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Bullied By Your Boss? Here's What You Can Do About It

by Gretchen Brown
March 13, 2019 | Work

Sarah’s supervisor never raised her voice.

But Sarah, then 21, felt berated nonetheless, often personally insulted if she made mistakes as a waitress at a golf course restaurant in southern Minnesota.

At times, her supervisor would take over tables with expected high tip payouts, even refusing to fairly distribute some tips, a form of wage theft.

“I tried my best not to let her bother me, because I knew I was a good worker,” Sarah said. She asked that her last name not be used in this article.

But Sarah couldn’t immediately quit. She needed the money.

Sarah’s situation isn’t unique. According to one study, one-fifth of all Americans have been bullied on the job.

“There’s a big difference between a boss saying, ‘Hey, I really need you to take on more tasks’… and when someone comes in and says, ‘You’re an idiot, you’re a moron, why can't you do anything right?’” said Elizabeth Schrimpf, a career counselor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I think a lot of people know the difference between a boss expecting a high performance, and a boss saying and doing something that brings up personal criticism.”

Stuck in a hostile environment

Last month, presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar was criticized for bullying behaviors after former employees said she had thrown a binder at a staff member and frequently demeaned and threatened to fire others.

Illustration of older African-American male yelling at younger subordinate. Bullied by your boss pbs rewire
There’s no upside to getting bullied by a supervisor. Many of the solutions are uncomfortable at best, and may require you to leave a job you hoped you’d love.

Klobuchar has responded saying she is a “tough boss” in a demanding work environment.

And last year, longtime public radio talk show host Tom Ashbrook was dismissed following allegations that he had created a “hostile work environment,” called employees “worthless” and “described their work using profanity.”

These cases have brought workplace bullying out into the open.

But if you believe you’re being bullied, it can be hard to know what you can do about it.

Take culture into account

RJ Holmes-Leopold, director of the Career Center at Carleton College in Minnesota, recommends first looking at where your manager’s behavior fits in with the larger culture of the organization.

Is it a place where assertiveness or aggressiveness is the norm? If so, you might have a hard time seeing change.

“I know that there are certain industries that are very high-stress environments,” he said. “But there are offices and organizations in the industry that handle that stress in different ways.”

As Holmes-Leopold points out, there are often differences in cultural expectations depending on race and gender.

For instance, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has also been accused of being gruff with his staffers. But instead of described as a bully, he’s been called “grumpy” — which some point out draws attention to a double standard between leaders of different genders.

There’s also evidence of a double standard when it comes to race.

A 2012 Harvard study found that Latina women are more likely to be seen as “angry” in the workplace, even when they’re not, suggesting that racial stereotypes can also cause actions in the workplace to be misread.

Taking cultural differences into account, Holmes-Leopold said it’s up to you to decide whether the behavior you’re experiencing is worth staying involved in the organization and the industry.

“Every organization has a dysfunction,” he said. “Ultimately you have to choose what dysfunction you want to live with.”

The more direct, the better.

If you think you want to stay, Schrimpf recommends bringing up the bullying behavior directly to your supervisor.

Describe the specific incident and be assertive, starting with “I felt…

“Using something like that immediately in the moment can be a really really effective way to discover for yourself, 'Is this an ongoing behavior or is it a one-off?'” Schrimpf said. “Sometimes things happen, and they’re not intentional or meant in a certain way.”

Often, your manager will be receptive to that feedback.

In some cases, what one person perceives as bullying can stem from miscommunication about the expectations of the job.

But if your supervisor is a true bully, they may use the conversation as an opportunity to escalate their behavior.

‘Rite of passage?’

You may not feel comfortable confronting your boss at all.

Sarah didn’t, in part because she was new to the job.

“I think it’s one of those things where, especially in your early positions right after college, it’s easy to be dismissive when abuse can happen in the workplace,” Holmes-Leopold said. “Because it’s accepted as, this is a rite of passage, or this is what is normal for new people.”

That can lead to a certain silence around bullying in the office.

As an alternative to confronting your manager directly, you can always talk to a trusted coworker about it, or bring the issue straight to human resources.

You may find out through talking to a coworker that you’re not alone in your experience.

Your Human Resources department can act as a mediator in many cases. Come prepared with documentation — for instance, if your boss constantly calls you a lazy employee, have data available that shows that you are productive.

It can be tempting to stay quiet. But it’s a good idea talk to someone, whether that’s your therapist, a clergy member or another mentor, who might be able to help you navigate the situation.

When staying isn’t an option

Alternatively, talking to someone might help you realize the workplace is not for you, that you’re better off leaving the situation completely.

Sarah's job was seasonal. She left at the end of the summer to go back to college.

When the next summer rolled around, she didn't return.

"I knew I did not want to go back there, mainly because of the work environment (the boss) created," Sarah said.

If that’s the route you take, you still have a chance to tell the organization what’s been going on.

“An exit interview is a tool a lot of people don’t know about,” Schrimpf said.

In an exit interview, you sit down confidentially with HR staff. You’re able to share what went well during your time with the organization, and what went wrong.

These are important for organizations because, at bare minimum, losing an employee is expensive.

Exit interviews, then, are a chance for the organization to get frank and honest feedback about the way things are run. And it’s the perfect setting for you to bring up bullying behavior.

Learning from being bullied by your boss

There’s no upside to getting bullied by a supervisor.

Many of the solutions are uncomfortable at best, and may require you to leave a job you hoped you’d love.

But if you’re hoping to break into a management position someday, you should take note of those behaviors, and learn from them, Holmes-Leopold said.

Early in his career, he had a boss who was very negative. It made him realize that was not how he wanted to be in the future.

“It’s certainly something that has shaped my philosophy of management and leadership,” Holmes-Leopold said. “It taught me what not to be. And I take that to heart.”

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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