When Horrible Bosses Send You Running for Cover

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There are loads of stories out there about horrible bosses. Most feature one of the following characters: the micro-manager, the bully, the racist or the misogynist. But what about the socially awkward and inappropriate boss?

Oh, do I have a tale (or 10) for you, don’t worry all names have been changed, for obvious reasons.

This is hard, trying to come up with a name to replace the real one, without resorting to being juvenile and using this as catharsis for all the things I wished I had been able to call him in person. Right, we will call him David. Simple, innocuous and easy to remember.

Now bear in mind, that this was the first job I landed when I moved to the US from London – green-gilled and over excited. It was, on paper, almost a dream job. It was an internship with a tiny stipend, which was fine because it would give me my first step into the American art world. While I had gone to art school, I had never actually worked in the field before, therefore I could not wait to get started.

This was also my first time in a nonprofit organization, after a few months however, the term “nonprofit” was really quite literal. Note to self – or rather, to said former horrible boss: do not start a business because you fancy it if you don’t actually have a clue about managing one. Also, it is best not do it if you are basing your vast experience on a former job from which you were fired for disastrous financial management.

On the mass list of things you shouldn’t do in business, the bookkeeper/accountant at this organization was our former cleaning lady who happened to be good with numbers. On top of that, David thought it was perfectly acceptable to keep her pay at the same rate as when she cleaned the offices.

There were three “real” staff members, as David would call them. The rest of us – anywhere from 8-12, depending on the time of year – were all “interns” on low stipends. We were on the J1 visa exchange – an 18 month internship that allowed enough time to learn about the arts field as well as the country. We had interns from Europe, South and Central America and Asia, in addition to those from the US. According to David, we were “international” and this would give us great kudos. Eh?

horrible bosses

Speaking of being an “international” organization, he asked me one day if I’d record the greeting on the office answering system, as my British accent “would make us sound really good”. CRINGE. I couldn’t really say no to the boss, though I felt like a right twat doing it. Later it turned out that a few people complained that the person on the greeting sounded like “she was extremely pissed off and used a withering tone.” What, moi?? After I explained how I couldn’t change my tone no matter how hard I tried, he finally got someone else to re-record the greeting.

And with situations like these, there’s always a catch, isn’t there? After a couple of months, David offered me a permanent position as a “real” staff member and a raise in salary. I got my salary doubled. My stipend was $0. Right.

Now, you have to realize that the interns at this organization didn’t actually do “intern” jobs. One created and ran the entire graphics and book design department. We created coffee table art books from exhibitions we’d managed, which is hardly a small task. Yet she was paid less than the normal employee without any work experience, because she fell into intern status.

Oh, and before you question why she didn’t simply leave, there was another catch: the visa. It meant you were unable to change to another company nor getting other work. If you wanted to stay in the field, in the USA, we had no choice but to suck it up. I had to keep telling myself “it’s about the experience. It’s worth it.”

After about a year, David began giving pep talks about salary raises. I should clarify – raises for the Americans, not for the two of us (foreign) staff members. He justified this – to our faces – by telling us this heartwarming story:

I have a neighbor, a Korean man and his family. They came here with nothing. NOTHING. He worked hard, all hours of the day, weekends, sacrificed so much, and now he has a dry cleaning shop. That’s how I see the two of you. Like Mr. Kim, you have come with nothing yet you’ll work all the hours necessary to make your way.

Externally, I nodded, unable to make a sound. Inside however, I was hard pressed not to twat him over his stupid nodding head with a stapler. So here you have it, five things that would normally make anyone a good boss, but somehow David was able to use in order wrap him in the thralls of countless other horrible bosses.

horrible bosses

Sharing is Caring + Waste Not, Want Not

One time, the other intern and I worked through the night to get design work to a printer in Singapore. I left the office at 9pm, while she stayed behind. I returned at 9 AM, and she was still there, exhausted. David walked in, asked if she had been home or had anything to eat. When she said no, he gave her his HALF-EATEN bag of McDonald’s french fries. The small size, to add insult to injury, they were cold.

He was pretty generous about not wasting food, instead offering it to everyone via email:

First Come, First Served! I have a Starbucks Frappuccino with whipped cream (naughty me) that I can’t finish or my diarrhea will return. About half left.

Another time:

I ordered too much, cannot finish my burger – first come, first served!

Oh, and the hamburger had his bite marks on it. Strangely, he was genuinely hurt when his offers went unclaimed. Our favourite, which damn it, I cannot find (yes, we have kept these emails for YEARS), was this one:

As you might know, my wife who you’ve met, XXX, is going through menopause. As such, she has some feminine products that she no longer needs. First come, first served!

He included the two male staff members on the email. He was always inclusive like that. Such a kind man.

You think you’re socially awkward?

David liked to think of himself as a world traveler. He particularly liked Asia – especially Japan. A beautiful country where etiquette is extremely important, especially so in Kyoto, where one interns was from. Imagine, one sunny morning, David literally pranced into the office wearing a ¾ length kimono over his suit. He shimmied up to the intern’s desk and announced, “It’s the holiday in Japan where you all throw nuts at each other! I wish I had some nuts I could throw at you!”

