After teaching kindergarten at a Catholic school for many years, I entered the business world and dealt with the bitchiest of bitchy bosses.
I Was a Lamb in the Wolves' Den Just Waiting to Get Slaughtered
Not surprisingly, when I was a little girl attending Catholic schools in the 1970s, nobody taught me the fine art of being bitchy. It was a different time back then. Girls like me were getting groomed for lives as doting mothers, supportive wives, and dutiful pillars of their churches and communities—not as career women, bosses, CEOs, and politicians. The most powerful woman I knew as a kid was Doris Walthers who drove our carpool. In the '70s, she was considered a force to be reckoned with because she had, after all, served as our school's Mother's Club president for two consecutive terms!
As an adult, I taught at an inner-city Catholic school where everybody's focus was on helping students. There were no power plays for money, promotions, and prestige. So when I entered the business world for the first time as a middle-aged woman, I was like a lamb wandering innocently into the wolves' den—just waiting to get slaughtered!
You Don't Need to Act Bitchy, But You Do Need to Counteract Bitchy
My supervisor—the leader of the pack—was a woman named Jennifer, who had all the bitchy experience I lacked. I immediately felt ill-at-ease around her—awkward and off-balance. It wasn't until years later I understood she was making calculated moves—some subtle, some overt— in a game of psychological warfare to put herself in a place of strength and me in a place of weakness.
While I'd never suggest women emulate Jennifer's catty behavior, I do believe they need to recognize, understand, and counteract it so they don't become a victim like I did. So here are 10 strategies bitchy bosses like Jennifer use in the business world to gain control.
10 Ways a Bad Boss Gains Control Over You
- She Calls You by the Wrong Name
- She Points Out Small Imperfections in Your Appearance
- She Uses Her Cell Phone Strategically
- She Asks You to Do Work That's Clearly the Responsibility of Another Employee
- She Never Asks About Your Personal Life
- She Asks You to Take Work Home
- She Uses the Adjective "Nice" to Describe You
- She Never Has Time to Sit Down and Talk With You
- She Never Praises You
- She Belittles You to Feel Better About Herself
1. She Calls You by the Wrong Name
During the first few months at my new job, Jennifer called me “Marcee,” the name of the woman who held the position before me. Each time she referred to me by the wrong name, she got the result she wanted—making me feel "less than," vulnerable, and unsure of myself. My mind would race: Do I correct her or just let it go? Unfortunately, I decided to ignore it, giving her the message I didn't value myself and wouldn't speak up for myself. I'll never make that mistake again.
2. She Points Out Small Imperfections in Your Appearance
Whenever we saw each other, Jennifer began our interaction by pointing out a tiny flaw in my appearance—a thread dangling from my skirt or a scuff mark on my heels. Now, I understand her goal was to make me feel defenseless like a bug under a microscope. But, at the time, I was embarrassed, caught off guard, and simply left speechless. If that were to happen to me today, I'd say in an admiring voice: “Wow, Jennifer, you sure have a keen eye for detail!” Killing her with kindness would be an effective way to counteract her machinations.
3. She Uses Her Cell Phone Strategically
Whenever I'd have a scheduled meeting with Jennifer, she'd be talking with someone on her cell phone—sometimes business calls but, more often, personal. I'd have to sit patiently and awkwardly for her to finish. Once again, her behavior was deliberate—a way to let me know her time was more precious than mine and she was in control. Now, if that were to happen, I'd simply get up and leave, stating unemotionally: "Let me know when you have time for our meeting. I need to get back to work."
I've since learned many companies have established policies against using cell phones at meetings. They realized too many employees like Jennifer had no common sense and no proper manners when it came to talking on their phones. These people were speaking on their phones as an affectation—a way to look superior in the workplace.
4. She Asks You to Do Work That's Clearly the Responsibility of Another Employee
As soon as I got hired, Jennifer asked me to do another employee's work. Wanting to make a good impression and get off to a good start, I complied. That was the wrong move. It didn't earn me any brownie points with Jennifer—just the opposite. It let her know I was a doormat. The first time she asked me to do the other woman's job I should have stood my ground, saying calmly and confidently: “That's not my job. That's clearly Karen's job because she received special training in that area.”
