How to deal with a bad boss

Even after spending years toiling for the right qualifications and finally landing an ideal job, dealing with a bad boss can often become the trickiest part of anyone’s professional life.

Whether it’s a simple personality clash, systematic undermining of your position, or blatant discrimination or harassment, there are no easy answers but nevertheless several options on the table, say employment experts.

Jon Gregory, the editor of Win- , and an advisor on employability skills, said that complaints about people suffering bad bosses were extremely common.

“It’s worth thinking about whether somebody’s bad boss is somebody else’s good boss, and it could just be that the personalities don’t fit, you’re unhappy with the culture of the place or in the sector that you’re working in, or it could just be that it’s a stressed company,” he said.

Gregory believes that firstly taking “personal responsibility” for handling what is often just a difficult situation is the best basis for moving forward positively.

“The most important thing is to recognise that reality is what it is and some bosses just are inept, incompetent or just have a certain personality trait,” he said. “A lot of the time people take it personally and they believe they can do something about it and the simple fact is they may not.”

Accepting this “can destress some of the situation and leave people feeling a little bit more empowered and in control of their own destiny rather than at the mercy of a maniac,” Gregory argued.

You can weigh up whether it’s actually worth speaking to your boss about the problem, he continued.

“That has to be judged on the individual situation of the personalities involved. There is always the risk that somebody will simply be more vindictive at the end of it regardless of what they say to you,” said Gregory.

“Regardless of that or in conjunction with what you can do is to say what are my objectives? Are they clear? Have I got any hope of achieving those objectives, and agreeing those with the boss?” he added.

“Again that can de-stress the situation because the big plus is that you are moving forward regardless of the difficulties around you.”

What can you do about it?

However, if these goals can’t be achieved then you may be able to expose some underlying issues. If you’re not reaching your aims in your job then you have to decide whether to tough it out or to live with the situation until a new job comes along.

Whether to raise the stakes by referring an issue to human resources is a tough judgement call, he said, as HR may have a different agenda to your own.

“You can end up raising an issue, making the right noises, but nothing will be done. That’s why it is absolutely essential to personally take charge of your own destiny mentally.”

In a situation that has gone beyond simply talking things through, a written complaint or “grievance” may be a more appropriate strategy said Jo Martin, an employment law specialist and associate at Womble, Bond, Dickinson.

Discriminatory or threatening behaviour, abusive language, or things that could enter the criminal spectrum would typically merit such action.

Tactically speaking, filing a grievance starts a paper trail which is important from a legal point of view.

“Particularly with bad bosses you might sometimes be actually just what the HR team needed in order to start doing something about it,” said Martin.

What are you rights?

Legally you can’t sue for bullying, but that shouldn’t put people off looking into their rights because an implied term of trust and confidence between employer and employee may have been breached, she said. This could afford you the right to resign and claim unfair dismissal.

Discrimination complaints are a little easier as they offer you the more secure option of threatening to sue while still remaining in your job.

A strategy sometimes advised by lawyers to help clients unwilling to just simply resign is to first file a grievance, be signed off sick as the situation is making you unwell and, without prejudice, send correspondence to the employer indicating you may resign but would consider a settlement.

“The employer then knows that they either have to sort out the grievance that’s been filed, deal with this bad manager, possibly face claims for constructive unfair dismissal, discrimination, whatever else may be in the pile, or reach a settlement to avoid that happening,” said Martin.

Choosing that option allows you to maintain your confidentiality, get a reference, and avoid financial uncertainty.

“Virtually every client that I advise would rather reach a settlement having threatened it first,  because they keep their reputation intact and they don’t spend money in taking someone to court.”

Enrique Garcia, an employment law consultant and advocate at ELAS Business Support, advises that it is important for employees to remember the distinction between complaints that were “protected” and “unprotected” by law, and that length of service can also be taken into account.

“For example, blowing the whistle because you might think the manager has done something unlawful, or raising a complaint that you feel discriminated against, they’re protected complaints,” he said.

“They differ greatly from unprotected complaints such as I don’t think my manager likes me, and need to be handled very differently.”

Can a bad boss become a good boss?

If an employee with relatively short service made an unprotected complaint and it turned out to be unfounded, they could be easily dismissed for a breakdown in the working relationship, he cautioned.

However, it was in the interests of companies to have good managers to retain good staff, Garcia argued.

“There are a few points that are absolutely essential pieces of training for any manager, new or old,” he said.

“Those are employment law training, including discrimination. They need to know what they can do, what they shouldn’t do, they need to know how to handle complaints and disciplinary procedures. That’s not just to protect the company but also the employee’s rights,” said Garcia.

Whistleblowing, grievance, absence management and the Bribery Act were also key issues to learn about.

“If I was to make a suggestion, I would say that they should be doing a refresher training on [employment law] annually,” he said.

“If you’ve got bad bosses, people will leave and that’s just the long and short of it.”

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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