I’ll just say that I had to pretend to drop something so I could get onto my knees behind my desk and DIE. The poor girl went puce in the face and I thought she was going to cry out of embarrassment. Idiot boy David pranced into his office and spent the next hour googling the name of the festival.


Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday is a holiday across the US. But where we worked? No, not where we worked, it wasn’t. And I quote:

Dr. King wanted us to be grateful for our jobs, so today on MLK Day, we are supporting his vision by working a full day.

HUH? You are an American, do you not know your own history?!

Blowing Hot and Cold

D.C. gets frighteningly hot and cold. By law, if the temperatures go above or below a certain degree, workers must be sent home. But you know that rule didn’t apply to dear David, right? Instead, there were floors of staff and interns wearing puffer jackets, ski jackets, coats and gloves. It was like Southpark, but indoors.

In the summer, it was so hot that everyone bought little fans for their desks. David was not generous when it came to air conditioning bills.

Show Me The Money

One year we were extremely lucky to receive general funding, meaning we could use it as we wanted. Hurrah! Perhaps we could fix the heating and air conditioning and perhaps get some new computers? Errr, no. David’s logic was, “We could do up the offices and stuff, but then we’d look too professional and we’d not get donations. Better to look like we have no money.”

I swear to God. Not a word of the above is made up or even embellished for effect, although I wish I could say that were true.

David’s awkwardness extended outside onto the streets, too. One meeting he and I had at the State Dept, we were waiting in the lobby. David, bless him, noticed the clock above the receptionist’s desk was off by maybe 10 minutes. He stood up, climbed onto his chair, reached up and grabbed the clock.

State Dept folk don’t take to that kind of thing very warmly. Unknown man, silently grinning like a fool, helping himself to a piece of government property in full view of at least 2 security guards. My gut reaction was to run, but strangely I found myself paralysed, glued to my plastic chair with my eyes shut, just waiting for guns to be pulled and my boss to be pulled to the ground. Instead, the receptionist shrieked at him, he half dropped the clock, then had the nerve to be offended at her un-gratefulness. I locked eyes with the receptionist – she nodded at me with a sympathetic look and appeared to understand my pain.

Water, Water, Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink ANYMORE

Scene: The Doctor’s Office.

David came back to the office one day, upset about something that happened at his doctor’s appointment. Nobody knew what, and frankly couldn’t give a toss either. But of course he had to tell someone – turns out he’d had an incident with a water cooler. No further details were given. I went to the same doctor as he did – he actually recommended the practice to me. Coincidentally, I had an appointment the following day. I was sitting in the waiting room, idly thumbing my way through a golfing magazine, when the Deer Park water delivery man arrived with new bottles. These bottles are massive… and it takes a strong adult to lift one. The receptionist was chatting away with the delivery man, telling him about a patient the previous day that had “tried to help” by putting in a new water bottle, but dropped it and the entire thing (oh, 200 glasses worth?) had flooded the waiting room floor and they’d had to close early. She rolled her eyes, as did the delivery man. I almost fucking passed out in my chair.

Work Travel Can be Bad for Your Health

In my 4th month at this organization, I was thrilled to be invited along with 4 others in the team, to go to an arts expo in Dallas, TX. El Cheapo, sorry, David, mandated that the three females would share one room, he and the other male staff member would share another room. To this day, I do not know how the other chap did not end up mentally traumatized from this horrific trip. Day one at our booth….David is late. Unlike him. The other gent is not very talkative, just saying that David will be by soon. Dearest David finally arrives and announces (public place, lots of people mulling around) “If I suddenly disappear, do not panic. I will be in the restroom. I have hemorrhoids and this morning they exploded. That’s why I was late.” Nobody could make eye contact with anyone else. Nobody. Fuck, none of us could even breathe. INAPPROPRIATE, MUCH? The following two days were excruciating. David showing us his doughnut cushion. David sitting with his legs spread wide, with a dumb grin on his face. David telling us how well his “backside area” was doing. This was our boss, remember?

Holy mother of small child in a stable, as I write this, even I cannot believe this stuff. There is SO MUCH MORE. I shall, however, leave it at the above. I worked there for 2 years. I met some fanfuckingtastic people who are lifelong friends (David, however, is not one of them). None of the original crew is there anymore. Everyone went on to normal job environments and nobody sustained longterm emotional trauma (how long is longterm?). So, despite the many smack your face into the desk moments, it was, in a twisted way, all worth it, if for nothing else than my beautiful friends.

Have you ever had any horrible bosses? Let’s hear your stories.

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An ex spy from the UK, Elaine currently lives in Washington DC with her husband and toddler. Having to verbally hold in her British snark, she finds an outlet through writing. You can find her on Twitter @damesparkula and Instagram @delcerroyau and @twosisterstwocountries.

Color of the flowers?