News & Politics

Washington’s Real-Life Horrible Bosses

Think your manager has issues? These tales of truly bad supervisors may make yours look like a saint.

Illustration by Ryan Inzana.

Not liking the boss is one of the main reasons employees leave a company—nearly a third of all job switchers, according to a recent Accenture study.

In our survey of 13,500 area employees, we asked about truly horrible bosses. Among the common complaints: supervisors who yell or throw things, who take credit for an employee’s work or micromanage, who emotionally or sexually harass, who expect staff to be on call 24-7, who show favoritism, and who are incompetent.

Some tales stood out.

Running a Tight Ship

• “He made anyone late to a meeting stand in the corner for the entire time, and he had others who said anything particularly ‘stupid’ stand on their chair or the table.”

• “At the law firm I used to work at, a partner punched her secretary because she was unhappy with the way he had cut a peach for her.”

• “A guy at my old company used to make his employees ask before they could use the restroom—and he would time them. If they were gone longer than five minutes, he would add the time up at the end of the week and make them use vacation time.”

• “Years ago, I worked at a small staffing company, and the owner was a grouchy dinosaur. He caught the office manager chewing gum and made her wear it on her nose for the rest of the day.”

No Slacking Off

• “A boss did not allow an employee off for funeral leave when his father passed away. The boss’s quote: ‘We need you now. What difference does it make to him?’ ”

Illustration by Ryan Inzana.

• “A manager told an employee that he didn’t think he was truly committed to his employer because he had missed a lot of time over the previous six months. This conversation happened the first week this employee returned to work after winning his fight with cancer.”

• “At a previous company, the owner made us turn off the news on 9/11 because he wanted us to get back to work.”

• “I had a boss who would stand behind me and watch me type. When I made a mistake, he actually shook my chair while I was in it. I left that place in a hurry.”

• “I once had a manager berate me for being home sick with the flu, telling me, ‘You should have been here leading your team even if you had to carry around a trash can to throw up in.’ ”

Crossing a Line?

• “A friend of mine is often tasked with bottling and shipping her manager’s breast milk.”

• “A previous boss banned all sweets because she was gaining weight.”

• “At a previous workplace, the boss—a mid-forties eternal bachelor—asked one of the supervisors out to lunch to discuss management and ended up taking her to a mattress store afterward to ask her to try out beds. He wanted her opinion on what mattresses women prefer.”

• “Right after I graduated from college, I was a waitress at a crawfish restaurant in Woodley Park. Not only were all the waitresses forced to tie bibs around the customers and wink at them, but my boss told me multiple times that the definition of success as a waitress was ‘to have a stalker.’ ”

• “A friend of mine has a boss who interrupted an employee’s presentation to comment, ‘You dress too conservatively. You should let your hair down, let your inner sex kitten out at work.’ ”

• “A manager wrote all the female employees’ cycles on the whiteboard so the team would have a warning of when the women were in a bad mood.”

• “My sister’s old boss made the female employees wear tiaras and sashes around the office when they were on their period.”

Say What?

• “At another employer, the CEO was furious that we hadn’t fired an employee before he could get his liver transplant, as it was going to affect our health-care plan.”

• “Another employer would frequent gentlemen’s clubs after work and forget which parking garage he used, and he’d have me and another employee drive around DC the next morning looking for the car.”

• “At a former employer, people found out from a Post-it note on their computer that they were laid off.”

• “The CEO sent a notice to his staff that he planned to lay them all off during Christmas. This was done via e-mail.”

• “A previous boss took out our entire team for lunch. She then recognized one person on the team who was getting promoted and ordered that person a dessert. We all had to sit around and watch her eat the dessert.”

• “While I was working in New York, a coworker baked Martha Stewart cupcakes and sent an e-mail out to the entire team letting us know they were on her desk. We were working at a competitor of Martha’s, and our boss was not thrilled that she hadn’t used an in-house recipe, and she fired her on the spot.”

• “One Rockville company I worked for gave employees a Christmas bonus by direct deposit. I made good use of it by paying off a credit card. A day later, the boss reversed the deposit and withdrew the money from our bank accounts. I was left with a negative balance.”

• “One boss had an electronic ticket machine. You had to take a number to be seen.”

Power Trips

• “My old boss would walk around with a small baseball bat and a huge switchblade. He kept pictures of the employees he had terminated pinned up in his office.”

Illustration by Ryan Inzana.

• “One day, a bad snowstorm was rolling in. Our director refused to let any of us go home. He told us he was in line for a big year-end bonus and wasn’t about to let us cheat him out of it because of ‘a few flakes of snow.’ He said that anyone who didn’t stay would be terminated, so I and several others wound up sleeping under our desks.”

• “She put the employee refrigerator at the end of the corridor, just past her office. Then she forbade employees to walk past her office when she was working.”

• “A retired general has made his employees march around the office behind him.”

• “I had a manager who sent subordinates to buy her a bag of gummy bears and—before bringing them to her—had them sort out certain colors.”

• “A boss would have the administrative staff run word searches on job-search sites, looking for his company’s name in the experience section of résumés. He was looking for current employees seeking new jobs. On occasion they were fired.”

• “A few years ago, during ‘snowmageddon,’ my old boss made me drive to her farm—an hour outside of DC—to paint a Christmas sleigh. I was outside in three feet of snow for about five hours and ended up getting bronchitis.”

This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian. Check back on December 9 to read our full Great Places to Work package.

Editor in chief

Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986 as an editorial intern, and worked her way to the top of the masthead when she was named editor-in-chief in 2022. She oversees the magazine’s editorial staff, and guides the magazine’s stories and direction. She lives in DC.