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Lynne Curry: Surviving the bully boss

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 16, 2015

Q: I'm in my fifties and have worked for the same organization ever since I turned 18. I never thought I'd want to quit my job, but I do.

I work for a bully. He's new to our organization and from day one he's treated me with contempt. He ridicules my work and makes me redo every report I turn in. When I dare open my mouth in staff meetings, he looks at me as if I've grown horns. He insists that there's one way, his way.

I thought him an immature jerk when he first arrived 11 months ago but believed I could handle him, as I have sons his age. I can't. He's destroyed my morale. When I work on projects, I imagine him red-penciling them or giving me his "is this really the best you can do?" look. At this point, I'm making so many mistakes that I look like I'm a problem employee. What can I do, or is my only recourse quitting?

A: If you've correctly assessed the situation, you've got multiple options. While bully bosses rule within their departments, they don't rule the world. If your bully boss illegally discriminates against you and you're a member of a protected category based on your age, sex, race, pregnancy or another statutorily protected group, you have the law on your side. Although you didn't mention it, you may be confronting age discrimination, which shows up in many guises.

Seek help first in your own organization and factually outline to your HR officer or a senior manager your supervisor's treatment of you. If you don't find help within your organization, you can also call the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission or the Alaska State Human Rights Commission and file an age discrimination complaint.

Or, as you suspect, you may work for a bully. Bully bosses chip away at their employees' self-worth with poor treatment and belittling comments. They demand instant and complete obedience.

Bully bosses ferret out your vulnerabilities and use them like ammunition. Even if you're used to standing up for yourself, you can find yourself outgunned and defeated by a bully boss.

Bully bosses often live in a feedback vacuum because peers don't call them on their behavior, and subordinates don't voice concerns, fearing they'll be fired. Senior managers often don't realize how poorly bully supervisors treat employees, as these bullies may kiss up and kick down.

You can survive a bully boss. Here's what works.

Bullies pick on the weakest members of their team first. By seeking out a member of upper management and asking them to go bat for you, you'll change how your boss views you. Bullies operate according to their own risk/benefit radar and when your bully learns you have a senior manager's protection, he'll back off.

Learn how to stand up for yourself without challenging the bully. If he hands you a report to do over, say, "Got it," and redo the report. He'll think "Got it" means you understand his direction. You'll know it means "I get that you're a colossal jerk."

Document your boss's behavior. Unless your organization has a specific policy against it, you can tape your boss's yelling at you and his condescending statements. With enough documentation you can convince senior management to rein him in or even terminate him.

Meanwhile, don't allow your boss's ridicule to poison your self-esteem and weaken your spirit. If you wouldn't let another person stomp on your foot or physically slam you off balance, don't let a bully boss stomp on your spirit or bump into and push you over inside your head. You don't need to let your boss or any other bully rent space in your head; you are the landlord.

Finally, if you want a viable solution, you have to clean up any area in which you're part of the problem. Did you treat your supervisor, whom you thought an "immature jerk" from the beginning, like he was an errant son? If so, stop.

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