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What to Do if Your Boss Is Intimidating or Abusive

Carefully consider how to act if your boss engages in abusive behavior.

Sometimes your boss is a jerk for more subtle reasons. But what if your boss yells, threatens, or makes insults?

Some bosses have anger control issues. Some just revel in being at the top of the heap. It makes them feel important. It’s the workplace version of schoolyard bullying. It is also incredibly irresponsible and damaging.

What can you do?

First, remember that this is your boss’s problem, not yours. Remember this advice: Stay professional. Never blink. Never raise your voice. Get your marching orders and go about your business. Most importantly, keep detailed notes: dates, times, and concrete examples of what the boss did or said.

The real question in this situation is this: Has your boss’s behavior been so “jerky” that it’s obvious to both of you? Is there an “episode” or a pattern of behavior that you and your boss can discuss? If so, try to get your boss to discuss what happened, acknowledge it, and give you clear instructions for what you should do if it happens again.

Of course, you risk angering your boss. You might even be putting your job on the line. But if you really can’t keep working for this boss under these circumstances, you might consider this approach.

If it is an ongoing problem that you really can’t handle, and you don’t want to—or can’t—walk away, you might have to take a big chance: After you have compiled a detailed record of the abuse, you might need to report the behavior to senior management, HR, EEO, or the legal department. But it’s best to avoid this if you can.

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Going over your boss’s head or to HR with a complaint is an unpleasant, often scary process. Don’t do it lightly.
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Preparing for a Tough Conversation

Once you’ve determined that there has been a clear episode or a series of episodes of abusive behavior, you need a game plan for staging a purposeful debriefing session with your boss. This will not be an easy conversation.

First, review your notes. Make sure you have all the pertinent details: dates and times and descriptions of your boss’s words and actions and the consequences of those words and actions.

Second, consider your role in each episode, and don’t be defensive. There is a power differential, but you need to stay professional. Create an outline for yourself, so you can stay on track during the conversation. Try to anticipate what your boss might say and script your responses.

During the meeting, clarify that you want to debrief the episode or series of episodes. Then make sure you do the following:

  • Present the facts as you’ve documented them. Be as specific as you can. Use descriptive words, and mention the date(s), time(s), and facts of the situation(s).
  • Ask your boss if he or she agrees with your account. If not, ask them to describe the situations as they experienced them.
  • Ask for clear instructions about exactly how your boss wants you to handle yourself in the future if they repeat the same sort of words and actions.

What if Your Boss Won’t Stop Acting Like a Jerk?

You might have to extricate yourself from the situation. You could look for another boss in the same organization. You could go over your boss’s head or take your case to an independent third party. Or you might need to quit.

Depending on the situation, you might begin by going manager shopping. Look around for other managers who appreciate you and can help you do your best work. Try to get one of them to scoop you up and keep you so busy that the jerk boss can’t get anywhere near you.

Quitting your job is, of course, the ultimate solution for getting away from a jerk boss. But maybe you can keep your job and get rid of the jerk instead by going over your boss’s head or to an independent third party. There are, in fact, some good reasons to consider taking the problem to your boss’s boss or to someone in HR.

  • If the boss is a hopeless jerk, the costs to the organization may be much greater than anybody realizes. You owe it to the organization to make sure someone higher up knows about what’s going on.
  • This boss might be out there bad-mouthing you all over the organization. You need to let someone know that the relationship didn’t fail because of you.
  • If you want any legal recourse in the future, you will be much better off if you have followed your employer’s formal grievance process. Step one will be to go to your boss’s boss or HR.

Going over your boss’s head or to HR with a complaint is an unpleasant, often scary process. Don’t do it lightly. Prepare and carefully consider before taking this course of action.

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