Bad bosses are an endemic problem in the management of today’s businesses. We have all suffered from the dysfunctional effects of lousy managers. In my experience, to steal from Gresham’s Law, bad bosses drive out good (bosses and employees). Fortunately, that’s not been a problem for me in the past two decades of my business life. I suspect I’m in the minority, but I may be wrong.

The boss is the subject of a novel released in May, titled, appropriately, The Boss, by Aussie human resources consultant Andrew O’Keeffe, who has U.S. He bills the book as a novel, but it’s really a parable, which my Webster’s defines as a “usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” Indeed, O’Keeffe illustrates many of the points his characters make in the book with excerpts from Aesop’s fables. It sounds a little corny, but it works.

The main character is Lauren Johnson, a talented, creative, and naïve marketing professional, who leaves a job because she can’t stand her boss, a classic manipulative, autocratic, and utterly controlling manager. She then lands a job with a major marketing company, working for a really good supervisor. It’s copacetic.

Sure enough (the plot is entirely predicable), good boss gets the boot. Lauren is left to the mercy of a series of bad bosses that describe Dante’s circles of managerial hell. What happens next is largely irrelevant. The point that O’Keeffe makes is that top management has to keep focused on the human aspects of human resources—managing people well. It is a prime function of overall effective management. It isn’t simply a matter of the bottom line uber alles. Bad bossing, he argues, is a growing problem in corporate America.

In a press release accompanying a review copy of the book, O’Keeffe says, “Most people want to give their energy to their work. But as bad bosses have gone forth and multiplied in the business world, the numbers of people who are getting any kind of professional satisfaction from their jobs has reduce dramatically. For most people, it’s a question of survival.”

O’Keeffe cites evidence:

  • The Corporate Leadership Council, he says, “studied 23 job factors to find what most causes a person to stay or leave their organization.” The result was that the driving factor was the quality of the boss.
  • In the book Love ’em or Lose ’em, HR consultants Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans studied 60,000 exit interviews, finding, says O’Keeffe, that “80% of people who resign from their jobs do so to escape their immediate manager.”

How can you tell that you work in a dysfunctional corporate power culture (as if you really didn’t already know)? “What would a manager in your company have to do to be fired?” O’Keeffe asks. “In the best companies, managers are moved out of their roles if they don’t serve their teams well or use their power inappropriately. But in most companies, unfortunately, managers are only fired if they fail in their business goals. In fact, managers who can get ‘short term’ results can do whatever they want with respect to the people they manage, and senior management will turn a blind eye as long as that manager continues to ‘get results.’”

People working for bad bosses, says O’Keeffe, frequently feel trapped. That’s particularly true in bad economic times. Workers, he says, should not have to “choose between their income and their self-esteem. In a civilized society, we should be allowed to have both. In a civilized society, happy workers should not be a dying breed.”

O’Keeffe’s novel isn’t compelling literature. The characters are pasteboard. The plot is predictable. But it’s useful reading and is intended to be a teaching tool for corporate HR management training. The message rings true, despite the predetermined plot and wooden characters. Not good reading, but worthwhile, nonetheless.

On the bottom line, however, I’m not convinced that O’Keeffe has advanced a solution to the problem of bad bosses. He’s identified it, but what to do? Beats him, and beats me in a systemic way. But if you are the in the grips of a bad boss, it strikes me that the best advice is to get the hell out.

I’d like to hear your views, so please send them. There’s an easy-to-use comment box at the end of this article.

The novel is The Boss, Greenleaf Book Group, Austin, Texas, May 2009.

—Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER.