How To Deal with a Toxic Boss
How I Made The Best of a Bad Situation - And You Can Too
I was 22, just under a year into my first full-time job when I learned what it's like to work for a toxic boss.
My newly-appointed boss marched up to me and yelled at me in front of all of my employees and coworkers. There was a time-sensitive problem that needed to be resolved, and he wanted to know what I was doing to handle it.
"I'm–," I started to explain, but he cut me off before I could answer.
Then he proceeded to shout everything I needed to be doing (all things I already was doing), and decided to hover over me, his now red face breathing down my neck while I attempted to keep doing my job.
As he continued shouting, frazzling me so much I couldn't do my work particularly well, I started to cry.
This was the first time he yelled at me and the first time I cried in front of him, but it wasn't the last.
After the third time, he pulled me aside to say that my crying was unprofessional, and that maybe I was too emotional for this job. He suggested I seek professional help. (To add insult to injury, he saw it fit to have this conversation right in the middle of an open-plan office, with my friends and colleagues walking past us as they left to go home for the day.)
His criticism felt highly ironic – not to mention sexist – given that he was well known for barging in and yelling at anyone, anytime , and yet he didn't see his own behavior as unprofessional.
The worst part was, I actually started to wonder if he was right – maybe I wasn't cut out for the job, after all.
This was one of many troubling interactions I had with this boss. When he wasn't yelling, he was condescending, and oftentimes he managed to do both things at once.
I got to the point where I dreaded work so much I'd sit in the parking lot and text my friend each morning, "Do I have to go in?"
It was a shame, because aside from this boss, my job was really a pretty good one, and I was pretty good at it. I wanted to like it. But how could I resolve this situation?
Following the 4 steps below saved my life in the ~6 months that I had to continue working with this boss while I put another plan in place.
If you're dealing with a boss that's manipulative, aggressive, greedy, or otherwise taking advantage of you on a regular basis, you may be dealing with a toxic boss. The steps below can help you make the best of a bad situation.
1. Take Care of Yourself
There are a number of ways to take care of yourself in this situation, but my two top recommendations are to 1) remember you're not crazy and 2) talk to someone!!
Remember You're NOT Crazy
When you identify toxic behaviors in your boss, the first thing to do is remember that you're not crazy. Toxic people are often manipulative and narcissistic – they feed off of others' insecurities, and they will do their best to make you think you are crazy. Their whole goal is to convince you that what they're telling you has validity, and given that they're likely older than you and in a position of authority over you, what they say may hold a lot of sway over your self-perception.
Do not give into these feelings of self-doubt! If you think you're doing a good job, in spite of what your boss is saying, you probably are...
Talk to Someone
This brings us to point number two. When you're dealing with toxicity of any kind, your ability to trust your own self-perception can become skewed. You think you're doing a good job, but if you've got someone shouting at you day in and day out, telling you you're failing... then are you really?
The easiest way to alleviate these feelings is to talk to someone. This could be a close friend (if it's a work friend, make sure you select someone you absolutely know you can trust), a counselor, or potentially someone in HR.
Talking to a third party can help you gain perspective on what's happening, as well as as an understanding of whether you're dealing with smaller issues that can be resolved, or symptoms of toxicity that likely cannot be overcome.
If you're scared of reporting your experiences to HR because you don't think they'll be taken seriously, that may be a sign of a toxic work culture that goes beyond your boss, and a red flag that you need to leave the company.
In my case, I heard from a number of colleagues that my boss had already been sent by HR to anger management several times – clearly it hadn't worked – and yet they were still promoting him. Definitely a red flag. (Keep these flags in mind when you're making your escape plan – see point 3.)
2. Don't Fight Fire with Fire
Focus your extra energy on points 1 & 3 – don't waste any of your precious emotional resources on anger towards your boss. Of course you'll want to rant and cry and occasionally yell. We all need to decompress. But do this with someone other than your boss. If your boss yells at you, don't yell back. Don't give them that satisfaction.
Because your boss has significant power over you and control over your day-to-day experience, you're not on a level playing field. They might escape negative repercussions for their actions, but they will still be able to hold you accountable for yours.
For example, my boss blindsided me during a performance review by formally blaming me for something he'd done wrong. Extremely frustrated by this unfairness, I walked out.
But what happened? He then used that as fodder to describe me as emotional, too sensitive, and incapable of taking feedback. For him, it just reaffirmed his previous assertion that I was unprofessional and too emotional for the job because I cried from time to time.
So my reaction to an unfair situation was used against me... to put me in yet another unfair situation.
