But sometimes a boss's bullying gets too much for humour, however black. Jacques Camimade, a French building contractor, who was employed by the tycoon to renovate a chateau was subjected to constantly changing orders and threatened with millions of francs of penalty payments if he finished late. One day he downed tools and shot himself.
Most unhappy employees do not kill themselves. But the number of people undergoing a daily crucifixion at the hands of a bad boss has never been fully recognised. Individual cases hit the headlines, but do nothing to reveal the scale of the problem. The industrial tribunal action of Alison Halford, now about to enter its 11th week, indicates the depths of bitterness that the breakdown of this relationship can provoke. But as Ms Halford seeks to negotiate a settlement over her allegations of unfair treatment and sex discrimination against her former boss, Sir Kenneth Oxford, other cases as difficult or worse are proceeding without fanfare. There are now around 50 industrial tribunals a day dealing with complaints against employers, at a yearly cost of more than pounds 10m. And cases brought by employees against bosses rose by 12.3 per cent last year, according to Department of Employment statistics.
'But how many people are prepared to go to law?' asks Roger Tredeagar, a management consultant. 'Having a bad time at work is like a sexual failure, a source of intensely private humiliation and distress.' Individuals suffer extraordinary tribulations without complaint. A manager in the Inland Revenue speaks of departmental memos stigmatising individuals for the most trivial offences. Equally humiliating in a different way is being made the scapegoat for a weak or incompetent boss.
'There's no doubt that having a bad relationship with your boss is the major source of work-related illness,' says John Nicholson, chairman of John Nicholson Associates, a leading business psychology consultancy. 'And apart from stress, learnt helplessness comes into play.' Sufferers become victims of their boss's low opinion. 'You feel so stupid, you know you'll never get another job,' says one woman whose boss 'liked to see her cry. And you know you'll get a rotten reference anyway. It's hopeless.'
Why do people put up with it? Usually they believe, not without reason, that resistance will ruin their chances of promotion, or even result in the sack. And the fear of getting known as a troublemaker applies not only inside your own firm. One woman who believed she was unfairly dismissed after becoming pregnant was warned by a friend who was a personnel officer for another firm that if she took any action, she would 'never work in British industry again'.
Sufferers may have little faith in available remedies, again with reason. Going to law is likely to prove a particular disappointment. Of 19,554 cases registered at industrial tribunals last year, only 2,530 were upheld. Of these, only 63 resulted in reinstatement or re-engagement of the claimant. In 911 cases, the parties were left to come to their own arrangements, and only 1,290 individuals received any compensation. The average figure for compensation was pounds 1,773 - 'Pathetic]' commented Janet Goddall, the embittered victor of an equal- pay dispute in Birmingham that had taken more than two years to come to court and cost 'ten years' peace of mind'.
'With abuse at work, the same psychological mechanism comes into play as with battered wives, or any other form of abuse of one person by another,' says David Blewett, a consultant psychiatrist. 'The torment becomes the prison: there seems no life outside. But to tackle it, we need to ask not why people put up with it, but why people do it.'
What turns someone into a 'boss out of hell' cannot be explained simply. Some people are bullies, motivated by frank sadism - 'sociopaths', according to Dr Nicholson, 'out-and-out bastards' to Mr Tredeagar. 'Robert Maxwell relished humiliating people, especially in front of an audience,' he explains. 'And he loved cruel surprises. One employee found out he'd been sacked only when Maxwell boomed down the table at a company banquet, 'How does it feel to be suddenly out of a job?' '
The bully is at least the enemy you know. Worse is the Machiavellian who loves devious mind-games. 'He never stopped lying to me,' says Alice Taylor Wilson, an American, about one of her British banking bosses. 'He lied about international developments, about the dates of his absences from the office,
everything. It was like a sexual thrill for
Bad bosses are not all bad people, Mr Tredeagar stresses. 'Many mis-manage through half-baked good intentions such as mistaken paternalism. Or sheer ignorance and inexperience - Britain has the most appalling record of management training in the industrialised world.' One BBC employee was refused a vital move because her boss felt that the salary cut involved would not be in her best interests, thus spiking her own carefully thought-out career plan. Others are just weak and incompetent, or simply unprofessional. 'You can be sure then that their bosses are giving them a hard time, and they're only passing it down to you,' says Dr Nicholson.
'My boss was under pressure from Japan to get better qualified people into the firm,' says Peter, an engineer in the Midlands, 'so he hired a bloke without checking his references, then when it all blew up, he blamed it on me'.
The 'boss from hell' does not have to be a man: Leona Helmsley, the New York hotelier, attracted such virulent hatred that her waiters were reputed to dunk their penises in her martinis before serving them. Nor does the B from H have to be at or near the top. Some of the worst bosses have got as far as they are going to go by the age of 35, and spend the next 30 years making everyone around them miserable.
And you can't just shrug it off. 'The most significant relationship you have at work is likely to be with your boss,' says Dr Nicholson. 'He or she can ruin your career, your marriage, or even threaten your life. They're not all trustworthy, or even comptetent. But you can make things easier. And it's worth devoting the time to try.'
'How Do You Manage?' by John Nicholson, BBC Books, pounds 6.99.
SHE WAS LIKE AN ILLNESS
Katherine is a teacher in London. Now 29, she joined her present school four years ago.
THE first time I realised what was happening, I'd only been in the school three weeks. My boss suddenly appeared at the end of a lesson and started screaming at one of the girls, then hit her in the face. Four years later she was still picking on that kid.
