what to say when your boss is rude to a coworker in front of you

A reader writes:

What can/should I do when my boss is rude to another coworker?

We’re a small, very early-stage start-up with no HR person. The coworker and I are both young, female, and new. My boss often puts her down (“God, you’re inattentive” or “if you can’t even do this task you should be fired”) in front of us in response to her simply asking for clarification or an email to be resent, or tells her curtly “louder” while she’s talking in a meeting. He doesn’t seem to be doing it to anyone else.

It bothers me to see this and I imagine she must feel uncomfortable as well. I want to say something, but I don’t know what I can say. Any advice would be appreciated.

Agh, this is really tough.

What most people do in this situation is stay silent, feel really uncomfortable, and maybe commiserate with their coworker afterward.

Sometimes that’s truly all you can do. If you’re in a very junior position or otherwise don’t have much standing to speak up, or if you don’t have great rapport with the boss yourself, you might not be in a position to do anything in the moment. That’s a pretty awful position to be in — it’s horrible to feel like you have to just sit there and watch someone be mistreated. If that’s your situation, I’d encourage you to talk with your coworker and see how she’s doing — let her know that you see what’s happening and that you think it’s unacceptable. That might make the situation she’s in easier for her, and if she’s starting to question whether she’s somehow causing his mistreatment of her, it can help to hear that someone else thinks it’s not okay. (That’s especially true since she’s young and may not have much frame of reference yet for how a manager should interact with people.)

That said, sometimes you’re in a position to do more. Sometimes simply looking visibly shocked will shame a boss like this. And if you’re in a senior role and/or particularly respected by the boss and/or have particularly good rapport with him, you’re often well positioned to say something to him afterwards — which, depending on the relationship, could be anything from “you came across pretty harshly with Jane in that meeting” to “it’s really uncomfortable when you talk to people that way” to “we are going to lose good people if you keep talking to them that way.”

If you’re new and junior, though, that’s probably not something you’d easily be able to do. (Although you could do the “look visibly shocked” part.)

But there might be opportunity to provide another perspective in a way that doesn’t directly take on your boss. For example, if your boss insults your coworker because she asks him to clarify something, you could say mildly, “I actually was wondering the same thing too.” Or if he’s berating her for not getting a task right, you could say, “To be honest, I wasn’t totally confident about my ability to do this either. For me, the problem was X.”

If you do that, there’s a chance that your boss will just widen his circle of wrath to include you too, so you’d have to decide if that’s a risk you’re willing to take. But you could try it once and see what happens — who knows, it’s possible that it’ll calm him down.

Ultimately, though, your boss is a jerk. (And to be clear, it doesn’t matter if your coworker truly is awful at her job — she still doesn’t deserve to be talked to that way.) And when you’re working for a jerk, it’s usually only a matter of time before their jerkiness starts seeping out in other ways too, so I’d keep an eye out for that.

{ 161 comments… read them below }

  1. ContentWrangler*

    Your boss sounds like he’s on a power trip. If a manager really thinks someone is so incompetent that they openly berate them (not that berated an employee like that is ever okay) then they should fire them. What your boss wants to do is get his kicks abusing someone who he has control over.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, this.

      Even if the coworker legitimately isn’t doing a good job or needs correction, this isn’t how a good manager would do it.

    2. Specialk9*

      Dear OP, you should give your coworker three books (and rent all 3 from the library for yourself):
      -Why Do They Do That (Lundy Bancroft)
      -Bullying Bosses: A Survivor’s Guide: How to Transcend the Illusion of the Interpersonal (Robert Mueller)
      -No Asshole Rule (Robert Sutton)

  2. Hills to Die on*

    I wonder what the coworker should do. Talk to her boss? Go to HR? If she goes to HR, is there value in the OP going with her to validate what she’s seeing? It’s risky as hell, but maybe HR could keep her anonymous (also a risk). I feel for the coworker. And yes, it’s a matter of time before the boss switches targets.

    1. ContentWrangler*

      OP mentions it’s a really small start-up with no HR. The perfect environment for a jerk like this boss.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      OP could certainly go with her coworker for support to talk to the boss, if that’s a thing Coworker wants to do. But this guy reeks petty tyrant, and I think OP may want to consider transitioning out to a more functional workplace. There’s a possibility that he’ll change (especially since he’s not berating anyone except this specific coworker), but if he doesn’t, he’s solidly in “your boss is a jerk and isn’t going to change” territory.

      1. RVA Cat*

        This. My take is he’s one of those who has to have a target, and once co-worker leaves the OP may be it.

      2. Lance*

        Honestly, as a small start-up, I place very little possibility on the boss ever changing. I’d start job searching, to be honest, because I don’t think this is going to get any better… and when the co-worker leaves (she will, I’m certain), who becomes the target then?

    3. No Dogs Now*

      Where are the other MALE coworkers? Why aren’t they speaking up? Presumably they won’t be included in the circle of abuse. This is horrifying.

      1. Hills to Die on*

        Most people will never speak up, unfortunately. Human nature. Not an excuse, just a fact.

      2. Irene Adler*

        They may be buddies with this boss. That’s how it works here at my job. The bully is a production manager. He gets to abuse whomever he likes, whenever he likes. Me included. I have complained. We have no HR dept so I went to my boss. His response: “Sometimes we have to deal with difficult people.”

        So I went to his boss-president of the company. His response: “I can’t control him.”

        These are the owners of the company ! And they are buddies with the production manager. Nothing is going to change.

        So I went to the EAP folks. They told me to find another job. Been looking for 2.5 years. Nothing. So I take the abuse just like everyone else.

        OP needs to encourage the co-worker to find another job. And look for one herself.

        1. Lynca*

          I hate people that say “Sometimes we have to deal with difficult people.” It’s an abdication of a problem instead of a solution.

          1. Julia*

            It’s the extension of ‚bullying makes you stronger‘ and ‚Snape taught kids that life is unfair‘.

        2. Delta Delta*

          My favorite version of this between Boss and Boss’s Favorite (which is similar but not identical) is “I’m managing the business, not people. If you’ve got a problem with the person, deal with it yourself.”

          1. Julia*

            Mine was ‚you‘re not in school anymore, solve your personal problems yourself‘. Argh

      3. fposte*

        But he doesn’t do it to the OP either, and she’s female. I’m not sure gender the way the vulnerability/invulnerability poles align here.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Some commenters are familiar with how sexism is present in an overwhelming amount in daily life. It may or may not be the issue here (I agree with fposte that there’s nothing to indicate it is), but this kind of comment is dismissive of the very real problems of sexism in general, and it’s pretty obnoxious to make. It’s not welcome here.

            1. Steve*

              Its obnoxious to read commenters accusing him of sexism because he is a man and she is a woman with ” nothing to indicate it” being the cause of the problem.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Steve, I’m going to ask that you remove yourself from discussions here about power and privilege, whether it’s gender or race or disability or anything else. It’s exhausting to have to respond to this every time. Thanks.

            2. Mookie*

              For clarity, did the LW mention her and her colleague’s age and gender in the original letter or did you ask her? If the former, I kind of think there is something to (possibly) indicate sexism. If the LW felt that information was pertinent, she probably is in the best position to gauge whether gender is a factor here, I should think.

      4. STG*

        I don’t have the luxury to risk my livelihood for someone else. I’d absolutely be job searching but the power differential still affects subordinate males and there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be just as rude.

        1. Indie*

          Sexist men love topping hierarchies. While they see ALL women as lower, many also enjoy crowing over the lower status of SOME men, so it doesn’t always follow that male subordinates have power.

          1. Specialk9*

            I had one boss who I watched, in my training week, treat like crap the sweet hardworking doer guy, and placate and kiss up to the cranky rude guy who did nothing. I saw it happen over and over. So when he started to try to push me around, I pushed back hard and without give. (Like he would ignore my emails 9-5, them call me at 7 pm and insist I create a document for him even though I had an out of town friend over for dinner.) I didn’t love doing it, and he tried to intimidate and guilt me, but I stayed firm and used some HRish terms like ‘work like balance’ and it worked.

            So yeah, sometimes guys bully other guys, absolutely.

            But in my experience, it’s far more routine for a guy to bully or try to intimidate women. It’s weird to deny that a deeply sexist society doesn’t foster sexist behaviors. Even as we recognize that bullies will bully, across the board.

            1. STG*

              It’s not denying sexism to point out that subordinate males don’t often have the power to say something either.

      5. GreenDoor*

        I don’t think its fair to blame the men here. Most of us are conditioned to have respect for certain people and “the boss” is one of those types of people you just don’t question. It’s a very hard mindset to get over, male or female.

        1. Lissa*

          yeah I think everyone wants really badly to believe they’d be the sort of person who would speak up, but probably even the people who don’t previously thought of themselves as that person. Or maybe even still do. Cognitive dissonance and all that.

        2. Jane of all Trades*

          Agreed! I have a similar situation, but in my instance the boss is a woman, and the subordinates being criticized and admonished in an unfair and demotivating way are both men. It’s such an unfortunate situation because nobody deserves to be treated like they are lesser, and I have real concerns about one of the subordinates starting to look for another job if this continues, and he is one of our strongest juniors (which would be a reasonable step on his part but a real loss for our team).
          I am planning on respectfully addressing this issue with her sometime soon. This is a new trait to her personality and I suspect it has to do with unhappiness in other aspects of her job.
          OP, do you have a good relationship with your boss? If so, would it be possible to say something along the lines of “you’ve seemed rather frustrated with Jane recently, and at times the way you express that can seem rather personal” and see if there’s an opening to mention that?
          That’s my plan at least … good luck!

        3. Specialk9*

          It’s not fair to make blanket statements (eg all men bully), but it’d be weird not to acknowledge that business – especially bro startup cultures – is often influenced heavily by sexism. Of course not every guy bullies, and of course plenty of women bully… but it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder if the boss who only picks on a young woman might be a bully who is also sexist.

          And when we’re starting with someone who embraces cruelty with open arms, why *wouldn’t* he also embrace a whole bunch of -isms? Fighting against one’s own -isms (the ones all decent people fight against inside) is hard work that requires a moral compass. I’m guessing this guy’s moral compass … isn’t the best, based on his actions.

          1. STG*

            Oh, I’m not arguing that at all. However, there’s no clear indication that he wouldn’t treat a man in much the same fashion. He is treating a single female this way. Just one.

    4. Wintermute*

      When it comes to HR this really isn’t something that’s strongly in their purview, so it would depend on how your company handles HR. Some HR departments are concerned with civility, manager/employee relations and so on in general, but most places I’ve seen unless it’s illegal, they really aren’t there to handle it. And since being generally hostile to an employee is not a legally hostile workplace, HR doesn’t have grounds to step in.

      NOW some other workplaces HR has a larger role, but in my experience and that of many others, HR is there to keep the company from getting sued, and they’d call this a “personality conflict” they won’t get involved with.

      1. Specialk9*

        But this guy isn’t being generally hostile, he’s being specifically hostile in a way that the young woman may interpret – and sue – as about her protected states (gender, age). So I think that is actually a hostile work environment. (I am not aware of a requirement for a sex discriminator to discriminate against ALL those of that sex.)

  3. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    Your boss sucks and isn’t going to change.

    There’s a difference between criticizing and berating. This isn’t okay. Let your coworker know that you are noticing and it bothers you, too. Since you mention you’re new, it doesn’t sound like you have much standing to push back on this. You could try the looking shocked or chiming in, as Alison suggested. But only if you are comfortable being admonished in public too. Generally people like this have zero qualms about lashing out at others.

    And, seriously. Who has this much contempt for someone new?

    1. babblemouth*

      >>Who has this much contempt for someone new?

      Someone with a superiority complex who needs other people to feel small in order to feel adequate.

    2. Snarkus Aurelius*

      I’ve seen this quite a bit at my last job. This behavior always ensued after the slightest challenge or demonstration of knowledge from someone who wasn’t the boss.

      Three years ago, my coworker pointed out that our government agency would have to participate in X federal program in order to survive and compete. My boss lost his shit and blackballed her. Today, all government agencies are starting to participate in that same program, and boss still thinks he can get out of it and has never “forgiven” my coworker for her feedback.

  4. LKW*

    Sometimes bullies like to pick one person to target all of their aggression. Is your boss like this with anyone else or is it all directed at your co-worker? If only her, then when she’s had enough and she leaves, he’ll turn his sights on the next person and it will likely be the person with the least power.

    One small question is there any chance that this is retaliation for not accepting romantic advances

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      One small question is there any chance that this is retaliation for not accepting romantic advances.

      This is totally where my mind went, also.

      1. AKchic*

        That was one of my thoughts too. Or perhaps they had a relationship at one point and she called it off when she realized just what a cad he was and can’t afford to leave his employment, and he tanks all future prospects.

    2. Earthwalker*

      I’ve seen this behavior on several occasional, most notably a college professor who behaved horribly to one of my fellow students. Her in-class tantrums over him were perplexing and embarrassing to us all. He finally apologized for disrupting her class (which he had never done) and offered to withdraw, but she refused to sign his “drop” sheet, forcing him to fail the class. The next semester he moved on and I, who had been a member of the class in good standing, became the new target. She seemed to need one person in each class to beat up and it didn’t matter who. I have seen several managers do this: select one average person from the group and humiliate them for no apparent reason. Generally people standing up for the victim had no effect, perhaps because it’s not about the victim at all. The victim is just a prop in someone else’s personality play. To this day I don’t understand why some people seem to have this driving need.

      1. Lora*

        It’s because they are terrible people who should feel bad about themselves. They kiss up, which means they don’t get fired in the average mediocre company, but they find it hard to get a job elsewhere so they mostly don’t move on to bigger and better things.

        This has become something of a yellow flag for me, if someone has stayed in the same company forever and not moved up/around within the company much. It’s often because they can’t get anything better because they were nasty to too many people.

