Human Resources News & Insights

What to recommend when employees complain about toxic bosses

What do you do about toxic bosses? Many HR pros would say, “Fire them,” but that doesn’t always happen for various reasons.

So if a company is stuck with one or more of these bundles of joy, what are some steps employees who work for them can take?

In a recent issue of Business Week, an anonymous author offers what he did to handle his toxic boss:

  • Set aside time each day when you’re going to deal with the boss’ needs.
  • Send many short e-mail updates so the toxic boss doesn’t feel the need to call and check in.
  • Hang up the phone. “My phone has a problem,” the author says. “When people have a temper tantrum, it loses its connection.” The author says the boss usually calls back later, in a better mood and says, “I guess we got cut off.”

What would you recommend an employee do who is saddled with a toxic boss? Let us know in the Comments box below.

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  • Angel M

    Find another job….

  • Nancy

    I don’t allow toxic bosses to work for me; they set the tone for my employees. I don’t allow employees to treat their bosses or co-workers that way. I do not allow my managers to treat an employee that way….those who allow it….I don’t understand why? Can’t change it? Start pounding the pavement and look for a better place to work. A job never pays enough money for that type of abuse.

  • Find another job.
    I was employed as the development director of a non-profit organization, my “former” boss (whose nameplate on her door read “Goddess”) worked from her home alot; one morning when I arrived at 7:30 a.m., my inbox had 12 emails from her beginning at 4:30 that morning. Then she would begin calling me in rapidfire succession; if I were on another line she would call an employee in an office nearby and instruct them to bring me a note that she was trying to call me. Finally one evening I asked my prayer group to pray for me because I was fantasizing about tasering her. I’ve never even seen a taser except on television and I’m not violent. It occurred to me at that time just how unhealthy the situation had become. After analyzing the turnover ratio for the organization during the previous 18 months (Of a staff of 44, 42 positions had turned over in 18 months) I realized the common thread. So, I resigned and have been with my current employer two years and my only prayer is that I can fulfil this organization’s mission to the best of my ability.

  • K. Hamm

    Toxic bosses tend to be bullies (either passively or aggressively). If possible, ask for help from HIS/HER boss. Mention turnover costs. If that person won’t or can’t help, I’d recommend confrontation in front of a group of others who experience the problem. Bring HR into the loop. Managers have the right to manage in pretty much any way they want as long as it’s legal and within company policy. But a group intervention can have quite a dramatic effect. And have your resume buffed up and ready just in case.

  • Lisa

    I have an issue with a construction foreman. He is verbally abusive, he says things like he is kidding but in reality he means it. His help can not stand him. We have talked to him and given him written and verbal warnings. He does better for awhile but always goes back to what I consider bullying.
    I have proposed to my boss that his job bonus criteria should change. I think it should include not only the job itself and safety factors but also rated on post job evaluations his employees complete regarding his performance as a foreman. Does anyone think this will work?

  • What’s on the inside will always show up on the outside. Eventually he will speak to a customer or a V.I.P inappropriately as well. The only thing, in my opinion, that will work is a specific, defined list of areas that need improvement and a deadline. He shouldn’t be allowed be hold the company hostage.

  • R. B.

    Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done about a toxic boss if the upper management group isn’t supportive of making a change. Often, there are dynamics in place (i.e. office politics, manipulation, games, power struggles, rank) that are protecting the toxic manager from termination or discipline. In a perfect world, they would be counseled and go through progressive discipline until they performed acceptably or were terminated. This would take place over a reasonably short period of time. It’s common that they do better for awhile (assuming the behavior is addressed) and then revert to their true personality, so the cycle continues for longer than it should. Often, nothing seems to be done about them at all, even when HR is supportive. I know I’ve tried to submit a plan to address these kinds of problems with supervisors and managers on many occasions in certain companies where I’ve worked and have been told to butt out because that person doesn’t report to me, so they aren’t my employee and therefore, aren’t my problem. I can only get involved when they cross a very clear line and it becomes an HR issue. By then, a lot of damage has been done.

    If upper management or the executive they report to is protecting them, cut your losses and find another job. A toxic boss is going to cause great havoc in the organization when they aren’t stopped or called into account. If you’re in HR and aren’t allowed to address these kinds of problems, find another job…one where they value their employees and have some integrity. It won’t get better and chances are, you won’t be able to successfully outlast the toxic boss. Get out before you are badly hurt. I used to think you could win if you did the right things in spite of a toxic boss, but I’ve learned this is not the case. Find a place where the company’s values align with yours and you’ll be able to feel good about your work life again.

  • BB

    This doesn’t just apply to the toxic boss. It often applies to a toxic coemployee that seems to run away the rest of the staff yet management is unable/unwilling to detour the toxic employee from such behavior. I have been reprimanded several times because of toxic employees that bully and run off other staff members but are allowed to continue to do so even though staff is turning over because of this person. I am sorry but there is not one person in a company that is so important that they should be allowed to bully or mistreat coemployees. Get rid of the bad apple and reward those that deserve the rewards not the bully.

  • L.S.

    Get out and find a new job asap!

    I was in the same situation for over a year and realized that my toxic boss was affecting my work and health. I was so concerned about making mistakes that I ended up making more, and little, stupid ones which is very out of character for me. When I visited family and friends, I was a monster and did nothing but b**ch and moan about how horrible my boss was and I was miserable. It says something when her own peers asks you what mood she’s in today before they talk to her, everyday was like walking on eggshells not knowing what mood she’s in. I bit my tongue for a long time, but she and I had it out one day, I finished the work day, went to HR and quit on the spot (I’ve never done that before, my previous job I gave 3 mos notice). The next day I was told my boss had not taken me seriously about quitting, other assistants had said the same thing and went back to the job for awhile.

    Over my time there I would learn from coworkers and others that this boss’ behavior has a well documented history with HR, was sent to anger management and even put on drugs, as you guessed it didn’t last long and I was told that she had mellowed somewhat (??!!), that she used to be far worse. The job as her assistant was a revolving door, I was number 7 or 8 in 10 years, HR dreads filling the position and while HR was sympathetic and even said “the behavior goes against the company’s mission statement”, my boss’ supervisor wouldn’t do anything about it. We “grunts” are the expendable ones, my former boss has been with the company for over 30 years, I guess longevity outweighs the value of good employees.

    Don’t put yourself in physical and mental turmoil anymore, we have enough stress in our lives to have a toxic boss added to our plate.

    The other disappointing thing is when I researched this topic, too often the “experts” were putting the blame and responsibility on the employee. I know there’s bad and incompetent employees out there, but this kind of behavior from a boss shouldn’t be tolerated at all by upper management and HR. The advice given is to work with the boss, change YOUR behavior how you deal with him/her, go to HR (which sometimes is not good, makes you look like a whiner and difficult employee). Everything I read seemed like a no-win situation for the employee.

    Good luck!