Take Note: Addressing Bad Behavior in the Workplace


By Stephanie Hammerwold

After what has been one of the highest profile terminations of the year, former FBI Director James Comey recently testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. From an HR perspective, one of the key things to come out of Comey's story of the events leading up to his termination was the fact that Comey took notes on his interactions with the president. While it is currently unclear what the results of all the testimony from Comey and others will mean, there are lessons to be learned here about what to do when you suspect your boss or another authority at work are engaged in ongoing questionable or inappropriate behavior.

Why Documentation Matters

In my HR career, I have done a fair number of workplace investigations. Sometimes I was lucky and had compelling evidence such as security camera footage, text messages or emails that backed up the complainant's story. But more often than not, a workplace investigation comes down to one person's word against another. In these situations, the HR person investigating the complaint has to sort through interviews and statements to determine as best they can what actually happened. The situation between Comey and the president was like this, so we are left with what many have called a he said/he said situation.

We can learn a lot from Comey's actions prior to his termination. Comey chose to document conversations with the president in memos. He stated that he did so because he was worried the president would lie about the nature of their meetings. While notes about meetings are subject to bias and do not provide the solid proof that things like emails or security camera footage can, they do add credibility to someone's version of events. This points to the biggest piece of advice I give any friend telling me of problems with a particular person at work: document what is happening.

What to Document

When we try to recall events from the past, our memories can get fuzzy, and specific details can slip from our minds. Writing things down immediately after they happened means you have a clearer recollection of what happened. It also gives you a chance to write down facts before you have had a chance to talk it through with someone else, think about what happened or do anything else that can add layers of interpretation and meaning to the initial interaction.

Be as specific as possible. Include dates and times, names of any witnesses and details about what happened and what was said. Keeping careful records of what is happening strengthens your complaint and gives HR a clear sense of the problem. It can be challenging for HR when you come forward and simply say your boss is treating you horribly; however, if you present notes showing details of a meeting where the boss yelled at an employee and other moments of bad behavior, it gives HR specific issues to address with the bad boss. Documenting repeated incidents also helps establish a pattern of bad behavior, which is something your HR department should quickly address.

What to Do with Documentation

For most of us, taking the steps Comey did to get his memos to the New York Times are unnecessary. When you notice bad behavior is ongoing, it is time to take things to HR. With your documentation in hand, you have details that go beyond, "My boss is mean." Specific details give HR a firm place to start their investigation. Submitting your notes will also ensure that your version of events is clearly documented.

Even after HR has wrapped up an investigation and taken appropriate disciplinary action against the offending party, keep an eye on the situation. If things get bad again, document the incidents and report them to HR, so they can take further disciplinary action.

The advice in this post refers to ongoing issues, but keep in mind that it is good to document a single serious incident as well. If something is severe, always report it to HR right away. But even if you have told your story to HR, it is still a good idea to take a moment to write down your version of events shortly after it happened. Once again, it helps ensure that you get important details down on paper before your memory gets hazy.

Some Final Thoughs

While the types of incidents we investigate in the workplace are not quite at the level of the events unfolding in DC, we can take important lessons from the investigation. Most relevant to the average workplace is the value of good documentation. In HR we often remind managers to document performance problems and conversations with employees, and the same holds true for employees who notice ongoing problems with a coworker or boss. It strengthens your complaint and helps provide accurate and specific detail about what you experienced.

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.