Toppling the Boss

Ethical ways to oust the bad and to protect yourself if you're the good

Posted Apr 12, 2017

Der Volstecker, Flickr, CC 2.0
Source: Der Volstecker, Flickr, CC 2.0

Toppling the boss has a long and storied history: from the assassination of Julius Caesar to the French Revolution’s beheading of Louis XVI to today's media and activist attempt at a bloodless coup to topple Donald Trump.

Of course, attempts to oust the boss aren’t limited to the lofty. Many a front-line supervisor has been ousted by an angry or jealous underling.

If you're an employee

Justice requires us to attempt to unseat the boss if we believe it serves the greater good and can be done ethically. Here are some ways:

  • Offer "career counseling." Ask questions to lead the boss to consider if s/he might be happier elsewhere and apprise the boss of better-suited job opportunities. Of course, that’s risky—S/he could infer your true goal: to extirpate that cancer from your life. So it’s safer if you can convince a brave colleague to offer the career-change help.
  • Offer the boss constructive criticism. Of course, with the wrong boss, that too could get you fired. But under the right circumstances, tactfully dispensed feedback could generate improvement or plant a seed that the boss might be happier in another position.
  • Document, then confront. Ideally with co-workers, document the boss’s incompetence, laziness, or dubious ethics. When the evidence reaches critical mass, show it to the boss with a warning: Improve or we tell all to your boss.
  • Go up. With co-workers, go directly to the boss’s boss. Often, you’re clear that providing feedback to your boss will be fruitless or even trigger retribution. In such cases, it may be wiser to go direct to the boss’s boss.
  • Try HR. As a group, ask a likely sympathetic and influential Human Resources person for advice.

If you’re the boss

If you’ve not been as skilled, hard-working, or ethical as you should be, you may sense passive-aggressiveness if not downright mutiny afloat. Before your pirates make you walk the plank, look inward: If you were working for you, how would you feel? Do you need to be better skilled, harder-working, or more ethical? Do you feel you’re sufficiently improvable in your current job or should you seek more simpatico surrounds?

Of course, even if you're beloved by most employees, perfidy may lurk within at least one jealous or angry miscreant. And that can be sufficient to topple even the mighty as, for example, Iago did to the estimable Othello. Beware of treacheries such as:

Unexpected and surprising attempts to befriend you. If heretofore, the person was distant even oppositional and suddenly tries to become your best bud, beware. Many would-be saboteurs follow Machiavelli’s injunction to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Dirt dissemination. The perfidious may disseminate dirt on you—true, exaggerated, misleading, or even outright false. They may do this organically: a single whisper to the right person can go viral. Or they can do it wholesale: raising a “question” or “concern” about you at a meeting or in an email to colleagues and boss.

Disinformation. Your enemy might deliberately give you advice that sounds at least borderline reasonable but is, in fact, bad. Or s/he’ll send you an article that’s inferior to another s/he'll use to look superior to you.

Withholding. Your would-be destroyer withholds valuable information from you—unless s/he would likely suffer repercussions.

As in all human endeavors, there’s no one-size-fits all solution. But in general, it’s wise to:

1. Keep your antenna out for possible enemies. As my father advised, “Respect but suspect.”

2. If your initial concerns get reasonably validated, ask the person if s/he has a problem with you. That may be enough to put him or her on notice.

3. If the sabotage continues, warn the person that, one more time and you will go to the boss. Up your antenna's amplitude and keep documenting.

4. If and when you believe the benefit of your going to the boss clearly outweighs the risk, do it.

The takeaway

We all like to think that people are basically kind. And most people are, but when envious, angry, under pressure, or suffering from mental illness, even kind people can be far from kind.

Dr. Nemko is a career and personal coach. You can reach him at