            1. Pebbles*

              So 17 years in the same company, same department, increasing in title from Associate to Level 1 to Level 2, means that I’m a nasty person and can’t find anything better? What if I really love what I do, the people I work with (who have for the most part all been here for 10 years or more), and am happy where I’m at?

              1. Wintermute*

                There are exceptions… this varies HEAVILY by industry.

                This axiom works 100% for my current department, a medium-sized central network operations department in the telecom industry.

                But it would be silly to say the same about, say, teachers, they have some of the longest tenures of any profession out there, oftentimes a teacher will find a job in a district they like in the first few years of their career and stay until retirement some 40-50 years later.

                So in my career? it absolutely means you ran headfirst into the Peter Principle, you don’t have the competence to be promoted, or you have such bad interpersonal skills that no one will promote you despite your technical skills (and that balance has to be tipped very very far).

                But for my good childhood friend that’s a librarian and wants to live in a small town? yeah, her expected career trajectory is “find some place you find enjoyable and work there for four decades”.

            2. TardyTardis*

              Then you would have to look out for everyone in a certain department at ExCompany, because it’s in a smallish town and jobs with benefits are few and far between–that’s why people stay that long.

        1. Paquita*

          I STRONGLY DISAGREE! I have been in my same job for eight years. A former job was sixteen. I am not a terrible person. There was nothing to move up to, I have no interest in management, we have little turnover in my department and any open position is usually entry level.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        I had a teacher like this in primary school. Every year, she picked a kid to abuse–the year I was in her class, it was me.

        BullyBoss, the sales manager, at OldExjob did the exact same thing, except his target was one of the (best) sales guys (I’ll call him Wakeen). Fortunately, I was no longer ten years old, so I could deflect his bullshit when he turned it on me. And I was able to skunk some of his attempts to undermine my coworker

        For example, if BB talked to any of Wakeen’s customers about sample requests, he would email them and copy me but leave Wakeen out of the loop, which made it look like Wakeen had dropped the ball. In turn, I would deal with the customer, copy Wakeen but not BB, and tell them, “Your sample request will go out today. Let me know if it doesn’t arrive or if you have any problems with the shipment.
        Wakeen Awesome is your sales rep; you can email him directly at wawesome@oldexjob dot com. He will be happy to answer any questions or give you an estimate. Thank you.” Mwahaha. >:)

        This won’t get better. People like this do not change.

        1. HarvestKaleSlaw*

          I had this teacher. She picked two students every year to bully. My year it was me (new to the district, high-strung, and raised in a strict household to never question adult authority) and another kid (disheveled and dirty, no lunch, obviously poor and without any parents who cared). I threw up every night and every morning before school. She would scream at me, top of her lungs, while ripping my homework to shreds, two inches from my face, for things like using blue pen instead of black or not measuring the indents on my homework with a ruler to exactly one inch. Once I was really crying, she would put me up in front of the whole class for the rest of the day and cruelly mock me whenever I stopped crying, until I started again. I was nine. This is the one person in my life I truly hate. I dream of going to her wake and giving a speech about the things she did.

          I can’t say I’m a better or happier person for that experience. The only thing it did do was give me some wisdom. People who bully like this don’t do it because they are unhappy or don’t know better. They do it because it feels good to them, and they can get away with it. All of the bystanders are just glad it’s not them. The people in authority just don’t want to know, because it’s a pain to deal with it.

          I try to remember when it was me and to stand up for people being bullied. You don’t have to be confrontational, but you can stand with someone.

          1. Specialk9*

            I hope this teacher died shortly after your experience. The thought of her abusing child after child, year in and year out, invokes a very cold kind of rage.

    3. Normally a Lurker*

      The one time this happened to me, that’s why.

      I was in college and working at a restaurant. The new manager hit on me. I didn’t respond. He spent the next 7 months trying to prove to everyone I was stupid and he should be able to fire me. Luckily for me, by that point, I was a senior server and had the support of literally everyone else. He even went so far as to schedule me for shifts he knew I couldn’t work. Again, my team came through, and when I showed up for my first shift of the week, someone had already taken the shift they all knew I couldn’t work.

      It was a mess. I almost quit several times over it. But my co-workers and the other managers kept talking me out of it.

      Then, 7 month later, he basically table flipped and got fired by the GM of the chain. When he left, it came out that he was doing all kinds of unethical things (among other things, sleeping with the 17 year old hostess, using large amounts of restaurant food as barter for he and his wife’s personal things, like laundry, stealing half full bottles of top shelf booze etc) It was a hot mess.

      I graduated college soon after and moved on. I’m glad I stayed to see the dumpster fire he left though.

    4. HS Teacher*

      I had a boss liked that. When I left, he found a new target. When she left, he found another one. He pays very well but is a complete and utter bully. He also blackballs people when they leave him.

  5. babblemouth*

    “And when you’re working for a jerk, it’s usually only a matter of time before their jerkiness starts seeping out in other ways too, so I’d keep an eye out for that.” Truer words…

    OP, if you can do nothing else, please reach out to your coworker in private, asking simply “are you ok?” or “if you need to talk, I’m here.” When someone is being bullied, a large part of the pain comes from wondering if the bullying even *is* happening or if you’re being overly sensitive, so knowing that someone else sees there is something wrong is already helping.

    You mention you’re both pretty young, and early in people’s careers, it’s hard to figure out what is an abnormal behavior as you lack a benchmark. You can be that benchmark for your colleague.

    1. k*

      It sound like this is the most helpful thing that OP can realistically do. That little reassurance that they’re not imagining things or are deserving of the anger can be a big help to the coworker. Either to help them manager their current position, or to inspire them to find a new job.

    2. Laoise*

      This, please! I spent my first decade of adult work in very dysfunctional environments and part of the reason I stayed in jobs was because I’d never experienced anything better. People said, “Jobs don’t have to be horrible” but if never lived it — and couldn’t even picture what “not horrible” could be.

      Hearing someone who actually worked with me say it was abnormal would have been so validating.

      1. LKW*

        I worked in a great environment then went to a completely dysfunctional one. I stayed a very short time. Before I left I sat and talked to one of the younger employees who was beginning to display the same unprofessional behavior. I told him that while he worked at that company, he could behave like he was – no one would call him out and there would be no penalty because that nonsense came from the top down. But I warned him that if he ever left and went to one of the major players in industry and he behaved like that, he would find himself pulled into HR so fast he wouldn’t know what hit him.

    3. Thursday Next*

      This, absolutely. It’s important and it’s also something that’s very much within the OP’s power to do.

  6. LadyCop*

    My Dad is great with this kind of brgavior…especially when watching tv, he finds fault with everyone and everything, and generally tries to bolster his self esteem with similar comments. Because confronting him often goes sour, I find the best thing as been to simply make comments as Alison suggested, or simply steamroll them with insight i.e.:

    Him: Any business owner with a mullet doesn’t deserve to be in business

    Me: Uhhh actually Dad, that guy just had long hair, nicer than mine too. Didn’t you say the 70’s was a battle to wear hair however you want?

    Him: That girl at the checkout isn’t going to have a job long, she asked twice if I wanted paper or plastic

    Me: She’s multitasking a lot of things. She just wanted to make sure she gave you the right thing. Imagine if she just assumed you wanted plastic.