I only started to come out on top when I did an Oscar-worthy performance of "loyal employee who wants to change." I took all feedback with a smile, nodding along by repeating my new mantra "This job is not forever."
So don't fight fire with fire - fight fire by channeling your inner Meryl Streep.
3. Make an Escape Plan
Once you know you're dealing with a toxic boss (and not a boss who's just occasionally a jerk), you need to make an escape plan. You won't be able to change your boss – and you can bet they won't respond favorably if you tell them that they're the one that needs professional help.
Depending on your particular situation, you may decide to leave your company altogether, or simply to ask to transfer to another team, but under no circumstances should you continue working for your current boss for any longer than necessary.
Toxic bosses, like toxic boyfriends, are meant to be left behind – you might go through patches where things feel better, but the manipulation, aggression, backstabbing, etc., will eventually resurface.
It's easy to search for reasons to stay longer – "It's not a good job market, I want my December bonus, I want to say I worked here for 2 full years, I want to vest fully in the company before I go..." Depending on your economic situation, some of these excuses might actually be very valid. As you consider these different incentives, ask yourself, "Is X worth dreading to come to work each morning? Are Y dollars worth sacrificing my mental health?"
Set a deadline for how much longer you're going to tough it out, and then pour all of your energy into doing what needs to happen before that deadline.
And, once you do decide to accept another job offer or simply to quit and pursue something else, feel free to give a bit more than two week's notice. Formally giving your notice is a great way of saying, "I don't give a ______ anymore," in a very, very professional manner. You can start wrapping up projects, no new work will be put on your plate, and people's mindsets toward you shift because they know you're on your way out. Your toxic boss may even move on to new prey.
4. Put Your Head Down
Once you have an escape plan in place, it becomes much, much easier to put your head down and do the work. Whether it's to make a lateral move at your company so you have a different boss, find a new job, or just run far far away from there (I ran to Peru), you'll feel much better once you have a new goal to pursue.
Having a goal you really care about makes it easier to put your head down and plow through work at your day job because you'll know that it's only temporary.
Putting your head down and doing the work also ensures a couple key things:
- You'll leave with your coworkers' respect and won't burn bridges - You might want to burn the bridge with your toxic boss, but doing so could mean several others will fall with you. It's better for your short-term sanity and long-term reputation to take the high ground.
- It will keep your boss off your back - If you're doing good work, said toxic boss might even start complimenting you. (Not that you should care about their praise). But more importantly, they'll bother you way less than they would if you gave them any excuse to pounce on you. Get your work done and you'll give them less ammunition to use against you.
Chris Sowers put it best: "Figure out what results the jerk cares about most (hint — it's likely the project you're getting yelled at the most about), and hunker down and deliver."
Doing good work is a temporary fix to make your situation more bearable, but even if you feel like things start to improve, be weary of aborting your escape plan - toxic people rarely change in the long-term, and you don't want to be tiptoeing around them forever.
Dealing with a toxic boss is draining and extremely frustrating. And most of all, it's not fair.
I still shake with frustration when I think about my own experience, but the good news is how much I've learned from it. Like all toxic relationships, dealing with a toxic boss is a valuable learning experience – once you know the warning signs, you can be better prepared to avoid them in the future. You can ask good questions when you interview and you can recognize the signs of a toxic boss early on.
So don't despair. Your current situation is temporary.
Above all, remember that YOU. ARE. NOT. THE. PROBLEM. You are good at your job. And you will be good at your next job, too. Take care of yourself, make an escape plan, and you will be okay.
- How to Respond to a Performance Improvement Plan - PowerToFly Blog ›
- How to Respond to a Performance Improvement Plan - PowerToFly Blog ›
- How to Respond to a Performance Improvement Plan - PowerToFly Blog ›
Learn more about our amazing speakers and sponsors at our April 2021 virtual summit Diversity Reboot: Elevating Black Women, three days of conversations and panels plus an interactive virtual career fair.
From everyone here at PowerToFly we want to extend a BIG thank you to everyone who tuned into last week's Diversity Reboot: Elevating Black Women. In case you missed a talk or you'd like to revisit one of our great conversations, don't worry, all of the fireside chats and panels will be available to watch for free on PowerToFly soon.
We were thrilled to present conversations on such important subjects as the racial wealth gap, the importance of affordable child care, how BIPOC youth are leading the way on combatting the climate crisis, the importance of black women in entrepreneurship and business, being an ally for communities outside of your own, plus tech talks, fireside chats with Black woman founders, panels with DEI leaders and much more.
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Speaker Spotlight: DEI Book Club Picks!
by Kryss Shane
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Thank you to all of our wonderful, amazing speakers! And thank you again for supporting Diversity Reboot 2021 and PowerToFly!
