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Surviving a Toxic Boss - 10 Essential Tactics Before You Resign
Are you on the cusp of leaving your job because of a terrible manager?
We hear you. We’ve all been there. And yes, it sucks.
Let’s face it: some people are simply not leadership material. They get promoted on the basis of their ability to do their current job well, with the assumption that they can lead others towards similar success. But that’s not always the case.
We can all agree that functional leadership and people leadership are two entirely different kettle of fish. Unfortunately, when the people management side is lacking – combined with the person’s inability to recognize their need for development – this can lead to conflict and poor relationships with subordinates.
If you’re at that point where you just want to quit because of a terrible manager, then this article is for you.
Before you make yourself the one to resolve the situation by leaving, we’ll share our top 10 dos and don’ts about how to handle the situation.
Sean’s Story This happened a few years back, but I still think about it sometimes. I was working as a software developer, and people kinda knew me as the tech guru. I could crack code like nobody’s business and solve problems left and right. But here’s the thing, I had this one big issue in my life, and that was my new boss, let’s call him Alex. Alex was this super results-driven manager. He was always pushing for numbers, but he didn’t seem to care much about the human side of things. And, well, that didn’t sit well with me. I’m all about teamwork, collaboration, and supporting each other. So, most days, I just ended up feeling frustrated and quietly thought about quitting. Then, one day, after this really rough meeting where Alex shot down one of my ideas without even considering it, I decided I’d had enough. I started thinking about looking for a new job for real this time. But before making any big moves, I decided to face Alex. I prepared this solid presentation on how team morale and working together can boost productivity and innovation. I even provided stats on how we performed before he came along - although I didn’t phrase it like that - and since then. I was fully expecting a major clash, because I could have been seen as stepping way out of line. But you won’t believe what happened. Alex actually listened. He asked questions and, believe it or not, admitted that his approach might be hurting the team spirit. Over the next few weeks, something incredible happened. Alex began to change. He started asking for input during meetings, praising the team’s efforts, and even organized a weekly team-building lunch. The whole atmosphere at work started shifting, and I began to feel way more satisfied with my job. So, yeah, the story of how Alex and I worked things out taught me a valuable lesson. Sometimes, you don’t need to jump ship to find job satisfaction – you can make your own grass greener right where you are.
1. Decide if the criticism has any merit
Your manager has given you feedback in a way that feels unfair and rudely delivered. We’re sorry to hear that.
The first thing to do is to take some time to calm down and find a quiet space to think. Then be honest with yourself: does their feedback have any merit? If yes, then take it on board and address the matter in a way that works for the both of you.
If it’s the first time they’ve been rude, then chances are that they’ll apologize. If not, do communicate to them that you take their feedback on board, but next time you would appreciate it to be delivered in a way that enables you to tackle it constructively. Then see how they respond.
If they have a habit of being blunt, to the point that you feel the feedback is unfair or unprofessional, you can either schedule a 1:1 to discuss the feedback or, if you believe they will be combative, then meet with their boss or HR to get advice on how to handle it.
2. Speak with them before approaching HR
Following on from #1, our advice to always try to meet with the manager first before escalating it up the chain. No matter how much you dislike what’s happened or even that person, it’s generally a good idea to try to resolve the matter directly first.
Before doing so, try to figure out their motivations, as this will inform how you approach the situation. For example, if they’re new, perhaps they feel insecure. Or maybe they’re stressed out by a serious life event, and are taking it out on their employees. That doesn’t make it right, but at least you’ll know that you’re dealing with a short-term reaction versus an unpleasant personality.
Take the initiative to ask for a catch-up via a calm email, not verbally. Not only does this give the impression that you are collaborative and open, and enables them to rectify the situation or clarify their reasoning. It also creates a text trail should matters escalate further (which is perhaps a key reason to take the initiative and set up the meeting yourself).
Go into the meeting calmly and professionally. Choose your words very carefully (it helps to practice what you’d like to say in advance to ensure the language is clear and tactful).
Hopefully the matter will be quickly resolved during this meeting. If not, the next step is to escalate it up the chain to their manager. Don’t tell your boss this during the meeting, though, or they’ll beat you to it. You want to retain control and have a fair chance to share your side of the story.
Pro tip: send a copy of any correspondence about the issue from this point on to your personal email (BCC or forward it to yourself – never let anyone see that you’re doing this by adding your email as a main or CC recipient). In rare extreme cases, some companies retaliate by firing the complaining party and cutting off their email access. Forwarding yourself copies of correspondence now will protect you later on if things turn ugly (which almost certainly they won’t, but better safe than sorry). You should also keep a private log with notes on dates, times, witnesses, and what happened, in case important details get forgotten later on.
3. Speak with your manager’s boss
Depending on the severity or inaccuracy of what’s been said, the next ‘do’ is to arrange a 1:1 with your manager’s boss. Although it might feel uncomfortable to take such a step, this is an important move in being seen to want to resolve the situation (and have the written evidence to prove so).
If the next manager up is reasonable, they will take every step to investigate and find a solution. Don’t assume they’ll automatically take the bad manager’s side. Give them a chance to do their job.
