How a company chooses its managers says a lot about its tolerance for workplace toxicity

A toxic boss isn’t always easy to identify.
A toxic boss isn’t always easy to identify.
Image: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
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In a just world, managers who mistreat their employees would face certain barriers to success. But as a spate of recent news stories about toxic work cultures and galling executive behavior illustrates, there’s no shortage of companies where bad bosses thrive.

Sometimes these managers eventually get their comeuppance. Often they don’t. Either way, you have to ask: Why are bosses like this able to flourish for so long?

In some cases, the answer may be that the toxic culture comes from the top. “When you have abusive supervisors, you often have an organization that tolerates abusive supervision,” notes Katherine Klein, a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

But even well-intentioned leaders can get taken in by a charming executive on the rise.

There’s a simple antidote to this, whether the manager in question is a new hire or in line for a promotion from within: Just ask the person’s direct reports what it’s like to work for their boss.

The power of perspective

“Getting the perspective of people who work for, and especially used to work for, others is important,” says Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of books including Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…And Learn from the Worst.

The reason the perspective of direct reports is so valuable is because it’s hard for the people making hiring and promoting decisions to accurately perceive a manager’s true colors.

“In hierarchies, we pay much more attention to the people who have power over us than they do to us,” Sutton explains, noting that among troops of baboons, the other members look over at the alpha male for cues every 20 seconds or so. “So typically people who have less power know more about their bosses than the boss’s bosses do.”

Subordinates also have the advantage of knowing what bosses are like when they’re not on their best, interview-ready behavior. And because structural barriers mean that women, particularly women of color, and people of color more broadly often occupy lower-level positions at many organizations, a boss’s direct reports are more likely to be aware of (and perhaps targets of) a boss’s discriminatory remarks and actions.

There’s good reason for company leadership to find out whether managers are treating employees well, and not just in order to avoid legal and reputational damage. For example, economic research shows that good bosses—the type of people who coach their direct reports, provide helpful feedback, and are invested in their employees’ well-being and career goals—have less attrition and higher productivity on their teams.

“There’s all sorts of evidence that managers viewed as just and fair and competent keep the best people and attract the best people,” Sutton says.

Triangulating feedback

Some companies, including Netflix and Google, make a practice of soliciting feedback from direct reports as well as peers and higher-ups during 360 reviews, so dubbed because they  are meant to gauge a candidate from all sides.

As management consultant Meg Halverson noted in a New York Times article in 2016, this process can have its pitfalls. Particularly if 360 reviews are anonymous, the criticism on offer may be spiteful (“I never really liked you”) rather than constructive. More generally, Halverson says, for “senior executives who are faced with making tough decisions every day, there will always be someone who thinks a situation could have been handled better.” However, if done well, these reviews can provide an important mechanism for lower-level employees’ perspectives to be heard.

Sutton says it can be effective to tap into the power of informal reference checks and reach out to former employees when trying to get a sense of a manager’s performance. People who have moved onto other managers, departments, or organizations are more likely to feel empowered to be direct about their experiences with their former boss.

By contrast, he notes that with current employees, psychological safety is a big issue: If direct reports feel they’re putting themselves at risk by speaking honestly about their boss, they may not disclose much.

Mining the data

Sarah Soule, a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says that companies making outside hires or evaluating current managers should also consider tapping into data to find out more about the culture that bosses are creating. She points to the example of CrossFit founder and CEO Greg Glassman, who recently stepped down over racist remarks he’d made in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, and whose resignation was quickly followed by revelations about the company’s alleged culture of sexual harassment.

“I started reading Glassdoor, and there was so much evidence of his misogyny,” Soule says. Junior-level employees had been sounding the alarm about Glassman all along. Perhaps they were the only ones paying attention—as the sole owner of the company, Glassman didn’t fall under anyone else’s oversight. (In June, Glassman announced plans to sell CrossFit to a new owner; he denies the sexual harassment claims. In a post referring to his comments on Black Lives Matter, he wrote, “I created a rift in the CrossFit community and unintentionally hurt many of its members.”)

Both Soule and Sutton note that it’s important to triangulate feedback. Just as issues of psychological safety may lead to inaccurate reviews from current employees, former employees who have a negative opinion of the company or manager may be disproportionately likely to share unsolicited opinions on Glassdoor or other anonymous forums, like the tech-centric social networking app Team Blind.

Another way to incorporate more feedback from lower-level employees is to include them in hiring decisions in the first place, and to have candidates for management positions interviewed by some of the lower-level staff they’ll be working with.

“One of the things we know about hiring is that the standard unstructured interview is not a good predictor of future performance,” Wharton’s Klein says. “Someone in a high-level position probably knows how to behave quite well in an interview for a short period of time.”