BBC Capital

Work Ethic

Toxic boss? Here's what to do

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

Bad bosses

Vindictive managers can make for a nightmarish work situation. (Thinkstock)

Q: My boss often lies, is late to meetings, breaks her promises, does not honour contracted bonuses and threatens to find new and cheaper employees to save money. Everyone on our team is afraid to copy her on emails for fear of her barbed criticism. After a year working in this toxic environment, I would like to tell someone about this, but our small global company does not have a human-resources department. Would it be unprofessional or inappropriate of me to contact the chief executive officer or chief operating officer?

A: It is hard to work for someone whose word you can’t trust. You are never certain whether you’ll be treated fairly. Feeling disrespected at work is one thing, but it is much worse when you fear your job is at stake constantly.

This situation is not likely to get much better. You may eventually have to report this behaviour to senior management, but you need to understand that if you do so, life may well get worse for you at work. Since you already know your boss is vindictive, assume she will take it out on you if she finds out you’ve told her own manager how you feel about her.

Before you go over the boss’ head, first check to see if your colleagues can — and will — band together to try to fight this problem as a group, said Ben Dattner, a New York City-based executive coach and author of The Blame Game: How the hidden rules of credit and blame determine our success or failure.

“If the team is unified, there might be ways to hold your boss more accountable for telling the truth,” before you take issues to a higher level, said Dattner. For example, you and your colleagues might agree to start “taking minutes at meetings, sending follow-up emails to confirm commitments she has made, or perhaps even calling her out in a polite but firm manner during team meetings when she rewrites history or engages in denial”.

There’s something else you should consider. The tack your group has taken so far — leaving your boss out of email chains and avoiding confronting her directly — could be exacerbating the problem. “If she is unaware of the impact she is having, or is out of the loop, she has no incentive to change and more freedom to change her mind and to break promises,” Dattner said. If her own managers call her on her behaviour, she might be able to blame some of it on the rest of you leaving her out of communication lines within the group.

If your boss is able to get away with not honouring bonuses that are set out in employees’ contracts, you may have a much bigger organisational problem on your hands. For one, if the company condones ignoring employment contracts, telling the CEO might not help, Dattner said. Find out if this is going on in other groups; if so, it may be a systemic problem.

If you have exhausted all avenues to get your boss to keep her promises and treat you in a professional manner, it is probably time to get corporate executives involved. The bad news is that you may end up with an angry boss or even with no job, so keep your resume up to date, Dattner said.

Given the very real possibility that you could get fired or find yourself even more unhappy in your job after reporting your boss, it would be smart to start looking for a new position outside your company before you take the issue up the ladder. Before going to the CEO, you should also consult a lawyer about what the company may owe you and what your own obligations are. You may feel more comfortable or confident about reporting the boss if you’ve already started interviewing for your next gig.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

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