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September 14, 2010 > Counseling Corner: Dealing with a bad boss

Counseling Corner: Dealing with a bad boss

By Anne Chan, PhD, MFT

I once had a job interview which seemed to be going well until I asked my potential supervisor how she handled employees who make mistakes. (This question, by the way, is a great interview question to ask.) With a totally straight face, she said, "I throw pencils at them." She definitely wasn't kidding around. I was so taken aback that I couldn't think of anything to say in response. The interview went south after that. Unsurprisingly, I didn't get the job (which was definitely a good thing since I wouldn't have coped well with a pencil-throwing boss, plus I really don't like pencil stab marks on my face).

But I must have escaped the frying pan and jumped right into the fire because I landed a job supervised by a woman who makes a hungry alligator look like a cuddly baby bunny. She was a micromanager of the worst kind, checking every single thing that I did, monitoring my every movement, and even blatantly reading my e-mails. She found fault with everything possible, even faulting me when I worked overtime. She was disliked by everyone in the department because she had mastered the art of kissing up to her supervisors while backstabbing everyone else. I was unhappy in that job from Day One, and I left unhappy and traumatized when I finally quit a year later.

I know that many of you can relate to these horror stories. Sadly, there appears to be more horrible bosses out there than good ones. In fact, some studies have shown that as many as 9 out of 10 people have experienced abusive bosses. To make matters worse, abuse at work often carries over to home life. People who have bad bosses might feel stressed or anxious during the weekends, constantly mulling over things that their bosses said or did, and might consequently feel tense and jumpy all the time.

My boss horror stories illustrate two broad categories of bad bosses: 1) those who are difficult/incompetent/dysfunctional but are not abusive, and 2) those who are difficult/incompetent/dysfunctional, and are hostile, abusive, and/or bullies to boot. Even though my micromanaging boss was an annoying, nasty, and mean person, she never did anything that was technically abusive, placing her in the first category of bad bosses. On the other hand, the pencil-throwing boss would be an example of a hostile, abusive boss.

There are different options for dealing with your boss depending on which camp they fall into. If you have a boss who is abusive or discriminates, seek the advice of a trusted mentor or someone in human resources who will maintain your confidentiality. You have specific workplace rights and it would be helpful to get guidance on what they are. It is also helpful to document your boss's actions carefully with specific dates and descriptions of what happened. At the same time, document your accomplishments and contributions to the organization. This will help solidify your case that you have been a model employee. Another possible option is to file a charge with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (

If you have a boss who has a difficult personality and a disagreeable management style but is not abusive, consider the following strategies:

-Whenever you are interacting with your boss, check your emotions at the door. When dealing with a difficult personality, it is a natural and normal response to get angry and defensive. However, this response is only likely to trigger anger. Talk with your boss in a neutral, professional manner as much as possible. Even when they are giving you feedback that steams you, try to react in a non-defensive, diplomatic way. You are far more likely to win them over if you stay calm and open to their ideas. It is extremely difficult to be calm to a jerk, but it will not win you any points with your boss or your career to act like a jerk yourself.

-Some bad bosses like to be kept in the loop rather than in the dark. If you have one of these bad bosses, e-mail them about what you are doing as much as is reasonable, and keep them updated rather than withdrawing into silence.

-Take an inventory of your workplace behavior and manner. Are you doing a full, honest day's work? Are you behaving in a professional manner at all times? Your boss may have a difficult personality, but this is no excuse for you to act in an unprofessional manner. I know someone who had a difficult time with a difficult boss. However, this employee made matters far worse for herself by doing things that her boss (rightfully) found fault with, like taking extra breaks on top of regular breaks and lunch. Give your boss zero reasons to find fault with you.

-In certain cases, it might work to have a conversation with your bad boss about what you need in order to be an optimal employee. Note that I say "in certain cases." This can be an effective strategy or it can totally backfire. Be sure to consult with human resources, a mentor, or a career professional to get guidance on how best to approach this difficult conversation.

-For some, a last resort might be to look for a transfer to another department or look for another job. Jumping ship might be a worthwhile option for the sake of your sanity, happiness, and peace of mind. If this is not a possibility and you are absolutely stuck, at least do something positive for your mental health; work with a therapist to learn stress management and relaxation strategies. Even simple strategies like leaving the workplace during lunch can help ease the tension. Perhaps you can also upgrade your skills, re-work your resume, and network in your spare time to look for a better position.

Anne Chan is a career counselor and licensed psychotherapist in Union City. She specializes in helping people find happiness in their careers, lives, and relationships. She can be reached at 510-744-1781. Her website is

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