How to Professionally Deal With a Bad Boss

Bad to the Bone: Tips for Working With an Exceptionally Bad Boss

Exhausted young man with laptop in office
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You're weary. You're frustrated. You're unhappy. You're demotivated. Your interaction with your boss leaves you cold. Your boss is a bully, intrusive, controlling, picky or petty. You are desperately wondering how you can professionally deal with a bad boss.

Your boss takes credit for your work, never provides positive feedback and misses each meeting that was scheduled with you. Or your boss caves immediately under pressure and fails to support you in accomplishing your job. Your bad boss never recognizes your excellent performance nor that of any other employee, so the office is joyless and unhappy.

Your boss is a bad boss, bad to the bone. Dealing with less than an effective manager, or just plain bad managers and bad bosses is a challenge too many employees face. No matter the character of your bad boss, these ideas will help you deal with them.

Your Bad Boss May Be Unaware He or She Is Bad

Start your campaign by understanding that your boss may not know that he or she is a bad boss. Just as in situational leadership, the definition of bad depends on the employee's needs, the manager's skills and the circumstances of the situation.

A hands-off manager may not realize that their failure to provide any direction or feedback makes them a bad boss. Your boss may think he or she is empowering the staff. A manager who provides too much direction and micromanages may feel insecure and uncertain about their own job. This boss may not realize their direction is insulting to a competent, secure, self-directed staff member.

Or, maybe the boss lacks training and is so overwhelmed with his or her job requirements that they can’t provide support for you. Perhaps your boss has been promoted too quickly, or the staff reporting responsibilities have expanded beyond his or her competence and reach. In these days of downsizing, responsibilities are often shared by fewer staff members than ever before which can affect their ability to do the job well.

This bad boss may not share your values. The youngest generations of workers expect that they can use their vacation time and take action to make work-life balance a priority. A flexible work schedule may make the job their dream job. But, not all bosses share these views. Some, for example, think that remote workers harm the culture and interfere with developing a culture of teamwork.

If your values are out of sync with those of your boss, and you don't think this imbalance will change, you do have a problem. Maybe it's time to change bosses. But, until then, these actions are recommended for you to preserve your relationship, such as it is.

The Balance

How to Approach Dealing With an Unwitting Bad Boss

  • Talk to this boss. Tell the boss what you need to succeed in terms of direction, feedback, and support. Be polite and focus on your needs. You need to tell the boss exactly what you need from them. Telling the boss that he or she is a bad boss is counterproductive and won’t help you meet your goals.
  • Ask the manager how you can help them reach the goals they want to achieve. Make sure you listen well and provide the needed assistance he requests.
  • Seek a mentor from among other managers or more skilled peers, with the full knowledge and cooperation of your current manager, to enlarge your opportunity for experience. 
  • If you’ve taken these actions, and they haven’t worked, go to your boss’s manager and ask for assistance. Or, you can go to your Human Resources staff first, to rehearse and gain advice. Understand that your current boss may never forgive you, so ensure that you have done what you can do with your boss, before taking your issues up the line.
  • You may never hear what the boss’s boss or the HR staff did to help solve your bad manager’s behavior. It’s confidential. But, do allow some time to pass for the actions to have their desired impact.
  • If nothing changes, despite your best efforts, and you think the problem is that they don’t believe you, draw together coworkers who also experience the behavior. Visit the boss’s manager to help your boss's boss see the size and impact of the problem behavior.
  • If you think the problem is that your boss can’t—or won’t—change, ask for a transfer to another department. This recommendation presumes you like your employer and your work, so you don't regard quitting or job searching as your best option.
  • If a transfer or promotion is unavailable, begin your search for a new job. Fleeing is always an option. You may want to conduct your job search secretly, but under the circumstances, it may be time for you to go.

When the Bad Boss Knows

A manager at a mid-sized manufacturing company wanted to improve his approach to working with his employees. He knew that he looked down his nose at them. He criticized and screamed at employees. He publicly humiliated any employee who made a mistake, as examples of his bad boss behavior.

One day he called to ask a question of his consultant. The question doomed the relationship to disappointment when he said, “I know that you don’t approve of me screaming at staff as a regular thing.” Agreed. “So, can you tell me, please, what are the circumstances under which it is okay for me to scream at them?”

This manager thought his behavior was perfectly acceptable. (The end of the story? He never did change and was eventually removed as manager.) Most managers that bully, intimidate, cruelly criticize, name-call and treat you as if you are stupid likely know what they are doing. They may know they’re bad and even revel in their badness. 

They may feel their behavior has been condoned—and even encouraged—within their organization. They may have learned the behaviors from their former supervisor who was viewed as successful.

You don’t have to put up with demeaning behavior.

You deserve a good boss who helps your self-confidence and self-esteem grow. You deserve a good boss who helps you advance your career. You deserve civil, professional treatment at work.

How to Approach the Bad Boss Who Knows They're Bad

  • Start by recognizing that you have the right to a professional environment in your workplace. You are not the problem. You have a bad boss. The bad boss is the problem. You need to deal with them.
  • You can try talking with the bad boss to share the impact that the actions or words are having on you or your performance. In a rare blue moon, the bad boss might care enough to work to modify this behavior. If the manager does decide to work on his or her behavior, hold them to their commitments. If you allow him or her to yell at you, even just a little bit, you are training them that they can get away with the former behavior.
  • Don’t go to war publicly with your boss, but draw your boss's behavior to the manager's attention as soon as you have the opportunity, privately.
  • If the behavior does not change, appeal to their manager and to the Human Resources staff. Describe exactly what your manager does and the impact the behavior is having on you and your job performance.
  • You may never hear what the boss’s boss or the HR staff did to help solve your bad manager’s behavior. It’s confidential. But, do allow some time to pass for the actions they may have tried to have their desired impact.
  • If nothing changes, despite your best efforts, and you think the problem is that they don’t believe you, draw together coworkers who also experience the behavior. Visit the boss’s manager to share the size and impact of the behavior.
  • If you think the problem is that your boss can’t—or won’t—change, ask for a transfer to another department. This recommendation presumes that you like your employer and your work. If not, job searching may be your next best option.
  • If a transfer or promotion is unavailable, begin your search for a new job for sure. Fleeing is always an option if your bad boss won't change. You may want to conduct your job search secretly, but under the circumstances, it may be time for you to go.