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How to deal with a bad boss

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Of all the emails I get asking for advice, the most common by far is people wanting to know how to handle a bad or dysfunctional boss.

Just last week, for example, a manager contacted me about a VP who badmouths employees and gossips about peers behind their backs.

Other examples include business owners who play mind games to manipulate employees, executives who pit managers against each other, managers doing things that are unethical or against company policy, and bosses that are just plain abusive, condescending or inconsiderate.

The situations have striking similarities. Employees try to look the other way or just sort of live with it, but the situation is chronically disturbing, demotivating and stressful. Eventually, they feel compelled to do something about it or confront the offender head on, but they're not sure how to approach it. That's when they contact me.

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Having pretty much seen it all, I've found that the method for dealing with this sort of thing is pretty much consistent across the board. Here's what you do, in order, starting with making sure it isn't you or just a misunderstanding and ending, hopefully, with you moving on with your career and sanity intact.

Make sure it isn't you or a misunderstanding

Your first step should always be to take a cold, hard look in the mirror and try to achieve some level of perspective and objectivity. Or you can talk to someone you trust who knows both you and your boss. You might very well be blowing things way out of proportion for reasons that have nothing to do with him. Happens all the time.

If that fails, then schedule a casual, private one on one with your boss. Give him the benefit of the doubt. As benignly as possible, tell him what's bugging you and suggest that perhaps there's been some misunderstanding or maybe there's something he'd like you to do differently. Be open to his response. Try to put yourself in his shoes.

The idea here is to perhaps resolve the issue or conflict without being confrontational or bringing out any heavy artillery.

Don't go head to head with your boss

I'm afraid you're not going to want to hear this, but it's the bottom line truth and you need to deal with it: If you go head to head -- meaning a heavy duty confrontation -- with the boss, you'll probably lose. Same thing goes for going to HR or going over his head. That's because you'll more than likely lose your job over it. That said, if you feel that you must, there is a way to go about it that'll minimize your risk, but that's a last resort we'll get to in a minute.

It's a free country and you have choices -- exercise them

If you've had enough, you can try to get out from under your boss by transferring to another group within your company. I've seen it done dozens of times, even done it myself, back in the day. It works quite effectively. If you're afraid about retaliation if your boss finds out, it's up to you to assess that risk. Is it worth it to at least try? If, on the other hand, you've pretty much had it with the company, then get your resume out there, find a job elsewhere and quit.

Usually, just making that mental commitment to get out provides some relief from the stress. As for finding a job in this market, sure, it may take a while, but the sooner you start looking, the sooner you'll find something. Just don't do anything stupid like saying you're looking for a job on LinkedIn or Facebook. Use your head.

Whatever you do, leave in peace and without burning any bridges. Do not vent in the exit interview. In all likelihood, it won't do any good and it may come back to haunt you down the road. I don't care what anyone else says -- spilling your guts is never a good move. Just move on.

The last resort: Taking it head-on

If there's something inside you that screams you've got to take some sort of action to address the problem head-on, here's what you do. Just remember that, one way or another, this path may very well cost you your job. It might be worth it, but only you can make that call.

Do not go to HR or go over your boss's head. Not yet. First, meet with her in private, one on one, and as professionally, respectfully and directly as possible, express your concerns. Keep it brief and don't go overboard or get hysterical. One or two examples of what you've observed will do fine. Then wait patiently for her to respond. Listen carefully, openly and as objectively as you can.

If the ensuing conversation is congenial and open, then go with it. If it heats up, then back down.

If, for whatever reason, that doesn't work out and you still have fight left in you, again, understanding the risks, go ahead and go to HR or go over her head. You can even do that with coworkers, as a group, if a whole bunch of you are fed up. Maybe others have already complained and it might work out in your favor. I've rarely seen that happen, but you never know.

Something else to keep in mind: Whether the last resort works out or not, there's actually a good chance you're burning a bridge that may come back to haunt you down the road. Never underestimate what people in power may do when they feel wronged, threatened, or rejected, even by the little guy. Bad references hurt and they never go away. Remember that.

One more important thing. If you're burned out or getting depressed over it, get some help and consider just quitting, even without a new job. Seriously. It's not worth risking your health and well-being.

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