Published on October 14th, 2007 by Alan L Sklover
“No one can make you feel small without your consent.”
- Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
ACTUAL CASE HISTORIES: Every now and then our readers forward to us an issue they’d like – or need – to be addressed. This issue is easily one of the most commonly presented to us: “How can I deal with the ‘Boss from Hell?’” What is different about readers who ask us to address this particular issue is that their requests have an air of urgency, perhaps even desperation, about them.
Firstly, we’re not psychologists, and we have no training or expertise in mental disorders or diseases. And, too, we have no greater reservoir of common sense than our readers do. What we do have, and what we can offer to our readers, is the benefit of a lot of experience working with people in facing this very issue: “How can I deal with the ‘Boss from Hell?’”
It’s tough dealing with a very difficult person, especially one who has power over you, as a boss does. One of the most difficult things about dealing with such “mad people” is their unpredictability. They seem less rational, less understandable, less balanced than most other people we come across. Many of them can be quite charming one moment, and then absolutely, frighteningly evil, the next. It is this seeming sense of “You never know what to expect” that makes even smart, happy, hardworking people want to run away in fear from “Bosses from Hell.”
A second difficult aspect of dealing with “Bosses from Hell” is that they often seem to find ways to weaken those who report to them, and then to manipulate using those they have weakened. Clients tell us that such bosses have an uncanny ability to find their weakest points, their fears and anxieties, and to exploit those weakest points for their own advantage. It might be the employee’s desire for advancement, it may be their fear of job loss. Whatever it is, certain bosses make it their practice not to build their employees up, but to tear them down, and then to control them in that way.
Third, “Bosses from Hell” are often particularly adroit in their ability to “manage up,” that is, to convince those that they, themselves, report to, that they are great managers and leaders. They are masters at accomplishing little, but stealing credit and casting blame. Such bosses often are grand self-promoters, successful “glad-handers,” and office politicians.
While we can generalize about “Bosses from Hell,” just as every employee is a unique person, every workplace is a unique environment, so, too, is every difficult boss a different problem. But from years of experience, and pondering over the years what works and what doesn’t work in dealing with “Bosses from Hell,” we feel we can offer to our readers certain general observations and certain general rules to follow, or at least to consider.
LESSON TO LEARN: If your boss is someone who truly fits the description of a “Boss from Hell,” you have a real problem. Chances are you’ve tried everything you can think of to make him or her happy, but nothing seems to work. You may have begun to wonder whether there is something wrong with you. You know, or should know by now, that the chances that you will change your boss into a pleasant person are “between slim and none.” That being said, there are things you can keep in mind, perhaps practice, that might give you some respite, at least until you find another job.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Here are a few points to ponder regarding what you might be able to do to help yourself in dealing with your own “Boss from Hell”:
1. Don’t expect miracles. Some people hope against hope that, “Eventually it will get better.” Remember that people rarely change their personalities in fundamental ways. Unless struck by a lightening bolt, a “toxic tyrant” rarely becomes a pleasure to work for. No matter how good a negotiator you are, no matter how many times your bombastic boss says he or she will change his or her ways, it’s unlikely that “a leopard will change its spots.” The odds are overwhelmingly against a truly cunning louse becoming a truly caring leader. If you are hoping against hope that your boss will lighten up, you are probably missing the one, big point.
2. Don’t consider trying to convince by engaging in argument or debate. One thing you will never, ever do: convince this type of person you are correct, even if you are correct, and undeniably “correct.” Such bosses don’t care about “correct,” they only care about “control.” Arguments and debates will not resolve open issues with people like this, but instead escalate them to a higher level. And that’s just what a “Boss from Hell” usually wants: to create a fight, so that he or she can win a fight.
3. At the same time, don’t try to “fight fire with fire.” Trust me, you’ll only get burned. Some people think that they can out-scream a screamer, or out-manipulate a manipulator. Sure, it’s possible, but the odds against it working for you are miniscule. Don’t plan on beating this kind of animal at its own game: it simply won’t work. Besides, if a difficult boss feels you’re difficult too, he or she will find a way to fire you. Don’t forget the farmer’s saying, “Don’t wrestle with pigs: you get dirty and they enjoy the mud.”
