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Horrible bosses

Posted on September 14, 2017
Movie cover from Horrible Bosses

Over the years, I have had a few good bosses, some bad ones, and even more mediocre ones. The good ones have been supportive of me and my career goals, they have encouraged me to think differently, they have pushed me to step out of my comfort zone and take on tasks and assignments I considered out of my wheel house. The mediocre bosses weren’t unsupportive, but the focus was more about simply getting the job done – punch the ticket and move on. For the most part, the bad ones were either not interested in my career goals or they didn’t support them because they thought they knew what was best for me.

While I didn’t experience any of these, bosses can also be labeled bad because they use inappropriate language, gestures, etc., or because they rely on stereotypes (especially gender), or they are judgmental or bigoted.

Years ago, I had a boss who bordered on crazy. He used to throw temper tantrums if people weren’t in their offices or at their desks. As a result, I was not allowed to use the bathroom more than once a day. I was even required to each my lunch at my desk. Interestingly enough, he didn’t save all of his anger and odd behavior for his employees, he used to throw paperclips at clients when he felt they weren’t paying enough attention to him. I didn’t last long – maybe four months. Having quit my first job out of college rather dramatically, i.e. burning all bridges, this time, I left quietly.

Are there other options? Sometimes the answer is no, but most often, there are.

First, don’t follow the antics of Dale, Nick and Kurt from the movie Horrible Bosses, instead look at the situation to determine the root cause. Is this issue based in a disagreement, or does your boss have a different way of viewing things, or is there a communication breakdown? If so, then take a look at your actions, your responses – what changes can you make? For example, if there is a communication breakdown, then look at how you are communicating. What changes can you make to communicate more effectively with him/her. It may mean following up with an email for clarification or keeping him/her informed of progress, etc. What if your boss has not been supportive for a promotion? That warrants a discussion. This may not be easy, it opens the door for conflict, but it provides an opportunity to gain an understanding. For example, maybe your boss has not supported you because s/he feels you don’t take enough risks or you often yield to others versus stepping up and leading. Those are skills and qualities you can work on, should work on.

In all honesty, none of the above qualifies someone to be labeled as “horrible boss.” So what about the boss who operates within the realm of offensive, i.e. s/he has crosses a line or two, or the boss who won’t support you for promotion because you are a single mother or you’re too old or too young? What about the boss who is jealous and takes credit for your work? Or the boss who is argumentative or belittling? Again, I always recommend looking inward first. For example, if your boss uses offensive language with you, make sure you are not encouraging that behavior by, say, telling dirty jokes. Once you have determined you have no role to play, that your s/he is just a terrible boss, you can resign, but you may not want to, or may not be able, so here are some other options:

  1. Try and talk with him/her one more time, explain your issues or concerns. Be respectful, even if s/he is not. If that doesn’t create any change, then;  
  2. Document the behavior, keep emails, make note of items and dates of any inappropriate behavior, names of co-workers present, etc. This does not mean you should walk around the office bashing your boss in hopes of garnering support – this will not end well – always be professional. It is understandable you may need to confide in someone, find one person you trust who will keep your confidence.
  3. Once you have documentation, go to your human resources department and talk with the representative “off the record” to get a sense of your options. He or she may have suggestions you had not considered, such as ways to approach your boss or specific language to use. His/her recommendations may also include the option to make an “official complaint.” Keep in mind, you can make it official at any point, but think about it before you do, exhaust all of your other options, in other words, try everything else first. I just want to note, that filing complaints without great thought and consideration will hurt you and your reputation.
  4. Make another attempt to reach out to your boss – again, trying a different approach, different language to find common ground, to help him/her understand how you are feeling.
  5. If you have exhausted all other options, including thinking about making a lateral move, then it may be time to file an official complaint, do so honestly and professionally. I have to give fair warning, filing an official complaint is not without consequences. Your relationship with your boss may not get better, in fact, it may get worse. Co-workers who may have experienced similar behavior with the boss, may suddenly be less critical and become distant. I want to reiterate, you should only consider moving forward with an official complaint when you have exhausted all other options. Then hold your head high and don’t discuss any of it with anyone in your office – be professional.

It is not easy dealing with a horrible boss. Thankfully, there aren’t that many of them out there – more fall into the mediocre category. Either way, always begin with yourself and changes you can make.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Director of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University

Image: courtesy of iTunes
Posted in leadership-management-skills, professional-development-career-tips