I was 22, just under a year into my first full-time job when I learned what it's like to work for a toxic boss.
My newly-appointed boss marched up to me and yelled at me in front of all of my employees and coworkers. There was a time-sensitive problem that needed to be resolved, and he wanted to know what I was doing to handle it.
"I'm–," I started to explain, but he cut me off before I could answer.
Then he proceeded to shout everything I needed to be doing (all things I already was doing), and decided to hover over me, his now red face breathing down my neck while I attempted to keep doing my job.
As he continued shouting, frazzling me so much I couldn't do my work particularly well, I started to cry.
This was the first time he yelled at me and the first time I cried in front of him, but it wasn't the last.
After the third time, he pulled me aside to say that my crying was unprofessional, and that maybe I was too emotional for this job. He suggested I seek professional help. (To add insult to injury, he saw it fit to have this conversation right in the middle of an open-plan office, with my friends and colleagues walking past us as they left to go home for the day.)
His criticism felt highly ironic – not to mention sexist – given that he was well known for barging in and yelling at anyone, anytime , and yet he didn't see his own behavior as unprofessional.
The worst part was, I actually started to wonder if he was right – maybe I wasn't cut out for the job, after all.
This was one of many troubling interactions I had with this boss. When he wasn't yelling, he was condescending, and oftentimes he managed to do both things at once.
I got to the point where I dreaded work so much I'd sit in the parking lot and text my friend each morning, "Do I have to go in?"
It was a shame, because aside from this boss, my job was really a pretty good one, and I was pretty good at it. I wanted to like it. But how could I resolve this situation?
Following the 4 steps below saved my life in the ~6 months that I had to continue working with this boss while I put another plan in place.
If you're dealing with a boss that's manipulative, aggressive, greedy, or otherwise taking advantage of you on a regular basis, you may be dealing with a toxic boss. The steps below can help you make the best of a bad situation.
1. Take Care of Yourself
There are a number of ways to take care of yourself in this situation, but my two top recommendations are to 1) remember you're not crazy and 2) talk to someone!!
Remember You're NOT Crazy
When you identify toxic behaviors in your boss, the first thing to do is remember that you're not crazy. Toxic people are often manipulative and narcissistic – they feed off of others' insecurities, and they will do their best to make you think you are crazy. Their whole goal is to convince you that what they're telling you has validity, and given that they're likely older than you and in a position of authority over you, what they say may hold a lot of sway over your self-perception.
Do notgive into these feelings of self-doubt! If you think you're doing a good job, in spite of what your boss is saying, you probably are...
Talk to Someone
This brings us to point number two. When you're dealing with toxicity of any kind, your ability to trust your own self-perception can become skewed. You think you're doing a good job, but if you've got someone shouting at you day in and day out, telling you you're failing... then are you really?
The easiest way to alleviate these feelings is to talk to someone. This could be a close friend (if it's a work friend, make sure you select someone you absolutely know you can trust), a counselor, or potentially someone in HR.
Talking to a third party can help you gain perspective on what's happening, as well as as an understanding of whether you're dealing with smaller issues that can be resolved, or symptoms of toxicity that likely cannot be overcome.
If you're scared of reporting your experiences to HR because you don't think they'll be taken seriously, that may be a sign of a toxic work culture that goes beyond your boss, and a red flag that you need to leave the company.
In my case, I heard from a number of colleagues that my boss had already been sent by HR to anger management several times – clearly it hadn't worked – and yet they were still promoting him. Definitely a red flag. (Keep these flags in mind when you're making your escape plan – see point 3.)
2. Don't Fight Fire with Fire
Focus your extra energy on points 1 & 3 – don't waste any of your precious emotional resources on anger towards your boss. Of course you'll want to rant and cry and occasionally yell. We all need to decompress. But do this with someone other than your boss. If your boss yells at you, don't yell back. Don't give them that satisfaction.
Because your boss has significant power over you and control over your day-to-day experience, you're not on a level playing field. They might escape negative repercussions for their actions, but they will still be able to hold you accountable for yours.