4. If your well-being ever seems at risk, remove yourself immediately. One thing is for sure: no job is worth getting injured for, or getting sick over. Health and safety are just too, too, important to place at risk. If you ever feel that your health or safety is being placed into jeopardy or even being compromised by interaction with your boss, immediately remove yourself. If you are in a meeting, or are summoned to one, that you feel will upset you, bear in mind you always have a “free pass” to get out of it: tell your boss “I think I may vomit, I must leave to the ladies’ (or men’s) room,” or “I am afraid my bowels are loose; I must go home.” It may sound crude, but it provides needed cover to avoid danger. Do, though, always make sure to make a record of why you left, and where you went, so that no one can claim you “ran out of a meeting” or “abandoned your job” without good reason. If you are under attack in any sense of the word, get out of the environment, whatever it takes. If the offensiveness reaches the point of threats to your safety, you should not hesitate to report the matter, as well, to the local police.
5. Make a list of witnesses, documents and events. Perhaps the most strategic thing you can do to protect yourself from the “Boss from Hell” is to gather evidence of his or her hostility, dishonesty, and/or improper behavior. This can take the form of names of witness to his tirades, copies of emails in which she threatened to fire people for petty infractions or, worse, for refusing to engage in wrongdoing, even pieces of broken cups he has thrown against the wall. There are three kinds of evidence: (a) testimonial evidence (witnesses), (b) physical evidence (documents and such things as shattered coffee cups), and (c) circumstantial evidence (the last six assistants all quit within a year.) Likewise, if your doctor has prescribed anxiety medication for you, or you have begun seeing a therapist, make a list of each prescription, each elevation of dosage, and each office visit. Building a paper trail of “hellishness” will give you the ammunition you will need if ever you decide to take an offensive posture. One reminder: keep your collection of evidence at home, never in the office, and don’t mention it to others.
Just knowing that you are assembling leverage against such a person will likely make you at least somewhat “protected” in the eyes of the law, as well as in your Boss’s eyes, too.
6. Consider reporting the “hellish” conduct. Here’s where “the rubber hits the road.” Though it takes considerable courage, give serious consideration to reporting your boss’s hostility, dishonesty or other improper behavior to higher-ups. The primary purpose of making an official complaint is to have your “offensive” boss put on the “defensive” by being placed under official scrutiny. This, alone, should temper his temper. A secondary purpose of making an official complaint is to provide a rationale and leverage for your being granted either a reassignment to a different boss, or a severance package if you should decide to leave. Should you decide to report your boss for his or her transgressions, you would be well-advised to offer to share your collection of evidence of improper behavior, as noted above. Any such report absolutely must be done by email and/or Federal Express, so that you will always be able to prove when it was delivered, and to whom. Your “target recipient” should be one or more senior-most executives of the company’s management. If your offensive boss is the CEO herself, then your “target” should be the members of the company’s Board of Directors.
Just as assembling leverage against your boss will make you feel somewhat “protected,” you will become less anxious after you file a complaint against your boss, accompanied by evidence. As folksinger Joan Baez said, “Action is the antidote to despair.”
7. Take regular steps to reduce your own stress. Dealing with the “Boss from Hell,” no matter how you do it, is a stressful endeavor. Stress is an acknowledged cause of physical maladies, in all different forms. If you are facing a “Boss from Hell,” or perhaps even facing down such a person in your life, it is very important that you develop a regular habit of stress reduction. Whether it is physical exercise, yoga, meditation, prayer, working with the less fortunate, or any other endeavor – so long as it is nothing that is deleterious to your health, such as alcohol, cigarettes or drugs, do it a lot. Consider walking around the block ten times every morning, or visiting your house of worship every evening. And pay extra attention to personal relations that are important to you; you don’t need to compound your problem at work with problems inside you, or at home.
8. Plan your “getaway.” Sooner or later, and preferably sooner, you should try to get away from your “Boss from Hell,” because it is simply the best way to deal with such people. Whether by internal reassignment, or by external job-change, you should plan your “getaway,” and take preliminary steps to put your plan into action. Revise your resume, start networking, consider meeting with a career coach. Understandably, many people shudder at the thought of leaving behind long-time colleagues, or a prestigious title, or maybe even unvested equity. There are considerable consequences to job change, but the negative consequences of staying under the thumb of a cruel, sadistic “Boss from Hell” will always be greater.
