Question

What are the prospects for a whole department toppling their boss? The boss is a typical “Management by Fear” practitioner. He is not liked or respected by his subordinates or by other employees including peers and some higher up in management. He is not technically competent and has been assigned the post for the mere reason of “retaining” him.

I would like to muster up some courage, get together a group and make a case against him with HR. How should I approach the matter with the authorities in an appropriate manner?

Nick’s Reply

dump-the-bossYou’re talking mutiny, and the price of failure is walking the plank. Are you sure you want to take that risk? I expect the group of you has already discussed the risks, and also your motives and justification for taking such an extreme measure. (Try to avoid behaving like a mob with torches and pitchforks!)

Is it even possible to dump the boss?

What you need to do first is find out what kind of support the boss has from upper management. Are they giving him lots of rope so he’ll hang himself? Does he have something they want, so they won’t touch him? Does he have a lord and protector who watches his backside? It isn’t so much how to go about getting him canned as it is finding out whether you stand a snowball’s chance of beating him.

Forget about courage. Get some smarts. Talk casually with higher-ups and find out what they think of this guy. Watch their eyes, listen for the pauses and hesitation in their responses, watch the body language. You need to judge whether other managers are waiting for someone to attempt a coup they can join, or if they’re in solid with him.

Identify support

It’s smart to talk not only to execs up your boss’s chain of command, but to others on chains that interact with him but don’t have a reporting link. For example, if he’s the head of engineering, go talk to managers at his level and above in manufacturing, operations and finance. These people may have the same concerns you do. Maybe they’d like to dump the boss, too — and they may be able to lend support from a level where there’s more power than you and your buddies have.

Look among your group and see who has the best contacts upstairs in the organization. Have that person poke around. If you can establish that the boss is vulnerable, you need to get support before you act. Go to the one top exec who is likely to back you, and ask for advice. This is best done one on one, not as a group. Then follow the advice.

Proceed with caution

It’s hard to topple a manager. It requires support from others more powerful than your target. You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.

The only way HR can help is if you have several solid, documented violations of law, ethics or corporate policy. In my experience, they’ll back the manager every time, unless there’s such a preponderance of evidence against the manager that they’d be jeopardizing their own positions by ignoring it. (I hope your boss is not as bad as this, but take heed if it’s the case: Say goodbye to your psychopathic boss.)

We haven’t talked about you trying to talk this out with the boss, but your question is very direct so I expect this is not really an option.

You’ve got a battle ahead of you. Proceed with caution.

Can employees get a boss fired? How do the politics work in a situation like this? Is it worth going to HR about the problem? Are there other alternatives worth considering? Have you ever been involved in deposing your boss?

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30 Comments
  1. As a VP of HR and 26 years in the biz I have booted out plenty of bad/toxic managers there is only one thing you’re going to need…numbers. Take dept of ten with a bad manager, 1-2 employees rolling into HR isn’t going to cut it. My success has come when I have 50, 60, 70% of the group coming in to complain OR the 1-2 employees get HR to initiate an investigation and I get corroborate stories from a significant pecentage of dept employees. Many times you hear the same complaints over and over, almost sounding like a script then you know you have a toxic manager that needs to be shown the door.

  2. First thing you need to realize is that HR is not your friend.
    They advocate for the interests of the employer, not employees.

    See True Confessions of former HR executive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBIjVXHl1aA

    • The role of HR is to mitigate risk to the organization.

      Most people outside (and many inside) are unaware of this. Understanding this gives clarity on when to engage HR.

      • @Gregory: That’s an important reminder. There are some HR folks that care about employees, but it’s important to remember they don’t work for the employees.

    • You are correct Borne.

      In addition to the confessions link you supplied, there are also some good lawyers that outline in detail via public info how HR is a lackey for the company – after all, who pays them?

      Further, Nick has already provided various backup on this topic many times, including:

      “Tell HR you don’t talk to the hand”
      “HR Managers: Do your job, or get out”
      “Overcome Human Resources Obstacles”

      So, if someone thinks HR is going to jump right into action based on a few “complaints” about a manager, ya better be ready for a drama fest and have your own attorney warmed up…

    • That video is a little old, and with DEI now, woman are now coming into the company buildings with their baby carriers to show off their kids. One thing that hasn’t changed is that the only grey-haired people they allow are executives.

