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How to Deal With the Verbally Abusive Boss

Tom Rubenoff has worked for over 35 years in the door hardware industry.


When times are good and you are young and single, quitting your job to find a new one is relatively easy. When times are tough and jobs are hard to find, especially later in life when you have a family and a mortgage to support, leaving a job is no longer an easy thing. If your boss is verbally abusive, using foul language and yelling at you, and you cannot readily quit and seek a better situation, you have to deal with it.

Yet dealing with your abusive boss day in and day out is wearing and stressful. We spend so much time at work, it's a shame that so big a percentage of one's life should be so unpleasant.

Here are some strategies you can use to help you get through this difficult time.

The Professional Persona

It is important, not just at work, but in every aspect of your life to realize that no one can make you feel bad with words alone without your consent. People can say whatever they want to you, but your reaction to what they say is your responsibility, and potentially your problem.

Your best defense against the verbally abusive boss is the professional persona. The professional persona is a person that you fabricate in your mind so that you can be that person at work. In other words, you become an actor playing a part while you are at work. When the boss is abusive, it is directed at the professional persona, not at you.

To construct your professional persona, first you have to visualize situations that really bother you at work and think about how your professional persona is going to react to these situations. Think about how your professional persona will act and what it will say. Ideally, your professional persona will be friendly, but detached and unemotional. When your boss—let's call him Dick—yells at you and calls you stupid or worse in front of the customers, your professional persona will have a prepared unemotional response that you think will most expediently mollify the situation. The response should be designed to convey to Dick that you agree with his assessment of your worthlessness, but also that you are eager to improve. The response should be delivered completely without sarcasm.

"I'm sorry, Dick. Would you mind if I observe while you do it so that I can learn to do it correctly?"

"Yes, Dick, I guess that was a pretty stupid thing to say. What should I have said? I want to make sure I say it right next time . . . "

and so on. Practice in front of the mirror until you can deliver the line you compose without any emotion whatsoever.

In addition to defusing the immediate situation, this tactic steals Dick's payoff for his bad behavior. You see, Dick wants to degrade you in order to build himself up at your expense. If your professional persona is there, deflecting all attacks with an eagerness to learn and a hair-trigger readiness to admit fault, it is really going to take all the fun out of it for your boss, Dick. Just like any bully, if his bullying is incapable of making you miserable, he will stop doing it because it will no longer be worthwhile to him.

Be patient, however, because Dick is not going to metamorphose into Prince Charming overnight. Your professional persona will have to wear him down over time. Whether or not you can wait this long is entirely up to you. However, if your professional persona is doing its job, you should immediately be getting a side benefit from it. That is to say that since the professional persona, with its enthusiasm for improvement and lack of reaction to abuse, is not you, you should no longer be taking work's problems home with you. You should begin leaving them at the door when you leave work, as you leave your professional persona there as well.

Confronting the Issue

Confrontation is best avoided with an abusive boss, because the abusive boss is seeking confrontation with you. To confront the abusive boss is in some measure to play into his or her hand. However, once your professional persona is firmly established in the workplace, you can use its professionalism to confront the boss's abuse on some levels:

"Excuse me, Dick. Can we keep our conversations professional?"

Dick may have a difficult time arguing with an employee who wants to raise the standards of professionalism at their place of employment.

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"Dick, if I may say so, I really don't think it's good for the company for you to swear at me in front of the customers."

Once again, Dick may have difficulty arguing with an employee who has the good of the company at heart.

You may think you would never dare say anything like that to your boss, but if you deliver each sentence politely, in a calm, reasonable voice, without any emotion at all, you can make a statement like that without incurring his wrath.

Appealing to a Higher Power

If your boss, Dick, is the highest power within your workplace, you can appeal to a government agency if the harassment your boss is subjecting you to meets certain criteria. In the United States, there are strict rules against harassment on the bases of many criteria. These fall under the jurisdiction of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). They offer protection for "whistleblowers," that is, those who inform on their bosses' bad behavior. Your boss may find that even while they are being investigated and perhaps fined or prosecuted because of you, they will be legally prevented from firing you or taking any punitive action against you.

This action may mean that you will want to leave your job in the near future, however, since Dick's desire to retaliate may make you uncomfortable enough to want to leave.

If you work in a company where your immediate boss, Dick, has a boss above him, (let's call Dick's boss, "Sheila"), then the logical power to appeal to is Sheila. This is risky, however, because Sheila may not offer whistleblower protection as does the EEOC, and Dick may find a way to terminate you for your trouble if you go over his head. Therefore you should only go to Sheila after exhausting all avenues with Dick.

Since Sheila most likely knows Dick better than she knows you, she may look for ulterior motives in your actions. Also, Dick's behavior is somewhat of a reflection on Sheila, so she may be somewhat defensive. Clearly, to go over your boss's head is to step into a minefield, yet you might navigate that minefield successfully if you are skillful and lucky.

