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The inescapable tyranny of the bad boss

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Imagine you are in your early twenties and you head off to your work Christmas party only to end up being hung upside down, topless, from a crane. Then imagine that your boss joins in the fun and slaps you on your bare chest, repeatedly.

A young man named Ilyas Elkharraz says this happened to him when he was an apprentice carpenter at a glass installation company in the Australian city of Melbourne in 2020. When a TV show broadcast a video of the incident, it made headlines across the world. 

Last week, his then boss, Steven Yousif, pleaded guilty in court to failing to provide a safe workplace, after a regulator charged him with “repeated, unreasonable bullying behaviour”.

My first job was in Melbourne and I had some dubious bosses when I was close to Elkharraz’s age. 

I still remember jamming a guitar up against my cabin door handle on a Queensland fishing boat after another female crew member advised that such a barricade would be useful to keep out the captain, which it did. 

But if anything like that crane incident was happening I don’t remember ever hearing of it, which raises two questions: how common are bad bosses and how do they get away with being so dire for so long?

The prevalence of the bad boss depends on how the problem is measured.

More than two-thirds of American workers say they have dealt with a toxic boss and 31 per cent believe they currently work under one, a Harris Poll report showed last month.

Those findings were based on 1,233 employees being asked if their supervisor displayed behaviour such as micromanagement, favouritism, unreasonable expectations and unprofessional behaviour.

But academics who studied 28,000 European workers came up with a different finding in 2018 using a more elaborate scoring method that assessed things like how much praise or help supervisors gave.

They estimated 13 per cent of employees had a bad boss, and the problem was worst in the transport sector. But white-collar workers are by no means immune.

Take Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund. 

It’s long been known that Dalio, who has stepped back from daily management, ran his firm in a highly unconventional way. 

Employee meetings were recorded and staff were expected to hold each other to account by following a forbidding set of rules called “The Principles” and a culture of “radical transparency”.

Dalio’s system fascinated leadership and management experts, including his idea that no one had the right to hold a critical opinion at work without speaking up about it. 

“It’s pretty extreme, but it’s provocative and I love that,” said Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. Other Ivy League professors wrote approvingly of Dalio in their books. Wharton’s Adam Grant created a personality test with him that used the billionaire’s insights to help “understand yourself and others better”.

But a new book called The Fund, by journalist Rob Copeland, casts a hellish light on Dalio’s reign at Bridgewater. Tales of breakdowns, tears and surveillance litter its pages. 

“You’re a dumb shit,” Dalio reportedly told one woman in a group meeting that had been called to discuss why she was behind schedule on a project. Copeland writes that she collapsed into sobs and ran from the room. A recording was later shared with other staff. I’m told “dumb shit” is a term commonly used at the firm, and by Dalio about himself, to mean a person who doesn’t know as much as they need to know. But still.

A man hired to be CEO became ill, sleepless and “pallid, often non-verbal, broken” after his exposure to radical candour. He quit after less than six months. 

The page I cannot unsee reproduces a C-word-laced verse Dalio chanted at a work do in front of mostly female employees. But perhaps most shocking of all, the fund also allegedly rigged a system that ranked employees to keep Dalio on top.

That’s just a taste of the cultish atmosphere Copeland invokes in the book, which Dalio has dismissed as “sensational and inaccurate”.

If even a tenth of it is true though, Dalio was clearly a worrying leader. Yet on he went, as so many do. Being a billionaire founder helped, and at least his staff were handsomely paid. But Copeland’s book is a reminder that the most extraordinary workplace horrors can happen in any type of company.

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