Dealing with a Bully Boss

Learn how to deal with a bully boss when they are an important asset to the company and it's become a delicate situation.



Scenario: a once highly-competent employee was promoted to manager, but their lack of people skills has created more of an authoritarian bully boss. Because they've built rapport with their years of service to the company, and because they have significant knowledge and expertise, it's become a delicate situation for upper management to even want to acknowledge there's a problem. What do you do?

Employers: How to Deal with a Bully Boss

What are the risks of retaining a bully boss? Beyond motivation and morale concerns, a bad manager may create issues such as poor productivity, stifled recruiting efforts, difficulty retaining key talent, legal issues, and even public backlash. Consider the lessons learned from Uber’s HR nightmare, which stemmed from upper management not listening to employee complaints.

With a number of things at risk, take a step back to observe whether you actually have a bully boss employed as a manager. Is the team sufficiently producing results? Have you noticed a drop in morale? Are good employees quitting or getting fired? Are incompetent employees still employed when they should have been fired? Have you received employee complaints? Any combination of these factors could point to a manager problem.

Next, it’s time to gather feedback from employees. Find out about their interactions and feelings toward the manager. If there is any apprehension about giving candid feedback directly, allow employees to provide their thoughts anonymously. You may want to contact your HR rep for help with setting up a 360-degree manager effectiveness evaluation.

Finally, have a candid conversation with the manager about the issues brought to light by employees. Develop a performance improvement plan that documents specific areas needing improvement and include a description of performance issues and consequences for any repeated misbehavior. Allow the manager to be part of the collaborative improvement process. Solutions may include manager training, communication skills training, personality sensitivity training, role realignment (where available), and so on. Consider providing a points-based assessment completed by employees working under the manager to regularly provide feedback about the manager’s performance.

Employees: How to Deal with a Bully Boss

In an ideal work environment, your manager and/or HR department would be a comfortable place to disclose any feelings of being bullied. If, however, your manager and/or HR is the bully, try implementing some of these self-defense strategies.

1. Treat the situation as a work project.

Be cognitively aware of how you behave at work and stay unemotional. More than ever, be sure your outward appearance (hair and clothes) is calm and tasteful. Maintain a positive attitude and be determined to not react poorly.

2. Stay social and avoid isolation.

Make a conscious effort to keep up personal relationships with other coworkers. If you need to interact with the bully, try to be around others of “importance” that will make you less likely to be bullied. If you’re being pursued, never enter a bathroom or other area of isolation.

3. Use excuses or distractions.

In the event of an uncomfortable encounter with the bully, make an excuse and say you’re late for an appointment or need to use the restroom. You could also pick up a file or note with a customer’s phone number that needs to be called as a form of distraction.

4. Control what you say.

Avoid talking to coworkers about your situation in a way that could be perceived as gossip. Write down the interactions that have you concerned and discuss with a close confidant outside of work to hear their perspective. If they concur that this is a bully situation, and you haven’t yet done this, take your concerns to another member of HR or upper management.

As an HR company, we advise employers to take employee complaints seriously and to immediately investigate any incidents of wrong-doing. For more tips and information, please contact our HR experts at

Here are some questions to ask when deciphering between an employee's "dirty laundry" versus truly having a manager problem.
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