How to Handle a Bully Boss

Last Updated Dec 1, 2010 7:46 AM EST

Dear Evil HR Lady,
My immediate manager feels betrayed/jealous because I applied for another position within my company. I just received news that she badmouthed me and lied about my performance when they called to ask about me. One of my coworkers overheard her on the phone, because her desk is in the main area. Additionally, when a customer commented on how they were going to lose me to another branch, my boss said "Stacy, is not going anywhere!" She has always spoken so highly of me. And now I am certain that she is retaliating against me and will do anything in her power to get her way (she's done it to others many times in the past).
I am one of the 40 candidates that applied. I already interviewed for the position and based on my first interview they informed me that I was definitely going to be interviewed by managers higher up in the chain (division and regional managers), which is great news. However, I fear my managers' lies could seriously jeopardize my prospects and damage my reputation throughout the company. How do I handle this in a professional manner? I have considered calling HR but I don't want to get my coworkers involved, because I don't want her to retaliate against them.
Managers sometimes freak out when a valued employee quits. Normally, this is just a minor annoyance because, of course, the person is leaving. Unfortunately for you, an internal posting can create more complications. The interviewing process is rarely confidential, and the supervising manager sometimes has to even give her approval for the employee to apply for a transfer.

You can guess that I don't care for that.

You can also guess that I think the proper solution to your problem is to fire your manager. Unfortunately, neither you nor I have the authority to fire this woman.

Now, we've learned that some managers admit to sabotaging their good employees, but most of them have enough sense to do so subtly so that the actual employee doesn't know about it. Your manager, however, isn't bright enough to do that. What your boss is doing is bullying.

Now, I understand she was a perfectly fine boss who spoke highly of you before you decided to apply for this position. But, you also mentioned that she had sabotaged others. This is exactly like the bully from third grade--as long as you're in the boss's good graces, you're protected and others are attacked. But, if you go against the boss, watch out. Not only are you no longer favored, you're attacked.

The advice I'm going to give you assumes that you are 100% sure that your manager is doing this. If it's just rumors, then option 1 is the only way to go. (And keep in mind, saying to a client, "Stacy isn't going anywhere" may have nothing to do with your manager trying to keep you from leaving, and everything to do with telling a customer what a customer wants to hear.)

Given that you want to stay with this company, you have two options.

1. Grin and bear it. You can just go about your life, and hope for the best. Do you best at interviewing and try to let your boss's criticisms bounce off you. Remain positive, even while realizing your chances for promotional success are going to be limited by your association with this woman. You're not the only person who wants to avoid confrontation, so her peers may be less willing to hire you if they feel it could result in her wrath being turned against them.

Or,

2. Face the situation head on. I am someone who generally avoids confrontation. But, bullies (which is what your boss is) bully others because they can. No one wants to say anything and she feels confident that nothing bad will happen to her. In fact, she may have convinced herself that you won't even find out about what she's saying and doing. Confronting her can force a paradigm shift.

A few years ago, I read of one woman's encounter with a shady character in a parking garage. He was closely following her, which she felt was not normal behavior. Rather than ignoring him, she switched from being the victim to the the aggressor:
The thought crosses my mind that my body language will have a huge effect on what occurs. If I act like a victim, I'll be one. Also, I've heard in situations like this that one of the best things I can do is confront the guy and a lot of times they'll back down when they see you're not afraid. So I pull my hands up and grab my purse strap in front of me (lesson number 1 from you: don't leave your hands at your sides, use ANYTHING as a weapon). Then I abruptly turn around and ask "Can I help you with something?" while making sure to stare straight in his face. When I did this, I discovered he was not more than a couple steps behind me. He had gotten way too close. My abrupt turn and question caught the Character off guard. The look on his face was priceless. He managed to mumble a 'no' and walked past me as I stood there watching him.
The law enforcement officer who comments on this says the following:
My gut tells me that Person of Interest was considering an act which he believed that my Gentle Reader would probably object to. When she turned to confront him, she disrupted the flow of events that he expected to occur -- or that he had experienced conducting similar acts in the past.

When she didn't respond the way he expected -- when she became more difficult prey -- he broke off and called a friend for either back-up or a more speedy escape from the situation. The glances back were to see if Gentle Reader was doing something threatening -- calling police, summoning bystanders or the like.
You need to "disrupt the flow" here. Your manager fully expects you to take option 1. Why? Because others have and she's gotten her way. Now, I don't want you to run in screaming. Your body language will matter here. You need to look and act confident, even if you'd much rather be puking in the employee bathrooms. Practice at home on your spouse, your cat, your roommate or your mirror. Then speak to your boss. Here is a sample dialogue, but please adjust it for your specific situation:

"Candice, I've applied for and been interviewed for a job in another office. I understand that you are saying that I am not performing at a high level, which is false. Regardless of whether I take this new position or not, this is unacceptable and it needs to stop. If you persist in saying untrue things about me, I will take this up with your boss and human resources."

Yikes. Scary and confrontational and all that. Normally, I'm a "will you please" and "if you don't mind" type of person. Not in this situation. This is a situation where you need to be direct and leave no room for doubt.

Now, your boss may either be stunned into silence, which is fine, because you can then just turn around and walk out, or she may start accusing you of lying about her. Your response then is to repeat what you have said, "If you persist in saying untrue things about me, I will take this up with your boss and human resources." Don't get trapped in defending yourself. Don't get trapped into repeating what you've heard. You've said your piece and go.

Document that you had this conversation, including her reaction, and e-mail it back to yourself so you have a time and date stamp of when this went on. Okay?

Now, if your manager persists, you must, must, must, must go to her manager. I like this better than HR (employee complaints interrupt our important meetings and internet surfing time), because managers have actual power. HR has suggestions, but little power. (Our suggestions are good, of course, except when they are not.) When you go to her manager, you must be confident as well. Wishy-washy people get steamrolled into compliance.

"Jane, I report into Candice. Since I applied for a position at the Downtown office, Candice has been telling people lies about my performance and work quality. On December 1st, I asked her directly to stop. On December 3rd she called Steve at the Downtown office and told him I took exceedingly long lunches. If you look at my time cards, you'll note that I do not do this."

Now, is there a possibility that all of this could land you out on your rear end? Of course. (Just spreading cheer, like always!) But, with no risk, there's no potential for gain either. She's bullied before and she'll do it again until someone pushes back. Only you can decide if the benefits outweigh the risks. If they do, it's time to shift your manager's paradigm, because you refuse to be her victim.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr cc 2.0

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