Learning to Push Back Against a Toxic Boss

Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash

Yet another article about a catastrophic boss has reignited my years-long PTSD as an employee on the receiving end of outrageously bad behavior in the workplace. This time, the champion emotional abuser being called out is Sharon Waxman, founded and CEO of The Wrap. The Daily Beast quotes several traumatized employees who report she “often had screaming outbursts at employees, engaged in demeaning behavior, and berated employees for dealing with family emergencies during work hours…”. “You couldn’t stop her. You had to let her yell and scream.”

Before Waxman, there was Senator Amy Klobuchar, who once berated a staff member in public for not having brought a fork so the Senator could eat on the go. So she used a comb and then asked the staffer to clean it. Former aides say she’s not just demanding but “dehumanizing.” No wonder her staff turnover is notably high.

Bad bosses are so legion that Mother Jones recently published a series about them, noting that “all bad bosses are essentially the same sort of asshole. They dominate your life in one way or another, and they fight like hell to preserve their privilege to do so.”

I don’t know whether I was born under the wrong star or used to wear a “kick me” sign that only my bosses could read, but for some reason, I had more than my share of supervisors — women and men alike — who behaved terrifyingly irrationally. There was the man who brought me (then in my mid-twenties) into a conference room, closed the door, and proceeded to scream at me for ten minutes at the top of his lungs. (I shouldn’t have to state that I did nothing to deserve the tirade.) Or the supervisor whose anger was so out of control that he slammed a phone down over and over in front of me, until the thing nearly broke apart. Or the managing editor (a woman) who viciously gaslighted me every day, telling me I was not a good writer, and all I did was make mistakes. (I won several press awards on that job.) Worst of all, perhaps, was the federal department head who criticized me constantly in a loud, edgy voice, found fault with everything I did, yelled at me behind closed doors, and accused me of lying about an important matter. (I wasn’t.)

I could almost believe that bad bosses go to Bad Boss School to learn the most effective techniques for terrorizing everyone in the organization below them in the power hierarchy. Sharon Waxman’s modus operandi is eerily similar to most of my bad bosses. The Jekyll and Hyde personality. The tantrums. The public humiliations.

What’s wrong with these people?!

I confess I did not develop adequate coping skills, despite repeated exposure to these emotional abusers. I often found myself shaking and filled with unexpressed anger that was reflected in insomnia, loss of appetite, and PTSD-like repetitive thoughts. I replayed upsetting encounters over and over in my head, wishing I’d had the courage to fight back. I went to work feeling worthless, demoralized, and beaten down, which is funny, because I won more than one award for outstanding performance.

Actually, I’m ashamed now, years later, that I did not fight back. I did not stick up for myself as much as I should have. I don’t especially admire conflict-avoiders, but must admit I am one, or I sure was on the job. I blamed myself, at least in part, for not finding a way to build a healthy working relationship with these bosses, even though they were the serial abusers — with all the power.

If I could give advice to my younger self in these situations, or to anyone suffering workplace abuse right now, I’d make the following points.

First, if you are subject to a pattern of emotional abuse by a boss, document in writing each incident after it happens. Write down as much detail as you can recall, including who said what and where the incident took place. This is not a “cure,” but the information may be help you defend your perspective to HR or others later on. I’m fairly sure the abuser will not remember the details. They’re all up in their feelings, not necessarily thinking clearly.

Second, remember that you are not the problem; your boss is the problem. You can’t fix them, but you have a right to confront them in a professional manner. So let your boss know during or soon after a bad interaction that what they said, and how they said it, is not okay. The boss may or may not take this feedback seriously, but you need to say it. I never did, and I deeply regret it.

Third, if your workplace is toxic for any reason, look aggressively for another job. Find someone else in the organization besides your boss to serve as an ally and a reference. You may feel so demoralized that you doubt anyone else wants to hire you. Set that voice aside. Your bad boss doesn’t define your worth. And you can’t be expected to do your best work in a toxic environment. Get out, as soon as you can.

These days, I don’t work for anybody else. And I find that I’m an excellent boss: tolerant, respectful, and encouraging. I wouldn’t want it any other way.