Kiana Labuhn, Recruiter at S&P Global, shares an exclusive take on the most important tips to keep in mind when preparing for an interview.
She talks about how S&P Global looks for candidates that not only fit the skills needed for the role but are aligned with their values.
Kiana stresses the importance of preparing for the interview in advance, first by researching the company and your interviewers and then identifying the core competencies needed for the position—thinking of times when you demonstrated these skills in your past. Have you heard about the STAR model? It's a great tool that Kiana shows us how to use in the video.
"At S&P Global, we will embrace and support the qualities that make each candidate a unique fit. Building and embracing diversity is a priority for us, and we're committed to unleashing the potential of every individual who works with us," Kiana says.
Take a look at her list of resume dos and don'ts and her own experience when preparing for her interview process at S&P Global.
To learn more about S&P Global and their open roles, click here.
How Bumble’s Director of Engineering Learned to Be Herself at Work—and Encourages Team Members to Do the Same
Rose Hitchcock found out she was pregnant with her third child halfway through the process of interviewing to be Director of Engineering at Bumble.
She told the team at the social media and dating app and that didn't change their plans to hire her. "They were completely fine with it, really supportive," says Rose.
She started her new role while pregnant and plans to take six months off when she gives birth.
"They were like, 'Oh, take what time you need,'" she says. "That was another reason for me to come and work for the company, there was just no issue there."
We sat down with Rose to discuss her path to Director of Engineering, how she has found professional success by being herself (including as a working mother), what companies can do to create pathways to leadership for as many women and underrepresented people as possible, and why that matters.
Finding what energizes her in environments where she can be herself
Though Rose's role is in engineering, she doesn't have a formal background in computer science or engineering. She studied management science during university, and her first true exposure to programming came just after undergrad when she took a job as a business analyst at an IT consulting firm, which included five weeks of coding training.
Working as an analyst, she served as the liaison between the tech and business sides of various companies before transitioning into a technical project manager. That role was when she really "started to learn more about leading teams," and discovered that leadership and people management challenges were what she most loved solving.
"I really enjoyed helping people progress, promoting them and...working with people who were struggling to improve," she says. As her capabilities grew, Rose progressed into a more strategic role, coming back from her second maternity leave as a manager of other delivery managers. That's where she confirmed that management was where her passion lies.
"I have lots of colleagues and friends who are in management and they probably spend half their day doing coding stuff that they're not supposed to be doing, just because that's what energizes them and that's what they enjoy," she says. "For me, I get to enjoy my job and actually do the things that motivate me and that I'm really passionate about without feeling like I'm missing out on getting my hands dirty."
Throughout her career, Rose realized that she could only really enjoy her job if she was in an environment where she felt comfortable being herself. When she worked in consulting, that wasn't quite the case. "It felt like you had to behave in a certain way," she says. "To have the same attitude in order to get ahead, like being very self confident and self-promoting. You couldn't just do a good job—you then had to go and tell everybody what a good job you were doing."
That isn't who Rose is, so she ended up leaving consulting and going into industry, where she found the career growth she was looking for. "When you're in a smaller company, it's a lot easier to be recognized for your work, because people can see what you're doing," she says. "If you want extra responsibility or challenges, you always hear about them and can put your hand up."
But company size isn't the only important metric Rose considers. In a past job, she'd worked for an inspirational woman founder and wanted the chance to do that again, which is why the Bumble opportunity appealed to her so much.
"Obviously Whitney [Wolfe Herd, Bumble's CEO] is a strong woman founder. The passion she brought into the mission and what the company was trying to do, [with] this mission to support women to make healthy and equitable relationships really appealed to me," she says.
From the tech side, the fact that Bumble is still building most of its tech internally was another plus. "Teams that are building their own products are so much more motivated and engaged," adds Rose.
Encouraging others to grow and creating space for them
As a Director of Engineering, a big part of Rose's focus is creating a culture of growth for the teams she oversees. This starts with remembering the things that helped her to grow.
- Giving praise in public. "I tell people that I've noticed when they're doing a good job and praise them or thank them," she says.
- Giving pass-through praise. Rose doesn't stop by telling individuals when they're doing well—she also talks them up to other members of the leadership team, including the CTO. "I advocate for them," says Rose.
- Providing opportunities to shine. "It's important to communicate the talent within your team to folks outside of your immediate department. This allows room for a cross-functional awareness of your team's incredible work and how other departments can tap into a member of your team for future projects," says Rose. "I look for opportunities for my team members to showcase their unique set of skills and expertise, whether that's giving a presentation or attending a meeting."
