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5 Ways to Handle a Bad Boss Back at the Office

Remote employees have plenty of anxieties about returning to the physical office. They’re worried they’ll say something embarrassing or insulting to a colleague. They’re worried they won’t be able to balance their professional and personal responsibilities effectively. But one of their biggest worries is that they might have to deal—again, and in person—with a bad boss.

During the pandemic, when office lockdowns were beginning to take hold across Corporate America, remote working became an acceptable way to conduct everyday business. The adjustment for employees presented many challenges: from working alone, feeling isolated, and ‘death by Zoom’ or Teams meetings. Now that many employees are slowly returning to the office, they are having to re-adjustment once again.

So, what do we mean by the phrase, “a bad boss?” A bad boss is typically someone who micromanages their staff, is unfair, obstinate, insulting, and dismissive both online and in person. They can also manifest in many subtle forms, such as managers who are controlling, show favoritism or don't communicate their expectations clearly. Employees who have worked remotely over the last two years have at least had the solace of not having to see their professional nemesis face-to-face. But all-remote job options are dwindling as many employers demand that workers come back to the office at least part of the time.

Many will be coming back to a frayed relationship with their boss.

In a 2022 survey, about 20% of employees said their relationship with their manager has worsened since the start of the pandemic. About 60% of workers said they had left their job because of a bad boss.

Here are some tips on how to handle any issues you may encounter coming back.

Get a fresh perspective

While you might believe your boss is handling situations poorly—yelling at you in front of the client, changing direction on a project without telling you, or belittling you in front of colleagues—you might want to get a third party’s perspective. Ask a personal mentor or company coach who is outside the situation for advice. Describe a typical stressful situation to them, from what your boss said to how you reacted. Ask what you could have done differently and whether the situation is as dire as you think it is.

You could also reality-test your perspective with your peers. For instance, seek out the perspective of a trusted colleague who has been in meetings with you and your boss. If you’ve confirmed that an issue exists, you can begin to address it.

Consider that your reaction might play a role

Changing your own reaction or behavior could make the situation less stressful. Your reactions could be playing off of one another. For instance, if you and your boss both get upset easily, a small disagreement could quickly escalate. Or if your boss is condescending, that might influence you to become defensive or blame others.

You can take precautionary steps to keep situations from getting too intense, such as anticipating demands. Many managers will demonstrate poor leadership behavior when they are surprised by something.

Try to reconcile

During a face-to-face meeting with your boss, acknowledge that there are times when you don’t work together well. Let your boss know what behaviors you’re working on to make things better—for instance, not overreacting or blaming others.

You can talk about what you’re doing to make the situation better, but it’s very hard to give feedback to someone who is not a direct report when they don’t ask for it. For instance, you could say, “I think it feels a little uncomfortable for you when I don’t have quarterly numbers to you before the last week of the quarter. I’m working on getting them to you a week before the quarter closes. Would that help?”

Consider talking to HR

If you’re unable to patch things up with your boss, it might be time to talk with the human resources department. Tell your HR manager what has been going on and what you have been doing to try to bring about a reconciliation. Ask for advice on how to work with your boss constructively. You will need to show HR what you have tried to do to mitigate the situation, because HR will want to try to salvage the relationship.

Look for a new job

You’ve asked others for advice. You’ve been self-reflective. You’ve identified and developed a plan to defuse situations. You’ve even talked with HR. But nothing has changed. At that point, it is probably time to consider looking for a new position. If you’ve done as much as you can, and the relationship is still stagnant, it is probably time to leave. Working with a toxic boss is not good for your career—or your health. If you truly have a toxic boss, staying and working with them will bring you down physically and emotionally.

Dr. Mark Robinson is the Director for the School of Business at Washington University of Science and Technology and is an alum of Exxon Mobil and Deloitte. Communications to the author can be emailed to:

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