How do know your boss is a bully? Many people may experience a difficult boss or two during their career, but verbal abuse or a hostile work environment is what separates a challenging boss from a bullying boss. It’s a difference you can feel, though it can be hard to come to terms with.
It’s even harder when abusive behavior is covert. A boss that fails to include you in meetings or changes your work process without reason or notice is undermining your work and fostering resentment. A boss that constantly micromanages you could be a bully in disguise—treating you like a child and distracting you from your work. In extreme cases, a boss may talk openly about firing people, instilling fear in workers, who may wonder, “am I going to be fired today?”
Here are 5 strategies for identifying a bully boss and figuring out what to do next:
1. Assess how your boss is affecting your environment.
If you have a tyrant for a boss, it’s likely that he or she may also be mistreating your peers. Such behavior can create high turnover, which is bad for the company. But the greater danger to you is accepting the abuse as normal, which can affect more than your work—your personal life may suffer as well. It’s better to find other employment rather than allow family and friends to bear that burden.
2. Tread lightly and try the quiet approach at work.
A boss who’s a bully may well retaliate if you present yourself as an opponent. You might try staying out of his or her way to see if the behavior changes. Refrain from complaining to your peers, as you may not truly know who at the office is your friend. If you and your coworkers do talk about your boss, it should only be to recognize problems and make adjustments. Never go up the chain of command with complaints, which could get you fired (especially if your boss’s superior hired your boss).
3. Take the “three strikes” approach—and emphasize productivity.
When you are ready to talk to your boss, understand that you are beginning a process of setting limits you can live with and from which you won’t back down. I suggest a “three strikes” approach of giving your boss opportunities for change. From the first conversation, you should be respectful and frame the situation in terms of productivity: tell your boss that certain behaviors are affecting your work production, and quite possibly your financial situation.
The next time you bring up the problem (strike two) you can be more assertive about the specific things that need to stop so you can be more productive. Spell out the situation and the changes you’d like to see, and put it in writing. Email is a good option (be sure to BCC yourself so you have a copy to save). If you hit strike three, it’s probably time to look elsewhere.
4. Get your resume ready and contact a recruiter.
If you are ready for a different job, especially if you live in a place where the market is good, you can let a recruiter know. As a recruiter, I can assure you that your work situation is not uncommon. Recruiters have heard, “I hate my boss,” from job seekers many times over as a primary reason for wanting to change jobs. They will not ask many questions about it.
5. Think before filing a complaint against your boss.
This approach should be a last resort. While talking to HR might seem like a good recourse at first, and perhaps at certain companies it is, filing a complaint against a bully boss would be the last thing I’d encourage doing. It throws up a big red flag as to your unhappiness and may create more problems than it fixes. Instead, I’d encourage you to get your resume together if you’re unhappy, and go out and find something better.
Whatever the approach you take, try to think of your experience as a learning opportunity that hopefully will find you in a much a better work situation—one where you don’t have a bully for a boss.