Growing up, bullies were everywhere. They pulled your hair on the playground, they made fun of your name in high school, they were even people you called “friends.” But now you’re an adult, so all of that should be behind you, right?
You’d think so. Unfortunately, many bullies don’t grow out of whatever it is that compels them to pick on others, and when they graduate from the schoolyard, they move on to the office. And sometimes, they even become your boss.
When you’re dealing with a bully who’s not your peer or playmate, but the person you report to every day—things get complicated. Here’s what you need to know about handling three common types of boss-bullies.
Bully #1: The Mean Girl
The Mean Girl (or guy) was either uncool in high school or this was when she peaked, so she’s created a similar environment at work. She has a cool-kid inner circle, and the people in it get the cush assignments, the high profile projects, and all of the gold stars and accolades, whether they deserve them or not.
For whatever reason, you’re not a part of this inner circle. It’s probably not for lack of trying—I’m sure you’ve stayed late, been a team player, laughed at your boss’s dumb jokes, and even suffered through her off-pitch rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing” at a team-bonding event. So why won’t she accept you?
The truth is, it doesn’t matter. She probably doesn’t have a reason, and if she does, it probably has more to do with her insecurities than your shortfalls. So, stay professional—but also work around her.
First, develop a band of allies. Having other great relationships at work can protect you in the event that your boss says something negative about you (and it may even help you get transferred to a friendlier division). Befriend people at all levels—your peers, your boss’ peers, and your boss’ boss. Once everyone else sees you for the amazing co-worker you are, it won’t mean a thing if you aren’t part of the Plastics.
You’ll also want to keep a running tally of every accomplishment—since your boss definitely isn’t keeping track. Jot down stats on your accounts, save glowing emails from clients, and calculate the man-hours you’ve put into each project. Share these examples with her during your annual review, and even during informal feedback sessions. Sometimes seeing the evidence in black and white can make a Mean Girl change her tune.
Bully #2: Oscar the Grouch
“Oscars” are mean to everyone. They bark at people in the hallways, berate them on the phone, and cause everyone around them to walk on eggshells. Typically, they’re unhappy in their own lives—so they want to make others equally as miserable.
Oscars are pretty much the worst, but assuming that they’re taking their anger out across the board, not just on you, they’re also easy to cure.
First, resist the urge to organize the troops with torches and pitchforks and go straight to Human Resources—this is usually counter-productive. HR will probably just issue a “warning,” and your boss will return to the office like an animal that’s been poked at—pissed off and ready to pounce.
Instead, try taking a less aggressive approach. If your boss likes to get in your face and yell, create some physical space. When you’re standing so close you can smell what he had for breakfast, it feels like you’re in the eye of the storm, and that can make you feel even more anxious than you already do. But if you back away, it’s easier to take a deep breath and see the situation for what it is—your boss freaking out for no reason.
Then, you can choose to tune out, or you can force a smile and kill him with kindness. Try not to be sarcastic or passive-aggressive—it’ll only throw fuel on the fire. Tell yourself that his bullying has nothing to do with you, feel sorry for him because his blood pressure must be at dangerous levels, and then give him a genuine smile and agree to fix whatever “disaster” he’s bemoaning.
Another approach from inspirational speaker, consultant, author, and life coach Boaz Rauchwerger recommends is to changing your attitude.
“How bad could they be?” Rauchwerger asks. “They allow you to come to work everyday and collect a paycheck… in these economic times, that’s a big deal. Instead of cursing your boss, you should wake up every morning, look in the mirror and say, ‘[Your boss’s name] is one of the greatest people I have ever met. [He/she] and I are even becoming friends.’ Before you know it, you might just be right.”
After you’re done rolling your eyes, try it. You might surprise yourself.
Bully #3: The Harasser
While mean girls and Oscars can be tricky to navigate, there’s another type of bully that takes things to the next level and requires a more serious course of action: The Harasser. This is generally a male boss who bullies female employees by using chauvinism, sexism, and sometimes all-out humiliation to belittle them.
What differentiates Harassers from Oscars is that their bullying is not only targeted towards you (and possibly other women in the office), but it also has an overtly sexual or discriminatory tone. Your boss isn’t just being mean because he’s in a bad mood; he’s being mean because you’re a woman. And he lets you know it.
As one woman (a financial analyst who will remain anonymous) said, “When you have a boss who bullies you like this, it makes you second-guess your professional capabilities. You start to think that you really aren’t that smart or worthy of your position—you start to have that ‘abused’ mentality.”
If your boss makes suggestive comments to you, about you, or to or about other women, if he blatantly treats you differently than male peers, or if he makes gender-specific comments like, “Put on your big girl pants,” or “You’re not going to cry, are you?” then you are being harassed. It’s difficult to know the best action to take in this situation, but here are some recommendations from the top employment law firm in San Francisco:
1. Document Everything
Every conversation, every slight, every email. If the Ellen Pao/Kleiner Perkins sex scandal teaches women anything, it’s that your allegations need proof, and this documentation will come in handy should you ever need to go to HR or be the victim of wrongful firing. Save all emails and memos, especially those where you believe your boss to be particularly unfair or unprofessional. And if your boss bullies you verbally, send him an email outlining the conversation. If he called you a name, try saying, “In our discussion this afternoon, you said I was being a crybaby. I would like to stop the behavior you find offensive, so if you could tell me specifically how you would like me to improve, I would greatly appreciate it.” If you feel this is too confrontational, then simply send an email to yourself for your own records.
2. Try Having a Non-Confrontational Conversation
If your boss’s behavior is affecting your self-esteem and ability to perform, express your discomfort in a private conversation held in a neutral setting. Go out for coffee, use words like “When you say X, it makes me feel [uncomfortable, like I’m being attacked, like you want for me to take this personally]” and then document that conversation in an email.
This is may be the hardest suggestion to take, especially if your boss has habitually humiliated you. But if you can keep from accusing him, and frame your argument objectively, you have a greater chance of success. The most important thing to remember here is that your boss’s behavior may not be intentional. If you go into the conversation under the assumption that he is simply unaware of how his comments are affecting you, you will naturally be less combative.
3. Contact HR
If your boss blows off your concerns, or if his behavior doesn’t improve, then you need to alert HR. Put your documentation into a nice little (or large) organized package and ask your assigned HR rep for a meeting in person. During the conversation, outline your boss’s behavior as objectively as possible, stating when the inappropriate behavior started. Before the conversation ends, ask about the next steps, then send an email that outlines the meeting.
4. Contact an Employment Attorney
This should be your last resort—but if your boss’s behavior continues even after you contact HR (or if HR fails to do anything to address the harassment), you should contact an attorney to look at your documentation and explain your options.
Excelling in your career is difficult enough without bullies standing in your way, but do know that they aren’t insurmountable problems. You can be an effective team member even if your boss doesn’t recognize your efforts; you can neutralize a toxic attitude by changing yours; and you can combat chauvinism, sexism, and all-out humiliation by standing up for yourself (and calling for backup when needed).