The word “boss” traces its roots to the Dutch word “baas,” meaning master, and some have argued that it caught on in the Americas as a way for workers to avoid the word master and thus the pairings of “master and servant,” or worse, “master and slave.” As a slang word for “awesome” or “excellent,” boss took on an added positive meaning as early as the 1880s. It was used in that way throughout the 20th century, as the character Michael Scott observed on The Office:
Remember when people used to say “boss” when they were describing something really cool. Like, “those shoulder pads are really boss man.” “Look at that perm, that perm is so boss!” It’s what made me want to become a boss. And I looked so good in a perm and shoulder pads. But now, boss is just slang for jerk in charge.
Have you ever had a horrible boss? Have you ever fantasized about doing something to get rid of your boss that was, ummmm, kind of extreme? Like….MURDER? If so, you might enjoy this summer’s latest popcorn comedy, Horrible Bosses, in which three white (and white collar) workers played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day come together with the help of a black conman (Jamie Fox) to kill each other’s bosses. Their bosses are each horrible in their own special way: there is the “Psycho” boss, played by Kevin Spacey, the “Maneater,” a sexually aggressive dentist played by Jennifer Anniston, and the “Tool,” an impossibly ugly, sleazy boss, played by Colin Ferrell outfitted with a paunch, a comb-over, and the classic short-sleeve-shirt-with-a-tie-look.
We don’t normally look to Hollywood films for revolutionary zeal, but the people who made Horrible Bosses are keenly aware that a lot of Americans are angry about their jobs. In 2010 a CNN report found that job satisfaction among Americans was at a historic, 22 year low, around 45%. Horrible Bosses producer Jay Stern, in an interview with Hollywood reporter Steven Weintraub, said that he hoped the movie would appeal to the sense of “stuckness” that so many Americans have in their jobs:
If [Horrible Bosses] comes together the way I see it, it’s gonna tap into all the emotion and all the upheaval for a lot of Americans right now. People who can’t afford their mortgages and have to renegotiate with the bank or something gets repossessed after you worked your whole life. You follow the rules and you do the right thing and you still get screwed. That’s what I think a lot of Americans are in the middle [of] right now and I’d love to tap into that because that underpins the desperation that a lot of Americans are in…”
Stern is definitely on to something. Last year workplace consultant, Lynn Taylor found that Americans spend 19 hours a week “worrying about ‘what a boss says or does,’” including 6 hours during the weekend. If this seems like a lot, think about your own job. How much time do you spend ruminating, fuming, griping, venting, or gossiping about your boss? How much time do you spend in meetings with your boss, or answering emails sent by your boss, about things that do not help you to be productive? Taylor argues that the managers’ words and actions can be a “tremendous drain” on the “minds and work product of its most valued asset: people.”
Other studies show that a bad boss can be dangerous to your health. A recent Swedish study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that employees who had managers who were “incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative” were “60% more likely to suffer a heart attack.” Employees with good bosses—bosses who didn’t cause them undue stress—“were 40% less likely to suffer heart problems.”
When it comes to class, who has the worst bosses? Blue collar or white collar workers? While I could not find data that suggested one kind is worse than the other, I did find a list of the ten “least stressful” jobs, and they were all white collar jobs: Audiologist, Dietician, Occupational Therapist, Dental Hygienist, Software Engineer, Mathematician, Speech Pathologist, and Philosopher were in the top ten. Are these jobs less stressful because they allow workers higher degrees of autonomy and provide for less interference from meddling bosses? Perhaps.
If your boss is stressing you out, there are several places you can go to publish your pain. One popular website has trademarked the phrase “Really Bad BossTM,” and has a rich archive of stories and forums. You can also send it to a website called “Employee Surveys,” run by a company called Business Research Lab. In 2006 the AFL-CIO ran a “bad boss” contest, which it used to get press attention and to raise member awareness for the purposes of organizing for several years following the contest. You can also choose from a variety of books that will tell you how to manage your boss.
Some journalists have argued that bad boss stories spike in a bad economy. So perhaps Horrible Bosses is, indeed, a product of the recession. But what else can you do besides gripe? If you are feeling violently angry, you may be in good company; research suggests that employee sabotage on the job can be seen as a form of protest. One study argues that “theft, sabotage and aggression…can be viewed as a form of protest in which organizational members express dissatisfaction with or attempt to resolve injustice within the organization.”
I wondered as I conducted this research for Horrible Bosses if unionized workers, equipped with grievance procedures and options for collective action, might feel less anti-boss sentiment than their non-unionized counterparts. But according to a recent study union workers are more likely to see their bosses in an antagonistic light. Perhaps, in this terrible recession, with its jobless recovery, lots of non-unionized workers are having a harder time seeing their bosses as “partners” too.
Of course, I am always a big fan of collective action when it comes to bad bosses or anything else that’s bad on the job, but if you are not represented by a union and you need a quick fix, sneak your own popcorn and drinks into a matinee showing of Horrible Bosses. As cathartic solutions go it will probably be a lot cheaper than buying a gun.
Kathy M. Newman