A few weeks ago, I sent out a survey to all you wonderful people, in which I asked you to tell me about topics you would like to see me address in a future post. Sadly, one of the top three topics suggested was “how to deal with an abusive boss.”

I was unfortunately not surprised to see this topic in that placement. When I coach or teach in public fora, I always leave time at the end for folks to come speak to me privately, and bar none, this topic is the one that comes up most often in those one-on-one discussions. It is also the case that most of my clients have at one time or another been employed by someone who was abusive.

In case you’re wondering whether you fall into this bucket, let’s talk a little bit about what abuse in the workplace looks like. Here’s a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Have you been told that your work is worthless, that no one else would ever hire you, that your boss can’t believe s/he’s paying you for this [expletive]?
  • Have you been subjected to humiliating emails criticizing your work in non-constructive terms– emails that might have been circulated to others within your company? ( I am reminded here of a boss who once criticized my concern about an impending deadline by saying on an email to all the male partners on a case that I “shouldn’t get my panties in a twist.”)
  • Have you been told that you need to change the way you dress in order to keep your job?
  • Has your boss ignored or demeaned you in front of others, including clients or other employees?
  • Have you been yelled or screamed at in your workplace? Have you been physically threatened or had a boss throw things when upset?
  • Have you been subjected to offensive comments about your appearance, or your race, gender or sexuality?
  • Have you been harassed because of your race, gender or sexuality?
  • Has your boss ever refused to pay you as agreed? Has your boss made you complicit in his/her financial troubles?
  • Has your boss told you personal things about him/herself that you wish you didn’t know? Details of his/her marriage or sex life usually top the list here.
  • Has your boss ever told you that because you have kids or are pregnant, you might not be given particular assignments which s/he thinks you now can’t handle?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you work for an abusive boss. And let me make it plain: NOTHING you have done or might do EVER justifies this kind of behavior in the workplace.

And these are but a few examples of what can constitute abusive conduct by a boss in the workplace. Problematically, conduct such as this also routinely goes unaddressed because those who are subjected to it don’t know what to do in response.

In terms of how to handle an abusive boss, I’m going to give you my best advice below. I will warn you, however, that my answers include some of my best tough-love, because in this situation more than most, it’s necessary. Read on.

1) Calmly and cool-headedly, have a conversation with your boss about the fact that his/her conduct is unacceptable. This is your first means of redress. In one-on-one coaching, I frequently give clients who are about to undertake such a conversation an assignment in advance. That assignment asks the client to write up, in great detail, how s/he wants the conversation to go in an ideal world. This write-up should include not just what is said, but also how each person feels during the conversation, and the ideal outcome sought. It should also use as much non-confrontational language as possible, such as “I feel . . .” or “I would like . . . .” You should also give some thought to how you might deal with any difficult response your boss might give, but be prepared as well for the possibility that you might be surprised.  In some circumstances, clients who have undertaken this exercise have discovered that their boss had no idea that the conduct in question was causing such distress, and then had that boss agree to cease the conduct in question ASAP.

However, it goes without saying that this strategy is not one to undertake in circumstances where you are being harassed or threatened, where you are dealing with a boss who is mentally unstable, and/or where you are afraid. In any such circumstance, or where step number one fails to give you your desired result, you need to go directly to step number two.

2) Approach the Human Resources Director, or person responsible for employee discipline in your organization, with your complaints. This is particularly critical in this day and age because in certain circumstances, failing to do this may prevent you from seeking legal redress down the road. Your HR Director should be someone who is trained in the legal and professional way to accept complaints such as yours, and who knows how to appropriately address the issues you are facing.

Regardless of whether you have undertaken one or both of these steps, however, chances are high that you will need to do step number 3.

3) Begin looking for a new job. Here is where I have to give some tough love to ya’ll. In my experience, it is virtually impossible to “change” an abusive boss. This is true even in large institutions that are bound by the possibility of lawsuits, because most individuals who are promoted into positions of authority over others have been rewarded by the organization in the past despite their bad behavior, and/or the organization itself has found a way to adapt to or ignore the conduct in question for the sake of profitability. If you work in a small organization, moreover, it may be worse: your boss may be someone who couldn’t hold down a job anywhere else, and so went out on his/her own so that s/he wouldn’t have to be accountable to anyone for this bad behavior.

No matter what, however, hear me when I tell you this: IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO FIX IT.

The sooner you reconcile yourself to the fact that you do not deserve to be treated in this fashion, and that there are jobs out there regardless of the state of the economy where you will not be treated like this, the better off you will be. And trust me, the longer you stay put, the harder it will be to resist internalizing the idea that you somehow deserve to be treated badly. I can’t tell you how many clients I have worked with at this point who have stayed too long in a job where they were being abused routinely, and as a result have suffered terrifying plummets in their self-esteem along with physical and mental ailments related to stress, including but not limited to actual cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

You do not need to be one of those people. Start your job search NOW. The sooner you take steps to remind yourself that you are worthy of better treatment and that better opportunities exist for you in the marketplace, the better you will feel, and the easier it will become to deal with the day-to-day stress of your current situation. You deserve it and are worth it. Get to it!

I hope this has been helpful to all of you who inquired about this circumstance. Please don’t hesitate to seek out any help you need (legal, emotional and career-oriented) if you find yourself in this circumstance. Any of you who might need further assistance can also feel free to contact me here.

And of course, if someone you know needs the advice I’ve presented here, please share this post with them immediately.  No one should have to suffer an abusive boss.

Thank you as always for your readership, and I’ll look forward to speaking with you next week.




PS. Stay tuned in the next few weeks for some big developments at emclaughlin.com! I’ve got some things in the works that I can’t wait to share with you!




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