What Are an Employee's Options When the Boss Acts Like a Jerk?

Why Does Management Allow the Behavior?

Man shouting at employees
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What are an employee's options when he reports to a boss who is a jerk? A reader has worked for the state for going on 14 years, and never in all of their time there have they had to deal with a hostile work environment. But, the environment has gotten so bad that he's planning on taking a demotion just to get away from the constant harassment.

Two other supervisors have left for different jobs just to get away from him. He has threatened to write the reader up, and other employees for stupid reasons.

The Boss Is a Jerk. What Are My Options?

The reader writes:

When this boss took over for our existing manager, he came in like a house on fire and immediately started demeaning employees to the point that the union stepped in and had the employees sign a petition to have him removed from his position. All the employees signed it, but management ignored the employees and let him continue his harassment.
He has been here for almost two years and it continues to get worse. He has made fun of one of our supervisors who is mentally handicapped, and he has accused the staff of stealing from him. Everyone walks around him on pins and needles and he is constantly yelling at people, and demeaning them.
He trusts no one and he's very paranoid. The union has written many grievances and he is constantly breaking our contract. I have had many talks with him and he continues not to listen to me or anyone else. I have documented all of these incidents and have encouraged other employees to do the same.

The reader talked with his boss and told him that we have a hostile work environment, and they did nothing about it. The reader is at the end of his rope and finds a demotion sounding better and better every day. He feels that he shouldn't have to lose his extra pay just to avoid him, but believes his health is more important than this job.

He has developed high blood pressure because of the current situation and has put on about 15 extra pounds, The reader has also been rather irritable in his home life, as his wife can attest. Please give me some advice about what to do in this situation. This reader could use some words of encouragement.

A 3-Part Response to a Complex Problem

The reader has described a work situation that requires that his response is broken down into three separate categories for clarity.

  • His rights,
  • why management allows this situation to occur, and
  • techniques that the reader can use to get through this awful situation.

1. The Employee's Rights

You mentioned this is a hostile work environment, and it certainly sounds like a miserable, angry, abusive place to be working. However, in legal terms, a hostile environment has a specific definition that requires that a law is broken.

It's most often used in situations of sexual harassment or racial discrimination. What you've described sounds like a nightmare, but a legal one. That's right. It's legal to be a yelling, screaming jerk, as long as you're an equal opportunity yelling screaming jerk.

Since 100 percent of the employees asked for management to remove him, it's pretty clear that he treats everyone poorly, so illegal discrimination doesn't seem to exist.

It is weird that if a boss is mean to one person it can be considered harassment but if he's mean to everyone it's okay under the law. If he's singled out the mentally handicapped supervisor at all, then it's possible he's violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that might be something your coworker would want to look into.

Frequently, unions are a big help in battling bad management, but it sounds like yours has either checked out or failed in their attempt. But, if you can get higher up people in the union to take hold of your cause, that may go somewhere.

As a union employee, it's likely that you have employment protection that people outside the union don't have, so you can afford to become a bit more aggressive in your complaints.

2. Why Is Management Allowing This?

Whenever there is a bad middle manager, you need to figure out why the senior management is allowing it. There are two possibilities.

  • Senior management is just as awful or,
  • Senior management wants your manager to behave that way.

If your senior management is just as awful and turns a blind eye to all of the horrible things this guy does, well, that's just how it's going to be until something in senior management changes. But, if senior management wants the manager to behave this way, you can work with that.

Does the Manager Have a Problem to Solve?

Why would they want a manager who is a terror? Ask yourself, is there some problem they want to solve? Do they have budget problems and because the staff is unionized, they can't fire anyone? But, do they desperately need to get rid of long-term, highly paid employees so the organization can succeed?

Solution: make the staff so miserable that they start quitting and then replace them with lower paid people. Was there behavior under the previous manager that they didn't like? Was the previous manager quick to let employees get away with questionable behavior? Has this new guy really cracked down on things?

There is also a very real possibility that what you see as a situation where everyone is being treated poorly is actually a situation where, for years and years, the employees have been performing at a low level and this new guy has been tasked with bringing everyone in line with new productivity. If that's the case, no wonder he's got senior management supporting him.

3. Coping Techniques for Employees

First of all, you need to determine if there are actual problems that your manager is trying to correct. Sit down and make a list of the times you are criticized and for what the manager is offering criticism. If the manager is yelling at you because you come in late, the obvious solution is to stop coming in late.

On the other hand, if he's yelling at you because it's Tuesday or because the boss doesn't like the weather, or because he finds your voice annoying, that will clue you into the fact that he's not actually trying to solve a problem.

Document, Document, Document

Regardless, continue to document and ask your coworkers to document as well. It will either provide you with a pattern of bad behavior or give you hard evidence of how rotten this guy is. Keep whatever lists you make at home, and don't type them up on work computers.

You want to keep this as separate from official work documents as you can so that management can't ever take the documentation away from you.

Communicate With the Boss

If you figure out that the boss is, actually, trying to solve certain problems, you can go to him and say, “I think we got off on the wrong foot. I understand that you're trying to make some changes here. What specific changes would you like to see made? I would like to work with you to help see those changes occur.”

Now, someone who is rational at heart will take you up on your offer. Someone who is just a dyed-in-the-wool jerk will explode at you for this. So, be prepared.

Start Looking for a New Job

While you're working through all of this, go ahead and start looking for a new job. You mentioned you were willing to take a demotion in order to get out of there. This indicates you're limiting your job search to internal positions.

Don't do that. You may love the pension of a state job, but you may find the private sector has a better work environment for employees. Don't discount that as a very real possibility.

Don't Be Defensive

The other thing you need to do is avoid getting defensive when the boss yells at you. Simply reply, “I'm sorry. How would you like me to do that?” This is difficult and requires swallowing a lot of pride.

But, imagine how fast the tension would drop if everyone started responding the same way. If everyone is doing precisely what he wants, when he wants it, he loses his reasons to yell and scream.

Working for a jerk is a horrible situation, but remember, it's not your entire life. If you can try to focus on your life outside of work, you just may make work a bit more tolerable.


Suzanne Lucas is a freelance journalist specializing in Human Resources. Suzanne's work has been featured on notes publications including Forbes, CBS, Business Insider and Yahoo.