    1. AKchic*

      My grandma loves to complain in order to garner sympathy for herself and to make other people look bad. She is the queen of narcissistic complaints. I am the only one who will call her out on her crap. She hates it, but man did it cut down on the amount of complaints I hear from her.

      1. LKW*

        My grandmother did this. Once she spent 20 minutes telling me how she didn’t like one cousin’s financee and didn’t trust the other cousin’s fiance. Then she asked me when i was going to get serious and find a husband. I said to her “Oh Grandma, you just told me how much you hate person A and person B, I couldn’t possibly add to your woes.”

  7. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    This behavior is so egregious and abusive and inappropriate.

    I get that sometimes people have personal reasons for why they reach their frustration levels, but everyone—especially managers—have a responsibility to filter out inappropriate behavior or reactions. And unfortunately, based on purely anecdotal experience, I tend to see it happen more frequently in start-ups (especially early-stage and small ones), where people have the mistaken idea that they are *pioneers* and *visionary* and Steve Jobs was abusive and brilliant, so why can’t I also be abusive?

    All that said, OP, I second starting with talking to your coworker. Sometimes folks are not going to want you to stand up for them or to raise an issue that’s already bugging them. Sometimes all they need is commiseration or affirmation that the boss is indeed being a jerk.

    After speaking with your coworker, OP, if you’re junior and feel ok about confronting your boss (and maybe being cast into the same circle as your coworker), it’s also ok to take him aside privately and tell him his behavior is making you really uncomfortable. You can say that it’s jarring and making you/others distracted, and that it makes you/everyone wonder how to get clarification or learn new things when he’s so unnecessarily harsh. It might even help to just point out that he’s responding to work-related questions with individual personal attacks, which seems pretty odd when you or others might also have those questions.

    I’m sorry your boss is being such a bully and a jerk. :(

    1. Brett*

      There’s also the frequent problem that manager’s in early stage startups frequently have no management experience. They are only used to the work habits of their close circle of friends, which tend to be overloaded with type A “visionary” workaholics. So you get several bad dynamics going on with the people in charge: they don’t understand the work habits of people who are not exactly like them, they don’t know how to manage, and they get easily frustrated with people who are different from them who they don’t understand and cannot manage. (There are other issues too, like an inability to prioritize instead of doing everything at once, a hands-on approach to everything, and an inability to retain and recruit talent that is not exactly like them.)

      This is not every early stage startup, but it certainly is a lot of them before they understand the value of professional management and diversity in their organization.

      1. RVA Cat*

        That’s a great way to explain this behavior.
        Then you have the cynics who think some people start a business just to have a personal fiefdom (pretty sure there’s a high correlation with businesses that fail).

      2. topscallop*

        Yes, this sounds a lot like a startup my husband worked at for several months before being fired. Not to say gender isn’t a factor in OP’s boss’s behavior, but it can be directly anywhere. My husband’s boss hired him for one set of tasks (database management, webinar support, IT type stuff), then sprang something totally unrelated on him (resource mobilization) and told him that he had to bring in as much business each month as he cost the startup in salary and benefits. The goalposts were constantly moved on him, and he was called into the boss’s office regularly to be berated. Nothing he offered was good enough. I suggested he give the guy a list of his tasks so he could help prioritize, and the boss didn’t agree with how long some things were taking, though he himself had no idea how those processes worked. Just a terrible, terrible manager, and my husband was miserable.

        He ended up getting hired back at his old job, where he also wasn’t very happy, but at least it’s an established firm and he knows what’s expected of him.

    2. Observer*

      Oh, yes “But Steve Jobs!”

      It’s nonsense. He was successful DESPITE being a jerk. And he also had to learn to both moderate some of his jerkiness AND to provide a significant payoff for people to accept his jerkitude.

      1. Former Employee*

        And people are more willing to put up with this type of behavior from someone who is generally recognized as a genius/visionary in his field.

  8. Slow Gin Lizz*

    Doesn’t seem like this startup is going to go far if the boss is a jerk already. It would be pretty awesome, though, if both OP and coworker could somehow team up together to quit at the same time.

  9. The Other Dawn*

    Ugh, this is hard to watch when you’re the one the boss isn’t talking down to/insulting. I was in a situation like this at my last job. The boss could be quite condescending at times, and she gave off this vibe that everyone was stupid and didn’t know any better. For some reason, she usually didn’t speak to me like I was a five-year old, but she did to everyone else on my team and others within the company (even higher ups sometimes, which was really odd). I hated seeing it happen. Sometimes I would speak up in the moment, just like Alison says, to kind of band together with the other person and she would back off. But other times I just had to sit there silently because it was a task or something else that wasn’t within my realm at all, so it didn’t make sense to say I was confused, too. I eventually spoke to my team members on the side and they all agreed that they hated it and she was awful, but none of them were willing to really do anything about it. One wouldn’t even job search because she said she felt loyalty, and acted like Boss did her a favor by hiring her. The team members just accepted that that’s how she is and took it. Thinking back, I wish I would have said something to my boss about how she treated other team members, but I don’t think that she would have changed, as it’s so ingrained in her personality.

    As for why she didn’t act that way with me, I think it was because she perceived me to have my act together and that I was “smart and capable.” Also, when she started with the attitude, I’d usually give it right back to her, typically by using a firm tone with her and raising my eyebrows. So, I think she knew that I wouldn’t just let it slide and it kept her in check. Mostly.

    Thankfully I got out of that company in less than a year, and now I work with respectful adults.

  10. Snarkus Aurelius*

    My former boss was like this. She always had a target that rotated after a couple of years or the person quit. And that target was always a woman.

    When I was that target, my coworkers were terrible. Oh they didn’t join in or do anything mean to me. It was when I’d confide in them when I was upset and wanted support.

    Here are some samples of what I used to hear:

    “I wasn’t there so I don’t know what happened so I can’t comment.”

    (If they were present.) “I didn’t hear [outrageous insult]. I think you might be overly sensitive.”

    “That’s not what Boss meant. She was trying to be nice to you. She didn’t mean [personal insult].”

    “I don’t have an opinion. All I heard was the exchange, but I don’t know full context.”

    Only after I left did they agree with me.

    Validate your co-worker’s feelings no matter what they are. Don’t act like you didn’t see what you did. Please don’t act like rude behavior is up for debate or open to interpretation.

    I know you didn’t mention those things, but those responses can be common bystander emotions, especially at work.

    Oh and look for a new job. You’re probably next.

    1. Lance*

      I’ll be honest… at that point, I’d call your co-workers even worse than your boss. It’s one thing to be the target of such behavior, it’s a whole ‘nother thing to be gaslit into accepting it.

    2. A Person*

      This is so true. I’ve faced the same. I’ve heard the exact same phrases. I could be your replacement.

      Honestly I don’t think my colleagues were intentionally trying to gaslight me. I think they were just doing what they needed to do to survive that toxic environment. Maybe the bullying behavior had become normal for them.

