Career Advice Aug 18 2011

Is an Unsettling Boss a Dealbreaker?

By kelly eggers

Few things incite fear in the hearts of job seekers like the possibility of receiving vague threats from their supervisor.

In FINS' informal survey, Sign or Decline, 70% of 355 respondents said they'd turn down their dream job if their boss were to constantly make vague, threatening statements.

While vague, ominous statements of the physical variety are certainly a reason for alarm, statements that not-so-jokingly imply that your name could wind up on the next layoff list can be just as disconcerting. Research indicates that job ambiguity, pervasive uncertainty and a lack of control over what happens at work are a few of the leading causes of stress in the workplace -- all of which can be caused by unclear, incomplete communication from management.

"People just want to know," said Karen Sumberg, senior vice president at the New York City-based Center for Work-Life Policy. "It's worse not knowing -- it leads to people spreading gossip and rumors, which creates issues around what the actual issues are."

A lack of transparency has become a problem in many workplaces since the economic downturn, particularly when it comes to information about layoffs. People begin to fear for their jobs and the benefits that come with them, said Sumberg, when the vast majority of the worrywarts probably aren't at risk.

Fear, however, is only part of the problem, said Judith Bardwick, a workplace psychology expert and author of One Foot out the Door: How to Combat the Psychological Recession That's Alienating Employees and Hurting American Business. "When something is vague, it creates anxiety, which feeds off itself and creates more anxiety, which is then converted to fear," she said. "The forces of change are huge, they're too big to be controlled by the individual. There's a sense of doom and gloom, and people feel like they can't count on their boss or their organization to help them."

So what are the consequences of having employees who are waiting for the other shoe to drop? According to 2007 research from Baker College in Michigan, job insecurity leads to lower individual and overall organizational performance because of the inability to predict or control threats to employment status.

Employees tend to gather bits and pieces of information about imminent layoffs and construct scenarios tying them together. "The problem is, these are always worst-case scenarios," Bardwick explained. "The scenarios then become rampant, and that's what dominates talk in the workplace."

People will work enough to keep their jobs, said Bardwick, but their heart isn't in it. "That distinguishes flawless performance from 'okay' performance," she said. "With the level of competition increasing as it is, 'okay' is not okay."

What Would You Do?

Answer the question and see how you match up with the rest of the FINS community.

You've just been offered your dream job, but... your boss constantly makes vague, threatening statements.


Write to Kelly Eggers

Sign or Decline is a series of questions on that ask what you would do for your dream job. Since its launch late last year, over 100,000 answers have been received and compiled in our database. Participate in Sign or Decline here.

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