How to Handle a Bullying Boss

Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge...

If you’ve ever been yelled at, demeaned or otherwise intimidated by your boss, you’re not alone. Nearly 30 percent of Americans report being bullied at work, most often by their direct supervisor.

The worst boss I ever had was at a major publication that shall remain nameless. The issue with Unnamed Jerk wasn’t that he was tough, or even that he was difficult. It’s that the guy was downright disrespectful. Everyone in the office was afraid of him, and he’d take every imaginable opportunity to make his subordinates feel anxious and insecure about their work, even their jobs!

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The personal hell of working with him reached its zenith one day when he raised his voice; that is to say, he yelled at me. It took everything in me to remember I was in an office. Instead of having a “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong” moment, I took a few deep breaths and began planning my exit. It wasn’t but a few weeks before I’d given my two weeks notice.

That’s my story, but bullying bosses come in many forms. Their impact, however, is usually the same: frustration and demoralization—especially if it’s a job you can’t afford to lose. I recently spoke with human resources expert Steven Kane to discuss tips on dealing with a difficult supervisor. Here’s some of his advice.

What Kind of Bully Is Your Boss?

Try not to take it personally if you have an overbearing and intimidating manager. Kane explains that bullying bosses typically come in three forms and not all are bad. He says most office bullying comes from the first type: bosses who are out of touch.

“These are people who intend their comments or actions to be innocent, but they’re usually too out of the loop to see they’re having a negative effect on employees,” says Kane.

Next is the highly critical boss who means to motivate but really serves to demoralize. And the last type is the run-of-the-mill jerk. These bosses are generally nasty without provocation or reason. Kane says understanding the theme of your boss’s bullying is a great first step to developing solutions.

Talk It Out

It’s a hard conversation to have, but the best thing you can do is take the issue directly to your boss first, says Kane. After all, s/he is the one directly responsible and with the most power to make a change. “The strategy is to be properly armed for a discussion, not a confrontation,” Kane warns. For a productive conversation, he suggests scheduling time to talk during the workday.

Professionals in your office’s human resources department or your professional union can help you first identify if your problem has legal implications or violates any of your rights as an employee.

“Don’t accuse and don’t complain,” says Kane. It’s a delicate situation and, if handled poorly, it can backfire. “The most important thing is that he or she sees the behavior is having a negative effect on morale and/or your work. Resolving that should be presented as a win-win for you both.”

So in the meeting, be polite and specific. Dates and details will help your boss pin down exact events where you felt bullied. Explain how it may have been distracting, and if bullying is a part of your boss’s management style, offer alternatives to direct the conversation toward problem solving.

Time It Right

Next, if you’re going to present your issues to the offending boss, Kane says do it in a timely manner. You don’t want to wait months—even years—after an offense. Wait instead until the first available moment to hash it out. According to Kane, your boss’s assistant (if he or she has one) can help identify a good work-free moment to meet. Another tip: don’t do it at lunch or another seemingly informal situation. Kane says it could leave your boss feeling ambushed and put him on the defensive.

Another great time to address the bullying is in your regular performance review. That’s your time to be honest. Companies take these meetings seriously, so be fair if you complain, and again, be specific. Provide examples and articulate what a favorable outcome would be for you.

Involve HR

Finally, if you can’t have a conversation with your boss and the problems persist, Kane says it could be time to bring in another party. Professionals in your office’s human resources department or your professional union can help you first identify if your problem has legal implications or violates any of your rights as an employee. They’ll also be able to provide you with proven conflict resolution tools and potentially mediate a conversation with your boss.

Donovan X. Ramsey is not a personal finance expert. He’s a multimedia journalist who writes about all things social, political, cultural and whimsical. After college, Donovan set out to discover everything he didn’t know about the world of personal finance. Learn along with him weekly on EBONY.com as he explores more everyday money matters. Follow Donovan on Twitter @iDXR or at DonovanXRamsey.com.