Time to Take Action: When the Boss Is a Bully, or Worse
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.
Document Your Problem
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.
Every Workplace Has One
The No Asshole Rule
This is one of my favorite books. Read it, love it, then covertly leave it on the desk of the A-hole in your office. You know who they are. It's time they did too.
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're Dealing With
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.
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
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.
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
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?
- 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).
Everyone Has A Limit
Always remember you have options. You may not be able to control your boss' behavior, but you CAN control how you respond.— FlourishAnyway
Action Item 3: Review Options & Act -- Fight, Flight, or Freeze!
There are three strategies for dealing with a threat — fight, flight, or freeze. Always remember you have options. You may not be able to control your boss' behavior, but you CAN control how you respond.
The Option To "Fight"
The "fight" option can include a range of responses, from working through the issue to confronting the bully to registering a complaint. Some employees are able to successfully problem solve their way through the conflict.
Take the example of "Marie," an employee who realized that she had some genuine performance gaps that her tough manager did not have the experience to address, as he was new in his role.
Have you ever worked for a boss who was a bully or illegal harasser? (If so, tell me about it in the comments section.)
Marie and her boss were able to do a "re-set" when Marie acknowledged her skill deficit and the frustrated nature of their communications. She asked for his help, and they collaborated on training solutions that involved experienced co-workers. Together, they were able to fight the problem instead of each other. Unfortunately, this does not always happen.
Many employees daydream of direct confrontation such as scolding the boss for his misbehavior. One employee actually did it, confronting her sexual harasser as he was retiring.
"Sue" phoned the executive at his office and verbally shamed him, explaining how she had previously held him in such high regard. She had long revered the business executive as a role model — until his illegal request for sexual favors showed disregard for her as a professional and as a woman.
Another example of direct confrontation is "Amy," who didn't tolerate being treated disrespectfully by a female manager in her office. The manager spoke to her brashly and shoved papers at Amy in a frustrated manner before retreating to her office in a huff. Amy followed the manager to her office and told her plainly that she would not tolerate unbusiness-like behavior. Startled, the manager apologized.
Does Your Bully Boss Need A Wake-Up Call?
Other employees opt for less direct "fight" methods. They attack the boss' reputation by sharing accounts of their negative experiences with peers in the organization. You may also file an internal complaint with your employer or a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or other relevant government agency.
Note that if you choose to formally complain, the process can be lengthy. Information you have collected in your file will be helpful to you in reporting your complaint, should you decide to pursue this route. Depending on the basis for your complaint and the venue, strict time limits may be in play (i.e., often 180 to 300 days), so educate yourself.
The Option To Flee
Another class of options include "flight." A temporary escape from the problem can include taking a vacation or going on leave, although your troubles will be waiting for you when you return.
In the worst of circumstances, you can transfer to another position within the company or leave the organization altogether. This may be reasonable if you've tried other options and failed.
Maybe your boss is looked at as a superstar, someone beyond reproach. Maybe this isn't the only bully or harasser you have encountered at this company. In such case, leaving may be a good option if you have sufficient job opportunities elsewhere.
Evaluate whether it is beneficial to hang on to a job that is creating this much tension. Consider finding an organization that values your skills and contributions and respects you as an employee and a person. Regardless of your choice, take charge of your own personal and career destiny.
If you do choose to leave, determine whether it will benefit you long-term to take a "parting shot" by sharing your reasons for leaving during your exit interview with HR. It is a common and cathartic choice. For example, on his way out of the organization, "Ron" made an appointment with the senior-most HR executive and detailed his superstar boss' bullying behavior, sparing no detail.
Although he knew that management was clearly supportive of the Bully Boss and her lieutenants, Ron provided enough incidents and witnesses to be deemed credible. He was leaving anyway but exposed an executive bully with a long track record and no prior formal complaints against her. (Someone has to be first.) By doing so, Ron effectively tarnished his bully's pristine image and bravely paved the way for future targets' complaints.
You Can Control Your Response
When dealing with a bully, what are you most likely to do?
The Option To Freeze
A third option for dealing with a threat is freezing, or simply doing nothing. It's like playing 'possum, hoping the problem will go away. Some employees may simply hope that the boss will eventually move on. Others attempt to feign apathy in an attempt to ignore offensive behavior — not allowing yelling, name calling, or humiliation, for example, to register a visible impact.
The intent is to deny the misbehaving boss the reward of provoking conflict or fear. Generally, however, this option simply buys time until the problem grows so bad you must choose fight or flight.
You Have A Choice In How You Respond To This
Become An Active Decision-Maker, Not A Target
If you're like many American employees, you spend anywhere from one-third to one-half of your waking hours at work. How and where do you want to spend this time? Regardless of whether you choose to fight, flee or freeze, acknowledge that you have the power to decide.
Each choice involves trade-offs, but becoming an active decision-maker rather than someone's target will put you in a position of power rather than defeat. Understand what is happening, and name the behavior as "bullying" or "illegal harassment," if that is indeed what it is. Share your story with others at the time, place and method of your own choosing. Seek legal advice, medical attention, and a competent therapist, if needed.
By making a positive change, you can find a solution that supports your health and career rather than harming them further. Set yourself up to flourish by realizing that you are only "stuck" in a bad situation if that's what you choose.
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
My boss is my ex-husband, the business owner and his family is the remainder of the Board. There is no HR department or senior managers I can plead my case too. Apart from leave -- I'm trying to find new employment, but so far to no avail -- what can I do and keep my job? The family (Board) won't listen to me, they demonized me during the relationship, and are not interested in what I have to say.
Why would you want to continue to work with these people? You're divorced, and it's not a positive work situation, given that you're neck deep in family drama. They do not have your interests at heart.
Redouble your efforts to find another job. You may need to retool your resume and look at what you offer external employers. Think about consulting a professional resume and outplacement service for advice on how and where to go about job hunting in the digital age, and brush up on professional networking, your professional image, and interviewing skills. You might also consider a stress-based medical leave or a severance agreement in consultation with an attorney. Also consider going back to your divorce attorney to file for spousal support, if necessary. (Hey, your husband had this it coming.)Helpful 3
© 2013 FlourishAnyway