5 Ways a Toxic Boss Can Ruin Your Career

Gary Cole as toxic boss Bill Lumbergh in Office Space

Gary Cole as toxic boss Bill Lumbergh in Office Space | 20th Century Fox

A toxic boss can make you dread going to work everyday, but the consequences of having a nasty supervisor can be much more serious than day-to-day annoyance. Your bad boss could have a negative effect on your entire career, according to the results of a study presented at a meeting of the British Psychological Society. Even if you’re not the target of your boss’s anger, you may still feel the effect of her bad attitude.

“Workplace bullying is obviously unpleasant for the target but also creates a toxic working environment for all involved,” lead researcher Abigail Phillips of the University of Manchester said in a statement. “In short, bad bosses, those high in psychopathy and narcissism, have unhappy and dissatisfied employees who seek to ‘get their own back’ on the company.”

Workers with narcissistic and psychopathic bosses are more likely to dislike their jobs. They also have a greater chance of being depressed, bullying their colleagues, and acting in counterproductive ways at work. Phillips reached her conclusions after having 1,200 people take part in three different studies. Participants completed questionnaires about their psychological well-being, workplace bullying, and their manager’s personality.

We already knew that being surrounded by rude and toxic co-workers can spread bad behavior. A University of Florida study found that people experiencing rude behavior at work not only made them more attuned to other instances of rudeness, it also caused them to mirror the rude behavior themselves. That a toxic boss can inspire similar bad behavior in the workplace isn’t surprising.

Worse, toxic bosses are more common than many realize. One out five corporate execs show psychopathic traits, an Australian study found. That’s roughly the same incidence that’s seen in prison populations. If you’re one of the unlucky workers who is stuck with a toxic boss, it may be time to start plotting your escape, especially when you consider the five ways working for such a person can hurt your career.

1. You won’t be as good at your job

Tired businesswoman

Tired, frustrated office worker | iStock.com/Poike

People who worked for a toxic boss scored higher on a measure of clinical depression, Phillips’ research found. Many of the possible consequences of depression, including insomnia, tiredness, and irritability, make it difficult to do your job. Workers who are depressed may also continue to come to work but not be effective, a phenomenon known as presenteeism. Showing up but doing the bare minimum could cause your career to stall as you miss out on raises, promotions, and even new job opportunities because of your lackluster work ethic.

Even if you’re not depressed about your bad boss, working in a hostile environment could hurt your job performance. Witnessing rudeness in the workplace caused people to perform poorly on puzzle-solving and brainstorming tasks, a British study found. Having a toxic boss could mean you’ll never come up with that great idea that sets your career off like a rocket.

2. You may suffer from burnout

Worker suffering from burnout

Worker suffering from burnout | iStock.com

Workers with toxic bosses had lower levels of job satisfaction than those who worked for managers who didn’t have negative traits. Hating your job has a number of consequences, including poor health, lower motivation, and burnout. All those things, but especially burnout, can have a negative effect on your career. If you get so fed up and exhausted by your current job, you may quit just so you can get your life back. Once that happens, you might find it hard to motivate yourself to get back into the workforce.

“When I did seriously consider looking for work, usually after a morning spent paying my bills, the thought of returning to [my previous career] was simply too awful. I couldn’t face it,” Glynnis Macnicol wrote of her experience with career burnout in an article for Elle.

3. Your professional reputation may suffer

resumes in folder saying rejected resumes

Rejected resumes | iStock.com/ziss

People with bad bosses tend to respond by engaging in bad behavior of their own, Phillips’ study found. You might turn into the office bully, shirk work, or sabotage colleagues as a result of your toxic work environment. Or the office might be so unpleasant that you isolate yourself from co-workers and keep your head down just to get through the day. Engage in any of these behaviors long enough, and your professional reputation could suffer. Once you’re labeled as difficult to work with, it will be more challenging for you to get ahead.

Bad bosses are also less likely to provide feedback to help you develop professionally and will do little to help you advance in your career. In some cases, you’ll become tainted just by association. “[I]f your manager has a bad reputation herself, it can rub off on you; for instance, you might be directed to take actions that reflect poorly on you, or you might simply become known as part of a lackluster team,” career expert Alison Green wrote for U.S. News & World Report.

4. You’ll develop bad habits

gossiping co-workers

Gossiping co-workers | Thinkstock

If a toxic boss encourages bad behavior in your current workplace, it may be hard to shed those habits even if you move on to a happier job. Unfortunately, the tricks that helped you stay afloat in your last position, like undermining colleagues or keeping your mouth shut to avoid conflict, may work against you in your new role.

“If you spend too long in a dysfunctional workplace or modifying your behavior to accommodate a bad manager, the experience can recalibrate your ideas of normal in ways that can hurt you personally,” Green wrote. “While that behavior might serve you very well in that job, those habits can be enormously damaging in a healthier workplace — and can be hard to let go of once they’ve become ingrained.”

5. Getting a new job may be hard

employment reference form

Employment reference form | iStock.com

Damaging your reputation isn’t the only way a bullying boss can sabotage your career. Your nightmare manager might provide a bad reference when you do try to move on to a new employer. That can sink your chances of landing a new job.

Fortunately, if a toxic boss is bad mouthing you to potential employers, you do have recourse. While negative references aren’t illegal, defamation is. HR may step in if your old boss is lying about your job performance. Cultivating positive references from other bosses and colleagues can mitigate the damage of a bad reference, as can explaining the situation to a possible employer before they call your nasty ex-boss.

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