What to Do When the Boss is a Bully

Bullying in the workplace is common, with one in five surveyed adults stating that they have been affected by bullying behavior at work. On average, victims spend five years putting up with the abuse before leaving the company. Part of the reason for the long suffering is that many people are fearful of telling their boss about the bad behavior. But what do you do if the bully IS the boss?

For most employees, it becomes a matter of should I stay or should I go? Do I ignore the bad behavior, can I fight against the bad behavior, or do I need to find a new employer?

Understanding the methods and motivations of the most common types of bully boss and the typical responses of an employer, can help you to figure out what to do when your boss is a bully.

4 Most Common Types of Bully Boss

The Jerk Boss

Public humiliation is the preferred method of intimidation for the jerk. He/she is insecure and looks for ways to dehumanize or minimize others in order to look better to an audience.  This bully generally belittles based on stereotypes ad focuses on gender, sexual orientation, race, political or religious affiliation, age, weight, physical ability, etc. often cloaking bullying behavior with “jokes” or indirect criticisms such as forwarded emails, videos, cartoons, etc.

Some jerk bosses don’t realize that they are being a jerk. Think of the fictional character Michael Scott in The Office. He made inappropriate “jokes,” forwarded racist and sexist cartoons via email, and generally made people feel uncomfortable with his comments and behavior. He saw himself as the office comedian.

Other jerk bosses take the “it’s my way or the highway” approach and make it clear their personal preferences when it comes to politics, religion, sexual stereotypes, etc. The boss who announces his political opinions and assumes that everyone agrees falls into this category. Employees often feel that they have to listen to and agree with the political pontificating. A boss who comments on the weight of an obese person, forwards diet info, may genuinely believe that they are helping to motivate.

Of course, some jerks just get off on offending others and see marginalizing you as a way to maintain control or as a means of deflecting attention from themselves. Bosses that feel ill equipped for their position will often create a pecking order to keep eyes focused on the target and not on themselves.


The Punitive Boss

The bully boss who sees you as a potential threat often uses punitive measures to gain control. The goal is to make you either leave your position or to make you look inadequate to others, particularly higher ups and decision makers. Unlike the jerk who uses a public forum, the punitive bully criticizes you privately, insinuates that your job is not secure, and/or attempts to make your workmates ostracize you through gossip and inuendo, suggesting that you are incompetent.  

Sometimes the victim becomes the target due to a perceived lack of loyalty. If you aren’t seen as a team player, even if you haven’t actually “betrayed” your boss, you may be targeted for “punishment.”

Some bosses use an aggressive, punitive management style, rewarding people seen as “good” employees and punishing “bad” employees. This type of management style often includes bullying, ostracizing, and shaming. In these instances, the boss is not bullying you as a person, but rather bullying you as an unsatisfactory or underproducing team member.  Not that this makes it better for you, but may help you to understand the motivation.


The Physically Aggressive Boss

The physically aggressive bully uses his/her body to intimidate and control employees. This often includes violence, the threat of violence, or aggressive touching. While we generally think of fighting behavior metered out in anger, physical aggression can include “rough housing,” back slapping, or other aggressive touching, even when done with a playful intent.

Physical aggression isn’t limited to actual physical contact or threat. It can include the purposeful or hostile invasion of personal space or using the body to prevent you from movement, without actual touching. A boss who corners an employee, towers over him/her in a cubical, or blocks a doorway to intimidate is using physical aggression.


The Sexually Aggressive Boss

Sexual aggression in the workplace is receiving increased scrutiny due to high profile victims speaking out against powerful people. In most of these instances, the boss has either attempted to physically force the victim to have sex or demanded that if the target doesn’t engage in sex, he or she could lose their job or some other harm may befall them. 

In some situations however, the sexually aggressive bully isn’t interested in sex with the target, instead he/she creates a hostile, sexually charged work environment through inappropriate “jokes”, comments, pictures, videos, etc. The boss may also protect others who are sexually aggressive to co-workers or use the threat of revealing sexual information about the target to others in order to shame the target.


So, how does a person deal with a bully boss?

That depends. If you work in a small business or the owner of the business is the bully, you are unlikely to resolve the situation.  There are occasions where a “Jerk” boss may genuinely believe that the sexist, racist, or otherwise offensive jokes are part of friendly banter and might be receptive to a private, non-judgmental conversation. However, many “jerks” will dismiss any challenge to their “comedy routine” as you being “too sensitive” or not being a “good sport.”

The goal of the punitive bully is to punish you, so they are unlikely to change and of course, confronting a physically or sexually aggressive bully can be dangerous. Generally, if you work for a small business or in a place where the owner of the business is the bully, you don’t have much recourse and should consider looking for a new position elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that you can’t potentially sue for constructive discharge, but it does mean that things are unlikely to change or improve for you as an employee at that firm.

