Workplace Communication

7 Steps for Dealing with a Bad Boss

7 Steps for Dealing with a Bad Boss

I’ve done many blog posts on how to be a better leader and supervisor as well as some that help readers identify when they’re not being at their best.

However, I hadn’t thought about turning the tables and looking at the issue from the employee’s perspective, that is, what you should do if you have a bad boss, until I received this email last week:

Hi Amy!  I read your blog all the time and think it has really great tips. I was wondering if there was any way you could do a blog based on Managers with no Back Bone and how to handle them. At times, there is conflict between employees in my department and when my manager is confronted, he often hides in his shell and either accuses the person complaining of lying or tries to ignore the issue. This causes low morale within the department and I’m not sure how to handle it.    Thanks, (Name Withheld)

There are many different types of bad bosses, from weak ones who hide from issues and hope they go away, to the loud, aggressive ones who everyone’s afraid of, to the crazy ones who make the characters from the movie Horrible Bosses, look sane!

For you bosses out there who are reading this and thinking the problem of bad bosses isn’t a big one, think again. Research done by Katheryn L. Shaw, a Stanford professor and co-author of the working paper, “The Value of Bosses,” found that 65% of employees said they’d take a new boss over a pay raise. The same study, in which Shaw and her co-author studied 30,000 managers and surveyed the managers’ employees as well, revealed that, “… 3 out of 4 employees reported that their boss was the worst and most stressful part of their job.” The result? High turnover, high absenteeism, low morale, and low productivity, to name a few problems.

If you’re an employee who is trying to “get along and get things done,” while working for a bad boss, figuring out how to make life better for yourself, and possibly your colleagues, can be a challenge. There are many options for dealing with a bad boss if you have the misfortune of finding yourself working for one. Unfortunately, in the REAL WORLD, many of these options are less than desirable, leaving employees to make the decision about how far they really want to push to make the situation right.

That being said, here are eight steps employees can take to deal with a bad boss.

1. Identify and take responsibility for your role in the problem. If you have a bad boss, be sure to look in the mirror first before confronting him. A relationship is built on the interaction and communication between TWO people. What’s been your role to date? Have you allowed yourself to become a doormat? Have you used sarcasm to respond to your boss’s demands? Are you overly sensitive to valid criticism or perceived criticism? Be sure to take ownership of any part of the problem that’s yours. If you confront your boss, let him know what part of the problem you own and how you’re going to change, before confronting him about his behavior.

2. Be sure to have proof of your complaints. If you’re having a problem with a coworker who comes in late most mornings, leaving you to do her work and yours, start taking note of the dates, times, and amount of time late. Keep records for a week or so and then have that proof ready when you talk to your boss. If you’re able to say, “On Monday, Feb. 3 she arrived at 8:57, on Tuesday, Feb 4, it was 9:10,” it’s a lot harder for someone to say you’re lying if you have proof.

Keep in mind that the best course of action in these situations is to talk with your coworker first. However, if you’re not able to work it out with her, your next step would be to tell her, “I’m sorry we can’t work this out Amy, but I’m not able to keep covering for you in the mornings. If you can’t be here on time, I’ll need to talk to our manager about the problem.”

3. Ensure follow up is planned and occurs. Sometimes, a boss just needs to be “pushed” a little to handle a situation. Therefore, when you bring a complaint to your boss and she says, “I’ll take care of it,” respond by saying, “That’s great. When do you think you’ll be able to do that? I’d like to set up a meeting with you afterward to discuss how things have changed.” If your boss has promised to get back with you on an issue and hasn’t, don’t throw up your hands and say, “Well, I tried and nothing happened.” Go back to her and ask the status of the situation.

two businessmen having discussion in office. over shoulder view of businessmen looking at each other and using laptop

4. Confront your boss when he’s not doing what a boss should do. Whether it’s a boss who doesn’t take actions on complaints, one who screams and yells, or one whose feedback to you is less-than-productive, it’s always possible the boss isn’t aware of the problem, OR is aware, but doesn’t know how to fix it.

Identify specific, concrete behavior he has exhibited, identify alternative behaviors you’d like to see, and then set up a time to talk with your boss about the problem. Be sure to leave emotion and labels out of it.

You shouldn’t say, “I’m sick and tired of you burying your head in the sand and not addressing problems,” instead try, “When we met on June 7, you said you’d talk with Sue that week and you’d get back with me on June 15. It’s now the 20th and I we still haven’t met.”

Additionally, although you should plan to be in control of your emotions, realize that this type of confrontation will likely be a surprise for your boss and you may get a very emotional response. Be prepared for how you’ll continue the conversation if this happens.

5. Tell your boss you need to go over her head. If your boss is unable or unwilling to handle problems in your office, you are well within your rights to go over her head to her supervisor or to Human Resources. However, I believe strongly that you should always give fair warning before you do so. Sometimes the “threat” of having an issue escalate is enough to get a boss to finally take action.

Either way, if you go to your boss’s boss or HR, it could make things worse and you could be quickly labeled as a troublemaker or high maintenance, which could go against you should you be eligible for promotion or worst case, if the company faces layoffs. Therefore, before doing so, ask yourself if the potential benefit of escalation is worth the possible cost to you.

6. Start looking for another position. If the situation is bad enough and you’ve tried all the options above, it might be time to make a move to another department or organization. If you’re a valued employee your company doesn’t want to lose, this might just be enough to push your boss, or his boss, to do something about your complaint. However, don’t bet on it and don’t threaten to quit if you don’t really plan to do so, they just might take you up on it.

I once faced the “stay or quit” dilemma as a sub-contractor to another training “professional”. It got so bad that I went home one night and told my husband, “I don’t care if we have to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the rest of our lives, I am not working for that man for one more minute,” and I quit. Again, this is a situation where you have to decide whether it’s so miserable at work, that it’s worth it to you to start over again at another organization, be unemployed for a period of time, or eat peanut butter and jelly for the rest of your life.

7. Don’t spread or share your misery- stay positive. If you decide to stay in your current position, sitting around complaining about the boss to others, or being preoccupied all day with how much you can’t stand your boss is not productive. Put aside the negativity and take positive steps to have a good attitude. Try to find ways to work with (or around) your boss when you have problems. If you can’t do this, you should reconsider # 6 above.


Thanks to the person who sent me the email with this great idea for a blog post. I hope you and other readers keep the ideas coming!

Amy Castro is a workplace communication expert, speaker, trainer, and writer of  The Performance Communication Blog. She also authored the book, Practical Communication- 25 Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Getting Along and Getting Things Done. For more information on workshops and programs she offers, go to


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