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How to handle a toxic boss

Learn some tips on how to make working for a terrible boss bearable.

Tess Vigeland: Whether you're freelancing or working for The Man, everyone can relate to the universal nightmare of working for a difficult boss. Here's what some of you told us this year about your experience with the corner office.

Jeffrey Hayes: Jeffrey Hayes from New Rochelle, N.Y. Yes I've had a bad boss. We hired a new office manager, and she just totally turned the office upside-down. I had a run-in with her. She gave me a bad review, and I asked her: did she really know what I do? And she said, "No, I don't, and I really don't care." Next thing I know, I'm gone. I moved on and got a better job.

Laura Hughes: Laura Hughes. I live in New Jersey, and I have to commute with the bus. When I was a lot younger, I worked for Verizon, and all the other bosses that I had would let me come in 15 minutes early and leave 15 minutes early due to my bus schedules. And then I got put to another department and this woman, she was just, "I don't care, I live in New Jersey too. Deal with it. Besides that, I feel like I've been pretty lucky.

Well Alison Green, who writes the "Ask a Manager" blog, says there are good and bad ways... to deal with a difficult supervisor.

Alison Green: I think one of the key elements no matter what type of boss you have, is no matter what your frustrations are, you want to get really clear in your own mind about what you can and can't control. And if you just accept that certain things are just the reality of your boss's working style, then you can focus less on what might be a pretty fruitless battle to try to change her and more on ways that you can work effectively in that context.

So, to give you an example, let's say that you have a manager who's just really busy, and she's pulled in a bunch of different directions and she's always canceling these regular weekly meetings, so you can never get her attention when you need it. So, if you accept that that's just the way she is, and you're not going to change her, then you can start thinking about what you can do within that context. Maybe you start anticipating that she is going to cancel on you. When you run into her in the hallway, you grab her for a minute and you ask the most important questions you have.

Vigeland: What about if you're faced with a truly terrible person? You know, you hear these nightmare stories. You know, aside from going to H.R., what other recourse do you have, and at what point does that become mandatory?

Green: You know, I think you have to be really clear on what your own bottom line is, and it's different for everyone. But you've got to step back, take your emotions out of the equation and try to figure out what you really can and can't live with. And if something you just hate about your boss isn't going to change -- she's just a terrible person or she's crazy, which is something that really happens -- then your next step is to decide whether you can live with that and still be reasonably happy. And if you can't, you're probably better off accepting that so you can look for ways to move on.

But a lot of times, if you just accept a bad boss as part of the package, you can find yourself living with it more comfortably. For instance, maybe you hate your boss, she's a terrible person, but you have a really short commute to work and you love that. You might ultimately decide you would rather keep that short commute, even if it means that your terrible boss is part of the deal.

Vigeland: And I guess what is the real complicating factor there is that any boss you have has so much power over your future. And, if you've got a bad boss, confronting them is probably not a good idea, because they certainly have power over raises and promotions and things like that. How do you deal with that power structure?

Green: It's easily the hardest part of the dynamic, but I do encourage people to speak up if they're unhappy. Try to do it unemotionally, be smart about it. You want to bring it up in a time your boss isn't swamped or frazzled or in a bad mood. You want to think ahead of time about your delivery, not just wing it; the same way you would want your boss to do if she were raising something sensitive with you.

Vigeland: I'm guessing you also get some questions from managers. What are they saying about how we should be dealing with them? I mean, I'm sure they all think that they're awesome.

Green: They do, they think they're great. Uh, no, actually, I think people tend to forget that their boss is human. There are going to be times when she's grouchy, or just not doing her job very well, or frustrated or frazzled. And some of the letters that I get from bosses show insecurity. They think that their employees hate them or they're really uncertain about how to handle a tough convo or they have someone who's not performing and they're feeling insecure about their ability to turn that around. So I think from the employee side of it, recognizing that your boss is human and you could be in those shoes some day can sometimes give some helpful insight.

Vigeland: Have you ever had a bad boss?

Green: I have had a ton of bad bosses. I always tell people that everything that I learned about how to manage well came from watching what not to do.

Vigeland: Well, I've had four workplaces in my life, and two of them I had, let's say, questionable bosses. Of course, my current one is the best boss ever!

Green: I'm sure that's true.

Vigeland: Alison Green writes the blog "Ask a Manager" and she's the author of How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager. Thanks so much, it's been fun.

Green: Thanks so much for having me.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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