She also works to create a healthy attitude towards work that avoids the self-aggrandizing and presenteeism that she found exclusionary in previous roles by:
- Focusing on output rather than time. Instead of worrying whether people are getting to work late or leaving early, Rose just asks one question: "Are they delivering?"
- Modeling behavior. Rose says that she started to work more flexibly after she became a parent, coming in early and leaving early to see her kids before bedtime, and working only four days each week. She encourages other people to set the schedules that work for their lives. "I try to consciously make an effort not to apologize [about my schedule] so that other people don't feel it's something to feel guilty about," she says.
- Planning with outside commitments in mind. "When we're talking about project delivery, I work really hard to consider things about people's home lives," says Rose. An example: if she has a project launch date in mind, she won't assume that everyone is okay with working overtime to make it. Rose also asks the managers on her team to consider things like school breaks and holidays when planning. "It's actually trying to put the people side of things first, rather than always the delivery side of things," she says.
Why a diverse team matters at work
Rose thinks about diversity in everything she does, from recruiting to promoting to retaining talent. Here's what that looks like:
- Finding diverse talent: "If you say, 'Oh, it's really hard to find woman developers,' well, let's train some, then," says Rose, who works with recruiters to bring in strong junior technical candidates and trains them up in-house.
- Making diverse talent feel welcome: As a working parent, Rose knows the importance of a flexible schedule. While recruiting for open roles on her team, she saw that some candidates didn't want to change jobs because they didn't want to lose the existing flexible working arrangements they had with their current employers. So she made sure to let them know that the roles she was hiring for would come with flexible scheduling, including it in job postings as well as bringing it up in interviews. "I've had people, especially women, say to me that flexible schedules were a big driver in their decision to come and work for us," says Rose. "They knew they could have [flexibility] from day one and they didn't feel penalized asking for it."
- Promoting diverse talent: As soon as someone new joins her team, Rose sits down with them and helps to identify personal and professional goals. "I make a conscious effort to set objectives around where the individual's gaps are and what skills they would need to build on if they are interested in leadership positions in the future," she says. From that point, Rose starts giving them tailored stretch opportunities and exposure. Some examples include: asking a direct report to prepare a presentation for a small audience of 20 team members, having them represent a project at a tech-wide meeting, having them host a lunchtime session for an external audience, or sponsoring them to talk at a tech conference.
Building and retaining diverse team members isn't a priority of Rose's just because it feels right—it also makes for better work products and procedures, she says.
For Bumble, the perspectives of people with different gender identities and sexualities are especially relevant. "If you have a diverse team, their ideas and their expectation of what they want in our products is moving at the same speed as what our customers are expecting because they are representative of our community," she says. "How do we make sure that we're actually meeting the needs and wants of our community and bringing them new things that they actually want? [Well,] if you get people with more diverse experiences and different ways of thinking, you'll get innovation."
You've met some of them—maybe they're your family, friends, classmates, or coworkers, or perhaps you identify as neurodivergent yourself.
You may have recognized that some neurodivergent people are exceptionally skilled, excelling in things like pattern recognition and mathematics, and that those skills deserve to be celebrated, as the Harvard Business Review did in their report "Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage" in 2017.
But whether highlighting the significant contributions that neurodivergent employees have made or just honoring who they are as people, we wanted to take a moment this April to share some ways that industry leaders are marking World Autism Awareness Month.
We also want to acknowledge that Autism Speaks, the organization that began World Autism Awareness Month in the 1970s, has had a complicated relationship with the autism community. (Here's a good guide on that context.) We recognize that some prefer to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month, or to align with other organizations' World Autism Awareness activities, like the UN's.
However you decide to "Celebrate Difference"—the Autism Society of America's theme for April 2021—this month, PowerToFly and these 9 companies are celebrating right along with you!
Sharing inclusivity, not stereotypes, at Raytheon Technologies
"Raytheon Technologies and our Raytheon Alliance for Diverse Abilities (RADA) Employee Resource Group (ERG) is committed to trying to bring focus on invisible disabilities, as they are among the most misunderstood. Autism/neurodiversity isn't a mental illness and we recognize how important it is to bring awareness, be inclusive of everyone and avoid stereotypes. During Autism Awareness Month RADA is featuring a multi-regional presentation about Autism Awareness & Acceptance, as well as neurodiversity overall. The presentation is focused on educational information, including what Autistic people want in terms of inclusion and meaningful work, as well as dispelling common misconceptions."
Learn more about Raytheon Technologies.
