How to Handle an Abusive Boss


Who will dare to tell the boss from hell to behave?

Almost everyone has had a difficult boss in her career. They come in a wide variety of forms: the micromanager, the critic, the blamer, the harasser, the disorganized boss. But there is a crucial difference between a demanding or somewhat dysfunctional boss and an abusive boss. The abusive boss who lacks emotional control and is subject to rage attacks needs to get help. But, as the boss is the boss, many employees will not speak out about the problem. Knowing how to handle an abusive boss and where to go for help could break this cycle.

Recognize the Signs of an Abusive Boss

Unfortunately, many fields have abusive bosses. The office has become exponentially more stressful these days, in part because of the advent of technology. Immediacy has become a workplace requirement and is considered to be an essential part of service. Consequently, many bosses feel tremendous pressure and anxiety about satisfying clients and meeting their every request promptly and perfectly. This time-intensity translates to pressure on everyone on the team. Many workplaces are trying to squeeze maximum productivity from staff and, fearful about losing a job, many staff members will put up with abuse.

Abusive bosses often bear some resemblance to celebrities who are not reigned in by their entourage or people in their inner circle. Like celebrities, the abusive boss often has a big personality and creates drama in his or her life and, consequently, the lives of others in the workplace. That commanding personality has usually served him or her well in the past and helped him or her to get ahead. But a business setting requires collegiality and a team approach to advance the goals of the workplace. In fact, it is not just the abused employee who is damaged by an abusive boss. The workplace esprit de corps is impaired by a boss from hell. Like the celebrity, a powerful but abusive boss may not be subject to the typical rules for workplace behavior because he or she is valuable to the company. Who will dare to tell the boss from hell to behave?

Know What To Do

What can be done? Dr. Prudy Gourguechon, the most recent past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, suggests “firms need to understand that everyone in the workplace should be treated as you would treat a business client, with that level of respect.” The company cannot permit screaming, name-calling or throwing things. “It destroys the culture of the firm and undoes cognitive organization—people’s brains get scrambled by emotionally dysregulated behavior,” she says. “Many hours of productivity are lost when that happens.”

Dr. Gourguechon advices workers dealing with toxic bosses to say, “‘I want to please you but I cannot think when you are this upset with me. I am going to leave the room right now and I will return when you are not so upset.’” She strongly advises the individual to leave the room after delivering that message. “Don’t talk to someone who is out of control,” she cautions. “Look for the right time to interact.”

Get Help From Human Resources

A business system with an abusive boss, according to Dr. William Pinsof, president of the Family Institute of Northwestern University, is like a family system with an abusive spouse. An intervention is needed. Dr. Pinsof strongly advises that the dysfunctional boss be required to have personal skills training and that there be real consequences for failing to comply.

The abusive boss is a serious problem for many companies. Even though people in the human resources department are not always empowered to confront a boss who is a bully, they are not without some power to manage the situation. The HR department can:

Work with managers of the company to deal with a potential problem before it happens and put rules and policies in place that clearly define unacceptable behavior such as swearing, yelling, screaming, shouting or throwing objects at other staff people. A model policy should be offered to the company managers to create a suitable firm-wide policy that every manager would read and sign.

Assist staff by providing information and a script to instruct them about how to handle an angry boss.

Encourage staff to report incidents of abusive behavior and insist that the firm have a “no retaliation” policy in place.

Be willing to step up if there is a toxic, abusive or bullying boss. Pretending a problem boss does not exist is tantamount to permission.


About Sheila Nielsen

Sheila Nielsen is a leader in the field of career counseling. In 1990, Ms. Nielsen developed a career counseling and consulting service: Nielsen Career Consulting. For over 20 years, she has counseled and coached clients with a wide variety of career issues including career direction, job searching, alternative work-time options and career development.