Afterwards I found out she should never have been a head of department. But she was so aggressive they thought that if they gave her responsibility, it would calm her down. She'd always had problems, she'd been expelled from school herself at 11. She'd also been in hospital under a Section 42 (compulsory detention under the Mental Health Act), but somehow she slipped through all the nets that are supposed to safeguard against this.
One time another head of department questioned what she said, and she screamed 'Fuck off] And eat your dinner]' five times.
She'd bawl you out in front of anybody, in the corridor in front of the kids, in front of parents. She'd leave the stockroom open, and was always losing the keys, so stuff got nicked, then she'd come screaming to blame me.
I saw her punch kids in the stomach. But with adults she was very devious. She could get anybody on her side. She really used the union. And she used the system to put down written complaints against me.
She was so cruel. One kid had the most massive psychological problems, she loved taunting that kid and there was nothing I could do. When I became Head of Year she provoked my kids to bad behaviour so she could lodge a complaint that would reflect badly on me.
I tried to make a complaint against her, but she laughed and sneered and shouted 'Crap] Rubbish]' all the way through. She had it in for me twice as much afterwards.
Other times she'd flatter terribly, it was, 'Oh, you're such an excellent teacher'. Then it would be 'you're frightened of me, aren't you?' all over again. She was crazy.
She used to drink, too. She slammed a door in the head's face and called the deputy head a bitch. She made me ill, not so much stress as pure fear. Even if she wasn't going at you, you'd sit there in terror waiting for other people to get it. She was like an illness for me for three years. But all complaints had to go through the procedure and it took years to get rid of her.
We called her 'Satan' and 'Myra', after Myra Hindley. Even now, if anybody growls behind my back, I think it's her.
The last I heard, she's back in teaching.
A RITUAL WEEKLY GUTTING
John, 48, used to work in an award-winning multi-media company handling projects for television and video. He now runs his own small independent television production company.
BOSSING is power. And most people are totally unsuited to have that kind of power over others. My boss had a rubber bullet from Belfast in a brass case on his desk when he interviewed me. That should have told me something. Now I know that whatever your kink is, power will bring it out.
He just loved to screw people up. I knew that I'd done well my first year, and he'd promised me an annual increment when he hired me. Then at my assessment, he said no promotion this year, but definitely next June. Then in June, suddenly it had gone back to December, and also depended on my winning a big contract for the firm, which we had only a slim chance of doing. I felt he really enjoyed doing that.
Some of his people had endured unspeakable things for years. He told one guy in front of a visiting party that if he screwed up again, he'd have an electric pad wired up in the men's, force him to urinate, then throw the current so that he'd electrocute himself with his own urine. He also used the old trick of keeping people waiting for hours outside his room while others walked in and out. He wouldn't even allow people the dignity of resigning - he had sacking letters ready from the instant he hired you so that he could get in first.
But the worst was the weekly ideas meeting. It was a ritual disembowelling, there was no other word for it. We used to say it was the only boardroom in Britain with channels for the blood.
Every week you knew somebody was going to cop it. No one was exempt - he'd go for the women just as much as the men. If you got it one week, the only certainty would be that it wouldn't be you the next week. But there was nothing to protect you the week after that. He'd start on your ideas and would then go on to just completely rubbish you as a person. It would leave you gutted.
One guy used to be in the men's room throwing up every Wednesday morning - he told me recently he still does, even though he left years ago.
It took me years to get over the Tuesday night collywobbles - I got drunk every Tuesday night for eight years.
Why did we put up with it? Well, he's a brilliant bloke. And he knows the business, he loves the business and he makes money. It's a privilege to work with him, really. You can't help but admire the bastard.
HOW TO TACKLE THE TERROR
Recognise and acknowledge what is happening. Don't think it will get better or go away. Query the first bad thing that happens to you. Accept that once it has begun, it will not be easy to root out, and the longer it goes on, the more entrenched attitudes are likely to be.
Don't be too hasty, however. Research the situation. Understanding the source of your boss's aggravation may help you to recognise that it isn't you.
If you decide you are working for a genuine sociopath/bastard, 'vote with your feet', says John Nicholson, 'you won't change them'. Otherwise accept that it is your job to sort this out. 'If you have a problem with your boss, he or she is not going to solve it, ever]' he adds.
Don't see the situation as victim vs oppressor, or single combat. See who else has had problems. Go back in the company's history if need be.
Check documentation. If you are being faulted for not doing your job properly, check your original job description. Do your job brilliantly, be super-scrupulous. Don't provide the boss with any ammunition.
Help your boss to be right. Provide him or her with pleasant surprises. Identify the obstacles to a better working relationship and overcome them.
Log all incidents, with time, date, place and witnesses. Send copies of all memos to another boss and/or personnel. Keep a diary, make detailed notes - Alison Halford's diary is very useful to her now.
Check your firm's grievance procedure. Read the small print. Take soundings with your union or personnel department and try to find someone who can mediate independently. Get some big guns on your side. And get in first; don't let yourself be wrong-footed.
Negotiate. See it as a situation in which you have power and leverage.
If all this fails, seek advice externally from a Law Centre, the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Serivce, the Equal Opportunities Commission, or any other relevant professional body. The worst thing about this situation is the feeling of isolation and victimisation. Realise that there are people on your side.
Accept that if you challenge your boss, you may lose promotion, seniority, even your job. You may get out of it with only your pride, but that may be the best thing that could happen.
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