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Time to Take Action: When the Boss Is a Bully, or Worse

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with applied experience in corporate human resources and consulting.

If you're tired of poor treatment by your boss and you're ready to do something about it, read this first.

If you're tired of poor treatment by your boss and you're ready to do something about it, read this first.

You have a boss who is a Tough Manager, Bully Boss, or Illegal Harasser. You've put up with the behavior for too long. You're tired of the treatment and ready to take action. Here are three important action items to consider.

Action Item 1: Correctly Categorize What You Are Facing

First, you need to be able to correctly label the treatment as bullying, illegal harassment, or simply bad management. To do so, take these steps:

Start a Written Inventory

Start a written inventory of what's already happened—significant verbal and written comments, as well as physical or nonverbal behaviors. Seeing it listed can help you clearly categorize what you are facing. The list can also help your organize your thoughts in advance of taking any significant action.

Documentation of your concerns is critical.  Even if you don't need it now, you may need the information later.

Documentation of your concerns is critical. Even if you don't need it now, you may need the information later.

Pay Attention to Apparent Motive

Note what factors seem to make his (or her) treatment of you better or worse. As you develop your list, pay attention to the boss' behaviors but also assess what seems to be the motive for his poor treatment of you.

For example, does he seem to have a personal vendetta? Is there an event that triggered a change in his approach towards you? Is he a first time manager, facing a personal crisis himself, or does he seem to dislike a specific demographic group you represent (e.g., females, over 40, Jewish)?

Considering these very different motives can help you categorize what you are facing. Then, call the behavior what it is.

We've all met this character in the office. Every workplace has one. Maybe he's even your boss.

We've all met this character in the office. Every workplace has one. Maybe he's even your boss.

"The No Asshole Rule"

Look in the Mirror

If you think you have a tough manager or bully boss, it is important to also look at yourself as well. Why? If you complain, your own performance history may be reviewed.

A target's performance often becomes an issue in HR investigations because it is so often raised as an explanation (or excuse) for managerial misbehavior. Therefore, as objectively as possible, try to accurately summarize your performance history.

Be Honest With Yourself

Have you been bringing your "A" game to work? Have you kept up with professional training? Do you understand the goals and expectations of your job? Do you have the resources you need to perform your job? Have you placed the boss on notice that his behavior is inappropriate and disrespectful?

A target's performance often becomes an issue in HR investigations because it is so often raised as an explanation (or excuse) for managerial misbehavior.

— FlourishAnyway

Know what you are facing—a tough boss, a bully, or an illegal harasser.

Know what you are facing—a tough boss, a bully, or an illegal harasser.

Get Multiple Perspectives Over Time

Consider whether you have a genuine performance issue that your boss is inelegantly trying to get you to change, or alternatively whether you are the target of bullying or illegal harassment.

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Pull out the last few years of performance reviews and reread the boss' comments. Compare his evaluative comments to your previous boss' written comments by relying on the actual documents, not just your memory. For example, do comments deteriorate from very glowing to extremely negative? Is there a legitimate reason for this?

Also examine information from other sources. These can include key emails, peer/customer/senior manager feedback you've received, awards, sales numbers and other "hard" data. Consider multiple perspectives over time.

HR is not your therapist.  Don't regard them this way.  Seek emotional support from trusted friends, family, or a counselor.

HR is not your therapist. Don't regard them this way. Seek emotional support from trusted friends, family, or a counselor.

Action Item 2: Seek Support and Corroboration

Even if you have determined that you have a genuine performance issue that the boss is trying to address, being the recipient of persistent harsh treatment can be stressful. You'll need emotional support.

Tap a personal friend (outside of the workplace), a counselor, or other trusted individual to be your sounding board. Explore whether your workplace provides an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) as a benefit.

Go to HR for Policy Support But Not Emotional Support

Consult HR for specific policy, procedure, program or benefit questions but not emotional support. Unfortunately, HR is implicitly aligned with protecting the organization, not advocating for individual employees.

Moreover, depending on the information you share with them, HR may have an obligation to pass the information along to others in the company for investigation, regardless of your wishes. The same is true with other management officials.

Reading company policies is hardly fun, but it's important to know and understand the rules of the game.

Reading company policies is hardly fun, but it's important to know and understand the rules of the game.

Get to Know the Rules Yourself

Also examine relevant policies on your company's internal website to determine whether the boss' mistreatment can be tied to violations of specific company policies. Company websites are often a goldmine of compliance guidance that employees frequently overlook.

Based on your review of company policies, document the problem with your boss in a timeline fashion. Use information you collected in Step 1 as a starting point and log in detail each significant offensive behavior.

Document the date, time, location, who was present, and how you or others responded. Particularly note the reactions of other members of management who witnessed or have knowledge of the offensive conduct.

Gather copies of important documents, including copies of relevant company policies. Keep your log updated, and maintain the file at home rather than in the workplace.

You may not be the only one. It's very possible that others share your concerns.

You may not be the only one. It's very possible that others share your concerns.

Are There Others Who Share Your Concerns?

Evaluate whether you are the boss' only target or whether there are others. If you are not alone, who are the others, and what happened to them? Document the names and relevant demographics (if known) of people he treats well and those he does not. Record details of how he treats these people differently. Are there possible trends?

Example:

  • Two employees resigned from the company unexpectedly within the last 18 months, citing his "management style" (provide names, demographics, and any details known).
  • When upset, he regularly throws items and yells profanity at both males and females (list specific examples and witnesses).
  • He regularly uses anti-female jokes and name calling. He criticizes females in the office on their weight, appearance and attire (document specific details of incidents).
  • In the past three years, he has dated two females who work for him, and both have since left the company (provide names and any details).