I Have a Bad Boss -- Help!

This issue's Ask Rita in HR column responds to two reader questions about different types of bad bosses. Don't forget that archived Ask Rita topics can be found by clicking on the Ask Rita box in the right side of the magazine under "Our Columns."

Dear Rita: My boss shows favoritism to a single employee, and it's creating a bad atmosphere. She buys this person expensive presents, allows her far more flexibility in her hours than other people, and always points to this person as an example that we should follow. I love my job, but this is beginning to get to be a real problem. Signed, Resentful

Dear Rita: I love my job! It's the job of my dreams. But there's one problem: my boss. She's erratic, changes her mind about what she wants all the time, and when she's irritated or dissatisfied, the only way she communicates is by screaming. I am guessing she has an alcohol problem, but I can't be sure. I don't want to leave. What should I do? Signed,A Fearful

Dear Resentful and Fearful: Ask Rita has recently received many questions regarding difficult bosses, which are well illustrated by these two questions. Whether your boss shows favoritism, tyrannical behavior, laziness, chemical dependency or any other human frailty, these problems affect not just your work life but also the ability of your organization to have its highest impact in the community.

The two of us who write Ask Rita are both HR attorneys, yet issues about bad bosses need to be addressed outside a narrowly legal approach. Here are our thoughts:

First, do some critical analysis of the problem by looking at the following elements: A

  • What patterns can you discern in your boss' behavior? There may be clues to understanding poor behavior and considering possible solutions that are not immediately obvious. For example, is her behavior directed at just you, or are others affected? Does it occur at particular times of day or to particular stressors, like meetings with a particular board member?
  • What is your role in the situation . . . are you an observer of bad management, the direct victim of bad behavior, and/or is your behavior or attitude at work playing some part in the situation?
  • Finally, what are the results of the boss' bad behavior? Does it affect your own job performance, the boss' job performance, the organization's efficiency, the ability of the organization to execute on its mission? Focus on what you know directly and think yourself, not on what other people may have told you, or what you suspect is what everyone else thinking.

Second, the best course of action is often approaching your boss privately with your concerns. As with any inappropriate behavior, it's key to address the problem before it gets intolerable to you.

Consider asking your boss for a meeting or have a face-to-face conversation to discuss the issue. Alternatively, perhaps all it will take is an email seeking direction or clarification, for example:

  • "I seem to have gotten conflicting messages regarding how a flex schedule is approved. Could you please provide me more information on the standard for reviewing schedule change requests?"
  • "I appear to have conflicting assignments. Is there someone who can assist me in prioritizing my workload so I can be sure that I meet critical deadlines?"

Notice that neither of these statements is founded on blame -- but rather they focus on your difficulties in getting your best work done. By being solution-oriented rather than blame-oriented, your boss is less likely to be defensive. Another tactic is to ask your boss for a regularly scheduled meeting (such as every Wednesday 2:30 - 3:00) to receive work assignments and discuss any clarifying questions.

Whether and how to discuss things directly with your boss will, of course, depend on your relationship with your boss and with the nature of the problem. In some situations it may be entirely possible to raise the issue of favoritism directly: she may not realize that she is actually practicing favoritism (believe it or not, some bosses fail to "see" their own blatant favoritism behavior). In other cases, you might have learned from long experience that your boss enjoys a chaotic, frenetic workplace with high volume interactions, and bringing it up will not be effective.

If you can, avoid disparaging your boss to co-workers: this can backfire or compound the situation. If you find yourself part of a gripe session, try to use the opportunity to come up with some possible solutions to take to the boss.

Going over your boss's head to the board or around the boss to the HR department is usually not recommended as a first step. But if his behavior is unlawful or a safety concern, such as evidence of chemical dependency, such steps may be necessary. Be sure, when taking issues to the board or to HR, that you are not relying just on what other people have recounted to you, but on what you have observed directly.

If the direct diplomatic approach has failed or isn't appropriate, let's look at it from a legal perspective. First, employees have a right to a workplace free from sexual harassment. Other kinds of harassment are illegal if they are based in unfairness or discrimination: harassment based on gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, disability status and so forth. Unfortunately, if your boss screams at everyone, there are not legal remedies beyond what's in your organization's personnel policies. If the favoritism appears to be based in some kind of discrimination, there may be legal remedies, but favoritism towards just one person (rather than towards a group of people) is usually not effectively addressed through legal channels.

