While I’ve been fortunate to never have had the horrific experience of dealing with a verbally abusive boss, I know not everyone is so lucky. In fact, one of my friend’s (let’s call her Lori) is currently in a decidedly brutal workplace; she’s struggling to keep from falling apart or going red with rage at her manager’s blatant mistreatment.
Her relationship with the boss was once so good that she’d enjoyed dinners at his house. She’d met the wife and kids and thought things couldn’t be better. Until one day when her manager started lashing out at her. He wasn’t just being mean—he was way over the line. And it turned out, it wasn’t an isolated incident.
According to Lori, he’s taken to calling her an “idiot,” asking her if she’s “retarded,” and slamming his office door in her face. The job she once loved has turned miserable, and Lori doesn’t know what to do, particularly because quitting isn’t really an option at the moment.
If this sounds all-too-familiar, then you’ll want to keep reading. Instead of sitting back and taking the abuse or faking sick days with hopes that it’ll stop on its own, here are several different approaches for dealing with the situation head on.
1. You Could Talk to Your Boss
If your relationship prior to this point was amicable, then initiating a real, face-to-face conversation might not be out of the question. Simply request a meeting (best if you can find him in a non-rage filled moment), and say something like, “I understand things aren’t going as well as we’d like with [name of project], but I’m doing everything I can to work with you on it. If there’s anything else I can or should be doing, I’m open to knowing that. But I feel discouraged and upset when you call me names—and it needs to stop immediately.”
Of course, if this isn’t an option for you—the very thought of addressing the abuse in person gives you severe anxiety—then you’ll probably want to skip down to the third or fourth pieces of advice.
2. You Could Send an Email
If you deem the situation so fraught with tension, skip the in-person conversation in favor of a medium that’ll, among other things, serve to document the unpleasant situation.
Remember that this email could get to human resources one day, so be respectful yet firm, and include examples whenever possible. Sometimes, seeing insults written out, can make it very clear, very quickly that they’re unacceptable.
Hi [Boss’ Name],
I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, and I’m here to help in any way that I can, but I’m extremely uncomfortable with the way you’ve been speaking to me. For example, when I did X and you responded with Y. I’d appreciate it if you could refrain from calling me names when we’re working together.
3. You Could Speak to a Team Member
Let’s say you’ve tried discussing this with your boss and nothing’s changed. He called you an “idiot” for asking a question that was crucial to doing your job. He claims to have said it in jest, but whether or not it’s true, you’re not OK with it.
Is there a team member you can confide in? Someone he worked with previously or better still, who worked directly under him at one point? Any tips from someone in the know who could help you navigate this tense situation?
This isn’t a gossip session and should not be viewed as a “team versus the boss situation.” This is you trying to gain a foothold on what’s going on so you’re not resigned to starting a desperate job search. If nothing else, speaking with a colleague may make you temporarily feel better.
4. You Could Pay a Visit to HR
This is a biggie, I know. Given the number of human resources departments that aren’t well-managed, figuring out if yours is one you can trust is tricky. And I don’t advise you to take this step if you’re truly uncertain. But, if you’ve gotten a good feeling about the personnel in this department, and your Sunday Scaries have reached new, heightened levels, you could do worse things than pay them a visit.
According to HR expert and Muse columnist, Dorianne St Fleur, this is the only viable option: “Once your boss has crossed the line from horrible to downright rude and inappropriate, it's time to involve your HR department. Your boss is effectively in control of your pay, promotion and overall trajectory at your company, so confronting him/her head on may not be in your best interest (no matter how hard it may be to resist).”
She explains that “going to HR puts the incident—and your subsequent complaint—on record and gives you an opportunity to express your concerns to someone who can actually help.” Oh, and if you’re anxious about your manager learning of this meeting, St Fleur says don’t be. “Most companies have an anti-retaliation policy (or something similar) that says in no uncertain terms that treating an employee negatively because they've raised an issue to HR will not be tolerated and can carry serious consequences.”
It would suck to have a horrible boss lash out at you, and no matter the basis of your relationship, you shouldn’t stand to be verbally abused—even if you make a mistake or miss an important deadline. “Don’t take it personally” is excellent advice, but it’s not always enough. Remember: You have options. And if none of the above seem right to you, then it might be time to start thinking about quitting and looking for a new job.