Fix My Job: Bad Boss

Is it possible for someone to rise to the top of the food chain even if his or her workplace skills are at the bottom of the barrel?

Of course it is, and we’ve all seen it – not just on episodes of “The Office,” where Steve Carell sets the gold standard for cluelessness. We’ve seen it in real life: The owner’s nephew gets a promotion he doesn’t deserve. A notorious suck-up moves up, even though he or she isn’t particularly good at anything except, well, sucking up. Or somebody who is good at his or her job gets kicked upstairs to management – but doesn’t have a clue how to manage anybody else.

How to handle a boss who can’t handle his or her job:

There’s no law against incompetence, so you don’t have much legal recourse. And whether or not he or she is competent, your boss is still your boss. This is the person who controls your schedule, your vacation, your pay raise and promotions…and may even have the power to discipline or fire you.1

So even if you’re convinced your boss is a totally out to lunch, it’s probably not the greatest idea to point it out. A lot of people don’t take criticism very well, and your boss is a person who can make your life quite miserable if you give him or her a reason.

What can you do?

Keep a log: If your boss’s shortcomings are causing serious problems – like failure to ship products or deliver services on time – people may start pointing fingers, trying to figure out who’s to blame. If that happens, it will be very helpful to have a record of your own contributions and accomplishments.

What’s your boss good at? Even a bad boss is probably good at some aspects of the job. Focusing on what’s going right can help you keep your sanity – and perhaps build bridges for you to tactfully discuss areas that need improvement.

Ask for what you need: If your messed-up boss is messing you up, find a tactful way to let him or her know what you need, such as, “Sorry to bother you, but we haven’t seen next week’s shift schedule yet. Can you post it when you get a chance?” 

Talk to your co-workers: Just about any workplace problem can be addressed more effectively as group, rather than trying to take it on alone. For one thing, U.S. labor law typically protects two or more private-sector employees  who are trying to address working conditions. Also, talking to others can help you figure out the scope of the problem: Are you and your boss just having a personal conflict, or is he or she truly incompetent and creating problems for everyone?

But tread carefully: You don’t want to join a pity party at work, where everyone complains about the boss without any positive result. And somebody in your work group may actually like your incompetent boss, which means your complaints could go straight to him or her and land you in hot water. The same is true of going over your boss’s head to discuss his or her incompetence. Somebody promoted this person and thinks he or she is good for the job – are you sure that’s not the person you’re complaining to?

Seek out allies: Look for friends or colleagues – inside or outside your organization – who can do what your crummy boss should be doing but isn’t: act as a mentor, advise you on training opportunities, and provide career advice.

Useful Links

Article:  “The Incompetent Boss,”  at

Article: “Dealing with Your Incompetent Boss,”  at Harvard Business Review Blog Network

Article: “Why Senior Management Loves Your Incompetent Boss,”  by the Evil HR Lady at

Some clues your boss isn’t ready for prime time:

  • Constant crises: Are deadlines getting missed, products not getting shipped, or customers or clients complaining about bad service? It’s the boss’s job to make the trains run on time. If they’re not, he or she isn’t doing a good job.
  • Is your workplace off track? If your department or team is supposed to have regular weekly or monthly meetings, are they happening? Is there an agenda? Are employees receiving performance reviews on a regular basis? Are reports to HQ getting sent on time? If not, your boss isn’t doing the basics required to establish and maintain good teamwork.
  • Employee morale: We all like to complain about the boss now and then. But if your bonehead supervisor is all anyone can talk about every single day…if people are quitting left and right…if going to work every day seems like an unmanageable chore because your boss has become an obstacle to getting anything done…then you’ve got a real problem.

1If you are a union member, you are probably covered by a workplace contract, which spells out agreed-upon procedures for pay, promotions, vacation, and so on. That means your boss has less arbitrary power over your life – and it’s one of the reasons workers joins unions.



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