15 Surefire Ways for HR to Spot a Bad Manager

Posted by Lisa Oyler on Jan. 3, 2023

Economic pressures continue to impact employee resiliency and engagement. Even the most experienced managers are feeling the pressures and can end up behaving in ways that require HR to step in.  

Here are 15 ways HR professionals can identify bad behaviors in a manager.

About a 12-minute read


HR pros everywhere have long dealt with disengaged and poorly performing employees.

But increasingly, economic pressures, as well as the war for talent have resulted in our having to hire a manager or two we otherwise wouldn’t have hired. On top of that, we’re also having to deal with some of our existing managers becoming less engaged and less resilient to the challenges of being a manager.

There’s no question the pandemic took a toll on all of us and our resiliency. Current statistics show that only one in six employees feel connected to their work/company/job. Worker disengagement is not new, but it is the latest viral challenge HR leaders are facing.

While the now over-hyped term “quiet quitting” has come and gone, the phenomenon isn't going away anytime soon. But its viral consequence has put a huge spotlight on how the labor shortage has emboldened employees. Many employees continue to push back against some long-standing employer practices that may have put them at a disadvantage. More and more, employees are willing to set boundaries between their employer and their family and personal life. Companies have responded by placing greater focus on mental health in the workplace. It all underscores the need for employees and HR professionals to communicate clearly about our respective priorities and expectations.

Quiet Termination is a symptom of a bad manager

While employees are altering their work relationships with the “quiet quitting” phenomenon, they’re also pushing back against the practice known as Quiet Termination.”

Some may call it “Quiet Firing, (or my British friends call it “Quiet Sacking”), but whatever term you prefer, it’s when managers use passive-aggressive or subtle tactics to “persuade” a disliked employee to quit. It’s usually intentional, but it can also be a sloppy or unintentional approach to performance management. It is not a new phenomenon, it’s been a toxic workplace trend for ages. And in a market where employee retention and engagement are key, it is more critical than ever to seek out and steer clear of such behaviors.

While quiet terminations are not always a surefire predictor of a poorly performing manager, more often than not it’s a symptom of a manager’s lack of skills or motivation to lead, advise, mentor, and coach their employees.

One-on-Ones with Managers & HR

AdobeStock_125064652---women-meeting-mentor-one-on-oneWith all the tasks we’re asked to do, it’s often a challenge for HR professionals to identify a weak manager. We often get a sense that there’s trouble with a manager when we overhear a disconcerting conversation, or we have a disgruntled employee come to our office.

To be proactive, a common tactic is for HR to schedule and train managers about 1) how to have difficult conversations, 2) how to provide honest and timely feedback, and 3) why it’s important to have frequent conversations to discuss their employees’ issues and progress.

This less threatening environment also allows HR to teach managers how to deal with their own specific challenges and skills gaps. Such conversations can help many managers, (especially less experienced ones,) gain better insight into how their behavior impacts their employees’ performance and morale.

When Managers Misbehave

Despite these regular meetings, some managers are adept at obscuring their shortcomings. So it’s helpful to keep an eye out for specific types of behavior that can serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

If you sense a manager’s leadership style is discouraging your otherwise talented and skilled employees from flourishing, here are 15 common types of poor management behaviors to look out for: 

  • Micromanagers – Nothing can be more discouraging to an otherwise stellar employee, than having a manager who must watch or control their every task. It’s a predictable way to stifle initiative, creativity, and the entrepreneurial spirit you want in an employee. Usually, the issue comes down to trust. AdobeStock_547617096 - micromanagers [Converted]Lack of trust stifles productivity and accountability, but for managers, tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Teach managers to encourage accountability, and allow team members to either fail or succeed. When employees succeed, it's an opportunity to build trust. When employees fail, managers can coach team members to identify the skills gaps and then help them learn and improve.
  • Rule-benders – When you discover a manager who has stepped into the ethical gray area or has otherwise revealed a propensity to bend company policy, you can bet their employees have figured out that bending the rules is permissible. This can lead to expensive and time-consuming compliance issues that no one in HR wants to deal with.
  • Separators – Some managers aren’t aware that they are showing favoritism, and other managers simply don’t care that they do. These managers tend to divide the staff between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and departments quickly become dysfunctional.
  • Ghosters – We’ve all dealt with candidates who ghost interviews, but do you have a manager who ghosts their employees? They’ll hide in their office with the door closed, take extended lunches, cancel 1-on-1 meetings, and linger longer after management meetings. All in an attempt to avoid interacting with their subordinates and potentially reveal their weaknesses or lack of knowledge. It also can reflect their dislike or distaste for training and coaching their employees. Ghostbusting shouldn’t be an acquired HR skill, but you'll pay in the long run if you let this behavior continue.
  • BulliesSome managers operate on the horribly mistaken notion that being feared is the same as being respected. A terrified employee will be an underperforming employee because they’re always looking over their shoulder, afraid of when their boss will threaten or intimidate them as a means of motivation. AdobeStock_289241023---bully-boss-LOWThe phenomenon is identified among social psychologists as Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), where managers often see the world in terms of "black-and-white," or "win-or-lose." These managers gravitate to environments where social hierarchies reward dominance over lower-status individuals. Often a company's culture will reinforce these inequalities as a way for managers to maintain their status and/or power. Removing the incentives and rewards for dominance can help eliminate bullying behaviors. 

