I Have a Difficult Boss. Should I Quit–Or Stay and Hope for Improvement?


A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about whether or not to look for another position,
even though it appears a difficult boss is trying to do better. 

I am a dental hygienist. I have been working for a female dentist for 2 years. She had been treating me fairly for over a year, then I noticed her changing. Condescending, yelling at me. I talked with her about this change in her behavior, that I wouldn’t tolerate this. Her reaction was defensive, angry. Then when I told her “I want to work with you, what can I do to improve this situation?” She softened and said “Ok, we can get through this” Since then she has been treating me better. She is a domineering person, and has been sued by a previous hygienist for bullying, harassment. Also, has been in practice for 6 years and has lost 4 hygienists, 2 assistants, and too many to count for front desk. Do I continue to try to work things out with this dentist? Do I take another job? Where I live there are openings for full time hygiene positions. Thank you for your help.

The main issues for you to consider are: 1.) Do you need to decide right away about applying for another position? 2.) Do you have a reason to think the dentist will change permanently?

1. If you believe there will still be some good positions open, considering travel time, clientele, working conditions, etc., you may have a reason to wait to decide about moving. There tends to be quite a bit of movement between practices in some areas, so something good may be there when you want to make the switch. However, if you have identified one or more places you think would be a good fit for you, you should probably take advantage of the opportunity, rather than lose it and have to settle for something less.

One way to decide is this: If it was two years ago and you had a choice between her practice (with the knowledge that she has had problems keeping employees) and one of the others you are now considering, would you still think it worthwhile to risk working for the dentist, to get the other advantages her practice offers? Or would you think you could do without some aspects of your current work situation, if it would mean you could feel more confident about the work environment? Or, would it be no choice at all, if you had other opportunities?

You probably had heard some rumors before you were hired or soon after, but thought it was worth taking the chance. For a year it was–until the employment honeymoon was over. Of course, the reality is that it will be over in any new office at some point. But, there are dentists who are professionally enjoyable to work with, so you might find one of those elsewhere.

2. Your dentist has apparently had conflicts with almost all of her former employees. Not all of it may have been solely due to her treatment of them. I once was asked to do a lunch-time presentation to dental employees about bullying, gossip and dirty tricks. There was a lot of blaming and finger-pointing, but few of the hygienists, technicians and receptionists ever acknowledged their own responsibility for a pleasant workplace. Disappointing!

Let’s assume the personality and communication style of your dentist has been the primary cause of the number of employees who quit working in your dental office.
*What has changed that would make you think the situation will be consistently good in the future?
*Are you the only employee who has ever expressed concern, so you think now she will change her former habits?
*Has something changed in the dentist’s life?
*Has something about the working conditions changed, to the point that the dentist will react differently in the future?
*Do you think she feels justified in some of her reactions to you and will expect you to make some changes, if she does?
*Are you willing to make the changes?
*What will she need to change to be consistently and continuously pleasant to work with? Do you think she is willing and able to make the changes?
*At her best, is she truly excellent to work with, or even then does she make you feel badly or uneasy, to some degree?

3. Workplace relationships are like any other relationships, in that they can be rocky on occasion, then improve. However, like other relationships, sometimes you have to accept that it’s over. You can patch things up temporarily, but if too many unpleasant things have happened, there is never the same level of joy and trust. At that point, it’s just a matter of time before the final split, no matter how much both people try to keep it together.

That is where the analogy ends, because unlike a personal relationship, you never promised to love and honor that job forever. There was an understanding from the start that you could be fired if the dentist wasn’t happy with the outcome of your employment—and you could quit, if you weren’t happy with being employed there.

I don’t like to give you absolute advice, because there are many things that enter into your decision, which I don’t know about. However, I would imagine you have spent many evenings at home feeling upset about the way you were treated at work and many mornings hoping things would be better and many work days feeling stressed and unhappy. It seems to me that if you are a good hygienist, with something to offer another dental practice, you should give yourself the chance to be happy and confident at work. Your dentist may benefit from the fact that someone she liked, but mistreated, has decided to move on, just as the others have.

When you tell her you are leaving, consider using the concept of relationships as you explain your decision. Let her feel that she too has a chance to find a better fit for what she wants in an employee. But, in case she tries to convince you to stay, remember the Paul Simon song, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”: Make a new plan, Stan, and get yourself free. Once you decide, say it and stick to it.

Best wishes to you as you work through this challenging time. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what decision you make and how it works out.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.