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When the Boss Is a Bully

Few things are as disruptive to your professional contentment as a difficult boss. In fact, a bad boss or supervisor is the number one reason people quit their jobs. When the boss is a bully, you may feel depressed, drained, disrespected, and angry -- maybe even on a daily basis. It can be confusing to try to sort out your options and determine what you should do. The good news is, you won't feel this way forever. There are some things you can do that should help you cope with your bullying boss, or maybe even make the situation better.

Few things are as disruptive to your professional contentment as a difficult boss. In fact, a bad boss or supervisor is the number one reason people quit their jobs. When the boss is a bully, you may feel depressed, drained, disrespected, and angry — maybe even on a daily basis. It can be confusing to try to sort out your options and determine what you should do. The good news is, you won’t feel this way forever. There are some things you can do that should help you cope with your bullying boss, or maybe even make the situation better.

hate your job
Image Credit: kennymatic/Flickr

First, start by asking yourself this question:

Are you the target of the bullying, or is the boss like this with everyone?

When the boss is coming after you specifically, it can be a real nightmare. You worry about your job security first and foremost, and it can be incredibly difficult to know what to do. The temptation is to lie low and keep your head down, in order to avoid the boss’s wrath — but eventually, the issues between you must be confronted. Try to have another person, (one whom you trust and respect), with you whenever you meet with your boss, if at all possible. This should tame the situation slightly. Consider talking with your boss about the problems you’re having and let him know how you plan to adjust going forward, how you’re going to shift. Do your part to make this better. If you know you’ve done everything you can, you’ll be able to face whatever comes next.

Now, assuming your boss is not targeting you, but is just of the general jerk persuasion, here are some things to keep in mind that might help you cope.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

1. Perhaps it’s coming from insecurity.

Remember when you were a kid and you finally realized that the meanest kid on the playground was actually totally insecure and self-loathing? What a revelation! Well, the same is true with adults. If your boss is throwing power around, using his position of authority to shame or humiliate, or inappropriately flying off the handle and blaming others exclusively when things go wrong — chances are, he is deeply, profoundly insecure. Knowing that helps a little, right?

2. The Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle states that employees rise through the ranks until they reach a level at which they are incompetent. Because of the hierarchical nature of our workplaces, promotions happen when ambition aligns with ability. This remains true until an individual obtains a position that they are unequipped to handle. This is all to say, your boss may be in over his head. It’s a very good possibility. It’s also likely that he will eventually leave his position, for one reason or another. Maybe you just need to wait this out.

3. Someone will talk.

Be very careful discussing your boss with your co-workers. Maybe a trusted friend or two can be privy to how you’re thinking and feeling, although I don’t recommend even that. If you end up discussing your opinions with a group of people, there is bound to be at least one individual who will use that information to their advantage and tell your boss about it. So, don’t discuss this with folks from work. And, for goodness sakes, never post a thing about it on social media. Unless you’re competing in a who-can-get-fired-first-contest that you’re desperately hoping to win, this is a very bad idea.

4. Autonomy is key.

The level of autonomy you’re able to achieve during this time could make or break your ability to cope with your bullying boss. Whenever possible, do your own thing. If you don’t have to talk to your boss — don’t. And, when you do need to meet, come with answers and solutions, not questions. Be strong, competent, and brief. Limiting your contact with your tough boss is important, and could really save your sanity.

5. Only in extreme cases, or if the situation is just right, talk to your boss’s boss.

Do not do this lightly. Something like this is a big deal and could potentially mean the end of your time with your company. You should only use this tactic as an absolute last resort.

The objective of the conversation you have with your boss’s boss is not to get your boss into trouble. Instead, if you have a good relationship with this person, they may be able to help by mandating and sanctioning a conversation or meeting between you and your boss. After you politely, but frankly, express your concerns and your strong desire to repair things and move forward, your boss’s boss might call for a meeting between the two of you. This higher-up’s involvement could elicit a different tempo or energy from your boss — since they are now under orders to meet with you.

No matter what happens, something is sure to come from taking this step. If you just can’t take it anymore, and want things to either get better or worse (potentially propelling you out the door), than this is the way to go. Tread very carefully, though. And only consider this option if you have an excellent relationship with your boss’s boss. Otherwise, it will certain to backfire.

Tell Us What You Think

How have you effectively coped with a bullying boss? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

This post was updated from an earlier version previously published on PayScale.


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Anonymous
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Anonymous

What about when the bully bullies everyone AND is the Founder, President & CEO…..

Rob
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Rob

You know the way you handle bullies? You punch them in the nose. Same with bully bosses. Try to stay professional, but the next time they yell or demean you, you get right back at them. Tell them they are unprofessional, insecure, and downright intolerable. Also, record the conversation with your phone. If you have an HR department, march in there and show them the evidence. Get your boss fired if you can. That’s how you beat a bully.

Jack
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Jack

There is a darker side to this. Taken from a distance the tendency for observers is to blame the victim, that is, to read the landscape from the perspective of the executive who, after all, can do no wrong. What to do about the psychotic boss, the woman or man who derives pleasure from control, from pushing employees to the breaking point because she/he derives pleasure from the misery she/he inflicts? I worked for such a person, and she would harangue us for hours. When the staff finally rose up in disgust and complained to the board of directors what… Read more »

Dani
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Dani

Horrible article. In other terms, let him does whatever he wants… and shut up.

Chip
Guest
Chip

I now have 1.5 years with my first supervisor, and she just happened to be a bully. Decided to take an employed job in the same field after 15 years in a partnership and 8 years of my own business. I had confronted 2 bullys in the past and they recanted. This time I was attacked after confronting. So… after counseling with my good friend, i enacted a plan that seems to be having a positive effect. 1st I started a diary. Cannot emphasize its importance. Dates, witnesses, clients names, word for word quotes of all the intimidation, foul language,… Read more »

Sharon
Guest
Sharon

My boss was horrific but I survived the hell he put me through. It took several years of being on my toes to finally be rid of him. The EEOC found I had reason to complain for three separate complaints I filed. The first was for sexual harassment by people working under his supervision. The second was for gender discrimination and retaliation. The third was for retaliation. The EEOC complaints had to be filed because supervision and HR ignored some of the problems and relocated me rather than correcting the problem. I finally wrote an email to my boss telling… Read more »

Dob
Guest
Dob

I had a new boss. Was excited to have a change. He had lots of experience but had gotten “let go/laid off” after 16 years with a major competitor. I thought I could learn things from him. After suffering for 18 months of trying to please him, I was a basket case and it cane down to one day when he started in at me with a snarky tone….and it was ON! Everyone in the building heard the fight. I was fierce. He finally left, I marched to HR and 2 weeks later I quit. I qualified for unemployment due… Read more »

Yolanda
Guest
Yolanda

my husband was fired by his brother in law for speaking up. He even took the time to record conversations because we knew it was building up to something. After he was fired we consulted a lawyer. We were told what he is doing and what he did is unethical but not illegal and the recordings couldn’t be used. When did being unethical become acceptable? Who’s watching out for the employee? Sad. so very sad.

Kay
Guest
Kay

My boss is a know-it-all that loves to grind everyone into the dirt if they don’t perform to her standards. She loves to use $10 words to intimidate her employees, and her volume increases whenever she feels like she is not going to get her way or is in any way challenged. She is a complete tyrant that has no problem demanding 50-60 hour weeks from her employees, but won’t demand decent pay for them from management. She is convinced that she is the smartest person in the room at all times, and she treats everyone – employee and boss… Read more »

Chip
Guest
Chip

Bully is the CEO and founder and Pres? That takes it to the next level. Yet an opportunity to be a leader in standing up for oneself. With everyone at work watching. But past positive experience standing up to bullies and support of friends outside the workplace would be a must for me. I believe that it must be very difficult managing by bullying and it leads to spiritual death. So it is loving to the bully to confront. Yet also good is the humbling for me to admit not having the strength to confront (and thus finding another job… Read more »

Stacie
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Stacie

Recently this happened to me. My boss came into work everyday yelling and screaming. I would tell my boyfriend how I didn’t want to work for her anymore but I needed to “toughed” it out and I needed to pay bills and put food on the table for my kids. I worked with her for a year until she physically abused me by throwing a file at me and called me so many names that day. I phoned a family member and they booked me in to see my doctor because I was hysterical. Needless to say my doctor took… Read more »

Janabob
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Janabob

If your boss is a bully and it is making you unhappy, then take responsibility for your future and go work somewhere else. If you stay and continue to work for a bully, then your salary is the price you are exchanging for your own happiness, health, etc.

Alex
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Alex

The inherent problem is the lack of labor legislation that could offer protection to workers. Several states have attempted to pass workplace bullying laws and failed. Labor laws give all the power to employers to change everything from employees’ job descriptions to company policies on the drop of a dime and leave little leg for workers to stand on. This leaves employees with no choice but to find another job — not an easy task in a fiercely competitive job market, esp. for mature workers who have to compete with preferred younger, cheaper candidates. In today’s workplace climate, grandparents are… Read more »

Yolanda
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Yolanda

my husband was fired by his brother in law for speaking up. He even took the time to record conversations because we knew it was building up to something. After he was fired we consulted a lawyer. We were told what he is doing and what he did is unethical but not illegal and the recordings couldn’t be used. When did being unethical become acceptable? Who’s watching out for the employee? Sad. so very sad.

Comtech CS
Guest
Comtech CS

My boss has used up most of his chips to protect his lazy fat-ass wife, who also works in our department. So, now if I take a few hours to help on a critical sales situation, which to be honest is not my primary roll, he comes at me like “dude you have to keep your productive level up”. Now, I’ve been working with him for 20+years and he knows the things I do to keep the ship floating. So, it is so lame for him to be like that. I still feel really sorry for him and his bad… Read more »

Chip
Guest
Chip

I would like to add a reading. Hold on to your kids by Gordon Neufeld PhD chapter 11, the making of bullies and victims. Especially page 140 and 141.

MD
Guest
MD

I agree Dan. I told myself that it was my right to be treated with respect and dignity. Everyone does. Bullying is not acceptable in the workplace. Document all the facts and I went to HR. I also had a good Relationship with the President and the Board of Directors. I ended up being the one being supported. His attitude changed. In the end he got fired because he wasnt’ fulfilling the obligations the position of the CEO. I’m retired now and look back on the experience as a Learning curb in my work life. No job is Worth it… Read more »

C Smith
Guest
C Smith

A bully boss is supported by his superiors; at face value; if you point out the problem; they target YOU first and then deal with him/her only AFTER they have placated you; usually asking you to leave with a package. I have experienced this first hand. After watching this bully for over 10 years; bully others to quitting and suing; I was so lucky to experience this first hand. The most freeing day was the day I left. I knew he would eventually have to go; he was costing the company in human resources all good; creating a hostile work… Read more »

John
Guest
John

One of the worst of worst proven one-sided trashy unprofessional females ever remembered was Susan Jones from Hospice Complete AKA Kindred Care Hospice in Trussville, AL who sadly was a volunteer coordinator. Thank God she got canned in January 2007 and she should have never been hired at all with she always being known as the clear worst of worst hypocrite, liar, promise-breaker, sickest nitpicker and micromanager, backstabber, bully, gossip and total yeller with such sick aggressive behavior with always unpleasant behavior and eye rolls, sighs, etc, full of blaming others, trying to defend how she is the only one… Read more »

Bryce
Guest
Bryce

This is regarding my wife’s boss. He is not exactly a bully but continues to hold her back. She works for a health organisation and became a corprate employee two years ago after two hospitals merged. She received no added compansation for the added work and responsibility. She is a Value Analysis and Cost Controller for the whole organisation. The title, pay, and bonuses is what she is trying to get to match the work she does. But because she works in the same department her boss runs and makes him look good by all of the savings to the… Read more »

JEC
Guest
JEC

I had a miserable 4 years dealing with a bully at a major company in Silicon Valley. She came in from another SV powerhouse with “Silicon Valley cred”. First, the bully’s boss knows the person is a bully. But, remember they hired the bully, and will not like having a subordinate question their judgement. Nevertheless, you need to keep a detailed journal documenting everything. Use email to document abusive conversations and send the summary immediately after and CC HR. I did this and it does work. I successfully documented my bully-boss stealing from the company by padding invoices and taking… Read more »

fin
Guest
fin

I have the dubious please of currently working for an inept, over promoted, narcissistic sexual predator. My advice is record everything, protect staff by confronting the jerk at every term, the senior management team need to be stuck together like glue in defending what is right and dealing with what is not, and plan their downfall.. revenge I find is very motivating and remember eventually jerks always trip themselves up.

olderworker
Guest
olderworker

I had a boss like that; I really tried to stand up for myself, stay calm, and do several things recommended in this article. In the end, though, I just found another job and quit. When I gave my notice, she actually had H.R. walk me out of the building, so it would look like she fired me.
She was just incredibly awful. She’s still there, though, in her position. Too bad for everyone else at that company.

GRIGS
Guest
GRIGS

In my previous company our boss certainly matched No.2. Was in way over her head on the basis of a previous “relationship” with our Chairman who backed her every incompetence. Brought in her husband on a part time basis, paid him a fortune, left him for the works manager. Her husband surprisingly then left! Went to our biggest customer and said she was demanding a price increase. She came back with bigger discounts. I asked for a private meeting with the owner. I advised he got rid of her and the Chairman. He did but too late. Guess what? We… Read more »

Aaron
Guest
Aaron

Side Note: In most countries a secret recording is inadmissible. In order to record any meeting you must first inform those in attendance of your intentions… Good luck folks and remember your job should not define you as a person, but you have every right to have a safe & supportive working environment.