      Having worked for over 40 years, the best thing to do is either wait it out or get out. One thing that never changes is that things will change. Bad managers will leave, good managers will leave. Wait long enough and the situation changes. Or if not, accelerate it and make a move.

      • yeah I forgot that option. Knowing how long that manager’s been with the company would shed more light on which way to go. If he/she was around a long time…getting out is the best option. If the manager was a relative newbie, it’s very likely he’ll shoot himself in the foot and be given the door.

  3. Two thoughts:
    1) Read (or re-read) The Caine Mutiny.
    2) Do you really need to stay at this company?

    I am semi-retired, having left my last job after a change of top management. (One advantage of being older is, you’ve seen this s*** before, and you realize early when the downhill slide begins.) It is a non-profit, supported primarily by revenue from goods and services, and once a great place to work. After I left, numerous people at different times went to HR and to the Board of Directors, but the Board wasn’t interested in hearing it. (After all, they hired her.) I think they maybe sent the Executive Director to sensitivity training, or something, but years later, she’s still there, and all of the best employees – and there were some great ones – left over a period of years. They stayed as long as they did because they loved the mission and they loved the organization, and hoped that things would improve. But the organization did not love them back.

    The Glassdoor reviews, stretching now back almost 10 years, consistently use words like “toxic,” “micromanager,” “bully,” even “nepotism” and “corrupt.” That’s except for the obvious fake reviews promoted by management. The entire marketing department quit twice; one new CFO lasted less than two weeks. I am SO glad I left when I did, it would have driven me nuts. You can’t do your best work in a toxic environment.

    So, maybe look around, rather than fight it. You know what they say about wrestling with pigs.

    • “After I left, numerous people at different times went to HR and to the Board of Directors, but the Board wasn’t interested in hearing it. (After all, they hired her.)”

      Bingo!

      My point exactly.

      People often forget who pays HR – and it’s not the employees.

      You also provide great advice referring to Glassdoor when you stated: “That’s except for the obvious fake reviews promoted by management.” I’ve see the same on Glassdoor and other sources more often than not and have dodged many bullets this way.

  4. Very wise and realistic comments by experienced workers. Also, “Freakanomics” radio recently did a program on why there are so many bad bosses. It seems to have become the norm and not an aberration.

  5. re: “You’re talking mutiny…”

    Even if successful, everyone will remember who participated.

    Someone(s) gave their stamp of approval for this boss. That “Someone(s)” probably does not want their error in judgment to be on open display.

    If someone has a backchannel to senior management, they can put a bug in their ear.

    Keep in mind, even if Bad Boss leaves, the people who thought hiring Bad Boss will remain.

    • @Gregory: A people hire A people. B people hire C people. When there’s a critical mass of C people, the A people leave. You can see it happening when B people are brought on board.

  6. I am a line level manager with 9 employees (soon to be 8 as my most senior person is going to go work for my boss and lead the senior technical staff – facilitating this move has been one of my greatest accomplishments – it’s good for my employee and it’s good for the company). My boss and I believe in being personable and it pays great dividends. We like to say, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.” My boss has the highest of expectations, by the way.

    You just can’t dump a boss. I would suggest that people start making contacts outside the company (or even inside the company but this can be tricky), and applying for new positions. A mentor of mine once said to me, when I had a toxic boss, “Get out of there now!”

    So I am saying to your writer, “Get out of there now!”

  7. I once worked in a 8 person department that had 7 employees leave. Senior management did nothing to rein in the department manager. The department would be restaffed and then would empty out at the by the end of the year. He retired but the company had trouble for years recruiting into that department.

    • @Andrew: Uh, where’s HR in all this? Isn’t it their job to prevent this from happening? Uh, they’re too busy scrolling through too many “candidates” delivered by their ATS… “Look at all the applicants!!”

      Any wonder HR ghosts you?