Hiring a world-class workforce at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
"The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency recently launched the Neurodiverse Federal Workforce (NFW) pilot program, a collaborative effort between NGA, MITRE, and Melwood. The NFW pilot aims to help government agencies hire neurodiverse talent for U.S. Federal Government agencies. 'NGA mission success is contingent on a world-class workforce with a wide diversity of opinions and expertise,' said NGA Deputy Director Dr. Stacey Dixon. 'Neurodiverse talent can bring new perspectives to the NGA workforce and make important contributions to the mission.' The pilot is a great learning opportunity for NGA to continue to grow and improve our first-class workforce."
Learn more from the podcast "The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Takes Workforce Diversity In A New Direction"
Learn more about the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
Supporting each individual's preferred environment at Elastic
"We distribute anonymous surveys that allow anyone, including neurodiverse folks, to address potential barriers that we should address.
Our accessibility working group acts as an employee resource as well as an equity-seeking team that works to create and develop a disability inclusive workplace at Elastic.
The majority of our Elasticians work from home. Our hope is that this empowers neurodiverse employees, including those who may be on the spectrum, to have more control over their environment so that they can manage noise and light sensitivity, control their personal space, and manage their own schedule to reduce anxiety."
Learn more about Elastic.
Pioneering neurodiversity at Freddie Mac
"Freddie Mac values the insights and different perspectives that result from employees bringing their authentic selves to work. Our Office of Inclusive Engagement works with several organizations to identify qualified candidates, consider them for suitable roles and pair them with mentors who can help them adapt to an evolving new normal. In 2020, we evolved our neurodiversity internship initiative into a more robust training, education and hiring process called 'Neurodiversity at Work' to directly place candidates with Autism Spectrum Disorders into full-time roles."
Learn more about Freddie Mac.
Decoding inclusion at MongoDB
"MongoDB supports the neurodivergent community through interview accommodations, providing new hires the opportunity to select equipment and denote special requests, and onboarding checklists broken down into useful sections. To raise awareness about neurodiversity in the workplace, we have a learning and development (L&D) platform which has content on collaborating with different working styles. Our L&D Program focuses on building skills in managing teams inclusively. We also host Decoding Inclusion, a series of events aimed at building community and sharing foundational knowledge about D&I topics, including neurodiversity, to further our understanding of differences."
Learn more about MongoDB.
Encouraging allyship at Folsom Labs
"At Folsom Labs, we are passionate about building a culture of acceptance and inclusion. Our goal is not just to spread autism awareness but to strive to be allies and elevate the voices of those with disabilities. Now more than ever, this is important as many are facing the added weight of mental health and wellness challenges due to the pandemic. Encouraging allyship throughout the community and building a culture where everyone can thrive are at the forefront of our current initiatives. We are proud to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month — to set a stage where we can celebrate our differences and continue to create a space of inclusion and support."
Learn more about Folsom Labs.
Recruiting for diverse problem solvers at Dell Technologies
"Dell's Neurodiversity Hiring Program provides professional development training, internships, and full-time career opportunities for neurodivergent job seekers. The program rethinks the traditional interview process by removing barriers that may limit an individual from fully showcasing their skills and capabilities. Additionally, program participants benefit from job coaching and mentorship provided by our community partners and True Ability ERG members.
A variety of critical positions across the company have been filled through the program. In doing so, we are bringing in diverse perspectives for problem solving that have helped us differentiate ourselves within the marketplace all while cultivating a culture of inclusion."
Learn more about Dell.
Supporting professionals with autism throughout their talent journey at Deloitte
"At Deloitte, everyone contributes to our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Our inclusive culture, empowers all of us, including those with diverse abilities, to connect, belong, and grow. Deloitte's Autism@Work program supports our professionals with autism throughout their talent journey. A customized, autism-friendly assessment process helps draw out our candidates' strengths. Our employees have an internal Coach, an Onboarding Advisor, and access to external job coaching. Our Onboarding Mentor/Buddy Program pairs professionals with autism with other Deloitte colleagues/allies. Through Neurodiversity Training, our professionals can help support and manage our differently-abled professionals. We also have our Abilities First Business Resource Group for people with disabilities plus allies."
Learn more about Deloitte.
Sharing stories to support awareness at Lockheed Martin
"Lockheed Martin shares employee stories internally to help others understand Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and hosts internal events to support ASD awareness and education. The Able & Allies business resource group, whose mission is to build an environment that empowers employees with disabilities, has recently partnered with ASD advocacy organizations to offer resources to assist with managing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic with persons who have ASD and their families. Missiles and Fire Control (MFC) is a member of the Florida Ability Inclusion Network and strives to educate employees and leaders on disabilities and recommend best practices to promote a disability-friendly workplace."
Learn more about Lockheed Martin.