Aaron
Guest
Aaron

A Kiwi Boss’s perspective… All of the above have their merits however there are a few things to remember. 1) be honest with yourself! are you being picked on for no reason whatsoever, or are you simply not achieving the required standard? talk openly with your colleagues to try and determine whether they think it is bullying or perhaps you could improve your circumstance with better performance. 2) instigate all meetings (whether through HR or directly with your supervisor)in writing, preferably via email (this gives you a paper trail) 3) always have a support person present during any meeting, this… Read more »

John
Guest
John

good luck with all this advice. having experienced a very aggressive, controlling and stand over style of manager, who had the whole department cowering, and yet could change back into your best buddy when it suited, I know what its like. he would do all his “agro” over the phone, calling me and screaming obscenities at me . my response was to insist that this was unacceptable and to show some respect. As a contractor I had no intention of putting up with this , or discussing it with the company,. My reputation was on the line, to finish the… Read more »

Linda
Guest
Linda

I agree with the other comments, this advise is not very good. Here is what I have done : 1) OPEN THE COMMUNICATION DOOR. Schedule a meeting & come right out and say you feel tension & “Is there something that I’ m doing ( or NOT doing ) that could solve the problem. This action sends many messages to your boss , first you are NOT putting them on the defense but you ARE putting them on the spot. Without saying it you are implying YOU HAVE BEEN TREATING ME BADLY AND I’D LIKE TO KNOW WHY ? You… Read more »

QUESTIONABLE Motives
Guest
QUESTIONABLE Motives

My “new boss” of 2 years has made a co worker by supervisor and then gives new rules through her. I tried going through our HR Rep, supervisor demoted slightly but now I have to deal with the real issue. My manager has an agenda – that is to be in a higher social class and has a nice house in a fancy HOA. Only talks to people who like sports. She now has a new boss, that I already know but even that hasn’t helped the real issue. I cannot prove that she has made life unnecessarily difficult for… Read more »

Jen
Guest
Jen

Well said, but not complete. This article is telling us that nothing will change (The Peter Principle doesn’t end with incompetent people being fired, you know. Just other people work harder.) You can’t talk – at best you’ll appear weak and at worst you’ll be fired. Stick to yourself and suck it up. I had a bully – not my boss, but a higher-up with great influence on my activities. I sucked it up and made a plan. Within a year, I got myself promoted to his peer. It…Is…Killing Him. Anyone want to guess what my next step is?

Marilynne
Guest
Marilynne

I am vulnerable to screaming bosses. I had a more than one boss who screamed at me. Perhaps it was that I stayed calm and unresponsive while they yelled. (A survival mechanism, I think.) I told HR, that I couldn’t work under those conditions. That I would agree to anything the screaming boss demanded even if it was physically impossible to do. (I have beens screamed at because I couldn’t do the impossible.) Looking back on it, I should have just transferred out or quit. Having this happen often is demoralizing. Only in one case did someone “rescue” me. I… Read more »

Tim
Guest
Tim

I was a manager in a hospital department who had a boss who would do measures and practices that were unsafe and based on what the administrator wanted would do legal things such as Medicare fraud. When I addressed these measures I started getting harassed with e mails and extra duties placed on me that would impede on quality of care. She accused my staff of being bad with patients, which was my fault, come to find out when survey results were posted, my staff were praised. She tried to accuse me of things and when I addressed this with… Read more »

Mo
Guest
Mo

I worked for a bully and tried all the above, including finding another job. Unfortunately it got so bad meetings were uncomfortable for the whole department because of how she was singling me out for every last nuance and minutia. I had reached a breaking point and went to HR to go on record (as had another employee under her) and to ask for reassignment, even a pay cut if necessary to get away from her. I was told “The only person that can discipline her is the man that hired her; it’s not going to happen.” I was fired… Read more »

SD
Guest
SD

Thank you for the article. I was in a similar situation and believe me it was hell to go to work on a daily basis. I was new at the organisation and this guy just hated me. I did the best in my work but never reviewed my work and I had to submit such to his boss and when all was well regarding the work done he took credit. At one stage he discredited me to the Board such that I was called to explain myself only to find that my work was done accordingly it was just his… Read more »

Felice
Guest
Felice

I had a difficult boss like this in the early 2000s. I wish I had this article then. I was depressed, frightened for my job and angry all the time. I used to come home and cry all the time. Even though I knew her behavior was aimed at me because of her insecurity (I have an advanced degree and she didn’t, which drove her nuts. Once she even told me never to mention it), the realization didn’t help me because I was afraid of losing my job. I confronted her once to no avail. She just denied she was… Read more »