      I agree with the advice to validate your coworker’s experience. OP, please don’t let anyone think that is normal. It’s not.

    3. The New Wanderer*

      A similar thing didn’t happen at work but did happen in my social life. It was a gathering with my friends and my relative’s friends (neither group knew the other). One of my relative’s friends insulted me in front of everyone with a very passive aggressive comment. Every one of my friends heard the intended insult and were like, WHAT. My relative somehow did not and when I repeated the comment, said I must have misinterpreted because the friend would never mean to be insulting.

      When there’s a certain amount of investment in maintaining a relationship, it’s amazing how the same situation can be heard differently.

  11. Michelle*

    I’ve been told I have a “expressive” face, so I would go the “look visibly shocked” route. I’ve actually done that before in a meeting when our boss was being uncharacteristically a-hole-ish. He apparently took notice because he started softening his language after a few looks my way.

    I would love to see the look on his face if she found a new job and dropped a resignation letter on his desk. Maybe karma will bite him.

    1. SoCalHR*

      haha my “expressive face” and/or RBF has earned me that wrath of a boss before, even though I was simply reacting to his behavior.

      1. Michelle*

        I guess I’m lucky because my boss has never said anything to me about my RBF/expressive face, but he knows if I have it, something is not right.

    2. Jayess*

      oh my god, the number of people who have told me that I have an “expressive” face. I cannot keep a single secret because of my stupid face. It’s honestly the OPPOSITE of RBF. Every thought I have makes itself evident in my expression.

  12. theletter*

    The boss sounds like he’s drunk on a very small amount of power.

    Most startups don’t make it, especially when they give power to abusive managers. Get together with your coworker over dinner and start putting together your resumes. Hiring managers will understand why you’re leaving when tell them it’s an early stage startup. Almost everyone has been there and can relate.

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      This! A lot of start ups are on shaky ground for the first few years. Why would you jeopardize your future with crappy behavior? There are enough factors out of your control as it is. Control the ones you can!

    2. Bea*

      Also reminder that so often people try starting their own business because they’re jerks who can’t work for others. So you’ll run into these turds within many small groups and you can joyously move on knowing they’ll probably fail wonderfully.

      If I had a dollar for every idiot who thought a business was easy and they could do it themselves, I would buy us all lunch. The best is when they go back to their old job trying to get hours or raw materials even though they’re trying to compete.

    3. Fiennes*

      Yes. If you want to be as tremendous an ass as Steve Jobs, you’d better be as tremendous a genius as Steve Jobs…and you probably aren’t.

      (And as others above pointed out, even Jobs had to learn a few people skills eventually.)

  13. NewHerePleaseBeNice*

    I would definitely go with the ‘look visibly shocked’ route. And tbh, if someone barked ‘louder’ at a colleague who was speaking in a meeting, when it was my turn to speak I WOULD DEFINITELY BE SPEAKING AT THE TOP OF MY VOICE TO MAKE A POINT.

  14. CatCat*

    Uggghhhh, this is just the worst. This boss is just a tool. But even if it was not insults and was serious criticism, never have harsh conversations with an employee in a public way! Whyyyyyyy do that?

    I had a coworker who was, honestly, sloppy in her work. Her office was directly across from mine. One day, our mutual boss went in there and was giving her a pretty serious dressing down with the door open. It was not even really in an insulting way (there were legit hard questions and criticisms), but still quite harsh even if deserved. I felt sooooooooooo awkward for me to be hearing it. That conversation should have been private! I wanted to get up and shut my door so bad, but I also felt paralyzed because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.

    1. Lurker*

      Yes, that’s awkward. My office is is next to my boss and the boss’ assistant. One day the boss was frustrated with the assistant (not necessarily unwarranted) and was giving it to the assistant, who exacerbated matters by arguing with the boss. It got so uncomfortable that I actually got up and left my office. (I didn’t want to close the door because I felt the reason I did would be obvious, whereas I often leave my office to go to a different area to get items from the printer, etc.)

    2. Jennifer Thneed*

      Return the awkward to sender. Close the other office door, not yours.

      (Don’t take this advice from me. I suck at office politics, but this is what I would want to do. See also: “Well, I’m outta here” and leaving when the lunch room conversation takes a bad turn. Like I said: bad at office politics.)

    3. Fiennes*

      My old toxic job was like this. Once a supervisor dressed down a (very conscientious, thorough, soft spoken) colleague in the hall directly in front of my desk, and in the most insulting, contemptuous way. And this was the manager who was supposed to handle the personnel side! On the few occasions I fell under his (highly arbitrary) wrath, I would think to myself, “on my worst day, I’m better at my job than he’s ever been at his.”

  15. CatCat*

    Oh man, I just flashed back to the dunce cap letter. I am just flummoxed how this kind of abuse becomes normal in a workplace.

  16. Manager Mary*

    I would definitely agree with the advice to talk to the coworker! Especially if they are new, they may not have a good idea of what acceptable behavior is and what they should put up with just because someone is the boss. I know when I was a young person, I could have saved myself a lot of stress if I had been smarter about sticking up for myself or just not staying in jobs with toxic environments. NOW I would never tolerate a boss who yelled or called me names, but 22 year old me thought that maybe bosses in grown up jobs were supposed to look like the ones from The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada! It can be hard to see when you’re inside it, but having someone else say “hey, that’s messed up. I’m sorry this is happening to you, and I hope you’re able to get out of this situation soon” can be really motivating.

  17. Bea*

    I recently found myself dealing with This Friggin Guy. They’re the worst because Alison is right, they’re able to turn on someone on a whim. I went from golden to a pile of poo within a week because of a unknown misstep.

    You need to get out. This isn’t worth your energy. You need to get away from this scumbag.

  18. DD*

    I hate to be pessimistic, but I’m not sure if there’s a lot you can do as a junior (or even a senior) employee. I had a boss who liked to scream at our vendors, and there wasn’t a lot I could do personally to change the dynamics even though I was relatively high up in the food chain. I used to do damage control after the fact with the vendors, calling it “decompression session,” which, honestly, helped me stay sane, too. Good luck, OP; talking to your coworker might help you process your boss’s awful behavior, too, even if you can’t do much to stop the boss from doing it.

  19. boop the first*

    Is this another office culture thing? Is it so common that managers are such power-drunk tyrants that no one can ever speak to them? Especially since he’s not abusing anyone else… Maybe it’s just abnormal that I’ve always been able to talk to my managers? If I saw one of my managers do this I would wait until coworker left, put on my why-are-mommy-&-daddy-fighting face and say “whoa, what’s happening with you and Jane, anyway? Why are you so mad?” He hasn’t even fired the person who enrages him constantly, why would he go nuts only after someone reaches out to him?

    1. Lance*

      It’s a start-up, and the manager (I imagine) is the sole person in control… so, agreeing with the thoughts from other commenters, they’re power-tripping, hard.

    2. hbc*

      But…you haven’t seen one of your managers do this, so it’s not surprising that you can imagine approaching your not-jerk boss about some theoretical behavior. A jerk boss is by definition less approachable.

