career corner
How to handle a bully boss
We’re continuing our theme for Career Corner in which IU Southeast faculty guest author this section. This issue, the guest
author is business professor Ken Harris, who recently co-authored a study on bully bosses
Anyone who has ever worked has had
a boss. Exactly what kind of boss varies
widely – running the gamut from
great to terrible and
everywhere in
Some bosses are kind, supportive, and
have their subordinates’ best interests
in mind. Unfortunately, others are rude
and inconsiderate, publicly demean
those reporting to them, and are less
than respectful. We call these types of
supervisors “bully bosses” (or abusive
When thinking about bully bosses,
lots of us conjure up images of famous
sports coaches (like recently fired
Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike
Rice) and political and organizational
leaders known for their bullying
behaviors. Bully bosses have become
so common that a recent Hollywood
movie, “Horrible Bosses”, jokingly
focused on employee actions to “get rid
of” their bad managers.
Sadly, if you’ve worked long enough,
there’s a good chance you’ve
encountered a bad boss at your
company. Yes, we’ve likely all seen
no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone
types, however bully bosses are
something entirely different. A boss
doesn’t necessarily have to be friendly
i.e., a no-nonsense type supervisor), to
be considered respectful, supportive,
and/or appropriate. In fact, bully bosses
are often ones who might make jokes
and be light-hearted at certain times,
before engaging
in yelling or
demeaning behaviors
at others.
A natural question might be, are bully
bosses really a big deal? I’ve heard
people say that individuals need
to have thicker skin and be able to
handle “the real world” if they want
to succeed. Although there is some
truth to the idea that thick skin can
help in surviving organizational life,
bully bosses not only cross the line,
but they are associated with many
negative workplace outcomes.
My colleagues and I, as well as other
researchers, investigated
bully bosses (termed
abusive supervisors) and
found that bully bosses
are related to negative
consequences such as
decreased job performance and
satisfaction, as well as higher
levels of employee turnover
and workplace deviance.
Once they’ve begun, abusive
supervisor behaviors are
difficult to stop. Whereas physical
bullying gets stopped immediately,
being rude or inconsiderate is much
more subjective and seems to be less of
a big deal. As a result, bully bosses are
actually more pervasive and often times
the biggest source of employee stress.
Acknowledging that bully bosses are
unfortunately) relatively common and
pervasive, what should you do if you
find yourself in one of these situations?
Here are a couple pieces of advice to
help you either manage or escape a
bully boss.
Take the high road
If your boss is
a bully, your temptation may be to
respond in a similar fashion. Although
this might feel good in the moment, it
is highly unlikely to help your situation
in either the short- or long-term. Be
professional and stay calm.
Document, document, document
your boss acts in a bullying way, make
sure you record the incident. If it ever
comes time to report these behaviors,
documentation of multiple specific
events will carry more weight than
vague memories without details to back
them up.
Continue doing your job at a high level
Although some bully bosses abuse
everyone, many selectively bully. Of
the potential targets, employees
who perform well and have
positive attitudes are some of
the least attractive for bullies.
Bosses understand that their
performance is at least somewhat
tied to how those below them
Politely and delicately) Let your
boss know
We often assume
that a bully boss knows
about their behavior, but
many times they don’t.
A polite “When you do that, it
makes me feel ___” statement can
at least bring the issue to your boss’s
attention, and they might work to
improve their behavior.
Keep your options open
there may come a time when a bully
boss is intolerable. If you have kept
your performance high, you may have
other options at your current place of
employment or be attractive to other
companies. Other job opportunities
work to not only increase your power
and control of the situation, but also
lessen your dependence on the job and
bully boss.