No matter what your political affiliation, you probably are similar to many other Americans when we hear the President criticize and disparage members of his staff. It’s one thing to be displeased with someone’s performance, it’s another to publicly humiliate them. The same is true in the classroom, in team sports, and in the workplace. Sometimes, teachers, coaches, and bosses use their public criticism as an excuse to bring about peer pressure or to bolster team effort, but even constructive criticism and coaching may be more effective when done in private.
Take a minute and think about how your supervisor or boss expresses displeasure or disappointment. Have you ever been the focus of that criticism or anger? If it was done in front of coworkers, how did you feel. Was it motivating in a positive way? In a negative way? Were you energized or deflated? Were you somewhat embarrassed or totally demoralized?
How did you handle the episode at the time? Did you become defensive or withdrawn or apologetic? How did you respond after the event? Perhaps most importantly, how did you feel about your boss after the public criticism? Did it increase your admiration, your support, your effort, or your respect? Did you find yourself trying to avoid your boss, or did you feel grateful that you were given another chance?
In most jobs, after a period of time, we figure out how to deal with negative bosses. We learn what they like as well as what they require. We try to anticipate their needs (which is appropriate) and their triggers. We may also over-prepare for meetings, document every movement and discussion, or find a way to disarm with humor.
Sometimes, however, the bad behavior of a boss crosses a line, and it becomes abusive. This can occur when a boss uses sexist, racial, ethnic, and ageist slurs, resorts to profanity and personal attacks, or becomes threatening. If that occurs, the employee being abused may need to simply walk out of the meeting. If there is a human relations department, report the behavior and make a formal complaint. If there is no human relations department, you may want to contact your union representative or, if no union is available, an employment attorney. There are free legal clinics in most communities.
If you are the supervisor of an employee who is being publicly abused by the boss, you have an obligation to intervene. You can try to suggest that the issue be discussed after the meeting, or suggest that you will deal with the problem yourself. If that doesn’t work, and the abuse continues, you will need to take a stand and tell the boss that his or her language or actions are inappropriate or out of line. This may shift the focus and the ire to you, but you are probably more experienced and better able to handle the boss than your subordinate, and you have a responsibility to protect your staff.
Bad boss behavior is not simply unacceptable. There are employment and organizational regulations that need to be followed, and there are laws that prevent discriminatory and threatening behavior, even from a powerful boss.