Calling it Quits with a Horrible Boss

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

I was recently talking to a friend who is working for a bad boss. After telling me about a particularly challenging day, he asked, “What do I do to try to make things better with my boss?” My answer was simple: “Leave.” This is advice that comes more from life experience more than it does from my HR background. I think most of us have fallen under the supervision of a bad boss at some point in our career, and we often find ourselves trying to figure out how to make things better. And I have learned that leaving is often the best option. But, it is not always that easy to make that leap.

Horrible Bosses: The HR Hammer Edition

My worst boss was early in my HR career. I ended up working for her for seven years before another HR employee and I were let go when the company decided to downsize a number of departments. While it was difficult to deal with in the moment, once I had moved on to a good job a few months later, I realized that the layoff was actually a blessing. It got me out of a horrible situation that I clearly was not able to quit on my own. Sometimes life needs to force you to quit.

My boss at that job had a reputation for being a bully, and she seemed to enjoy that people saw her that way. We would often go into meetings with her not knowing what version of her was going to show up and whether or not we could expect to laugh a lot or if we would end up wanting to cower under the table in tears. She was the kind of person who would send an email with instructions, I would follow those instructions to the letter, and then she would yell at me for not following instructions. Even when confronted with the original email, her response would be, “I’ve worked in HR for over 30 years, and I would never ask for something like that!” Anyone who worked for her fluctuated between being her favorite one day and being somebody she wanted to fire the next.

It was a toxic environment, and my coworkers and I would share stories of the way the stress of working for this boss was taking a toll on our health. We all had a list of issues that included lack of sleep, upset stomachs, headaches, nausea and all the ways it affected the way we interacted with those closest to us. No matter what countless employees said to the owner and upper management, nothing changed. One person high up in the company even confessed to me that he and the owner were struggling because they did not know what to do to address this boss’s bad behavior. That’s when I realized that they were probably too scared of her to fire her.

Some made the decision to leave after only a short time, but I was among those who stuck it out. After all, there were a lot of people that I liked at that job and who I remain friends with to this day. But ultimately it took a major toll on me, and I did not realize how bad it had been until I was pushed out and began the slow process of healing from working for such an emotionally abusive person for seven years.

Quitting Can be Good

I think quitting gets a bad rap. As Stephen J. Dubner put it on an episode from the first season of the Freakanomics podcast, “Sometimes quitting is strategic, and sometimes it can be your best possible plan.” Quitting is not always a matter of giving up. In the case of quitting a job with a horrible boss, it is really more like moving forward. Sometimes I think this never-quit mentality can keep us in unhealthy situations. I know that I got it stuck in my head that quitting that job was “giving up” or “letting my bully of a boss win.” As a result, I stayed in a place that was dragging me down to the point where most of my free time was spent holed up at home and not having the energy to go out and have fun. I was miserable and should have quit early on. But I did not. And I think in some ways I needed to learn that lesson because it helped me to see that quitting is not always a bad thing.

If you are reading this article and nodding your head as you think about how horrible your current boss is, maybe it is time to consider quitting. When I was laid off from that job, it led me down a path that got me to where I am today in my professional life. It was a major turning point where things ended up much better as a result. It is easy to be fooled into thinking staying is the best option. Maybe your coworkers are fun people to work with or you like the type of work you do. But, the misery of working for my horrible boss made it hard to enjoy those things. If your boss is as big a bully as mine was, and the company is not taking steps to get rid of that person, then your best option is to leave. I missed seeing some of my coworkers from that job on a daily basis, but I ended up with some friendships that have continued for years after I left. And the best part is I can enjoy those people more now that I am not as depressed and anxious as I was in the days I worked for that bad boss.

Develop an Exit Plan

I am not saying that you should march into your boss’s office tomorrow and dramatically declare, “Take this job and shove it!” Quitting a job is a big decision, and I feel it is important to mention that everyone should take a moment to make sure they are ready to take that leap. It can be scary to think of giving up a paycheck and searching for a job, so think through some next steps before you turn in your two weeks’ notice.

If you are worried about going without a paycheck while looking for a new job, consider starting to look for new work while still employed with your bad boss. Bosses who are bullies can make us feel worthless, which can be a hard state of mind to do a job search in. Enlist the help of a friend who can encourage and motivate you to search through job postings in the evening after work. The key is to make a plan to find something else and to stick to it. Good friends can help keep us on track when it comes to sticking to a plan.

Do not forget to take care of yourself. Do things that you enjoy, go for a hike or spend time with good friends. If the consequences of working for a bad boss have left you emotionally scarred, you may want to seek help from a therapist to take care of your mental health. Remember that we cannot change the behavior of others, but we can take care of ourselves. Sometimes that means leaving a job with a horrible boss.

How have you dealt with a bad boss? Share your horrible boss stories in the comments below.