  8. Worked for a rageaholic who would get angry on a whim. Many complaints to HR but nothing was done. I’m surprised they weren’t sued due to his behavior. He was finally let go when a new director came on board. Unfortunately, she proceeded to fire seasoned employees in favor of hiring cheaper labor. Not sure the division recovered from either one of them. It’s amazing the downstream damage people do to a company from which they may never recover.

    Best thing to do is move on from the company. It’s probably not what you want to hear but it’s the best option.

    • “Many complaints to HR but nothing was done.”

      Exactly, this appears to have been the “rule” now for what – at least 15-20 years – given all that’s been written and posted online about “bad bosses” and “toxic” workplaces.

      Like several other posters have already stated…unfortunately, running for the door is usually your best option since tyrants don’t fix themselves and seem to evaded being fired until it’s too late – damage already done.

  9. And, for companies that think people are easily replaced—good luck with that. When good people leave it’ll be quite a task to replace them. You may get lots of applications thinking there’s a deep talent pool from which you have your pick. Keeping a bad manager will cost more than it’s worth to keep him or her.

    Talked with some people who hire and finding good people is tough. Those who have mediocre employees don’t let them go bc trying to replace the devil you know with the devil you don’t know is not worth the effort.

    Know of one person whose assistant isn’t that good but she doesn’t want go thru the process of finding someone else who may not be much better.

    • @Been There: Everyone in HR knows this. So why isn’t retention Job #1, even before recruiting and hiring? You can’t ever fill the bucket if you have a gaping hole in it! (“That’s not our job!”)

    • Even Amazon has finally discovered the costs of continually rehiring. Wasn’t it in the range of multiple millions last year?

  10. Not sure how popular this suggestion will be, but your team (as long as all of you don’t have direct reports, if I recall correctly) can unionize.

    Voting in a union is a tough process, but easier than having a boss removed.

    Although a union can’t get your boss fired, it DOES force the company to negotiate a contract with your union, of which one protection could be just cause (aka they can’t fire or discipline you without a good reason, which eliminates your “at-will” status as nonunion) along with policies and procedures to improve your lives and work environment.

    Essentially, unionizing will defang the bad boss somewhat, while improving other working conditions. Annual COL raises, better health benefits, overtime policies—all these and more can be part of your union contract.

  11. Not an uncommon problem unfortunately. And there’s some missing context that would help to understand why this boss is still around.
    How long has this person been with the company?
    How long running this dept?
    How big is the playground/company?
    Then Nick’s point on how well this person is connected falls into place.

    If the boss has been around a long time, trust me, everyone knows what kind of person & what kind of boss he/she is. It’s not a secret. It’s been tolerated & upper mgmt found a place to put him/her The smaller the company the more likely this is.

    The writer’s observation that the boss isn’t technically competent is interesting. It’s irrelevant. It’s how competent the writer and co-workers are that counts. If they produce..the boss is getting the credit.

    HR bashing is not an answer. Their hands are tied with the same rope that the writer’s is. There can be a revolving door with stunning attrition in that dept. and nothing will happen if that person is well connected.

    Nothing will happen to this person unless there’s executive pain. Personally or corporately. Public and/or financial pain. And chances are this department won’t cause financial pain. That’s why he’s there.. and that boss is savvy enough to know how not to shoot their own fit & embarrass the wrong people.

    Energy & risk needed to even attempt to “over throw” a boss is better put into moving out of there.

    Or if the boss has an ego matching the nastiness, you might try contriving to have him recruited out of the company. Work your collective networks, and sic the recruiters on him and try to kick him down the road.

  12. I am a very high level executive is a medium-sized company. I feel the pain of the person asking the question and sadly the answer isn’t easy.

    The manager you are having issues with has an entire chain of leaders above them. You can never know the relationships there and why the toxic leader is still around. Many times I have seen a lack of a backbone by higher level managers. HR can join the fray when they point out the risks in terminating a toxic employee.

    Nick gave great advice – you need higher ranked people you can trust and talk to. You may learn your best bet is a new job and company. That isn’t fair to you, but it can allow you to continue with your career in a better culture. Good luck.

