Is Your Boss a Bully?


People who cannot manage themselves should not manage others. End of discussion. Threats of physical harm, retribution, and personal attacks are never acceptable, so why do so many people have to deal with verbal abuse in the workplace? Esther Derby offers some sensible strategies for dealing with a scurrilous superior.

Not too long ago, I had lunch with my friend Sarah. I hadn't seen her in a while, so I was surprised when she mentioned that she was leaving the company she has been with for almost ten years. The developers, testers, and other managers at this company respect her, and she loves what she does. Her workplace sounds ideal. So, why is Sarah leaving?

Sarah isn't leaving for a more prestigious position or a higher salary; her boss is driving her out the door. Sarah's manager blows up when things don't go the way he wants them to, and she has had enough. "I'm tired of being screamed at," Sarah said. "Life is too short."

Sarah's not the only one who has had to deal with a hostile boss. According to an article in American Way, "42% of US workers reported incidents of yelling and verbal abuse in their workplace." While some people may feel they have to accept abusive behavior from bosses in order to keep their job, I agree with Sarah: Life is too short.

The Costs of Yelling and Verbal Abuse
Some people I talk to dismiss my concerns about workplace abuse. They tell me I'm too sensitive. "It's just Frank," they say. "He blows up, and then it blows over. Nobody takes it seriously." But there are costs.

People who work for abusive managers often have stress-related problems and illnesses. They miss work due to symptoms, and they are less productive when they are at work. Their energy isn't going into building software; it's going into dealing with the emotional fallout of their manager's behavior.

Yellers also drive attrition - turnover is higher, and it's harder to entice internal candidates to work for a manager who has a reputation for outbursts and abuse. Many people would rather walk out the door than work for an abusive boss. The people who do stay may feel trapped by the job market or their own beaten-down self-esteem. People who feel trapped or beaten-down are not productive workers.

In my experience, abusive managers fall into three categories. How you handle the situation depends on which kind of screamer you're up against.

The Unaware Manager
Strange as it may seem, I've actually met managers who were not even aware they were yelling. Some people come from families where yelling is part of their "normal" communication. They see yelling as expressive, not aggressive. They may not be aware of the effect their yelling has on other people.

The Crack-the-Whip Manager
Some managers believe that people are basically lazy and will not work without coercion and threats of punishment. This view is called "Theory X" management. I don't hear many developers or testers say, "I work better when I'm a little afraid. If my boss didn't threaten me, I'd never get a thing done!" But some managers believe that this is the case. People who hold this view see yelling and threats as appropriate management action. The Out-of-Control Manager
Some people are not able to manage their emotions and responses. These are the bosses that react disproportionately, blow up, vent, swear (we're not talking the occasional "Oh, %#@!"),and generally fly off the handle.

What You Can Do
If your manager is the Out-of-Control variety, you may have to take a strong stance against the abuse.

When your manager becomes abusive, stand up, state that you will not tolerate verbal abuse, and leave the room. Go to HR and file a formal complaint. Keep in mind that HR's job is to protect the company's interests, not yours. In my experience, the higher in the management chain the abuser is, the less likely HR will take action. The company has probably tacitly accepted his behavior for years, but when multiple complaints are on file, HR may decide that it is in the company's best interest to deal with the abuser. If there are witnesses to the abuse, talk to them about corroborating your account.

Bring a tape recorder to your next meeting. Don't hide it. (That could lead to some other problems.) Be quite open, put the recorder on the desk and say "I'm going to record our conversation, so I don't have to rely on my memory to recall all the important things you have to say." Start the recorder. This reduces the chance that your manager will yell. And if she does, it's on tape.

Threats of physical harm, retribution, and personal attacks are over the line. Verbal abuse is never acceptable. People who cannot manage themselves should not manage others. No ifs, ands, or buts. No excuses. End of discussion.

Sometimes the HR department isn't willing to take any action. Consider what you are willing to live with, and start examining your options for another position, in or out of the company. State your reasons for leaving in the exit interview.

There's more hope for managers who aren't out of control. Start with the most generous interpretation and the smallest intervention.

Assume your manager isn't aware that he's yelling. Comment on the yelling and the effect it's having on you. In a calm voice say, "What you have to say is important to me, but I can't hear you when you're yelling." This may be enough to jolt the yeller into awareness.

A manager who continues to yell may be a Theory X Manager. You probably won't change his mind, but you might change his behavior. State again that it's important that you hear what he has to say, but right now you can't because of his yelling. State that you will reschedule the meeting for later in the day, and then leave the room. When you meet again, tell him the effect that his yelling has on you. Request that meetings and conversations take place in a normal tone of voice. If that fails, consider bringing a tape recorder to meetings, and contact HR.

Employees have a right to be treated with respect and dignity in the workplace. Like most bullies, many mega-decibel managers cease and desist when faced with resistance. When you encounter an abusive manager, hold on to your self-esteem, take action, and decide whether the paycheck is worth the price.

User Comments

1 comment
cassandra little star's picture
cassandra little star

I was recently forced to leave a company I had been with for almost two years. This past Friday my supervisor called another worker and I outside to talk when we got outside he began to yell and try to cuss at us then starting pointing his fingers in my face and proceeded to hollar around even more. I acted out of defense because to me I felt as if my boss had wanted to fight (fist fight) I screamed at him and told him to take his hands out of my face in which he did it even more provoking the argument and turning it into an all out screaming match. The other co worker watched everything go down and in the end said herself that it wasn't right for what he did to us. She was calm but I was almost in tears. I said what I needed to say and was going to leave it at that until he began to provoke the argument again. It ultimately ended with me saying I quit in which he just shrugged his shoulders as if thats what he was waiting for my co worker pleaded with me to reconsider my decision but I felt so humiliated and attacked that I felt I no longer wanted to be there. Is there anything I can do? I am the fourth worker to leave the company due to his abusive behavior! Do you have any advice that you can offer?

January 13, 2013 - 2:59am

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