9. If you resign, consider submitting an “involuntary” resignation. Those who end up resigning from a job as a result of a hellish boss should always consider making that resignation a clearly “involuntary” resignation. Putting those two words together might seem oxymoronic, as in the phrases “jumbo shrimp or military intelligence,” but it is not. Said differently, while most people understand the word “resignation” to connote a “voluntary” departure, it is simply not necessarily the case, factually or legally. For one, if you seek unemployment insurance benefits, a “resignation” will make you ineligible for benefits. However, in most states a “justifiable resignation,” meaning a resignation that was not voluntary, but was necessary for some good reason, will qualify you for unemployment insurance benefits. As another example, many companies’ stock option plans provide that you lose unvested options if you leave “voluntarily,” but express (or imply) that you do not lose those options if your resignation is “involuntary.” You make a resignation an “involuntary” one by saying precisely that in your resignation, and by referring to what transpired. [See Ideas 5 and 6, above.]
We offer a 100-Point Pre-Resignation Checklist and a Model Involuntary Resignation Letter to assist you. To obtain these items, simply [click here].
10. You might even be eligible for severance. Severance is usually thought of as compensation (and other benefits) given to an employee who has been involuntarily terminated without cause for firing. Essentially, however, it is the provision of compensation (and other benefits) to an employee in exchange for the employee giving up the employee’s rights to sue the employer, to file a claim with a public authority against the employer, to keep the situation confidential and noto to disparage the company or its employees. as well as other promises. Employees who have been damaged in some way by a supervisor’s actions, or top management’s inaction in response to a danger it was told about [See Idea 6, above] probably have a legal claim against their employers for those damages. Physical (medical) damages, emotional damages, or even career damages may be compensable to you.
To learn more about where you are eligible for severance, check out our many Newsletters and Q&A’s in our Resource Center. To do so, simply [click here].
11. Consider consulting an experienced employment attorney to be “on call” for you. Though I believe that lawyers should be used as sparingly as possible, in situations like these it may be a very good idea to consult with an experienced employment attorney to discuss your legal rights, your legal options, and your legal remedies. A good employment attorney can provide guidance and counsel, and will be able to step into “the fray” on your behalf just in case your situation takes an unfriendly or unexpected turn. Hopefully, through careful and prudent planning, you’ll never need the services of an employment attorney, but like a good surgeon, it’s good to know one in case you need one.
If you would like to obtain a list of five or more experienced employee-side employment attorneys close to your locale, just [click here].
12. Never kick yourself for your predicament. Many people – especially very successful people – are disappointed with themselves for either (a) mistakenly taking a job with a hellish boss who they thought was a wonderful mentor and leader, and/or (b) not being able to correct the situation. Both instincts are mistaken. Psychiatrists say that the most sociopathic people, including serial murderers, are often extremely intelligent and charming; remember Hannibal Lector in the movie, “The Silence of the Lambs?” Secondly, there are just some people whose inner toxicity is at such a high level no one, and I mean no one, can go head-to-head with them and come out a winner. The world is full of wacky people, and no one is immune from accidentally associating with them. You are simply wrong if you blame yourself. Devote all your available energies and thoughts to better things, like finding a better job in a better company, and most of all, for a better boss.
If you would like to obtain a “model” memo to help you report Discrimination, Harassment, or Hostility [click here].
SkloverWorkingWisdom™ emphasizes smart negotiating – and navigating – for yourself at work. To ensure that you are not shortchanged or treated improperly, it sometimes requires that you take measures that are unfamiliar, and seemingly dangerous. But change and improvement take courage and smart thinking. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, and don’t be overly concerned about seeming to be “overly cautious.” There’s problems and difficulties in every aspect of life. Intelligence in preventing and resolving them may make or break your career. Gaining maximum rewards without unnecessary risks is what business is all about. But it takes more than luck to make that happen. It takes forethought, care and prudence, the essential ingredients in good negotiating.
Always be proactive. Always be creative. Always be persistent. Always be aware. And always do what you can to achieve for yourself, your family, and your career. Take all available steps to increase and secure employment “rewards” and eliminate or reduce employment “risks.” That’s what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.
A note about our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.