  13. What Kevin and Gregory said. I’m sorry your workplace has become toxic, but as someone who has been there, trust me, you can’t save it. The Powers that Be could, but someone hired this guy and people tend to be willfully blind to their mistakes.

    You can save yourself, thought. Update your resume and start networking. They MAY realize they’ve made a grave error when all their good employees have gone.

    And yes, I have been a part of a team that tried. I once worked for a team with a bad boss. We all knew it, and went out of our way to avoid him, but to no avail. The company had 360 degree feedback, so we figured if we all gave him, not just constructive criticisms l, but the SAME feedback, so that he / his bosses / HR could focus on his most glaring opportunities which were most detrimental to the team. We coordinated, adjusted our responses just enough so that it didn’t look like a conspiracy, submitted, and waited for a change, or at least an acknowledgment of what we’d shared. NOTHING. We all left, he stayed longer than any of us, and is now running another company into the ground. It’s a key role in a smaller company and I can see when he got there from LinkedIn and compare the timing of the Glassdoor reviews. Same feedback being shared, started just after he arrived, so he didn’t learn a thing.

    You can’t save your company. Mourn, and move on.

  14. I’ve actually seen this work, once.
    …sort of. The guy was one of the executive’s besties, they’d been college roomates, etc. But the team went as a group (to the executive directly) led by the person who was the most respected and well known on the team and she led the whole discussion.

    Also it wasn’t a “fire this guy I hate him”, I’m pretty sure it was “either he goes or we go” conversation. You need to have a clear consequence for this guy not being fired/moved. You can’t just go in with a list of complaints, you need to tell the person you are talking to what they need to do to solve the problem and what he consequences will be if they don’t. I can’t personally think of a consequence other than ‘the team will quit’ but maybe someone else can.

    The guy didn’t get fired, but he got removed from a management position and put on ‘special projects’ so good enough for the team’s happiness.

    I think this only works if you already have built a good reputation outside the team, and everyone knows you and that person needs to be seen as the leader. Like most people on a team are ‘fine’ but people seem them as replaceable (even though like everyone else has said its better to train and support than replace 95% of the time) but if there’s one person on the team that they KNOW they can’t lose, that person can lead the mutiny. I’m pretty sure she also became the manager of that team but its been like 15 years and I was new to the job (and new to work, period) so I don’t remember all the details. I know it was such a big deal that everyone impressed on me what a big deal it was even though I probably wouldn’t have apprciated it as that at the time.

  15. This works. Shop his contact info and resume to other companies. With a little luck he will move on.

  16. Sadly, this is a common situation at far too many places of employment.

    HR is not, and never will, be your friend or there to protect you. They exist to protect the company and management.

    I think the advice to talk to others to suss out how this boss is viewed, as well as to learn more about him, particularly his status (who is protecting him besides HR) in the company. Is he related to a bigger boss? If higher ups are happy to turn a blind eye to his antics, there’s nothing you can do to save the company. Complaining about him will only paint a target on YOUR back and you will be viewed as the problem to be eliminated.

    Start looking for another job ASAP!

  17. A family owned company I worked for in the ’70’s-’80s had a horrible plant manager who must have had something on the owner who was a very generous and kind person but would not terminate the plant manager even after both production shifts walked out for 2 days in protest. Even after damaging a production machine costing over $60K plus lost revenue for 6 months waiting for parts. Getting a secretary pregnant, fist fights with other managers, terminating an employee because she wouldn’t sleep with him and then destroying any evidence that she worked there (remember this is before computers), HR still stayed out of the fights. I stayed because it was still a good company and watching the drama was hilarious. He was eventually terminated after the family sold the business to a large corporation– he screamed at the new plant manager and walked off the property immediately. The only reason I left was because of the large corporate bureaucracy. I could write a short novel about my 15yrs there. The point is that sometimes even when the entire village comes at the dictator with pitchforks and torches. If the rest of the employees grit their teeth and hold out for something (this is a small village with fewer opportunities) better because the company as a whole is good, then sometimes it will come our way. Eventually his “child bride” left him in the hospital from a stroke and took everything he had.

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