Business/Economy

Is my boss a bully, or am I just being oversensitive – as he says?

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | The Workplace
  • Updated: February 26
  • Published February 25

Q: After years of putting up with his bad behavior, I told my boss I was resigning and leaving without giving two weeks' notice. In his customary "what the hell are you talking about?" snarl, he demanded I explain myself. When I told him I was sick of his bullying and had given him chance after chance to treat me better, he looked shocked and said I was uber-sensitive and he wasn't a bully.

Now I doubt myself. It was a good, well-paying job and now I won't even get a reference. What if the problem was me? Could he really not realize he's a bully?

A: You ask a great question. No matter how much fault lies with the person who irritates us, we often become part of the problem. If this man is a bully, your part might be that he's made you doubt yourself.

Bullies rarely admit they're the problem. Instead, they may insist they were forced to forgo the niceties to get necessary tasks completed or only reacted because their workload stressed them. They may complain they've been misunderstood by individuals who took them the wrong way or insist they work around uber-sensitive individuals.

Although the bully's patterns may seem obvious to others, they often mentally entrap those who work with them. Bullies make their problem yours, as in "if you don't like my demeaning comments, you're uber-sensitive." Unfortunately, unless you have a strong sense of yourself, the bully's words have the power to enter your mind and change your view of yourself.

If you suspect this has happened to you, step back and decide — is your boss a bully or do you overreact to him? You may also decide that while the bully label fits your boss, you've still fallen in to the reaction trap. Him. For example, you're resigning without notice, which doesn't show your employer respect and probably nukes your chances for a reference.

If your soon-to-be-former boss doesn't realize he's a bully, there's hope for him. While some bullies intentionally deny it, others simply don't realize what they're doing to others. For these subconscious bullies, bullying is a dominance or belittling habit that can be broken once they learn to look at their behavior from the outside in and learn new strategies and skills.

An unaware bully sent to me last year by her employer insisted "I may be bossy, but I'm not a bully" — even though her employees regularly had meltdowns after she told them off. Her defense? She "called it like she saw it," apparently not realizing how humiliated her employees felt.

Since one of her employees had audiotaped her, I played the tape. As homework, I asked her to spend the next week watching how employees reacted when she spoke with them, particularly when she was upset. When she returned the next week she said, "I scare them."

Finally, despite your boss's denial, your leaving may trigger him to consider what cost him an employee. If so, and you later call him and apologize for your lack of notice, and he's realizes he owns part of the problem, you may get your reference.