Abuse of power in the workplace

April 10, 2007
By: Vicki Bell

Workplace bullying can negatively affect an employee's work performance, home life, and health. Seventy-one percent of bullies are bosses. What constitutes an abusive boss, and what can employees who are abused do to correct their harmful working conditions? This article lists different types of abusive bosses and offers tips for combating the abuse.

Abusive boss picture

What happened to the grade school bully? According to a nationwide poll conducted by the Employment Law Alliance (ELA), he or she may have grown up to become an office oppressor. Nearly 45 percent of poll respondents reported that they have worked for an abusive boss.

What constitutes an abusive boss, and how do you deal with one? If you're a boss, do you exhibit any of these behaviors?

Portrait of an Abusive Boss

The article Burned by Bullying in the American Workplace: Prevalence, Perception, Degree, and Impact, by Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik from the University of New Mexico and Sarah J. Tracy and Jess K. Alberts from Arizona State University, defines bullying as a persistent, enduring form of abuse at work.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), in the workplace, slightly more than half of all bullies (58 percent) are women. Half of all bullying is woman-to-woman. Women comprise 80 percent of targets. The vast majority of bullies (71 percent) are bosses.

In "How to deal with a difficult boss," Tristan Loo wrote: "Difficult supervisors vary in personality from being a little pushy or rude, all the way to being downright abusive."

"Dealing with an abusive boss," by Gerri Willis, stated that there are all kinds of abusive bosses and noted that the WBI groups them into separate categories:

  • Constant critics, who use put-downs, insults, and name-calling. They also may use aggressive eye contact to intimidate.
  • Two-headed snakes, who pretend to be nice while trying to sabotage you.
  • Gatekeepers—control freaks who allocate time, money, and staffing to ensure their target's failure and ultimately want to control your ability to network in the company or to let your star shine.
  • Screaming mimis, who are emotionally out of control and explosive.

I'd like to add two categories of subtle abusers to the list: flip-flops and ghosts.

Flip-flops are inconsistent in their direction and management style. Working for a flip-flop, you may never know from one minute to the next how to proceed with a project. For example, one moment you are directed to proceed on your own, and the next you are asked why you did so.

Flip-flops foster a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" environment that stifles initiative, creativity, and productivity.

Ghosts are supervisors who are seen so seldom that workers wonder if they really exist. You know the type. You leave voice mail messages and send e-mails requesting a meeting and never get a response, or sometimes you'll get "I'll catch up with you next week," which turns into months.

Ghosts may totally ignore employees' questions and concerns or put them off by being too busy to get around to dealing with them. Yes, managers have to prioritize and allocate limited time and resources, but meeting and communicating with those who report to them should be a priority.


The ELA poll found that more than half of U.S. workers have been the victim of or heard about supervisors or employers behaving abusively by making sarcastic jokes and teasing remarks; rudely interrupting; publicly criticizing; giving dirty looks to or yelling at subordinates; or ignoring them as if they were invisible.

Sixty-four percent of respondents said that they believe an abused worker should have the right to sue to recover damages.

The poll also indicated that Southern workers (34 percent) are less likely to have experienced an abusive boss than their counterparts in the Northeast (56 percent) and Midwest (48 percent).

Handling the Abusive Boss

Both Willis and Loo offered excellent suggestions for dealing with an abusive boss. Willis proposed a five-step approach:

  1. Identify the behavior.
  2. Don't take it lying down.
  3. Take notes.
  4. Know when it's too much.
  5. Control your destiny.

Into which category does your boss's treatment fall? Respond to the treatment in a professional manner. For example, if you find that your boss is bad-mouthing you to higher-ups in the company, confront him or her directly and professionally. Willis recommended getting the evidence in writing from your source if you can. Then ask what is causing him or her to do this. You might say, "I've been hearing from others that you are not happy with my performance; you and I know this isn't true, and I'd like to talk about how we can fix this."

Willis suggested documenting your boss's bad behavior for two reasons. First, you might not even realize the extent of the problem and whether events are isolated or part of an ongoing pattern. Second, if you decide to go to your boss's boss or human resources or take legal action, you may need the information.

Know when it's too much. Willis said, "Bosses may exhibit bad behavior sometimes. Hey, no one is perfect, not even bosses. But if your boss is abusing you, that's a problem.

"The problem takes on greater urgency if the abuse starts to make you feel bad—if you chronically suffer high blood pressure that started only when you began working for your boss; or you feel nauseous the night before the start of the workweek; or if all your paid vacation days have been used up for mental health breaks.

"When the bullying has had a prolonged effect on your health or your life outside of work, it's time to get out. It's also time to leave if your confidence or your usual exemplary performance has been undermined.

"Ironically, targets of abusive bosses tend to be high achievers, perfectionists, and workaholics. Often bully bosses try to mask their own insecurities by striking out."

Loo's tips for dealing with a difficult boss are:

  1. Have a plan B (perhaps another job offer in hand) to mitigate the risks inherent in discussing the behavior with an abusive boss.
  2. Never react to verbal abuse or harsh criticism with emotion.
  3. Discuss rather than confront.
  4. Manage the manager by taking a proactive approach to be absolutely clear from the very beginning on how your boss wants things done.
  5. Know that you can do little to change the person.
  6. Keep your professional face on.
  7. Evaluate your own performance to make sure it's above reproach.
  8. Gather additional support.
  9. Don't go up the chain of command, unless it's a last resort.
  10. Encourage good behavior with praise.
  11. Document everything.
  12. Leave work at work; don't bring it into your personal life.

If you are working for an abusive boss, and your performance, home life, or health is suffering, don't continue to accept the situation. Take the steps you can to improve conditions. If your efforts don't produce the desired results, consider looking for another job.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209