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How to Deal with an Aggressive or Abusive Boss

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Disclaimer: I am not a legal professional. This strategy has been outlined to me by someone with a great deal of experience managing people, but you should of course consult a legal professional before doing anything that might endanger your livelihood.

If you work in the West, for a corporation much bigger than a fledgling start-up, you should not and do not have to take extreme shit. If you don’t live in the West, you do (sorry). This is not a post about how to deal with an “awkward” or “inconsiderate” boss or colleague (in many ways, that is more complex), this post is about how to deal with someone who outright crosses the line: yelling in your face, calling you names, and, god forbid, physically threatening you. It is for when someone is making your life truly miserable. For as you will discover, there is a simple formula for crushing them.

Even in the 21st Century, I have a bunch of friends whose bosses behave in a way that is incredibly unprofessional. Perhaps you know the ones I mean, they call people into glass meeting rooms and then yell so that everyone knows what’s going on. Putting people down is central to their style of communication. People tip-toe around them. Obviously company cultures vary, but the question you have to ask yourself is: does this person make me feel like a victim? If that is the case, then you will cause underlying psychological damage to yourself if you just take it. You find yourself replaying scenarios in your head and wish you had stood-up for yourself. And as will all issues of bullying, if no one ever does anything, the bully will grow bolder.

Having said that, you must stand-up for yourself in a carefully calculated way to avoid things like getting fired, getting sued, or generally having your life made a living hell. I call this way, The Nuke.


The Setup

First of all, here’s a list of what you should definitely NOT do:

  • Never do anything that could be interpretedas physically threatening. Don’t square up to them, don’t stare at them with predatory intent, don’t clench your fists etc. This includes holding anything that could be misconstrued as a weapon (like a pen).
  • Don’t ever insult them back. No swearing, no commenting on things they have done. Avoid getting into a drawn-out argument. Keep your comments neutral and to a minimum.
  • Don’t give anything away. In Thai Boxing they talk about having a “stone face”, so that your opponent never knows if you are hurt. Wear that mask.
  • For god’s sake, don’t cry. I’ll tell you a secret: No matter what people say, every man who sees another person cry over a professional matter in the office will think less of you, and trust you less.
  • This is perhaps the hardest part: Don’t walk off. That is to say, don’t give them any warning that you are about to fuck them. If you do, you run the risk of spooking them, and they might fire you before you have a chance to deployThe Nuke.

Now, I am quite a warlike man. I’ve trained in all kinds of martial arts since I was a kid. The above DOES NOT sit well with me. It feels weak not to immediately stand-up for yourself. But this is the corporate jungle, this is the rat race. It’s ugly, and you have to play by a very disgusting and dishonest set of rules. If you don’t like it, then good, you are probably not an asshole.

In order to fight down the urge to blurt out something contrary to the above guidelines (“but it was YOUR responsibility anyway!” etc.), and to be effective in implementing The Nuke,then you should focus all your energy on remembering what this person is saying to you. Commit all potentially useful quotes to memory. As soon as you are able to get away, you can deploy the strategy.


The Method

**Go to your desk and open your corporate email client. Begin a draft message to the person who just crossed the line. You are now going to create a “record of the event”. You should do this as soon as possible after the event occurs – it will look better in court, and it will be fresher in your mind. Now you want to describe how what just happened made you feel, using specific quotes. Here is a full length example:

To: [Boss Name]

CC: No one

Re: Our project review meeting today

Dear Mr. Smith,

*I am writing to inform you that during our project review meeting today, on October 26th at 15:00, I found your conduct highly intimidating and emotionally distressing. When you raised your voice so that everyone in the office was able to hear you call me a ‘borderline simpleton’ I felt demeaned and intimated by the harshness with which you spoke, and the proximity with which you delivered your speech, which resulted in your spittle flying into my eyes on three separate occasions. *

This is the first project submission I have ever missed, as records will verify, and as such I felt it was unfair of you to say that I am ‘always fucking late with project submissions’. Furthermore, as you will see from my email to you dated October 24th, I was waiting for your sign-off in order to proceed with the submission in question. Your suggestion that I be ‘demoted to secretary’ has made me very fearful for my livelihood, as my family depends on my current income in order to survive economically.