After this meeting, send the higher manager an email to thank them for their time, and to summarize what was agreed. Don’t forget to immediately BCC or forward yourself a copy to your personal email address.
4. Take it to HR
While Human Resources can seem like it’s there to support the company, the true function of HR is to oversee the full employee lifecycle, from recruiting and onboarding through to disciplinary actions and administering benefits. Their purpose is to create an environment in which employees are motivated to stick around and make a significant contribution to their employer.
And by taking the matter to HR yourself, you underline the fact that you’re the one taking steps to find a solution (and, of course, you’re adding weight to the written communications you’ve been diligently forwarding to yourself, just in case).
Once a matter reaches HR, the issue will likely become a formal investigation. Rather than fearing it, show that you’re open and transparent by handing over any requested information as soon as possible. Respond positively to requests for meetings or clarifications.
Anya’s Story “So I’d been doing my job for a year before a manager was hired to supervise our growing department. When I first joined, I asked the CEO lots of questions, because this was a career pivot for me and I wanted to make sure I did everything right. I had great feedback after my annual performance review, and everyone said I’d done a great job. As the department was expanding, the CEO informed me that a department manager would be hired. They had wanted to offer me the job, but as I only had a year of experience in the new industry (although I had 15 years of experience in a similar industry), they wanted me to learn how to run the department from someone already at that level. Then, one day if the opportunity arose, I’d be ready to take over. I was really OK with this. I’d previously been a manager, but I wanted more time anyway to learn about this industry. The new manager turned out to be a bit of a challenge to say the least. I thought we got along well at first, and I did everything I could to show him the ropes. I answered all his questions, even early in the morning, late at night, and at the weekend. I soon heard from the CEO snippets of feedback that the new guy thought I was a bit of a know-it-all and that I wasn’t listening to him because I’d been there a year and supposedly knew better than him. He was claiming I made a total mess of everything the previous year and had no clue what I was doing. I had no idea why he thought that, as it was definitely not true. But I took the ‘know-it-all’ feedback on board, because he was clearly feeling insecure, and tried hard to make it clear he was in charge. Around this time, it struck me that he was still communicating a lot, but I wanted to give him a chance to settle in (he was also new to the city). But after a while it became too much. One Friday I got woken by a message at 6.30am, and then had another message at 10.30pm that night with a task that needed to be done by Monday morning. I finally said something: I asked him nicely if he could please message during the working day from now on, to give me time to handle tasks then instead of during my free time. He didn’t reply, but the next morning at 8.24am our team received an email with new ‘Department Guidelines’. Number 1? That we must all comply with his ‘requests, instructions, and suggestions’. I began pushing back after that, and chatted to the CEO about my misgivings. The CEO tried to get us to sort it out by ourselves, but by then I had colleagues privately telling me that the manager had confidentially asked them to give their opinion about my competency. Everything escalated from there, culminating in him taking away a task I was fully qualified for, and giving it to someone else with a dismissive “The decision’s been made”. I put in a formal complaint and, after realizing it would be too hard to work with him, I also submitted my resignation. I assumed that upper management wouldn’t be interested and would side with the manager because he’s a manager. But I was wrong. The CEO and HR acted rapidly. I was shocked to be honest, because I thought they would accept my resignation as they needed a manager and I was replaceable. But they made it clear that no, they weren’t keen to lose me, and arranged urgent meetings with him and me (separately) to find out what was happening. Long story short, the CEO and HR were fully supportive of me, and instructed the manager to work on his people management skills (to be fair, he was great at his actual job, but struggled as a people manager and was insecure, as this was his first leadership role). I’m still there and I’m glad they stopped me from quitting. I secretly won’t stay beyond when the current project I’m working on ends in 7 months, but in the meantime I’m gaining more valuable industry experience that will help me to easily get another job. I also have a very positive impression about how companies are not always just about people being numbers, but valuable individuals who want to contribute. I’m glad I overcame my reluctance to get upper management involved instead of just walking away without saying anything.”
1. Ignore it
If a manager says or does something that you instinctively, as a seasoned professional, don’t believe is right, don’t sit back in silence. Particularly if it is damaging to team relationships or violates company policies & procedures.
Just because they are a manager, that doesn’t mean you have to endure an unsupportive or even toxic relationship with them. After all, you work there too, and your own job satisfaction is at stake.
And, you never know who else is being silently affected by the manager’s behavior. By speaking out, you encourage others to voice their concerns, too.
2. Gossip about them to colleagues
Whatever you do, don’t gossip about the matter with your colleagues. Unless they are witnesses of specific instances, there is no professional reason to inform them.
Although it can be very tempting to justify your version of events by having more people on your side, once you’re seen as a rumor-monger, it can be hard to do away with that impression.
On the other hand, it’s very important to clarify your feelings and reduce your stress by talking about it. Find a trustworthy friend or family member to vent to first, before approaching colleagues.