  • Condescenders – Some managers put on a show about how smart they are, or how much they know compared to everyone else. This behavior tends to discourage employees from speaking out and trying to solve problems on their own. These managers will also issue edicts to their subordinates, often without justification, as a means of showing who’s boss. In reality, they’re often trying to hide their own insecurities and weaknesses…among other hang-ups.
  • Over-emailers – Some managers find it difficult to confront employees, so they’ll communicate almost exclusively by email or Slack/Teams. This behavior demonstrates a weak communication style and demonstrates that your manager needs some training in how to effectively confront difficult employees and their issues.
  • Screamers – When managers resort to emotional outbursts as a management technique, they are in desperate need of additional training to teach them how to gain control of their emotions before they speak. Repeat offenders should not be tolerated, no matter how valuable they may seem at your company. Such behavior is poison to healthy company culture.
  • Vacillators – Few things can prompt uncertainty and doubt among employees like a leader who won’t make decisions about key issues. A leader’s indecision is often a bottleneck that limits progress, and forces subordinates to slow their pace and productivity.
  • Resisters – Some managers can sabotage company growth by openly criticizing or resisting the initiatives of senior management. These managers can persuade their subordinates to oppose new initiatives and otherwise make it needlessly difficult for the company to make necessary changes.
  • Gossipers – When managers spread rumors about anyone in the company, but especially those they manage, trust and confidence will flee. Managers that are unable to keep a secret will lead their employees to wonder if their secrets are also being revealed. Gossip is no bueno.
  • NarcissistsA hallmark of narcissism is a lack of empathy, AdobeStock_309228565---narcassist-bossand it’s probably the most toxic behavior you'll deal with among your managers. 
    An example of a narcissistic manager would be boasting about their income to minimum-wage employees, guilting an employee for taking bereavement leave, or even overworking subordinates to achieve a personal bonus. Managers who exhibit little or no empathy are bound to create chaos and a lack of cohesiveness among their subordinates.

  • Pleasers – A manager that can’t say “no” is likely to take on more tasks than their team can manage. Eventually, their department is seen as unreliable because they can’t deliver when it really counts. Some team members may be inconvenienced with a “no,” but when a manager isn’t afraid of offending someone for the sake of the broader company objective, long-term peace and contentment are likely to follow.
  • Manipulators – Some managers have learned to manipulate others in their personal lives, so they use the same tactics at work. They’ll pit co-workers against each other, hoping the rivalry will inspire better performance. Another tactic is using passive-aggressive or snide comments, not caring that it elicits an emotional response from employees. Some bosses will also violate the personal/business barrier by begging an employee for a favor. For example, they’ll plead for a co-worker or subordinate to take a weekend shift by citing some emotional or personal reason. They’ll say “I’m begging you to work this weekend! I promised my wife we’d go out of town for the weekend and I can’t deal with her crying if I cancel.” That’s exploitive and it’s unhealthy.
  •  AdobeStock_314882985---predator-boss-as-a-lionPredators – Some managers use their power to force or "persuade" a subordinate to have an inappropriate personal relationship. Some will hit on employees as a way of wielding power, even though it’s in direct opposition to company policy. Once discovered, such behavior should be immediately stopped. Not only because it’s dishonest and unethical, but it also endangers your employees' mental health and it puts the company and executives at risk, especially if a court can prove the improper relationship was allowed to exist.


Fixing the problem

Unfortunately, some managers are emotionally immature. Others are often oblivious to how an inadvertent comment, a misfired joke, or some other seemingly innocent behavior can impact the confidence of their subordinates.

As stated earlier, scheduling regular conversations between managers and HR can be an ideal opportunity to encourage your managers to have open conversations about how their employees are doing, and discuss any additional support they need.

Outside of this list, there are many ways to make sure your leaders are helping you build a strong culture and engage your teams and avoid these practices that damage a company’s reputation. Staying on top of budding problems with your managers will help you minimize more serious issues you and your company will encounter down the road.

We Want to Hear From You

If you’ve encountered a manager’s behavior that doesn’t fit into my list, I’d love to hear about it. What’s the worst example of a bad manager that you’ve encountered?

I welcome your feedback below.


Topics: HR, leadership, Human Resources, SHRM, managers

Lisa Oyler

Written by Lisa Oyler

Lisa has over 25 years of human resources and training and development experience along with a passion to help others make a difference both personally and professionally in all that they do. Her specialties include: Employee Relations, Recruitment, Management Training, Coaching, Performance Management, Orientation, Customer Service Trends & Training and Strength Assessment.