What to do when your boss is a bully

Colette Sexton, news correspondent at The Sunday Business Post, on how to handle a bullying boss.


When we think of bullies, many might think of school days. But, unfortunately, school bullies grow up and instead of blossoming into decent members of society, they often bring their abusive ways into the workplace.

Nearly a fifth (19 per cent) of Americans are bullied, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2017 National Survey in the US. Some 61 per cent of bullies are bosses, the survey found, and while 40 per cent of bullied targets are believed to suffer adverse health effects, nearly a third (29 per cent) of targets remain silent about their experiences.

Being bullied by a boss or colleague can have a serious impact on your professional and personal life, but it can be really hard to figure out what to do about it. Bosses can bully staff in many different ways. They might demand unattainable results. Bully bosses blame others for their failures or take credit for their staff’s work. They take pleasure in isolating and excluding people on their team. They might act sweet as pie one minute, and turn toxic the next. Whatever the situation, if you have a boss that is a bully, you will know about it. This might be exacerbated by the culture in the workplace. If it is a “tough love” company then the attitude of many might be that if you can’t stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen. This, of course, is rubbish and this kind of culture has actually been proven to be counterproductive.

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Related: How to handle adult bullying

But that knowledge is not much good to you when you are actively being bullied. The good news is, you do have some options.

First of all, you can stand up to the bully. This is risky. Best case scenario, the person will realise they cannot bully you and will leave you alone. Worst case scenario, the bully fires you (yes, probably illegally but that is how bullies operate).

If confronting your boss about being a bully doesn’t appeal to you, you can take a stand through small but decisive actions. Act confident and make sure they know you are not intimidated by them. When your boss in the midst of a bullying rampage, take the high road. Be the bigger person and operate in a professional manner.

If your boss yells at you, the best reaction is to not yell back. You should calmly ask them to lower their voice but also make sure that it is obvious you are listening to what they are saying. It can be difficult to treat someone with respect when they are not affording you the same but they will be far more receptive if they feel they are being heard. Their behaviour will not change immediately, but over time it should.

If that doesn’t work, then you should seek a meeting with the HR department or someone more senior to your boss to report their behaviour. You can also talk to your union, if you are a member of one.

If the company take your boss’s word above yours, then you should change jobs or ask for a different manager. Do not feel like a failure if you decide to leave your job over a bully. You are not the problem here, they are. And you are not alone. Research from the Workplace Bullying Institute found that people who are targeted by bullies have a 66 per cent chance of losing their job. It is also important to seek professional help, if you need it, to deal with the emotional abuse you might have suffered at the hands of your boss. Your health is the priority above any job.

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