If you work for a government office or a mid-to large sized company, you typically have more options for combating bullying. Thanks to the #metoo movement and high profile sexual harassment allegations, as well as increased focus on workplace bullying and general employee wellness, most larger organizations have adopted protocol for dealing with inappropriate behavior. That doesn’t mean however that all companies are quick to defend victims. Generally, a company has to walk a fine line to protect themselves from litigation, both from a victim and from the accused bully.

To increase the chance of a positive outcome:

Document the Abuse

If you are being bullied, it is important that you document the abuse. Keep emails, create a journal where you list full details of instances and actions, keep texts or phone messages, anything that shows the behavior that you are suffering. Keep a record of ALL instances. Bullying, from a legal perspective, often requires more than one instance of behavior. Remember to keep copies for yourself. Never give your only proof away.

Do NOT rely on other employees who might have been witness to the abuse, stepping forward. Even if they are sympathetic, the vast majority of people will not risk their own job or the ire of the bully, to support you.

Of course, if you are being physically or sexually assaulted or threatened, go to the police.


Understand the Parties and Likely Responses

Many victims, once they gather the courage to report the abuse, expect quick action and public shaming of the bully. This almost never happens. People are considered innocent until proven guilty. While you have rights, so does the bully. Until the situation has been investigated, your accusations against the bully are only that, accusations.

You must understand that the bully is unlikely to admit any wrong doing. He/she will defend their actions, claim that the accused behavior never took place, claim that you misunderstood the behavior and have reached the wrong conclusions, or state that you are making the claims to punish the bully or gain financial compensation from the company. This is why documentation is so important.

Companies have to walk a very fine line when investigating claims and taking actions against employees. They will likely have protocol in place to document your claims and investigating the situation, while protecting the Company from any liability.  Remember that you aren’t the only party who might sue a firm. The bully boss can also sue for wrongful termination if the company has violated any employment laws or the terms of his/her employment contract.  It is important that you remember that a company’s top priority is to protect the company.  


Understand and Respect the Process

Most companies and government organizations will handle any claims of bullying through the human resources (HR) department, which will have their own protocol for handling employee issues. Typically, this will include the completion of specific forms and providing of documentation.  Your allegations will then be investigated and internal reviews conducted. Most company protocol includes privately investigating the claims, written and verbal warnings for the perpetrator, and sensitivity training before they make any extreme moves.

The investigation period can be a very trying time for victims who may have to continue to work with a boss who has been alerted that a complaint has been filed. Not all companies report the name of the person making the claim, but in many circumstances, your boss will be able to guess. Often, the HR department will ask you not to discuss the complaint with anyone not attached directly to the investigation. Even if you are not directly requested to keep quiet, it is a good idea to do so. If it appears that you are gossipy, unprofessional, or bullying, you claim can easily be rejected.  

The entire process may take weeks or even months and there is no guarantee that the company will side with you or take actions that you feel are appropriate.


Have a Realistic Goal

What do you realistically want to achieve? Most people just want the bullying behavior to stop. But the fact is, dealing with a bully in a position of authority can be very difficult. Few bullies are willing to change their behavior without some compelling force. Even when they do, they will likely resent the “whistle blower” which can lead to further bullying.

There may also be residual damage, even if the bully stops the behavior or is removed from the position. Co-workers who benefitted from the bully culture or blame the victim for the bully’s actions may continue or escalate bullying. The bullying behavior may also have damaged the reputation and credibility of the victim, making it difficult to continue in that position or in that company.

Accusations of bullying typically result in one of five responses from the company.

1.       Reprimand - The bully (or the entire department) may receive sensitivity training, but the most common response to a charge of bullying, is a reprimand.  This may end the bullying, but often has no long-term effect at all. Even if the bully is ultimately removed, the first step after a formal complaint is typically a reprimand.


2.       Reassignment the victim - Some organizations will offer to reassign the victim to another position, department, or location.  This is often the most desirable result for victims who are on a career track and want to stay in the company.


3.       Reassignment of the bully – Companies will often evaluate the financial ramifications of getting rid of the bully boss and end up promoting him or her out of the department. Whether the bully is someone who brings in money or clients or the company is concerned that the bully will be able to sue for wrongful termination, promoting a problem is a common way to deal with company bullies.


4.       Termination of the victim – Sometimes a company will respond to the report of bullying by terminating the victim. This really comes down to a company valuing the boss over the victim and seeking to quickly get rid of what they see as a potential problem. A company may offer the victim a settlement to simply leave quietly and not mention the bullying situation in the future. Or, the company may use a variety of tactics to simply fire the victim.


5.       Termination of the bully – A bully boss with an established track record of violating company rules or one whose behavior rises to the level of criminal action will general be removed.


Understanding the most likely response to a report of bullying will help you to be prepared. If your company is likely to offer you a transfer, do some research to see what positions are available. If you are likely to be terminated, make certain that you are financially prepared and if possible have a new position lined up.

No matter how you proceed, you may have civil or criminal recourse against a bully, even if you choose to leave the company. Talk to an employment lawyer, your union rep, or the police before you make any decisions.

Alexandrea Merrell