Supervisor Is Insulting and Demeaning

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a boss that mocks:

My immediate supervisor’s style is to making mocking remarks constantly. She seems unable to make a simple comment without trying to be sarcastic. Many of the remarks are directly insulting and demeaning, but she tosses them off, and moves away quickly. It seems petty to respond, but it is annoying. How should I get her to stop this?

Signed, Irritated and Frustrated

DearĀ Irritated and Frustrated:

It’s not petty to respond to insulting or demeaning remarks–unless the response is insulting and demeaning too. Consider some of these thoughts and adapt them to your situation.1. First, be clear about what she is saying and why she is saying it. Ask coworkers if they interpret her remarks in the same way you do, as being purposely hurtful. I say that because sometimes people make comments that they mean as showing camaradarie or inclusion, but that get just the opposite results. And, if you don’t care for her and her style to begin with, everything she says can seem insulting, even when it is not meant that way or taken that way by others.It may be that her remarks are indeed meant to cut you down or make you feel badly, but maybe they are not.

Consider if her other actions indicate she does not think well of you. For example, if she does not give you work to do because she doesn’t trust you to do it, or if your performance reports have low ratings or negative comments, or if you have been treated differently or negatively in other ways. If all of that is OK, it might indicate the remarks are rude but not said in anger or contemptuously. That might be scant consolation, but does change the situation somewhat.

2. Decide if there is a pattern of some kind. Is this every single time she talks to you or only about specific issues or work? That is good to know, so you can decide if there is something that is making her angry or stressful and to which she responds inappropriately. That doesn’t make it right, but it might point to some other problems. For example, if she is correcting the same problems repeatedly or answering questions she considers unnecessary, she might feel frustrated herself.

3. Consider who she talks to in this way. If it is just to you and there are others there, why might that be? If she is this way to others, how do they feel about it? Are there others who take her remarks differently than you? Have others complained, and if so, what happened? The answers to those questions might be helpful as well.The idea is to do a bit of analysis about her and you and the situation. Write down exact phrases and the exact context in which they were said. That way you are not just talking about generalities if you talk to her or someone else about it, you have specific examples for someone to consider.

4. The next time she says something of a cutting nature, stop her right there in a mild way, rather than an aggressive way. One of the best ways to do that is to ask what she means by it. She says something cutting, “Hmmm, you actually did that job the right way. Surprise, surprise.” You look startled and say, “How do you mean that? Does it seem to you I’m not able to do the job?”You’d be amazed at how it stops people in their tracks to have you ask them what they meant. They usually respond with a bunch of disclaimers. Then you can say, “I’m glad you didn’t mean I couldn’t do my job, but I’d rather you wouldn’t say things like that, even jokingly.” Sound very aggrieved, to get your point across. Don’t joke back. Let her know you are serious about it.

Or, try this approach: Ask her if she is joking or if she is serious. That often gets the same response of trying to get out of sounding bad. So, she says something sarcastic and you look at her seriously and say, “Are you joking or are your serious?” After she explains, either way, you can say, “Well, I don’t take things like that as a joke, so really, I’d rather you didn’t joke with me like that.” Or, “I’m sorry to hear that you were serious. But, I’d rather you just tell me, than hint around about it.”Obviously you’d have to adapt that for your work culture and the people involved. But, the idea is to confront without being confrontational.

5. Or, just tackle it head on by asking to talk to her in private and saying, “Cheryl, this is hard for me to talk about, but I need to say it. You just made a remark to me that I took as being insulting and demeaning. I can’t work well feeling that way and I’d like to know what was behind that remark and the others you have made lately about my work.”Or say, “Cheryl, that remark you made hurt my feelings. Actually almost every time you say something as you walk away or walk past me, you either hurt my feelings or make me feel bad or angry. I don’t know how you mean it, but I really feel badly about it.” At least you would be getting it out in the open for discussion. 6. Consider, if your organization has a larger structure, talking to her manager or going to HR or some other internal resource for handling problems. Have specific examples and if possible, the names of those who have witnessed it. Talk about how it makes you feel and emphasize that it has become a chronic problem.That is a difficult decision, I realize, because it certainly will escalate it and may create bad feelings. But you have bad feelings anyway.If none of that works and you still want to stay in that job and that requires you to work with her, you may have to find a way to insulate yourself mentally from her style and remarks. If your evaluations are positive and if your job is fairly secure, you may have to just decide that she is a poor communicator, but apparently thinks you’re doing satisfactory work. That may be enough to keep you holding on until something changes, or her style changes or your reactions to it change. Best wishes in this challenging situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

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.