      Also, I think you should be careful conflating his apparent unwillingness to fire his punching bag with an unwillingness to fire a person who stands up to him. Part of the coworker’s usefulness to him is in making him feel superior. If OP challenges that superiority by questioning his management approach, that could well trigger a firing, or at least make him think he needs to put her in her place.

  20. N Twello*

    Don’t look at it as wanting to help your colleague. Look at it as a toxic work environment. Watching someone be belittled and insulted is toxic to you, and you should carefully document it with exact quotes, date/time, witnesses, and supporting emails if possible. Your boss reports to someone, if only a board, and you need to have proof if you ever decide to make a complaint.
    In the meantime, all the other suggestions here seem good.

  21. Aardvark*

    I had a coworker reach out to me using wording similar to Alison’s recommendations in a similar (though less intense) situation and it meant a lot to know someone had my back.

    1. boo bot*

      Yeah, letting the coworker know you see what’s happening and don’t think it is okay can be the difference between feeling like her boss is a jerk, vs. feeling like she’s alone and surrounded by people who all think she’s the worst. That difference is huge, and all it really takes is saying, “Wow, the way he just talked to you was messed up,” or something like it.

    2. Bea*

      Yes. When I quit, my former co-workers and now friends opened up about everything together. We weren’t comfortable doing so until then, things were so bizarre after all. Knowing others are on your side is helpful in so many ways.

  22. Marcy Marketer*

    My old boss used to do this to my coworker. I used Alison’s approach where I tried to congratulate my coworker in front of the boss and agree with her publicly in front of the boss. I also commiserated with her after. My boss’ behavior really brought the whole work environment down. My coworker eventually left and she didn’t try to find a new target.

  23. Anon for this*

    I have been in this situation. My boss berated one of my supervisees in front of everyone during a meeting. When I talked to him about his behavior in private afterwards, he took me to task for standing up for her. I told him that, aside from the rudeness of his behavior, no one is motivated to improve their work if they are being publicly shamed. He said he understood that argument and would modify his behavior, but he didn’t. Shortly thereafter I left, and the board realized that turnover was too high and eventually forced him out.

    Your boss is a jerk and is probably not going to change. If you don’t have the capital to go to the mat for your colleague, support her until you both find new jobs. Life’s too short to work for power-hungry jerks.

    (And yes, I am still bitter).

  24. oxfordcomma4life*

    That sucks. I’ve been in that position, and as others have mentioned one of the best things you can do is let your coworker know you see it, it happened and it’s not OK. It’s very easy in situations like this to lose sight of reality– especially true if there are valid concerns about some of the coworkers work. So one of the things you can do is be that support network– even if that just means making eye contact with her while it’s happening.

    The other thing you can do is let her know you are willing to be a witness to these events. It’s important for her to document what’s going on- even if she never has a reason to do anything with that documentation, it might be helpful if things get worse. It’s equally important though to have witnesses in your corner to this behaviour– that makes it much harder for abusive bosses to blame the victim.

  25. AKchic*

    This is a start-up. Who is funding it? If this manager isn’t the person funding it – talk to the people who *ARE* funding it. They should know who they have managing their investment, because this person is not a good person. This idea that brilliant start-up managers are all rude, narcissistic abusive tyrants is wrong. Only the ones that become notorious are. And their notoriety isn’t a good thing. Brilliance and abusive behavior does not need to go hand-in-hand and we need to stop allowing this myth to be perpetuated.

    If you can, support your coworker. Let her know that you see what is happening and you support her. You are aware, and it isn’t right. Whether the two of you band together and start calling it out or not is up to the two of you, but I do recommend that the both of you leave. This guy won’t change. He’s drunk on the little power he’s been given. He is a sad little king of a sad little hill, and his hill will crumble.

    1. Irene Adler*

      RE: talking to those who are funding the start-up
      Before doing this, make very sure to understand the relationship betw the manager and those funding the start-up. Funders won’t take kindly to someone -especially an employee- talking about a personal buddy in terms of how abusive he is. Sometimes funders are all culled from personal friends of the business owners or managers. IF there is some distance between the two parties, then one might have a chance of getting the funders to take some action to rectify the situation.

      Been at my start-up company since the beginning. As long as the bad managers are making money for them, the funders don’t care about any abuses going on. But you are correct; there are far more “good guys” in start-ups than the notorious “baddies”. You just don’t hear about them very often.

  26. Jules the Third*

    Hang on – there’s no HR, but is this boss the CEO? If not, then DOCUMENT DOCUMENT DOCUMENT and take it to GrandBoss, with a ‘you’re going to lose employees and we can’t afford the kind of turnover this is going to drive’.

    It is best to do that with another job offer in hand, I have to admit. That’s what I did in the small startup non-profit that I quit. JerkEmployee was eventually fired for embezzling, which didn’t surprise me – I was the only other person there who understood accounting.

    1. Jules the Third*

      Documenting should include dates. times, exact wording as much as possible, other witnesses:
      1/15/2018 Meeting with Bart, Lisa, Maggie – Homer said Lisa was ‘inattentive’ for asking for clarification on x project.
      1/22/2018 Meeting with Marge, Lisa, and Mr. Simpson – Homer said Lisa ‘should be fired’ if she couldn’t even do X task

      The *best* person to do this is Lisa – she can explain the impact of no clarification, or what was going on with the task (she hadn’t been trained vs she could do it but he didn’t like the results). But letting her know this isn’t normal, JerkBoss has a problem, here’s a way to address it, and oh by the way I heard it too, can help her a lot.

    2. Irene Adler*

      Just make sure the GrandBoss and the abuser are not buddies. Otherwise, it’s like walking into a lion’s den. The GrandBoss will take the side of the abuser and make life hell for anyone who complains about him. In which case, the turnover argument won’t be persuasive until it actually materializes.

  27. Brett*

    The boss is a jerk and there is a lot of vitriol rightful directed to him here.

    I wanted to point out, though, that since this is an early stage startup, boss probably also has very little management experience (maybe even very little work experience) and has no idea how to manage employees and how to handle his own emotions as a manager. I’m not sure how the OP can help make the boss a better boss, but it is entirely possible that boss _could_ change and that this horrible behavior is a consequence of his lack of experience combined with an unwillingness on his part to admit that he does not know what he is doing.

    1. CM*

      I’m all for empathy, but this is somebody who is targeting one person deliberately. Sure, it’s possible the boss could have a life-changing experience and decide not to be a jerk anymore, but this is not just an example of bad management. This is straight-up bullying and verbal abuse.

      1. Marthooh*

        I was thinking Bad Boss is trying to use bullying as a management style. This is pretty classic: picking on one person to keep everyone else in line.

  28. SoCalHR*

    I slightly disagree with Allison regarding seconding the confusion of the coworker – unless you were also truly confused. Don’t throw yourself under the bus in trying to help the coworker. Although, even if you understood something and she didn’t, maybe a statement of “I could see how that instruction could be confusing” would be helpful rather than “I was confused as well” (if you truly weren’t).

