How to deal with an abusive boss in the workplace

At 6-feet-6, 275 pounds and with more than 25 years of experience making automobiles that have been in nasty accidents look as if they’re brand new, George sees himself as more of a tough guy than a crybaby, or a tattletale. But …

“My manager keeps telling customers that their cars are being repaired one way, but I am being told to cut corners,” says the New Jersey resident who has asked us to mask his identity. “I don’t feel good about it.”

While he’s tried to talk to his boss about his concerns, “he yells, calls me derogatory names, and accuses me of trying to tell him how to run his business,” he says.

George has thought about going over his boss’ head, but he doesn’t think it would do any good, since the owners “are in love with the guy. He makes them a lot of money, so they’d probably tell me to just put on my big boy pants and deal with it. Or, worse, I’d get canned.”

A recent survey by Randstad USA, one of the largest human resources and staffing providers, found that 60 percent of employees have left jobs because of problems with their direct supervisor. The findings aren’t just true of blue-collar workers.

Susan, a 37-year-old data analyst who works at an investment bank downtown, says that her boss yells at people constantly. “It’s abusive,” she says. A few of her peers have gone to their boss’ manager to complain, but “they were told to calm down, it’s not that bad,” she says.

When she wound up in tears a few weeks ago, Susan took her grievance to human resources. “They took notes while I was talking, thanked me for my feedback and assured me the situation would be addressed,” she says. “But nothing has changed, except that I got removed from the project I was leading. They said it was too high pressure for me.”

So, can complaining about your boss cripple your career? That depends.

Dana Brownlee, author of “The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up” (Berrett-Koehler), says that there are situations, such as assault, where immediate action must be taken: Call the police first, then internal HR, then his or her boss. But other situations might be better served by different approaches. If your boss is emotionally abusive, extricating yourself from the situation and then moving to a new department or new supervisor might be the right answer.

If you’re being asked to do something that you’re uncomfortable with, like cutting corners on work, “sometimes you need to push back and ask for clarification and a conversation before you escalate,” says Brownlee.

Employment attorney Davida Perry of Schwartz, Perry & Heller LLP in Midtown notes that workers in New York City have federal, state and city laws to protect them. She says that while violations that are crimes should be reported to the authorities immediately, others might be initially taken directly to employers so that they have a chance to address them. “But keep a paper trail,” she says. “You should then talk to someone who is trained in best practices.”

But your employer doesn’t own you, and you can work wherever you want.

“That puts workers in a position of power,” says Shane Metcalf, an executive coach and co-founder of 15Five Inc., an employee engagement and performance management software solution company. He says that the center of influence in business is moving away from management and toward workers.

“Eighty-five percent of a company’s value is created by individual contributors, not management,” he says. “Workers need to know that they can guide how they want to be treated. Companies will listen because their success is dependent on happy, productive workers.”

Metcalf says: “It takes emotional courage to speak up [but] companies want to hear that if it’s happening. The information is pure gold.”

It’s worth noting that there’s a war for talent and managers are charged with increasing the time in which employees stay with their companies. In other words, if you quit, it could negatively impact both your employer and your boss. Moreover, if you complain on a site such as Glassdoor, you put a black mark on a company’s employer brand. “Corporate leadership is certainly paying attention to that,” says Metcalf.

But sometimes that isn’t enough, says Carolyn Holliday, founder of Warble, a service through which workers can anonymously report destructive behavior. Employees sign up using their company e-mail addresses, and they can then anonymously complain about their manager in categories such as bad attitude, discrimination/targeting, fraud, incompetence and sexual harassment, among many others. These complaints are called “warbles.” Once the site receives enough warbles about a specific supervisor, the supervisor’s boss is sent an alert, offering them “a chance to fix it before people quit and there are bigger problems,” says Holliday.

The center of power in the workplace has shifted,” says Metcalf. “Managers are becoming aware that employees determine the destiny of their employers. Their business depends on it.”

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