The fact that you spoke to me in this manner for over 15 minutes, interrupting me with the phrase ‘I don’t want to hear yourgoddamnedexcuses’ before I was able to explain the situation to you, has made me feel very nervous in the office environment.

I am very dedicated to this company and to my job. I hope that we can meet next week to discuss how I can more adequately meet your expectations, and ensure that we are able to work together more effectively in the future. I am available all day Tuesday and Thursday. I look forward to your response.

Kind regards,

Joe Bloggs



Notice the following key points about this:

  • The email is very clear about the time, date and circumstances which are being related.
  • There is frequent use verbatim quotes of what the boss said – try to quote as much as possible.
  • Specific actions are also described, like the spittle in the eye, the 15 minutes of shouting, and the act of interrupting. This augments verbatim quotes.
  • No ‘objective’ statements are issued like: ‘you were wrong’ or ‘you were unprofessional’. Instead, you relate how you felt.This is very powerful, as no one can argue against how you feel. It is entirely subjective.
  • You end the email by offering them a way out of the situation (and by making yourself appear to be an engaged employee) – the meeting. It is best to arrange this a few days in future so they have time to cool off (because the email will enrage them for sure).
  • Notice that no threats are issued at all. You haven’t copied in anyone.The threat is entirely insinuated. They will know you could forward this to HR.

Note that you absolutely must not lie or exaggeratein this email. That could horrifically backfire and cast your whole story into doubt. Follow the above guidelines, and you have a powerful weapon. You have created a record of the event, and, perhaps more importantly, you have basically informed your boss that you are not to be fucked with. You have communicated to them that you understand the corporate ‘game’.


Phase II

*In the event that the boss doesn’t back down, then it’s whistle-blowing time. If they act up again, you write a *SECOND **email like the first, and then copy in HR or whoever deals with such issues, including the full trail back to the first incident. If HR won’t help you, then it’s time to lawyer up.I’m not a lawyer, but if you’ve got a paper trail as I’ve described, then you’re going to be in a strong position. I feel it’s important to stress that most bosses will back down, because they have so much more to lose than their subordinates, particularly if they are very senior. Understand your own power. Pawns are capable of checkmate.


Aftermath

Once you deploy the first email (and assuming you don’t have to move to phase II), there is no going back. You will have to live with the consequences potentially the rest of your time with your current company. Most people will never forgive you for doing this to them. As such, recall my initial remarks, this is to be used when you genuinely feel like a victim,not when you are somewhat pissed off about not getting your way. Don’t deploy this like a spoiled child, I don’t want to live in a world where everyone talks like Barney the purple dinosaur because they’re terrified of legal action. Here is a full list of consequences to consider:

  • They will hate you. You will know this and have to see them in the office.
  • If they have a lot senior friends, they will also hate you.
  • Where possible, they will fuck your career, bonus and perks. This means that you will have to tighten your whole professional game. If you are occasionally late to work, you can’t be anymore. If you miss deadlines, you can’t anymore. They will be looking for reasons to fire you, for imperfections to exploit.
  • You can never do anything that could be misconstrued as bullying yourself (even if it’s in jest – so no more office pranks etc.)
  • If you work in a ‘macho’ environment your colleagues will shun you for going to HR.
  • If it comes to it, they may fabricate lies about you and/or counter-sue.

Sounds pretty hard right? It is. But not that hard. It’s not like you now live in Syria or Detroit. You can mitigate against the consequences by ensuring that you have enough money saved to support you and your family for at least a couple of months, and by ensuring you keep your skills sharp so you can easily find alternative employment. Indeed, an option for someone who is more risk averse and relaxed about leaving their current job would be to deploy this strategyaftersecuring alternative employment. You could really bury them by saying that they are the reason you are quitting.

The upside is that you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you’re not a doormat. The overt bullying will stop.

When you are lying on your deathbed, do you want to look at a chunk of your professional life and feel resentment, shame and regret? As a wise man once said:

Evil will prosper while good people do nothing.