    Also, despite not having HR, is there someone who is a bit senior that you could/trust enough to loop into the problem, even if their role isn’t specifically HR?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh yeah — I should have been clearer that I didn’t mean to say you were confused if you weren’t. Just if you actually shared the coworker’s confusion.

    2. Kate*

      I’m glad you said this. I’d be cautious about how to speak up in these moments just because, personally, I think telling someone they should be fired for struggling with a task seems so over the top, and I’d be worried about putting myself in his sights. But I definitely like the suggestion of saying, “I can see how this can be confusing” or even, “Yes, actually, can you clarify this?” without explicitly saying, “I was confused about this too.”

  29. clow*

    Ugh this is the reason I refuse to work for start-ups. Your boss is awful and I doubt he will change. Sure startups often have people who don’t know how to manage, but not being able to manage and not knowing how to be a decent human being are not the same thing. Lack of management skills does not excuse emotional abuse. People learn how to deal with frustration and emotions just fine without being managers after all. This is a bully who has found a way to be a bully without consequences plain and simple. Bullies find someone they know can’t fight back and treat them like crap. OP I think the only thing you can do is provide a bit of moral support for your coworker, I know it helped me when I had a bully of a boss. Before someone asked me if everything was OK, I was silently suffering and getting more and more depressed each day. I also suggest you hunt for a new job, this boss will not change.

  30. Princess Buttercup*

    I work at a company that’s very small and only getting smaller (this time last year we had 10 employees now we’re at 5). We’re a company of all women. I am constantly talked down to by my VP. Sometimes it’s when we’re alone in the office together, sometimes it’s in front of everyone. I’ve had multiple coworkers, who in their exit interviews, have mentioned to the President, how this VP speaks to me. I don’t know how to approach this situation.

    She also tries to use her “power” to give me a hard time about PTO. I’ve been working at this company for about a year and nine months. For the first year or so, I was an hourly employee, then was asked to stay on as a salaried employee. I know that I’m not entitled to PTO from the past year or so that I was an hourly paid employee, but I used to take vacations and know that I was not going to get paid. Now I’m being questioned about a day here and there and it just feels like a personal attack. HELP!

    1. Bea*

      Have you talked to the president yourself? Sure, it’s great others mention her speaking to you poorly is an issue with them but they also need to hear it directly from you as well.

      This kind of emotional blackmail is somewhat common among some people in management both big and small about taking time off. You have to tune it out and do whatever you need to in terms of taking time off when necessary. She’ll never change her tune there even though it’s BS to nitpick about your time off unless it’s interfering with your ability to get things done.

    2. rubyrose*

      The company is smaller by half? I would be concerned about the company going out of business. Add to that the way you are being treated – time to help yourself and get out.

  31. PersephoneUnderground*

    A side thought- there’s no evidence either way about whether this is connected to her being a woman, but it’s making me wonder. I think there should be some documentation somewhere for the future if you leave so that if this turns out to be a pattern of abusive behavior specifically against women that there will be a trail- so each individual target doesn’t have to wonder if it’s just them and just general (legal) jerkiness or a pattern of specific (illegal because only happens to women) jerkiness. Not sure the best way for that to happen, could be a glassdoor review after you leave mentioning the behavior towards a female subordinate or maybe even an EEOC complaint just for documentation purposes even if it isn’t actionable at the time- so if there is a pattern it can be recognized and acted on in future. I don’t know how the EEOC part would work/ if it applies etc., or if there’s a better way, but I think this needs to be recorded for the good of potential next victims in case there turns out to be a way to stop it legally, or at least so he gets a reputation for this bad behavior instead of it staying quiet, is important.

    TL;DR- If you leave, or can do this safely without leaving, please find a way to warn others and start a paper/internet/reputation trail on this guy’s behavior.

    Also might be interesting to ask employees who’ve been there longer if this has happened before.

  32. Fergus*

    I just read an article from a newspaper where the manager took the bagel out of the person’s hand and said, “YOU DON’T NEED THAT!” Sometimes you have to just bitch slap someone.

  33. TootsNYC*

    Don’t forget that body language and physical space/position can speak for you as well as a frown or a shocked look.

    In meetings, make it a point to sit by her. If the boss approaches her, step over to face him alongside her. Or step toward her, not away from her (on stage, there’s a concept called “countering”; when one character crosses the stage to carry the action or focus across the space, the other characters step gently in the opposite direction (upstage, when the action moves downstage; stage left if the action is moving stage right; etc.). This helps direct the audience to where the focus is supposed to be. I tend to do it instinctively.

    Do the opposite. Step toward her (and away from him) to show a slight shift in alignment.

    Of course, ANY move to help her might put you in the crosshairs. But you should absolutely be job hunting like crazy, as should she.

  34. LBK*

    For example, if your boss insults your coworker because she asks him to clarify something, you could say mildly, “I actually was wondering the same thing too.” Or if he’s berating her for not getting a task right, you could say, “To be honest, I wasn’t totally confident about my ability to do this either. For me, the problem was X.”

    I like this approach a lot – I’ve used a similar tactic with chronic complainers. People who feel comfortable being so negative in front of others often do it because they assume the audience is on their side; vocally siding with your coworker in a way that’s not combative can really undermine the attacker’s confidence in their position.

    1. CM*

      I think rather than joining in with the coworker’s perceived incompetence, the OP could amplify her coworker’s good work and ideas. “As Olivia said, I think we should do X…” or when OP receives a compliment on a joint project, she could say, “Thanks, Olivia and I worked hard on that.”

  35. Ann Nonymous*

    You should be prepared to say, “Whoa!” when something like this occurs. Your volume and inflection of shock can be modified as merited and as to how the boss might react.

  36. Observer*

    I just want to reiterate what Alison said – even if your coworker is really bad at her job or incompetent, the boss is falt out wrong in how he handles it. If it comes up – if you speak to him, look shocked and he calls you on it, whatever – push back. It’s not ok to treat even legitimate mistakes that way. And if she’s THAT bad that he “can’t help it” he should have the decency to fire her with some dignity.

    1. Rod*

      From experience with this type of person I know pushing back just makes them angry. The boss is entitled and narcissistic – trying to get them to see the error of their ways is folly as they can’t see anything outside their own tiny self-absorbed frame of reference. The best solution is to get away from them.

      1. Observer*

        I hear that. My point is that the OP should be working from a foundation of “You don’t talk to people that way, even if they are incompetent.” That needs to be the guiding principle.

        What the OP actually says to the boss depends on the circumstances.

  37. Workfromhome*

    1. Start job searching. Change is unlikely and in my experience if the boss is like this he will hire more people “like him” or that wont challenge him” so as the company grows the likelihood of a company culture of rudeness is high.
    2.its a difficult situation since both the OP and the other person are new young people in a start up with no HR. There is little protection for them even though the boss may be dead wrong. If the OP needs the job (until they can find something else) speaking up likely wont help and will get them fired. Sometimes doing the “right thing” doesn’t have enough of a payoff given the risk. (If it were physical violence or other dangerous things that’s different)
    I agree best thing you can do is make sure the coworker knows you don’t approve, that this isn’t normal in the workplace and that you wouldn’t blame her for speaking up for herself but understand why she wouldn’t.

