Tips for Dealing with a Toxic Boss

In today’s corporate world, it’s no surprise there are abusive bosses in offices everywhere. Work is already tough enough to manage, let alone having to work for someone who makes you miserable Monday through Friday.

In her book, “Take This Job and …: Quitting and Other Forms of Resistance to Workplace Bullying,” author Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik describes toxic workplace behavior as “persistent verbal and nonverbal aggression at work that includes personal attacks, social ostracism, and a multitude of other painful messages and hostile interactions.”

A recent study by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 37% of American workers have been bullied at work, and 72% of the bullies happen to be bosses. The study also determined that 58% of these workplace meanies are women, and 71% of them choose to target other women. Clearly, the bullying epidemic is occurring beyond just the playground.

Does the thought of returning to work the next day and dealing with the boss make you queasy each night? Do you find yourself using paid sick and vacation days just to escape from the emotionally draining environment? Do you feel your boss’s conduct dramatically affects your work performance? If so, there are steps you can take to effectively deal with the toxic behavior, all while maintaining your sanity and professionalism.

Recognizing the Behavior

If you are the victim of an abusive boss, it’s helpful to first recognize and identify the behaviors and tactics he or she is using to manipulate you. The book, “The Bully At Work,” written by the Institute’s founders, Gary and Ruth Namie, identifies several types of malicious employers.

The first and most common type of toxic boss is someone who is emotionally unstable. This person is often explosive and prone to angry outbursts full of yelling, cursing and finger pointing. This boss attempts to control with fear and intimidation, and may even make verbal and/or physical threats.

On the other hand, the boss may be a two-headed snake. This kind of supervisor pretends to be nice to your face but then turns around and sabotages your projects, talks negatively about you to co-workers and steals credit for your work and ideas. These types of bosses are often passive-aggressive and dishonest.

Another common type of toxic boss is the constant critic. He is negative and uses insults and name-calling to destroy your confidence. He expects the impossible, demands perfection in everything and criticizes you when you fail to meet his unreachable standards.

Yet another malicious boss strives to dominate resources like supplies, staffing and money, and is obsessed with control. These bosses, or gatekeepers as they’re referred to within the book, withhold approval, deliberately cut you out of important meetings, emails or memos, and deny you basic office rights like breaks, supplies and support staff.

Documenting the Conduct

After pinpointing the patterns of abuse, the next step is to take notes of your boss’ antics as they occur. This action is critical, as it establishes and documents the situation’s frequency, specifics and severity.

To maintain the best records, jot down the details of the incidents as soon as possible so everything is still fresh in your mind. Be sure to also record the date, time and place of the inappropriate behavior, as well as noting the names of any other people who might have witnessed the behavior.

Having detailed documentation is vital should you choose to report your boss’ behavior to your company’s higher-ups or the human resources department, or even consult with an attorney if the situation warrants.

Responding to the Abuse

As uncomfortable and horrifying as it may seem, communicating with your boss — albeit in a professional way — about the outbursts, insults, control issues or backstabbing is key to defusing the situation. Arrange for a private, face-to-face meeting to sit down and discuss the problems.

When in the meeting, don’t just sit there and read off the notes you have taken but instead engage in a conversation and listen to what your boss also has to say. It is vital that you are not defensive, and remain calm, polite and constructive. Stay away from loaded words like “always,” “never” and “hate,” and remember your goal is not to attack your boss, but to point out what has been making you uncomfortable.

Let your boss know his actions have been creating a tough work environment and it affects your performance. Ask her or him about your performance and what she or he may be unhappy with and how you can fix it. If you have made mistakes, acknowledge them and find an agreeable solution. Let your boss know that you don’t expect her to be perfect, only that she treat you with respect and common courtesy.

Unfortunately, there is a good chance your boss will not appreciate your feelings. She might lash out at you, and the toxic behavior may only increase after this meeting. If this happens, add it to your documentation and move on to the next steps.

Taking Further Action

If rationally addressing the problem directly with your boss gets you nowhere or even intensifies the horrible conduct, it’s time to take further action. Whether you choose to speak to your boss’ supervisor, the human resources department or a lawyer, you need to be prepared. This is also when your documentation comes into play.

Doctors Sarah J. Tracy and Jess K. Alberts, who are researchers associated with Arizona State University’s Project for Wellness and Work-Life, wrote the report “How to Bust the Office Bully: Eight Tactics for Explaining Workplace Abuse to Decision-Makers” to aid targets of toxic office behaviors in recounting their situations to decision-makers.

Their findings have shown that being rational, expressing emotions appropriately, providing consistent details, offering a plausible story, being relevant, emphasizing your own competence, showing consideration for others’ perspectives and being specific are the most effective tools in persuading decision-makers to put a stop to your boss’ abuse.

It’s also important to know that comprehensive workplace bullying legislation has yet to be passed by the federal government or by any U.S. state government, though according to Caroline Said, author of “Bullying Bosses Could be Busted: The Movement Against Work Workplace Abusers Gains Momentum with Proposed Laws,” many state legislatures have considered bills. However, no laws are currently in place, so keep that in mind if you decide to hire an attorney to fight back.

Moving On

If you’ve done all you can to improve the situation but things still don’t improve, you may want to consider moving on to another job. Your nightmare of a boss may never change but you certainly can.

It’s especially important to explore other options if the pressure of the situation is causing physical symptoms. If you’re experiencing stress-related illnesses like migraines, insomnia, depression or anxiety, put your health first.

To maintain a level of professionalism, you should give notice of your departure. Don’t dwell on the negative, but simply mention that it’s time to explore other options. And, even though you may have one foot out the door, it’s not the time to bash your boss to co-workers or slack on your responsibilities. Keeping things cordial and following through on tasks will ensure you exit on a high note despite the hellish ordeal.

Keep in mind that even after you leave your job you will still have to deal with the situation when applying for work elsewhere.

When filling out materials for new job, don’t provide your boss’ contact information if you can avoid it. Instead, give the information for a human resources representative or a co-worker with whom you had a positive relationship.

If during an interview you are questioned about the reasons for leaving your job, remain professional and provide a drama-free explanation. For example, you can simply say that you and your boss had an ongoing difference of opinion about office policies and you felt it was most appropriate to simply find employment elsewhere.

Remember, life is too short to spend it working in an environment that makes you miserable. You have the ability to empower yourself and control your career.

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