For example, my boss blindsided me during a performance review by formally blaming me for something he'd done wrong. Extremely frustrated by this unfairness, I walked out.
But what happened? He then used that as fodder to describe me as emotional, too sensitive, and incapable of taking feedback. For him, it just reaffirmed his previous assertion that I was unprofessional and too emotional for the job because I cried from time to time.
So my reaction to an unfair situation was used against me... to put me in yet another unfair situation.
I only started to come out on top when I did an Oscar-worthy performance of "loyal employee who wants to change." I took all feedback with a smile, nodding along by repeating my new mantra "This job is not forever."
So don't fight fire with fire - fight fire by channeling your inner Meryl Streep.
3. Make an Escape Plan
Once you know you're dealing with a toxic boss (and not a boss who's just occasionally a jerk), you need to make an escape plan. You won't be able to change your boss – and you can bet they won't respond favorably if you tell them that they're the one that needs professional help.
Depending on your particular situation, you may decide to leave your company altogether, or simply to ask to transfer to another team, but under no circumstances should you continue working for your current boss for any longer than necessary.
Toxic bosses, like toxic boyfriends, are meant to be left behind – you might go through patches where things feel better, but the manipulation, aggression, backstabbing, etc., will eventually resurface.
It's easy to search for reasons to stay longer – "It's not a good job market, I want my December bonus, I want to say I worked here for 2 full years, I want to vest fully in the company before I go..." Depending on your economic situation, some of these excuses might actually be very valid. As you consider these different incentives, ask yourself, "Is X worth dreading to come to work each morning? Are Y dollars worth sacrificing my mental health?"
Set a deadline for how much longer you're going to tough it out, and then pour all of your energy into doing what needs to happen before that deadline.
And, once you do decide to accept another job offer or simply to quit and pursue something else, feel free to give a bit more than two week's notice. Formally giving your notice is a great way of saying, "I don't give a ______ anymore," in a very, very professional manner. You can start wrapping up projects, no new work will be put on your plate, and people's mindsets toward you shift because they know you're on your way out. Your toxic boss may even move on to new prey.
4. Put Your Head Down
Once you have an escape plan in place, it becomes much, much easier to put your head down and do the work. Whether it's to make a lateral move at your company so you have a different boss, find a new job, or just run far far away from there (I ran to Peru), you'll feel much better once you have a new goal to pursue.
Having a goal you really care about makes it easier to put your head down and plow through work at your day job because you'll know that it's only temporary.
Putting your head down and doing the work also ensures a couple key things:
- You'll leave with your coworkers' respect and won't burn bridges - You might want to burn the bridge with your toxic boss, but doing so could mean several others will fall with you. It's better for your short-term sanity and long-term reputation to take the high ground.
- It will keep your boss off your back - If you're doing good work, said toxic boss might even start complimenting you. (Not that you should care about their praise). But more importantly, they'll bother you way less than they would if you gave them any excuse to pounce on you. Get your work done and you'll give them less ammunition to use against you.
Chris Sowers put it best: "Figure out what results the jerk cares about most (hint — it's likely the project you're getting yelled at the most about), and hunker down and deliver."
Doing good work is a temporary fix to make your situation more bearable, but even if you feel like things start to improve, be weary of aborting your escape plan - toxic people rarely change in the long-term, and you don't want to be tiptoeing around them forever.
Dealing with a toxic boss is draining and extremely frustrating. And most of all, it's not fair.
I still shake with frustration when I think about my own experience, but the good news is how much I've learned from it. Like all toxic relationships, dealing with a toxic boss is a valuable learning experience – once you know the warning signs, you can be better prepared to avoid them in the future. You can ask good questions when you interview and you can recognize the signs of a toxic boss early on.
So don't despair. Your current situation is temporary.
Above all, remember that YOU. ARE. NOT. THE. PROBLEM. You are good at your job. And you will be good at your next job, too. Take care of yourself, make an escape plan, and you will be okay.