How to deal with the boss from hell

Do you know your rights?


Angry senior businessman quarreling

Earlier this month, a tribunal ruled against 55-year-old publishing executive Darren Scott, finding that he regularly "spoke to a sales executive's breasts" and made smutty comments to her and another staff member.

"It was a terrible ordeal for both women," said lawyer Michael McDonough - but it's not an unusual one. In a recent survey from FindEmployment, it was revealed that 12 percent of workers had had their boss make a pass at them. And this is by no means the only problem. A fifth said their boss had publicly criticised their work in front of others, six percent said they'd been sworn at and three percent said they'd been physically attacked by their boss.

"It is not easy for employees to remain dedicated to the job and company if they feel they are being unfairly scrutinised, or placed under duress and pressure by their bosses on a continual basis", says James Weaver, director of FindEmployment.

"But it would be too easy to draw conclusions on the survey findings and simply blame bosses for all the grievances that employees feel in the workplace. In some cases managers need to work on how they communicate with staff, and convey the reason why employees are being left out of a project and limit publicly criticising staff."

Interestingly, British workers have a very different idea of what makes a boss from hell to their American counterparts. A survey last summer from training firm Video Arts found that Britain's "boss from hell" is David Brent from The Office, while America's is Miranda Priestley from The Devil Wears Prada.

"Five hundred years ago, Machiavelli posed the question of whether it is better to be loved or feared as a leader," says Video Arts CEO Martin Addison. "Interestingly, when asked who they would least like to work for, British workers chose a boss who strives to be loved by those around him, whereas US workers opted for someone who wants to be feared."

If your boss's behaviour is merely annoying rather than appalling, it's probably best to just try and rise above it. Keep doing your job, calmly and efficiently, and try not to get drawn into arguments you won't win. Deal with your nightmare boss via email as much as possible - it's far easier not to over-react, and if you do decide later to make an official complaint, it'll help to have evidence in writing.

Talking to colleagues can give you a bit of perspective, and a good whinge can work wonders for your stress levels, particularly if you can see the funny side. If your concerns are shared by other colleagues, it's a sign that something really is wrong - and management may well notice that too.

It can help to speak to your boss directly about their behaviour - particularly if the problems are professional rather than personal. Try and avoid direct criticism: "I'd like the chance to handle this project myself," for example, rather than "You always micromanage".

"Do flag it up gently - don't let it descend into real conflict," advises life and business coach Rasheed Ogunlaru. "Try your best to be a team player, and the benefit for you may be that you become a key person they turn to and trust."

Sometimes, though, the difficulties are just too intractable for this approach.

"For more serious issues such as being physically attacked, or having unwanted romantic overtures from a superior, I recommend employees take such matters to their HR department, or an independent employment rights group for advice," says Weaver.

Many HR departments collect feedback from staff for management performance appraisals, and this can be a good way to flag up concerns - particularly if you'll be backed up by colleagues. Otherwise, you may need to approach HR yourself.

"If there are serious problems relating to your boss, then find the process to be followed and stick to it, keep written records and go about everything cordially and professionally," says Ogunlaru.

Unions can be a good source of free advice, as can the government's Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), which has an advice booklet here, and whose helpline can be reached on 0300 123 1100.

In a small business, and especially if the owner is the problem, sorting things out informally can be impossible. However, taking any sort of legal action should always be a last resort. Sometimes, the best response is to simply cut one's losses and change jobs. If you do, be discreet about your job-hunt and try to find another referee within your company - and don't whinge about your present boss in interviews with prospective employers.

Recent research from the University of Warwick has shown that happy employees are 12 percent more productive - so bad bosses are damaging their own prospects too.

"Having a miserable workplace may be entertaining on film or TV but in reality it is never a good thing," says Addison. "There's a lesson in that for every boss."