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.

Does Kindness Have a Place at Work?


By Stephanie Hammerwold

Is bad behavior at work excusable when it results in innovation and high levels of productivity? Is it acceptable for a manager to yell and be tough on employees if it results in good work? For me, the answer is no. Over the summer, Amazon made headlines when their high-stress culture was the focus of a piece in The New York Times. Defenders of Amazon claimed that all that stress was worth it because of the technology and processes Amazon employees were creating. Despite what those who defend such a business model might say, I still think there is room for kindness in the way we work. Innovation does not necessarily have to come at the hands of abusive leaders who drive employees to a state of extreme exhaustion.

Break Them Down to Build Them Up

I have my own experience working in environments where management that could easily be called abusive is passed off as the type of leadership that is pushing someone to do their best. Such an approach is often stressful for team members, and high levels of stress have been shown to have all kinds of negative effects on health. Yet, despite the fact that many of us do not like working for the kind of boss who leads by yelling and pushing employees to the breaking point, our culture still tends to celebrate this type of approach.

Take celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, for example. Ramsay’s outbursts and shouting at those who run afoul of him on one of his reality shows is often seen as acceptable. In fact, viewers are entertained by this approach. When we see an amazing finished product after the cowering and tears, we may be tempted to say that it was worth it. We see the same thing from other leaders in the public eye, and someone like Steve Jobs had a reputation for being harsh. One of the frontrunners for the GOP presidential nomination is well known for “telling it like it is,” which, for him, means belittling others and saying nasty things. This is something his supporters commend him for.

I once had a boss whose behavior was erratic. We never knew what would set her off, so many of us in the department would drive ourselves to the point of exhaustion to ensure everything was perfect—even then it was no guarantee that she would not snap. Sure, she got good work out of us, but at what cost? Those of us who worked for her often lost sleep, had upset stomachs or were driven to tears. Was it worth it? Years later, I say no. I learned quite a bit about HR at that job; however, it took me years to recover from the constant workplace abuse.

The Culture of Negativity

Earlier this year, I addressed the topic of kindness over at my book blog. As I pointed out then, a glance at any Internet comments section shows how unkind we can be. Even the comments sections on the most innocuous articles can turn into commenters attacking others who do not share their political views. Cable talk shows and news programs are full of people making their points by shouting and name calling. When the world is full of this type of speech, it is even more important that we make a concerted effort to be kind at work.

I may be a bit optimistic in saying this, but I do not believe we are what we see in those comments sections and TV shows. But it is hard to avoid feeling weighed down and pessimistic about humanity when we see the worst of it put forth by the culture of negativity that exists in such places. The best way to combat the negativity is by avoiding it. Do not waste time watching the shows that encourage that type of behavior, and avoid the places on the Internet that attract those voices. Instead, focus on moments of kindness and how you can espouse that in your own life and the workplace.

Leading with Kindness

Celebrating those who lead through shouting and belittling assumes that being nice to employees does not lead to innovation. I think the opposite is true. Being nice can lead to excellent results. Employees will work hard when they are valued and trusted. Fear and intimidation are not the only ways to get results.

If you are a business owner or in a supervisory position, make kindness a part of your management approach. Those at the top help set the tone for company culture. I once worked at a company where the owner was extremely paranoid and did not trust his employees. This attitude trickled down to the executive team and managers and created a culture of paranoia. Morale was low. The opposite happened in another company I worked for where the owners had a high level of trust in their employees and maintained a friendly attitude on a regular basis.

Even when an employee makes a mistake or is not quite getting something, it is not necessary to yell and put them down. Take the time to work with someone and set up a plan for improvement rather than taking the harsh punishment approach like Gordon Ramsay would.

Kindness extends to those not in leadership positions as well. In the workplace, there are many moments that come up where we get frustrated with a coworker or have a different idea about how a project should be completed. Being kind does not mean we cannot disagree with others, but it does mean we should make an effort to remain civil when we have a dispute. This is especially important in the work world because we are not always going to be in alignment with our coworkers. Help support a culture of kindness in your approach to handling conflict.