Is Elon Musk the worst boss who ever lived? He fires people who disagree with him publicly. He fires people who disagree with him privately. He fires people for expressing sympathy for the people he’s fired previously. He lays off half his workers indiscriminately. These indiscriminate firings may violate federal antidiscrimination law. He installs beds in the company’s San Francisco office so employees will never have to leave. He smears the company’s former safety chief in a manner reminiscent of QAnon.
But history has known many bad bosses. They fall into identifiable types. Musk is the Raging Infant Boss, a type so familiar that it’s inspired a children’s book, two television series, and a film franchise. Musk is hardly the worst Raging Infant Boss in history. He isn’t even the worst Raging Infant Boss of the present era. That distinction resides with the movie, television, and Broadway producer Scott Rudin. A 2005 Wall Street Journal piece (“Boss-Zilla!”) reported that Rudin went through 250 personal assistants over a period of five years. Rudin disputed that calculation, saying it was only 119, but the Journal clarified that Rudin didn’t include assistants fired during their two-week trial period.
Sixteen years later, Rudin’s Raging Infant tendencies were still news. A 2021 Hollywood Reporter article reported, among other things, that Rudin became so enraged when an assistant failed to book him on a sold-out flight that Rudin smashed an Apple computer monitor over his hand. Musk has never, to my knowledge, sent an employee to the emergency room, but Rudin did. Subsequently Rudin announced that he would “step back” from producing ventures (though it appears he still keeps a hand in).
Another type Musk conforms to is the Meat Cleaver Boss. In addition to laying off half Twitter’s workforce, Musk canned about 200 hourly Tesla workers in June. But he’s no “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, who made a career out of laying off employees en masse at companies like Scott Paper and Sunbeam, then wrote about it in a book titled Mean Business that made Ebenezer Scrooge look like a softie. Here’s how a Washington Post reporter described Dunlap’s method in 1998:
In his first day of work at Lily-Tulip in 1983, Dunlap walked into a conference room and fired all but two of the company’s senior managers. At Scott Paper Co. in 1993, he laid off one-third of the work force, or 10,000 employees. After being hired to fix Sunbeam in 1996, he replaced most of the executives within days of his arrival. Three months later, he outlined a plan to lay off half of the company’s workers.
Dunlap received his comeuppance in 1998 when Sunbeam’s board fired him amid falling sales. The company declared bankruptcy three years later. “The most important person in any company is the shareholder,” Dunlap wrote in Mean Business. But in 2002 Dunlap paid $15 million to settle a shareholder lawsuit that accused him of inflating stock prices at Sunbeam and $500,000 to settle a Securities and Exchange Commission action on accounting fraud. The latter barred him from ever serving again as officer or director of a public company. Dunlap died in 2019, unmourned by the wider world except Florida State University, which named its Tallahassee campus football athletic training facility after him and put a statue of the old bastard out front.
Musk is in the public eye more than most bad bosses, but that isn’t because he’s especially bad; it’s because he’s very, very rich, and took over a company that’s a goldfish bowl. Bad bosses are a routine problem in America. A metanalysis led by Kevin Rose, clinical assistant professor at the University of Louisville, found that 13 to 36 percent of United States workers “endure a leader who consistently places burdensome structures in the path of progress, intentionally or unintentionally violates psychological contracts, and generally treats his or her employees with a disrespectful approach.” According to Gallup, having a bad boss is the number one reason people quit their jobs; 75 percent cite the boss rather than the job itself.
It isn’t this bad in other countries. In Europe, for instance, a 2018 paper led by Benjamin Artz, an economist at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, put the frequency of bad bosses at 13 percent, the low end of Rose’s estimate. The same cult of personal freedom that gives the United States one of the highest crime rates among advanced industrial democracies (in Europe, only France and Sweden are worse) gives our workplaces unusually bad bosses.
Websites frequently solicit bad boss stories from readers. These give you a healthy respect for the pathologies of America’s managerial class. A sample:
- One boss sent out a company-wide memo that required employees to be medically tested to see whether they were a match for the boss’s brother, who needed a liver transplant. Those who refused were fired.
- At Kmart, one boss refused to give an employee time off working in the cafeteria to attend her college graduation. In retaliation, “I reported the nests of roaches they’d kept ignoring to the local health dept.”
- One boss told an employee who needed Friday off “for my daughter’s funeral” that “I’ll have to deduct it from your [unpaid time off] and looking at your profile, that’ll put you at a negative [unpaid time off] standing. We’ll have to talk on Monday about this.”
- One boss told an employee to hang a rainbow poster that said “Everyone Is Welcome Here” because “I don’t want to touch that, make the [gay slur] do it.”
- One boss, a manager in the federal government, fired an employee for refusing to help him steal a $2,800 laptop for his daughter to take to college.
- One boss, after being asked by an employee for wages he said he was owed, threw the employee against the wall and told him to take off his glasses so he could punch him in the face.
Then of course you have your garden variety sexual abusers. The majority of women report they’ve been harassed sexually on the job, with some surveys putting the figure as high as 81 percent. The proportion of males who go unpunished for harassment is 95 percent.
It would be difficult to identify a single person as the absolute worst boss in American history, but a strong contender whose name comes up in a Time magazine survey would be George Pullman (1831-1897), inventor of the railroad sleeping car. Pullman famously built a company town south of Chicago, on the shores of Lake Calumet, that was supposed to usher in a utopian capitalist future. The town was leafy and picturesque, sturdily built, and impeccably clean. Within its borders Pullman permitted no saloons. He also permitted no newspapers, no public speakers, and no town meetings.
Utopias have a way of ending badly. Pullman required his company town to turn a profit, so when he cut wages by 25 percent in 1893, he refused to cut rents. The resulting violent Pullman Strike in 1894, organized by Eugene Debs, prompted President Grover Cleveland to send in troops. About 30 workers were killed. To assuage his guilt, Cleveland signed into law a bill designating an annual Labor Day holiday in early September.
“We are born in a Pullman house,” one worker famously said, “fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die, we shall go to the Pullman Hell.”
Now that’s a bad boss.