies and what skills and competencies I'd need to develop to have been considered for that role."

This isn't about criticizing or unseating your boss. It's about finding out what qualifications you need to assume a similar managerial position at your company in the future, or one at another firm.

Whatever you do, refrain from badmouthing your boss on the job, said Ryan, the workplace expert.

"When management finally gets rid of this turkey, you want to be viewed as above the fray, not locked in combat with him," she said.

Remember, many successful employees have endured a hellish boss and lived to tell the tale. So, treat this as a learning experience, rather than viewing yourself as some hapless victim in a third-rate slasher movie.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,