What can you do when your boss is a bully

Your boss is a bully (read: manipulator, control freak, tyrant, power junkie, obnoxious jerk). No matter how hard you work, you always do something wrong. No matter how many hours unpaid OT you put in, it isn’t enough. Your boss demeans you in front of your colleagues and then laughs it off as a ‘joke.’ He/she belittles your work under the guise of ‘constructive criticism.’ When you attempt to bring the subject up, the leadership team circles the wagons, and you are left feeling stranded. You are filled with stress and anxiety and your work life is almost unbearable. What can you do?

Well, short of telling the boss to stuff it and heading off on a yacht for that well-deserved round-the-world tour (of course, if we’re in the financial position to be able to do that, we probably don’t have to worry a boss) there are some tactics and strategies to make your workplace more livable. You may not be able to change your boss, but you can change how you respond to his/her bullying behaviour.

  1. First, recognize when you are being bullied. Often it’s painfully obvious, but some bosses can be quite subtle in their manipulation. If you come away from meetings with the boss feeling uncomfortable/unhappy/incompetent and can’t put your finger on what it is, go back over your interactions and see if your boss is continually putting you down, handing out negative comments or micromanaging every bit of your work.
  2. Document the bullying. You may be able to see a pattern more easily and perhaps determine the best way to address the problem.
  3. Talk with colleagues to see if they are experiencing the same thing, and see if you can work together to stand up to the bully. If you all agree to stand your ground when the boss is acting like a jerk, it will make it easier for you as individuals if you present a united front.
  4. Learn how to say no. While direct confrontation may not always be the best approach, letting the boss know that you won’t put up with certain behavior – e.g. verbal abuse – may be just the ticket to stopping it. You should not resort to yelling or getting into an argument in front of the whole office. Rather, have a private meeting to say, “I’m sorry, but I do not feel that I should have to put up with (the specific type of behavior). It is demeaning.” You can always add something like: “I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement about what constitutes acceptable behavior, for both of us.” That may be all that’s necessary to start an open and honest talk about what is and isn’t suitable in the workplace and what both of you can do to rectify the issue.
  5. Speak with an objective person, a colleague you trust, a person in HR or a coach or counsellor. This can help you identify whether you have a legitimate concern, one which should be addressed and fixed.
  6. And yes, if all else fails you can decide enough is enough and look for a new job.

Remember, bullying is not acceptable in school or anywhere else, nor should it be tolerated in the workplace. Doing nothing will only make your situation worse – the longer you sit back and hope the problem will go away by itself, the more helpless you will feel. Playing armchair psychiatrist and figuring out what makes your bully boss tick is an interesting exercise, but will ultimately not fix the situation. What you need to do is take a deep breath, face the challenge and get your work life back on track.