5. She Never Asks About Your Personal Life
Jennifer never asked about my personal life—my husband, kids, and outside interests. On Monday mornings, she wouldn't greet me with the standard inquiry: “How was your weekend?” At the time, I thought it odd but didn't give it much consideration beyond that. In hindsight, I understand it was another way to depersonalize our relationship, allowing her to treat me like crap. If she didn't see me as a wife, a mother, and a human being, it was easier to treat me badly. Now, I talk about my personal life with my boss whether she asks or not so she sees me as more than a robotic working machine.
6. She Asks You to Take Work Home
I now realize the first months working with Jennifer were a testing period. She was feeling me out—seeing how much I would tolerate. When she asked me early on to take work home in the evenings and on weekends, I foolishly agreed and a precedent was set. From then on, Jennifer expected me to complete assignments at home. Now, if my boss were to ask that, I'd nip it in the bud immediately by saying sweetly but firmly: "My salary doesn't call for me to work beyond a 40 hour week."
7. She Uses the Adjective "Nice" to Describe You
Growing up in Catholic schools, girls like me wanted to get labeled nice because it was a compliment. But, in the business world, nice is a pejorative term. When Jennifer used nice to describe me to others, she was letting them know she saw me as a weakling, a chump, and a patsy.
As the nice person at work, I was now being called on to do tasks outside my job description because the nice employee never says no and never makes waves. I learned quickly nice is not the designation you want in the business world.
8. She Never Has Time to Sit Down and Talk With You
Whenever I had a meeting with Jennifer, she always had a call to take, a meeting to attend, and a document to read. I felt rushed—a low priority in her hectic world. Now, I know not to take that treatment from a boss. When we have a scheduled meeting, I expect her full attention. If she's distracted, I politely but firmly state: “You seem preoccupied. Do we need to set up another meeting when you can focus fully on what I'm saying?”
9. She Never Praises You
I never received accolades from Jennifer even though clients requested my services and praised my professionalism. I convinced myself compliments from her were unnecessary. Yet, now I see the boss-employee relationship as a two-way street and I demand certain things from my boss, including regular feedback on my job performance—both verbal and written.
10. She Belittles You to Feel Better About Herself
The Jennifers of the business world are not deliberately out to get you. You're just collateral damage as they rise to the top. Contrary to what you may think, Jennifers don't feel good about themselves. They belittle others because they need to feel smarter and stronger. Their bitchy behavior masks their insecurity.
Final Thoughts on Dealing With a Bitchy Boss
A bitchy boss has a whole arsenal to strengthen her position and weaken yours. You don't want to become like her—emulating her malicious behavior— because, ultimately, the bitchy boss is a sad, pathetic, and insecure person who bolsters herself by putting others down. You do, however, need to recognize, understand, and counteract her machinations. Staying calm and unemotional is your best defense. If she does not get a rise from you, she will move on to her next victim. If her bitchy behavior is too oppressive, find another job where you're appreciated and your talents can shine. You'll be glad you did!
This Book Helped Me Accept That Difficult Co-Workers Are Inevitable But How I Respond to Them Is What Matters
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2016 McKenna Meyers
McKenna Meyers (author) on April 30, 2018:
Wow, Larry, I'm glad you had the guts to call out her behavior, and she had the courage to be honest and open up to you. That's so refreshing. I do think many bitchy bosses like the one I wrote about are operating from a place of insecurity. My boss had just recently been overlooked for a promotion that went to someone youngster who had less experience.
I read somewhere recently that when we approach any situation we must decide to either act out of love or fear. While this sounded too simplistic to me at the time, I've given it a lot of thought and think it makes sense. Thanks for sharing your experience with a bitchy boss and enjoy retirement!
Larry W Fish from Raleigh on April 30, 2018:
I am retired now, McKenna, but as I look back on my working life I remember those bitchy bosses very well. One in particular drove me crazy and acted like the Queen Bee. She was so bossy and it seemed like no matter what anyone did it wasn't enough. I had to work late one night when she was there and I was in a bad mood myself. I asked her why she acted the way she did. It looked like she was going to cry. Then she told me everything, she got the job because she knew someone, she felt she was unqualified, and she was afraid she was going to fail. I told her exactly what I thought. Funny but from that time on she was a changed woman. Other workers never knew we had that talk, they didn't need to.