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Managing up: How to handle an abusive boss

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in Your Office Coach

Question: "I don’t know how to handle an abusive boss. I work for the president and vice president of a small company. The President and I can discuss anything, but the VP is confrontational and rude.  He verbally abuses me when no one is around and becomes especially angry when deadlines are tight. I’ve been in abusive relationships in my personal life, so I don’t intend to condone this behavior.  However, I’m not sure exactly what to do." — Not a Doormat
Maire's Answer:  When executives choose to act like children, employees need to be the adults. This means refusing to be mistreated, while avoiding career-ending confrontations. Here’s how to handle it:

•    The simplest strategy is to deprive your volatile VP of the reaction he seeks. Abusers are rewarded by fearful or angry responses. If you consistently remain calm and businesslike during these tirades, he may eventually quiet down.

•    A more daring approach is to politely call time out whenever he launches an attack. However, you must warn him about this plan. During a peaceful moment, explain that you can’t concentrate when he’s upset, so in the future, you are going to take a short break if the conversation becomes heated.

•    Your third choice is to rat him out. Tell the president about the VP’s behavior and ask for his assistance. As the boss, he’s ultimately responsible for this guy’s job performance.

For additional Office Coach advice on dealing with explosive managers, see How to Handle a Hothead Boss. If all else fails, start planning your departure. As you have already learned in your personal life, continuing to tolerate abuse is not an acceptable choice.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank March 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I to have an abusive boss… but I honestly don’t think he knows he is doing it or that it is affecting my performance on the job. I have been warned that if I don’t start doing right I’ll be terminated, but how do I talk to hom to let him know that because of his abusive behavior I can not concentrate on what needs to be done to correct the situation. The thing is though I have been in abusive relationships in the past and I am trying to find a better way to handle different situation’s whether job or personal.


Donna December 22, 2009 at 2:58 pm

I to have an abusive boss… bosses (husband and wife owners of a funeral home). It’s unfortunate that because they are in a position of power, they feel they have the right to belittle and criticize everything you do and never give you credit for all the many things you do for their company. Yes, it is my job, but to have to deal with the constant bigotry, abusive remarks, and sexual harrassment is not what I signed up for. My boss even went so far as to hit me in the back of the head because I had forgotten to “check” his work. I am putting myself back on the market but until then, I am at a loss as to what I should do.


Beaten and Still Standing March 11, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Thanks for this article, Maire. I have a boss who is very much like the VP you described. One big difference is that he is the owner/president/ceo/god of the our 3-4 person company, so there is no one to rat him out to except the other manager, who is hot and cold (it’s actually boyfriend/girlfriend).

I handle pretty much everything but managerial duties, and I’m good at my job. Not as good as him (he’s twice my age), but I do what I do well. Granted, my team (read: just me) is behind due to unfortunate circumstances with a previous employee and the bossman has a reason to be on edge. However I have worked between 12 and 19 hours a day, 6 days a week, for the past 1-2 months (no exaggeration there) trying to keep up. I make the occasional mistake because I am so overworked and tired all the time, which seriously feeds the problem. I get an occasional verbal thanks sometimes for staying up late working almost every night, but that is few and far in between, and drowned out by the daily lectures on our incompetence, that we are trying to bankrupt our clients, and that we “lost the right” to a healthy work environment because of how far behind we are (again, we should read me). That’s what I look forward to every day. It’s been this way as long as I’ve worked there, but has steadily gotten worse. Before you’ve asked, yes, I’ve looked in the mirror and have determined that no serious fault lies there.

I strayed a bit there, but my point is that the only reason I have maintained my position there is because I followed the same guidelines that you set forth — I meet his hostility with a calm response. At the same time, I don’t EVER undeservingly admit to fault when he is venting because it feeds his anger. That often angers him more though, since he doesn’t get the satisfaction of confrontation, so it’s typically a lose/lose situation.

My only suggestion here is that if anyone is in a similar situation and isn’t willing or able to get out, follow Maire’s steps here and grow some thick skin. While I dread the conversations, I often let them roll off me without a second thought because I have become accustomed to it. Life isn’t fair, and sometimes we don’t have the option of choosing the best fit. All we can do is learn to cope.


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