My Attorney Boss Is Abusive

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about verbal abuse of boss:

Thank you for being here, when I most definitely need your advice! My boss who is an attorney has been verbally abusive for months now. Everyone on the floor (surrounding area)has heard her. Today she got physical and actually poked my chin! Would you consider this a good reason to take the next step, which would be of course, file a suit for harassment?

Signed, Work For A Bully

Dear Work For A Bully:

Harassment should be stopped! A law suit is one way to stop it; however, since you are within a law office or within a company in which your boss is an attorney, you know that a legal path has many twists and turns, is costly, and even should you win, can hurt your own career. For example, how many employers do you think would want to hire you if you won such a case? And do you think if you won a case for harassment, you would get enough money from it to tide you over until you got another job?

Does that mean you should bite your tongue and allow your boss to bully and humiliate you? Obviously not. How have you responded to her verbal abuse? Have you said, “Do you think yelling and insulting me will make me do work differently? If you see mistakes, please speak to me respectfully about them and I will do my best to please you.” Bullies become bullies because that works for them. When they yell, people jump. When they insult, the target subordinate says, “Yes, boss.” We do what works.Bosses, who are abusive, have learned that from their parents, coaches, schoolmates and maybe from their own bosses. Children develop habits of getting what they want by yelling and pushing others unless they are taught not to. Your boss needs training.

Subordinates often need to train their superiors as to how to give clear instructions, how to consult about reasonable time frames, what to expect, how to make corrections, even to keep them informed about their schedules, coming and going, and most of all how they want to be treated with respect. That training begins with you or with your boss’ boss or other attorneys in your firm or Human Resources, if you are in a larger firm or company. My suggestion is to prepare your self.

Check your firm’s policy books about what constitutes a hostile work environment and harassment. Make a list of the acts of incivility that your boss has had toward you. You say verbal abuse has gone on for months and escalated to poked your chin. Be as specific as to her words, tone, and behaviors, and as well as you can, recall, state the dates and what seemed to have precipitated them. Do not take long to do this because now is the time to confront her, while you are still angry, but cool enough to think. Also think through what on your part might have triggered her verbal abuse and poking. Be prepared to say that you want to do your part to prevent anything you did in the past to aggravate her. How do you want to be treated?  Can you put that into several brief statements, such as? · Address me by my first name. · Say hello and goodbye with a smile. · Meet with me each morning about assignments. · Ask and consult about them rather than ordering what is due when. · Don’t yell, swear, or push me. · Involve me in learning how I might make your job more effective. · Show an interest in my career too. Once you have thought through and prepared yourself, you are ready to ask for a private session to discuss your dysfunctional working relationship. Be firm about not putting that off.

The poking makes that something that should be confronted now. Possibly, you will want to have a co-worker, your boss’s boss or some other appropriate personnel join the two of you for this session. You should be prepared to state what you want on the agenda for this meeting:1. The poking incident and an apology. 2. Developing communication rules that prevent verbal abuse. 3. Policies that will make you and your boss’s work more effective. 4. Scheduling follow up times to review how well you and your boss are now working. In the session, use the appropriate language about what happened and state you concern about working in a place that is civil, respectful, engaging, productive and pleasant; one to which you want to come to work and that is a good place to work. Yelling, swearing and poking do not fall within the usual category of harassment. So I would not use that term. Rather you can refer to her behavior as what it is: If she yells, say so. If she gives orders like a drill sergeant, say that. If he snatches papers from your desk or throws them at you, spell that out. Since she got in your face and poked, call that assault.

Use the words hostile working environment, violent behavior, and uncontrolled anger. Be prepared for counter accusations and defensiveness. Maintain your cool resolve to have a positive productive working relationship. Does this make more sense to you than to contemplate suing? If so, you are about to learn what works to resolve conflict and if anything can be done to make lemonade out from a very sour situation.Working together with hands, head, and heart often takes special effort Conflict can lead to confronting what you allowed to pass in the past. So think over what I’m advising and if it makes sense, give it an honest try.

Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. It might help for you to scan the advice of my associate workplace doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe. Her wisdom comes through in the many Q&As posted.

Follow Up: Thank you so very much for your quick response. I have taken the initiative to go to my boss’ boss, as it states in our Employee Handbook. As I told her, I am doing this (reporting the problem) because our handbook states to do so. As I indicated to her, I believe we all should work as a team, and due to the fact that this harassment has now escalated to “poking”, I feel it necessary to report it. I left her office with a professional attitude and did inform her that I do like my job, however, that sort of behavior should not be tolerated, and it was “scary”.So, to that end I want to thank you. It seems everything in your correspondence has confirmed my actions were indeed in line. I will gladly refer you to all that need you! Have a wonderful evening!

Answer: You were wise to follow the Handbook protocol. Now you will wait to learn if the boss’s boss can counsel her in such a way that she changes her attitude and behavior. Hopefully, this will lead to an understanding between you two that takes on the kind of communication that is required to work as a team. So often both the boss and the bossed fail to talk about talk, what the books refer to as meta-communication. Instead they assume that they know that each other understands. Unwritten and undiscussed ways of communication often are dysfunctional; therefore, I suggested that you and your boss need to make explicit how you might communicate so that each of you can function with maximum effectiveness and eliminate the kinds of miscommunication and actions that have upset either of you. Soooo don’t assume that reporting to a boss’s boss will resolve everything.

In fact, it can result in cool, if not anger, and more subtle alienation. Your boss can not be happy that you by-passed her no matter what your handbook says. Now, it will be up to her and to you to come to an understanding about what communication/action is most effective for you to work together. You did not say if you two have ever taken time out to talk about that. Sometimes that kind conversation occurs at the point of a blow up. And for the moment that can resolve that particular kind of problem; however, a more fruitful resolution is an ongoing willingness to periodically ask each other: How well are we working together, are there things either of us need to do to make our jobs easier and more effective? My best to you and those with whom you work. Will you be resilient? Will you allow by-gones to be bygone? Will you expect to be misunderstood? If you realize that misunderstanding is the rule rather than the exception, you will do all you can to prevent it and to take the time to work through it. Now that the elephant of WEGO has been suggested as an animal that should feel at home in your work group, will you be one of its keepers?

William Gorden