The Toronto Star is currently running a series on precarious employment. When you are working for a bad boss, all employment is precarious.

I am currently working with three clients suffering under bad bosses. One is a proven professional in her field with a solid track record of performance in her industry, including previous success at her current company, a global retail giant. Another is a rising star who ran afoul of a manager who deep-sixed his career at a world renowned technology firm. The third is a colleague (who I can vouch for as a top employee) who was “inherited” by a Boss from Hell who has made his life impossible.

In all three cases, the unrelenting negativity of these bosses has so demoralized each of these high performers that they have begun to doubt their own worth. This is not a unique phenomenon, and may have happened to you. Here’s one explanation of why this happens and more importantly, what you can do if you find yourself working for an SOB or BOW (I’ll let you decipher those acronyms!)


As a coach, I operate on the basis of the following philosophy: everyone always does the best they can in every circumstance given the resources they currently possess. Before you go ballistic, let me assure you that this does not excuse bad behaviour. But it may help to explain it:

  1. Some managers are under duress themselves, and we all know the old saw about what rolls downhill. They “do unto others” what is being done to them, perpetuating a cycle of organizational abuse because they just don’t have what it takes to do otherwise.
  2. Certain managers grew up in the “command and control” business environment of yesteryear. They believe that “the boss” is the ultimate authority and employees can either take what they dish out or leave, because that’s what they had to do.
  3. Evil does lurk in the hearts of some. There are bosses who seem to get a thrill from actively humiliating their employees. As painful as it is to be on the receiving end of this (I once had a boss who kept a hand-grenade on his desk as a paperweight!), these people are more to be pitied (and avoided) then merely censured. They are sick puppies and will run out of road later if not sooner.

Here’s the common theme: all bad bosses have gotten to where they are using a particular style that they believe “works” for them. Some have risen through the ranks in spite of their abusive style. Sadly, some have prospered because of that style in organizations that reward authoritarianism.


If you are working for a terrible boss and have begun to doubt your abilities, ask yourself the following question: “Have I been successful in previous jobs?” If the answer is consistently yes, then it’s not you. Your qualifications have been acknowledged in the past, and will be noticed again, but you may well have to leave to achieve that. Here’s how:

  1. If a boss is a decent person but under such stress that he/she has become a tyrant, that’s not likely to change unless there’s a full-scale transformation of the organization’s culture. New leadership at the top can signal such positive change, but you may not be able to wait it out until then. Start planning your next career move ASAP so you can get out before your performance reviews are downgraded, your spirt is demeaned and your career is derailed.
  2. If you find yourself working for a “commandant” style of boss, use the opportunity to learn how satisfy the demands of someone who is less than collaborative. Think of your job as a laboratory for career resilience in which you can experiment with different behaviours and learn which ones work with a control freak. At the same time, start exploring other options within the organization or elsewhere, remembering to “interview” any potential boss to determine his/her style.
  3. If you are working for the devil (in Prada or Paul Stuart), get out as soon as you can. Consider speaking to an employment lawyer about constructive dismissal and/or filing a Human Rights complaint for harassment. Truly evil bosses are not to be trifled with, so escape with your life; even unemployment is less damaging than abuse.


I often recommend a “Career 360°” feedback process to clients, especially those dealing with extremely challenging work situations. People who know you in a professional context can remind you who you really are and can serve as counterbalancing voices to a boss screaming at you about how “stupid,” “worthless” or “incompetent” you are.

In addition, build a resume based around your accomplishments‒not just your duties, responsibilities or activities‒and create a strong LinkedIn profile that highlights your skills. These can remind you as well as the rest of the world what value you hold for the right employer.

Finally, keep in mind the most powerful four words in our language: “this too shall pass.” Play your cards right and you will find a way back to workplace sanity and go on to greater things (including remembering the impact a boss has on the day-to-day life of employees should you become a manager!) And pity those horrible bosses, who live full-time in the hell they tried to inflict on you. For you, there are ways out; unless they commit to making a huge and difficult change they are good and truly stuck with themselves.