Angel
Guest
Angel

I do think it’s extremely bad advice and very irresponsible to tell someone to put up with bullying. Will you tell your child to put up with being bullied? To do is taking up a victim mindset and creates a loose-loose situation for all affected. The first time it happens, immediately one should speak in private to the bully in the presence of a trusted and respected colleague or friend. If it happens again straight to HR. Whilst doing this update your resume and look for an exit strategy. NEVER NEVER tolerate bullying. Like it’s being said if you are… Read more »

Anna
Guest
Anna

I left a company that I was with for 9 years due to a (new) boss that was bulling. It was very clear to everyone around us, but the EVP loved him. I was told “he’s not going anywhere”. At that point, I had made up my mind that it was time to leave so it was easy to “fight back” by dragging him to HR knowing that it will go on his record and the next time it happens, they will have all they need on file. I had hard facts and witnesses, but it’s not the way I… Read more »

Don
Guest
Don

Just as bad is a boss who will not take responsibility for his employees bullying behavior. Former coworker confronted our boss about the continued bullying he was getting from a coworker. The boss said “What do you expect me to do about it?” The bully was actually the bosses best friend so you can see where this and any aspect of employee relations were. The bullied employee said “I’ll make it simple for you then, I quit”. He clearly had a case for constructive termination to take to the state human rights division under several clauses, but did not. It… Read more »

Maria
Guest
Maria

My boss is a bully. The things and behaviors he has gotten away with is vast. He yells, insults and if you’re a woman is even worse. Many department supervisors have left the organization and cite him as one of the main reasons. Myself and almost all of his direct reports are looking for different jobs because HR and the company upper management have not acted on the number of complaints. It’s difficult to deal with him and a few individuals have even gone to recording their conversations with him because of how he twists information and statements. My word… Read more »

Kim
Guest
Kim

“When the boss is a bully, you may feel depressed, drained, disrespected, and angry — maybe even on a daily basis.”
Before your boss’ behavior begins to affect your health, mental or physical, start the search for a new job. I wager that a few interviews will either put you on track for a better situation or make you realize your current one isn’t so bad when compared to alternatives.

carolyn warden
Guest
carolyn warden

Your Bosses’ Boss already KNOWS your boss is a bully! She’s just waiting to see if the problem is big enough to merit her action. S P E A K UP! Go to HR first…. they KNOW because they’ve done exit interviews of those who left the department or company because of your boss. It’s always ideal to have an exit strategy before you go over your bosses head, but the ideal is not necessary. To FAIL to REPORT a negative factor in your company’s productivity is inappropriate. If you saw people walking out the door with company property, or… Read more »

Joe
Guest
Joe

Trying to work around a bullying boss and oly taking action in extreme circumstances is a loosing strategy. It like ignoring a misbehaving child. When they see how much they can get away with, they will be encouraged to see how much more they can get away with. Additionally, these behaviors a being defined as criminal acts in more and more jurisdictions. Telling people to put up and shut up is not only 50 years out of date, it’s just plain poor advice.

Raja
Guest
Raja

Any Boss can be brought to our terms provided you know what’s important to Boss. Mostly self ego comes in between , which should be shed inorder to go well with Boss. Some Bosses are so insecure that they try to take credit of your acheivement and project self as initiater and then do nit picking on trivial issues and connect information hyping to higher ups in corporate, whose access to information is limited. In such cases one must leave the situaion if everything is tried out.

Dan
Guest
Dan

First of all, if you have to ever, ever walk on egg shells to go to your bosses boss, somethings wrong!! If you are getting sick in the morning before going to work or you’re nervous or you getting stomach aches or you’re getting diarrhea or, whatever you’re getting, that needs to be fixed. Something is wrong and any unhappiness at work needs to be addressed. We do not go to our jobs to be sick or depressed. When I hear things like this it makes me sick. I guess I’m just one of those people that would never put… Read more »

MS
Guest
MS

I am in a complex situation. I am living in a country which has almost no laws against discrimination and racism. I started from a junior position and reached on a supervisory position with in the same company. Then the whole management changed with open discriminatory behaviour. They hired a favourite person and gave her a position similar to mine. Now she thinks that she is boss on me and trying to take all my authorities. Our common boss is very diplomatic and seeing quietly what all is happening. Sometimes I feel that he is visibly inclined towards her. Now… Read more »

Janabob
Guest
Janabob

If your boss is a bully and it is making you unhappy, then take responsibility for your future and go work somewhere else. If you stay and continue to work for a bully, then your salary is the price you are exchanging for your own happiness, health, etc.

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