  38. Rod*

    Ugh I had a boss who would do this garbage. He’d hold meetings, expect everyone to contribute, but then get extremely short with us if we didn’t contribute in the way he wanted (i.e. read his mind). He’d throw in curt little comments at us in front of clients, similar to the “louder” thing here, like he was a nitpicking peanut gallery to our performance. He’d whistle at me like I was a dog if he wanted my attention. He’d state blatantly false or made-up things in front of clients and get angry at me if I corrected him. And then he’d turn around and try to be your best friend and mentor. The day I left was one of the best days of my life.

  39. Batshua*

    Echoing what everyone else says about supporting and validating your coworker, both on the fact that your boss is out of line, and that your coworker is doing a better job than your boss says.

    If I were your coworker, knowing that other people didn’t agree with my boss’s assessment would make all the difference.

  40. Former Retail Manager*

    Is it possible that the employee who is being berated somehow just pushes the boss’ buttons and this behavior would never happen with anyone else? I’ve witnessed that a few times. People I’d consider great managers just couldn’t deal with a particular employee and reacted terribly….not this terrible, but not good either. By no means an excuse, but just something I’ve seen happen….some people can’t hold it together. Assuming that is not the case, I’d commiserate with the co-worker and both of you should start looking. Outside of a one-off drastic personality clash, this boss isn’t likely to change, and if co-worker leaves, will move on to another target. I feel terribly for both of you. Been there…..it’s both uncomfortable and heartbreaking to witness.

    1. Observer*

      Eh, even if it really is some sort of personality clash and the co-worker is “pushing his buttons”, the boss is reacting in an inexcusable way. Expressing support for the co-worker is appropriate regardless.

  41. Trillion*

    Yep, I have low tolerance for this. I worked for a boss who treated me okay for the 13 months I worked for her, but she would frequently pull my teammates into her office to shout and curse at them (WITHOUT shutting the door, which is worse). Even though she didn’t treat me that way, I couldn’t tolerate her behavior towards others and resigned (after accepting a job from another organization).

  42. Traceytootoo*

    My first job, at the age of 16, was in an office with a boss who did stuff like that to me. After one particularly bad outburst, I went into his office, closed the door and told him that if he needed to ever speak to me that way again, I would appreciate it if he did so in private. I was so scared that I was shaking, but I was mad too. He looked shocked and definitely back-pedaled. It turned out that he would lose his cool quite often and then, when he was finished ranting, he was fine. Of course, everyone else was standing around shell-shocked. He never singled me out again after that though. Now that I am much older, I am still pretty proud of the 16-year-old me that stood up to that man. I hope OP’s co-worker will have the courage to do something like that. I don’t think she has much to lose at this point.

  43. Corporate Cynic*

    I was on the receiving end of this from a boss several years ago. My co-workers definitely took the approach of “silent, feel really uncomfortable, and commiserate afterward.” While that was somewhat helpful, Alison’s advice of at least looking shocked is spot-on – seeing/hearing such reactions from them would have made me feel so much better.

  44. Nicole*

    OP, you say the company is small and I’m not sure how many peers you have, have other colleagues witnessed this treatment too? If you *all* start to act shocked by the Boss’ behavior, maybe he’ll be embarassed enough to simmer down on his own.

  45. Interested Bystander*

    OP, I feel your pain – My boss too is like this. I have been berated for not completing a project that I had never been assigned, or for not correcting issues that I had never been informed of. I tried to go over my boss’s head, and nothing changed. I will be leaving my current employer very soon, mostly due to this boss.

  46. LifeafterburnoutandAPAs*

    I name this behaviour as Agressive Passive Aggression. It sucks, it is demeaning and disengages anyone watching/wearing it. I know how this feels but it is suriviable. I’ve spent the last 2 years dealing with it and survived. Here’s how I worked it through and won.

    I couldn’t control the other person, but I sure could choose to change my perspective on it. What can I guess at that is going on in the other person’s work and personal life that could possible help me understand why they behave the way they do? Whatever they have going on does not absolve, excuse or make their behaviour right. But it does give some grounds for why it is happening.

    This apa is not about the victim, it is all about the abuser. So i am not the cause of this, it is not my problem to fix that person. I am not responsible for their bad behaviour.

    What could the bully actually be trying say, albeit badly? Is there anything in there that is actually a miscommunicated direction? Eg the “Louder” comment. Could he possibly be meaning I do actually need to speaker louder and more clearly?

    Turn the whole experience around in your head. I need to stay in this job for x time, so I choose to survive this. It will be hard and draining, but what can I do to survive and learn from it? In my situation, I chose to use this opportunity to learn how not to manage, lead, engage and direct staff; this was a great example of how I do not want to be, it taught me how to recognise it and how to negate the impact on me. I worked out how to let it roll off my back, to keep my composure, to not react, but golly gee I got my exit plan in place, kept my CV up to date and job search like crazy. I kept working and learning and laughing to myself at the pathetic passive aggressive and insulting comments, because they were so obviously not true.

    Best of all, i’ve managed to leave that job (2 days ago – YIPPEEEEE – with a brilliant one lined up (thank you Alison and Ask A Manager) without burning that bridge.

    That’s what worked for me. I hope some of my strategies will help the LW. Good Luck!

  47. JustAGirlTryingToMakeIt*

    OP, I hate to hear about this. I’m in a similar situation as well, you aren’t alone. My boss screams at me in front of my colleagues and quite frankly, I think he enjoys it. He openly singles me out of lunch with two employees who are my age (recently graduated) and they do nothing about it, even though one is my best friend from college. She enjoys the “positive” attention she receives from him. When the three of them leave for lunch, I can’t help but feel worthless. I work my behind off for this man for nothing and it kills me.

    My advice? Get out of the office with your coworker, go to lunch, coffee break, etc, and ask if she’s okay and explain you hate how she’s being treated. Ask what she wants to do about it and be a rock for her. I don’t have an HR either, but there is strength in numbers.

  48. Elizabeth H.*

    I’m pretty surprised that nobody so far has said that the letter writer should speak up to the boss in the moment. I think that it could have a negative effect on the letter writer’s work at this company, but it’s just ethically wrong to witness someone being treated this way and not say something. I’m also curious about what other coworkers’ reaction is, for example in meetings. LW wrote that the coworker is the ONLY one the boss treats this way, and that he does it in meetings; who are the other people in the meetings, are they more senior than the letter writer, do they seem uncomfortable with how boss is treating coworker? If they are any more senior, they have that much more of an ethical obligation to speak up and indicate that it’s not okay to treat people the way the boss is treating coworker.

  49. Julianjules*

    Well I’m late to the party, but it’s not everyday I have a similar situation, so thought I’ll give it my two cents.

    My boss tends to be unnecessarily harsh sometimes, and when he does, our team would say something in a light and cheery tone, to the effect of “wow that was way harsh” or “it’s OK, we can quickly fix that/that’s an understandable mistake” to let him know that we think he’s being over the top without seeming like we’re criticizing his behavior. Sometimes this might even calm him down!

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