If you decide to approach Sheila, you must make your reluctance clear from the outset at doing so, and make clear also that your motivation is on behalf of the company. Dick's behavior is unprofessional and is bad for the company. The problem is this: if you are a whiny little shirker complaining against just chastisement, you are wasting Sheila's time; if you are a diligent worker approaching middle management with a problem you have been unable to solve with your supervisor despite your best efforts, Sheila should (and may) take note of your complaint and decide whether she needs to have a serious conversation with Dick.

In all of this, you must make sure you are correct in your complaint and are not, in fact, a whiny little shirker upset over the punitive language you deserved, because if you are, your actions will only serve to expose your poor attitude and performance and likely result in your immediate termination.


If you work in a small company where Dick, your boss, is the undisputed king, and you enjoy the work, there is another avenue you could pursue.

If every day Dick is bad-mouthing you in front of the customers, make sure you take extremely good care of the customers. Go the extra mile for the customer at every opportunity. Work with enthusiasm, learning everything you can about the business. In a very short time, the regular customers will realize that Dick is an idiot and that you are a find, and they will shun Dick and seek you out, because they know that you will take care of them. Continue to do so for as long as it takes for you to save up six months' or a years' salary. Make whatever sacrifices you must—work an extra job if you have to—until you have accumulated this money.

When most of Dick's customers are depending on you because you are simply the best, that money that you saved can serve as the equity you bring to the bank to get a small business loan.

Arrange to meet with an attorney. Tell the attorney you plan to open a business in competition with Dick and send out an announcement to everyone who might need your product or service, including Dick's customers. The attorney will let you know what you have to watch out for.

In my experience, this is what you have to watch out for. First, don't make a list of Dick's customers. If you do, you will be stealing proprietary information, and Dick may sue you and win. Do not solicit Dick's customers specifically, but solicit them as part of a blanket solicitation from a list of similar potential customers you make using the Internet, Yellow Pages, or other public resources. Dick doesn't own his customers. he only owns his personal list of contacts, be it kept in a Rolodex or in a Microsoft Outlook address book. So stay away from his Rolodex and his computer, but unless your attorney tells you otherwise, his customers are fair game.

After you leave and things get really, really quiet around Dick's shop, maybe he'll have time to reflect that he should not have been, well, such a Dick.

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: What can I do if my job doesn't have a HR?

Answer: HR is a wonderful thing, but in the end, one always has to deal with abusers in one way or other. One must come to terms with their own feelings regarding the abuse. In the case of verbal abuse, one can choose not to take what is said to heart. In reacting with sadness or anger, we play into the abuser's hand. If we can learn not to react, we remove some of whatever it is the abuser is getting out of the deal, but more importantly we learn that what they say really does not matter to us, so cannot hurt us.

But aside from choosing inner peace, there are things to be done. If your boss has a boss, it might be risky, but perhaps your boss's boss can help. Another risky, but the possibly beneficial action would be to look for allies at work. If a group of employees protests, it carries a lot more weight. What if you all quit at the same time?

You could see a mental health professional. You could meet with an attorney to see if your boss's behavior is violating the law or your civil rights.

And of course, you can confront your boss yourself. Perhaps your boss does not realize the damage s/he is doing. Perhaps, like most bullies, they just need someone to stand up to them. Or maybe they'll fire you on the spot.

In the end, the thing you must decide is whether the job is worth the verbal abuse. If it is, your only choice may be to learn to suffer less with it. If not, then your only choice may be to find another job.

Question: If I quit my job because of my abusive boss and no lunches, can I still get unemployment?

Answer: I don't think you can get unemployment benefits if you quit your job. I think you have to be laid off.


Tom rubenoff (author) from United States on September 21, 2018:

Wise words, thank you. A little off-topic, but wise all the same.

When a person creates a business, it is like having a child. It has needs and one must take care of these needs. The abusive boss is like an abusive parent doing harm to their child. Both behaviors are self destructive in the end. Just as parents benefit as much as children from a loving, safe home, bosses benefit from employees who feel safe in their work environment. Employees work harder for employers who treat them well.

Jeff on September 20, 2018:

It is never a good idea to create a business based on revenge. This mentality will lead to bad decisions made by both parties. Instead, choose to get into business because you have something unique to offer and because you want to make money and be in control of your own destiny.

divine on May 21, 2018:

i'm a girl just about 24 years old, and my boss is the HR our company, he verbally abuses me inthe presence of costumers and other staffs, my colleagues too do the same because they think i'm the youngest and the lowest of all boss always makes me look stupid in front of our guests, he says all sort of horrible things to me. i have thought of leaving but i've got no where to go to, no degrees, no proper education, and nothing to turn to this is the only place that i could ever be accepted and i don't know what to do, he claims to be helping me but always uses it against me.

Tom rubenoff (author) from United States on February 10, 2018:

Well, you say you love your job. You seem to be saying it seems like your boss is not going to fire you. Does your boss know you do not appreciate his word choices? Perhaps if you mention it, stressing that you do love your job and without anger, perhaps he may listen. I wish you the best and hope you can enjoy your job and be free from abusive words.