If the boss' behavior gets into the territory of illegal or unethical management actions, don't hesitate to make a report pursuant to your agency's internal complaint procedure. Most nonprofits have whistleblower protection policies and even if one does not officially exist, state laws typically provide for such. Whistleblower protection is intended to protect employees who report serious and illegal activity (such as covering up misuse of government funds), rather than issues such as "screaming" or favoritism. Serious charges can be brought by anyone (not just employees) to the attorney general of your state.

Lastly, if you think there are irreconcilable differences between you and your boss, updating your resume might be the best approach. It's always advisable to leave a position that's not a good fit for you. All people have work different work styles and personalities, and finding a compatible working style with your management team is critical to both employment success and workplace satisfaction.

See also: The Nonprofit Board's Role in HR

Ask Rita in HR is provided as a forum for our readers to learn about and discuss current developments in human resource law. It is not intended to provide a legal opinion or specific
legal advice. Please remember that RitaaEU(tm)s answers are fact-specific and may be affected by state laws. Information regarding state law can typically be found through your stateaEU(tm)s Department of Labor or Chamber of Commerce website. Should issues arise involving a specific legal matter involving you or your nonprofit you are encouraged to contact legal counsel or your D & O insurance carrier which may provide employment advice as a service to its insured organizations.

Comments (8)

  • I am "middle management" at a non-profit where most of the staff feel that they have a "bad boss" (MY boss, NOT me!). He does have his issues - most people do - but we all need to weigh the benefits of working in a field we believe in and feel passionate about to working in corporate America for someone who probably isn't going to be much of an improvement. Even if the great suggestions above don't help, it might be best to learn the best way to "live" with someone you don't like, rather than face the alternative.

    Jun 16, 2009
  • Has anyone ever considered how to get these type of 'bosses' the training/coaching that they need? Shying away from bad managers will eventually cripple the bottom line and the organization.

    Jun 17, 2009
  • I have had experience with a "bad" boss. There was no illegal activity, but he was just "bad." My advice is to focus on what you can control. You can't control the behavior of your boss. You can control the work that you do. If you focus on what you can control, the stress and frustration won't get to you as much. Step 2? Polish off your resume and move on to a different job. Put your frustration energy into motivational energy to work at night applying for new jobs. If you do this, then you are now in control of your demeanor, your emotions, and your life.

    Jun 19, 2009
  • Good advice for any bad-boss situation. Three bosses I've dealt with: 1) Founder of group, now ED, board made up 50% of family/friends, fast and loose with the truth (if the bill is in a desk drawer unopened we don't have to put it on the books...) 2) Sole employee, 'boss' a high-powered business exec board chair whose only other non-profit experience is on his alumni board and 3) super-control freak ED, some on the board like her, some don't but all agree she's bringing the money in so the people under her are expendable. I got better with each one, but ultimately I fell under the bus.

    Aug 16, 2009
  • Sorry but this made me smile. You've had karmic bad luck!

    Aug 16, 2009
  • I just told my boss's boss that the boss's favorite on sly told me that my boss would do what she can for her. Sounds kind of illegaL It will not be tolerated.

    Oct 13, 2009
  • Anonymous

    Having a bad boss can really mess with 40 hours of your week. You spend your best hours at work. You don't want to spend them with someone tyrannical, lazy, unethical, or anywhere in between.

    Ultimately, if you are dedicated to the mission, you need to make sure all people around you are as equally dedicated. If this boss is a liability, you need to bring it to the attention of a board member. Many nonprofits do not have HR staff, so board members are often the next best step.


    Mar 02, 2010
  • I once had an alcoholic boss who whimsically fired people who irritated her, pointed out problems, or even made helpful suggestions -- all these things were interpreted by the boss as threats to her authority. Those who kept their heads down and said nothing were usually but not necessarily safe. She finally went too far and was fired by the board, rather dramatically. But it took a long time and a lot of damage was done to the organization in the meantime. In retrospect, I feel I should have gone directly to the board chair with my concerns, rather than try to respect her authority and work within the system. - Lorna Visser, Carmanah Strategies

    Oct 24, 2010

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