Office tyrant: My way or the highway -- hey, come back!

Enough is enough for an IT contractor working under a tempestuous boss who terrorizes the employees

For a while I worked as an IT freelancer, hired by clients who ostensibly wanted my expertise to help them reach their technology goals. Strangely, many of them resisted the guidance and doggedly insisted they knew best, to the point when it's not worth the effort anymore and the best bet is to walk away.

One bristly business I dealt with was a car parts warehouse. My job was to set up the infrastructure of the computer network, server, cables, workstations, printers, software, and so on. It was a big job, but I figured I could handle it. I started working with computers back in 1980 -- remember the Sinclair ZX80? (I feel nostalgic just thinking about it.) Since then, I've gained extensive experience with various hardware and software.

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The tech part of the job was time-consuming, yet doable. The real stumbling block was the owner, "John."

John's business was flourishing, so he must have had some business sense. But from a tech standpoint, he was a nightmare. John had a general sense of what he wanted but no road map or research on how best to accomplish it -- and he refused to let me have any input on the matter. He threw random requests at me and expected me to do them exactly as ordered. More than once, I'd arrive at the job to find he'd already bought hardware or software and expected me to magically get it to work.

One of John's most frustrating ideas involved creating a website for the business using Microsoft Publisher, with the single command to get the site up and running. While we could do this with the tool, creating a site that showed thousands of car parts was nothing short of a colossal job. But he couldn't be convinced there were better choices for what he wanted to accomplish.

John also considered me the on-call tech for any and every electronic issue. Often, I'd be summoned suddenly, only to find the supposed showstopper was a simple hiccup: a cable disconnected or a monitor not plugged in. Even when you're paid by the hour, such calls get trying very quickly.

In addition, the environment was extra stressful because of John's temper. I found out on my first day that he was considered a tyrant by his employees, yelling at them, tasking them with jobs that didn't always make sense, or demanding revisions if they hadn't completed the work the way he wanted.

As time went on, I noticed the office's response to the shifting sands of John's temper. The employees walked on eggshells until he left for the day. Then the formerly quiet office would burst with talk and laughter. The employees kept working, but now they felt free to let loose and compensate for all the bad air. They went from one extreme to another in this toxic work environment.

A curious change took place when John's wife came by the warehouse: He turned into a docile sheep, mild-mannered, kind, and soft-spoken. Then as soon as she left, he was a wolf again, snarling at the employees.

One time, he yelled at me about some matter, but I'd seen enough and was prepared to not put up with it. I calmly explained to him that I would walk away right then and there if he talked to me that way again. He seemed surprised and actually apologized. He never did yell at me again.

Soon I drew the line on John's other foibles, and after working there for more than a year I'd had enough of the situation and left, as did others. A year later, the business closed due to financial problems.

It wasn't a surprising ending, but it's frustrating to see a business with potential fail as a result of plain old bad management. It's not a weakness for bosses to plan more, ask questions, not know everything about all topics, and trust that consultants and employees can help the business grow.

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