It’s 8 a.m. and you are at your desk scrolling through emails when you hear your boss, in full drama mode, ripping paper in the printer room and cursing not quite under his breath because he—heaven forfend—must add paper to the printer.
Yes, it’s the first official tantrum of the day and you know there will be at least two more by sundown.
Wistfully, you miss your floor-kicking toddler as you listen to the adult tantrum die down. At least toddlers are developmentally appropriate. And, without a shadow of doubt, you know that if you had a cow because you had to add paper to the printer (not that you would because you have more patience in your pinky nail right now than your boss can amass in his lifetime, apparently), you’d be tossed on your ear.
As a parent, I want one perk of my job to be time spent in the adult world with people who have an adult range of perception and patience and who can maintain their professional cool. Tantrums, yelling, strange grudges, underhandedness, control-freakery, bullying and the like are, at best, childish and tedious. Unfortunately, you cannot put your boss in a timeout.
Wouldn’t it be fun if you could, though?
But beware if your boss is also a bully, or underhanded in some way, because he or she could be quite dangerous and you need to consider carefully why you are working where you are and, if you wish to stay, how you will deal with any potential landmines now and in the future. Your own self-control and awareness are important.
Unsavory management behaviors that do not fully rise to the level of breaking company policy or Federal law, require special care and handling. The following list provides a sample of some common supervisory problems:
- Providing poor direction and detail for an assignment even when prompted to explain further
- Dismissive of earnest effort (not giving credit where credit is due or chronic “what have you done for me lately?” syndrome)
- Unwilling to mentor, train or encourage advancement
- Chronic lack of follow through on promises
- Snide, cutting and insulting
- Opportunists who use you to do work beyond your pay scale or training
- Clearly misogynistic or discriminating without meeting the legal definition of harassment or discrimination
- Dishonest and undercutting
- Vengeful (keeping score, holding grudges, retaliating)
- Paranoid or some other kind of crazy that is unsettling
So, how do you deal with the corporate version of Lord of the Flies? Here are a few ideas that may help you either improve your situation or pave a safe exit strategy short of calling in the Marines:
- Understand that valid criticism is not poor management: Bosses will give you feedback you dislike. It’s a given. You need to be able to accept constructive feedback, accept responsibility for mistakes and try to improve your game without resentment.
- Understand the corporate world is not based on fairness: There is no fair-play principle at work. It is understandable to wish for that, but it is unrealistic. Do not spin your wheels wishing it weren’t so. It is so.
- Know your company policies backwards and forwards: There may come a time when your boss will actually cross the line and behave against company policy. You want to know where that line is and what defines that line. This may be the only leverage you have, should you need it.
- Document troubling behaviors and incidents: Even as you try to take other measures to make a situation workable for you, keep a record of your interactions with your boss as a safeguard. In 20 years of work life, I have only had one boss who was seriously disturbed but boy do I wish I had bothered to keep a written record from the beginning of that position. My excuse was, “I’m too busy!” And I was. But that was part of the problem. In my own self-interest, I should have taken a few minutes each day to document what was going on.
- Report harassment and discrimination: If you suspect you are being harassed or discriminated against, do not wait. Go immediately to human resources to report the problem. In addition to that, do your own research because human resource employees represent the company and not you. Depending on the severity of the situation, you may need outside counsel.
- Speak up early: The sooner you say something to your boss, the better. For example, if your boss mutters a snide remark, don’t let it slide. Immediately ask him to repeat it clearly so you can understand what he is saying. Politely, but firmly (not accusingly), make him accountable for his words. Note that a bully can hugely overreact when you flag his or her ill-intentioned behavior. To use the example above, people who mutter snide remarks are betting you will not react. However, ignoring their behavior will not end it. If you need to go to upper management, they will ask if you confronted your boss and tried to fix it. Uncomfortable or not, it is best to express yourself. Yes, this may cause a chain reaction with an unstable colleague. However, your alternative is to allow this behavior to continue. If you feel you can’t speak up, look for another job. Not fun, but better for you.
- Keep doing the best you can with your duties: Do your best to maintain dialogue. Be proactive. Find out in advance what your boss needs and do your best to follow through. Even if your boss’s behavior is getting you down or making you less interested in your job, try to stay focused so that your performance doesn’t suffer. Ideally, you want to be able to document and show proof that you are doing good work. Keep copies and timelines of what you do and have these readily available if you need to stand up for yourself. No matter where you work and no matter how great your job is at the moment, you would do well to always keep records of your own work, completion times and hours.
- Walk the high road: The double standard is alive and well. Just because your boss gets away with outrageous behavior does not mean you will. Take a quick walk. Meditate. Do whatever it takes to calm yourself.
- No idle complaining to colleagues: Your colleagues, as nice as they may be, are not your BFFs. They might not keep your opinions confidential and they could have hidden agendas. What is important is preserving your job and work environment for as long as you can, or until you find another position.
- Always have a plan: Most people who work for lousy managers want to escape. Know your Plan B. With a negative-impact boss, it would be wise to keep your resume in circulation. If you feel it is safe to do so, let human resources know that you would like to look for other positions within the company.
In the end, have faith. Good bosses are out there, there are plenty of non-toxic work environments and you really do deserve better.