How to protect yourself from a bad boss

Aug 9, 2018

Even in 2018, there are a lot of people that don't get the fact that bullying is not OK. And when the person doing the bullying is your boss, it can suck the joy out of work, or worse, interfere with your home life, relationships and health. 

The next thing you know, that boss isn’t just dictating work — they’re ruining your life.

Kathi Elster of K2 Enterprises, a company that produces workplace seminars and provides management consulting services, gets it. With 27 years of experience as a career and executive coach, she’s helped employees escape toxic situations and coached leadership to create a healthier environment in the first place. She's also the co-author of "Working With You Is Killing Me: Freeing Yourself from Emotional Traps at Work" and "Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal."

She stopped by to talk with Marketplace host David Brancaccio about bosses who bully their employees. Here are a few tips she shared for making the best of a bad situation and protecting yourself. 

1. Try to set boundaries

“If [employees] don't like the way they're being treated, they have to set healthy boundaries and tell the boss: “'Listen, the way you spoke to me was very painful. Are you willing to approach me in a different way?'” Elster said.  

“You can actually tell people above you that you’d like to be treated a little differently.”

Speaking up isn’t easy and in some situations, it can be dangerous. But if you feel comfortable, try telling your boss how you’d like to be treated.

2. Know human resources might not have your back

HR’s first priority is compliance — things like benefits — and it has a history of protecting the company, not you. Many HR departments aren’t even trained in interpersonal dynamics, according to Elster.

But you might be able to find support with other co-workers or managers. Elster suggested finding another manager to talk to, or another co-worker who might have the same problem.

“And I always like to go in numbers. Let's say there are three or four of you that are having the same issue, because then it's undeniable,” Elster said. 

3. Take notes

Document everything, starting from the moment things get weird.

“If you have an interaction with your boss that's particularly disturbing, document it. Make sure you get things in writing. After you meet with your boss, send them an email stating what they just said," Elster said.

She also reminded us that in some states, recording interactions with your boss without his or her consent is legal. But in many states, both parties must have knowledge of the recording, also known as two-party consent. (You can find out the laws in your state here.)

Elster said documenting can help guard against false performance reviews: “It's the boss's way of bullying you, they want you out. You have to start taking care of yourself.”

And when the situation is flipped, Elster suggests managers bring another person into the room when they have to have an uncomfortable conversation with an employee, so that there is a witness. 

4. When all else fails, find a new job

This might sound obvious, but here’s a reminder for those who need it: Don’t work for a boss who makes you miserable.

Elster has a quick checklist of signs you need to leave: “If it is hurting your self-esteem, if you're not sleeping at night, if you find yourself going to the doctor to get medication for your anxiety or your depression, it's time to change your job.”

Leaving quickly isn’t an option for everyone. If you’re stuck, check out our recent interview on using mindfulness to try and manage the situation until you find another job.