3. Leave before attempting all the dos
Often when we’re angry and hurt by a negative work situation, our first reaction may be to quit and find another job. But even though we’re escaping one situation by quitting, you will likely face different challenges in the next job (i.e. don’t view quitting with rose-tinted glasses). So, carefully evaluate the situation and avoid making hasty decisions in the heat of the moment. Sometimes, it might end up being easier trying to resolve the current issue, than having to start over again and dealing with different challenges in another role.
Unfortunately, when it comes to difficult bosses, the situation won’t go away by simply calming down and coming back to your desk in a more positive mood tomorrow. But why should you be the one to quit when things get tough? Especially when you’re well established with the company and the role.
That’s why it’s vital to work through the ‘Do’ steps before taking things further, even when you want to run the other way.
4. Forget that bullying, intimidating, unreasonable micromanagement, and so on are rarely isolated
Unless they’re having a bad day, toxic behavior by a manager is unlikely to be a one-off incident.
Although their criticism or actions may seem out of the blue and take you by surprise, it could actually be part of a wider pattern. Pay careful attention to how they interact with you and other team members.
And remember, don’t forget to keep quiet track of concerning behavior by noting the date, time, location, situation, behavior, and any witnesses as soon as possible after it occurs. Then, if you end up escalating an issue, you’ll have plenty of evidence to support you.
5. Document, document, document
We can’t say this loudly enough. When relationships with managers turn sour, it’s vital to document any unacceptable comments, behaviors, requests, and so on.
If you have any meetings with them to discuss an issue, don’t forget to send a follow-up email to thank them for their time and to bullet-point a summary of what was discussed.
Remember to always forward or BCC a copy of the correspondence to your private email address, in case you lose access to your work emails.
6. Make negative comments about the manager at a job interview
If you do decide that it’s time to move on from your current company, it’s best to avoid making negative comments about the manager or organization during job interviews.
Not only does this make them wonder if there’s another side to the story, but they’ll also think that you’d complain about them too during future job interviews.
Instead, stick to a constructive response to the standard interview question, “Why are you leaving your current job?”. For example, you can tell them that while you enjoy your job a lot, there are no career progression opportunities available there. Or that you’d like the opportunity to grow and develop in a fresh and challenging role.
Ruben’s story I got hired as an accountant at a mid-size law firm. Great pay, great location. But on Day 2, the receptionist (who I later discovered was dating one of the lawyers) told me that the senior lawyer of the department I was working in (surprise, surprise, her boyfriend) was angry that I got the job instead of a friend he’d recommended. Apparently, and I think this was a big part of his annoyance, the company had a generous internal referral program of 5 paid days off for any employee who recommends a candidate who then gets hired. I told her I was sorry and that I wished the friend good luck finding a new role. I thought that was the end of it. But her boyfriend soon started bringing incorrect invoices to my attention. The first couple of times I apologized, thinking I’d make a newbie mistake. But when suddenly half or more were wrong, I got suspicious. Rather than chatting to the guy, because I knew his motivation, I sat down with another accountant and got them to review the incorrect invoices. Big surprise – there was a tiny typo in one, but the rest were perfectly fine. She came with me to speak with the lawyer, and told him clearly that she’d found no errors on any of them. He didn’t apologize, but I got no more complaints after that. I’m glad I spoke up and had someone check, before giving up or getting mad at the lawyer for his attempts to undermine me.
While it may be tempting to throw in the towel and walk away when dealing with a difficult boss, it’s important to try and resolve the situation before giving in and quitting.
Although there is no guarantee of fixing things, quite often a resolution can be found to help you stick around. When a difficult situation arises with a terrible manager, check out the list of dos and don’ts to ensure you’ve done all you can.
It’s better to try hard and have no regrets, than to regret what you didn’t attempt.
- Some people are simply not leadership material. They get promoted on the basis of their ability to do their current job well, with the assumption that they can lead others towards similar success. Which is not always the case. Remember: their people management failings are theirs, not yours
- If a manager gives you feedback that you take offence to, decide if their criticism has any merit (even if you’re angry about the way it was given) before deciding what to do
- Speak directly with the manager before taking action. Not only does this give them a chance to apologize and/or clarify, but you are seen to take the lead in resolving matters
- If speaking directly to the manager doesn’t work or is impossible, arrange a confidential chat with their boss. If the boss is reasonable, they will take every step to investigate and find a solution
- The next step is to approach HR, whose job it is to support employees. Once HR becomes involved, it will likely become a formal investigation. Be cooperative and provide any evidence when requested
- If a manager says or does something that you instinctively, as a seasoned professional, don’t believe is right, don’t sit back in silence. Bullying, intimidating, and unreasonable micro-management are rarely isolated
- But that doesn’t mean gossiping about them with colleagues. Vent to a family member or friend. The same goes for job interviews: avoid making negative comments about the manager or company to the interviewer, or they’ll assume you’d do the same about them
- Evidence, evidence, evidence: Always keep a written (e.g. email, internal communications app) trail of your interactions. If matters escalate, you’ll have evidence to support you. BCC or forward copies of all correspondence to your personal email address, in case your work email gets cut off
- Don’t quit before trying all possible solutions. Even though you’re feeling angry about the situation, why should you be forced to leave a job you’re happy with if a resolution can be found?