can I ask my boss to calm down?

A reader writes:

Is it ever okay to ask your boss to calm down?

Recently I made a medium-sized, careless error at work. When my boss’s boss confronted me about it, I owned up to my mistake and apologized, but she proceeded to pull me into her office and — no exaggeration — literally scream at me about it for upwards of 15 minutes. My repeated apologies were shouted down, and the topic of her tirade quickly switched from this one error to a litany of attacks on my personal character and complaints about the work environment at large, many of which had nothing to do with me. She was so intense that I actually began to feel physically unsafe.

We somehow managed to wrap up the “conversation” in a slightly more calm fashion, and she even apologized at the end for being so intense, but it left me wondering: would it have been okay for me to ask her to calm down, or to ask to reschedule the conversation until she was more level-headed? In out-of-work life, I’d have no problem asking a friend or loved one to postpone a necessary discussion if I sensed one or both of us was in danger of fully losing our temper, or if the argument gets too heated to proceed respectfully or civilly — in fact, I’ve always found that to be a very effective technique — but obviously the dynamic with a boss is much different.

Also, I should mention that I’m a man and she’s a woman, and clearly the dynamic there is extra-tangled; I certainly don’t want to, and never will be, the guy who tells a woman she’s “too emotional” to have a discussion … but I also don’t want to be screamed at by my boss! Could I have asked her to calm down? Is there a script for that kind of thing?

In general, the specific words “calm down” tend not to go over well when someone is already worked up. In fact, “calm down” tends to do the opposite.

But that doesn’t mean you just had to sit there and take that kind of abuse. If someone’s yelling at you at work — even your boss or your boss’s boss — it’s perfectly reasonable and professional to say, “I’m not willing to be yelled at, but I’d be glad to talk with you about this later once you’re no longer yelling” and then leave. Or, “I can’t take in what you’re saying while you’re yelling. I’m going to leave, but I’m willing to talk about this later once we can do it without the yelling.”

You do not have to stay and be subjected to abuse.

To be clear, there’s some risk that she’ll fly further off the handle and fire you on the spot for daring to stand up to her, but an awful lot of yellers back down when someone calmly refuses to engage.

But all that aside … what on earth is up with her?

I wanted to know so I wrote back to the letter-writer and asked, “What was your sense of her before this? Did you know she was volatile and anger-prone? Has she seemed unreasonable before this?” The answer:

Our relationship prior to this incident was totally fine; we were always friendly with one another and she’s even complimented me on my work performance several times. She never seemed to me to be volatile or unreasonable, certainly very precise and even a bit rigid but never downright scary, which was why her yelling at me was so disorienting and why I wondered about asking her to calm down. Our relationship is (was?) amiable enough that it felt like whoa, you’re not usually like this, can we take a moment to collect ourselves here before continuing…?

Given that, I’d talk to your direct manager, explain her boss screamed at you and that you were too shocked to address it in the moment, and ask if she has any insight into what happened. It’s possible that you’ll hear “yeah, this isn’t uncommon for her” or “she’s under a huge amount of stress and she told me later she was embarrassed” or who knows what. But your boss should know that this happened, and it’s possible she’ll have more insight for you. And you need that, because right now you’re working around someone who behaved in such an out-of-line, volatile way that it’s hard to imagine just continuing to work as if everything’s normal.

{ 371 comments… read them below }

  1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    Holy crap, OP, that’s scary as hell. I don’t blame you one bit for feeling unsafe.

    That said, Alison is right — telling someone to calm down when they’re angry is about as effective as throwing water on a grease fire. It’s a good policy to just not ever do it.

    (On a side note, youtube videos of what happens when you throw water on a grease fire make great watching.)

    1. Teapot librarian*

      (Continuing on the side note: We lost an entire dining hall at my college due to someone throwing water on a grease fire.)

    2. Just Employed Here*

      (I just watched some last night to find one to show my mother in law, after having yelled at her to not turn the tap on when having put a pan, with oil that had caught fire, in the sink. Although I knew those videos are scary, I had forgotten just how scary they are!)

      But what I actually came here to say was: Thank you Alison for pointing out that “calm down” is not a great thing to say! I have been at the receiving end of a few “calm downs” in my professional life, and all it’s taught me is to never say calm down to another adult…

        1. Julia*

          You probably just don’t know that you’re PMS’ing yet, but the men can tell. Ugh.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I’ve had men tell me to “calm down” or “stop being emotional” when I’m being extremely even-toned, professional, and outcomes-focused (i.e., not focused on my emotions, not telegraphing any particular emotions, and not talking about emotions).

          It was one part gaslighting, one part marginalizing my recommendations (which they’d later repeat and claim credit for), and one part entrenched sexism/implicit bias. It was exhausting and frustrating.

          1. many bells down*

            Right? A simple statement of fact like “I need the other screwdriver” can garner an “okay calm down!” Buddy, you’re apparently the one who’s having feelings about screwdrivers here, not me.

            1. adelequested*

              Exactly, he’s the one taking it to the emotional level, and I find it sometimes interesting to see what happens if I just acknowledge that.

              In such a situation for instance I might reply “Relax, I just need another screwdriver. I’m not blaming anyone for not providing the right one in the first place, you couldn’t know I’d need the other one. We’re still cool, I’m just sometimes a bit short with people when I’m focussed on the task ahead.”

              You’d think that just makes it worse, basically turning around the accusation of being overly emotional about a business matter, but I’ve had it backfire fairly rarely so far.

              I think it’s extremly tiresome that I have to do that amount of emotional labour just to get the sort of screwdriver I need to do my job and if the situation was reversed, I’d find the implication that I need that amount of reassurance profoundly condescending, but I’ve found that men rarely complain about getting too much reassurance from a woman (It’s just what we do, no?). In the long term, it’s probably a bad strategy to always give it to them, because then they never learn how to stop demanding it at every opportunity, but in the short time, it’s just easier. Gotta pick your battles.

    3. mark132*

      When a teenager, I tried to put out a grease fire buy throwing flour on it. Because you are not supposed to use water and I couldn’t remember backing soda or flour. I guess it did go out after the huge fireball I got. I’ll never forget that answer though.

      1. AnnaBananna*

        Thank you for your comment. I was literally trying to remember what you’re supposed to use and also thought it was flour. Good to know that it’ll work in a pinch. Also alledgely if you add vinegar to the baking soda it gets that ‘extinguisher’ foaminess. Ahhh, chemistry.

        1. mark132*

          DON’T use flour I got VERY lucky. Flour is actually explosive. It left a sizable black mark on the ceiling. Really the best answer is to cover the pan and turn off the heat.

          1. Kendra*

            That’s what I did when I had some oil in a cast iron pan catch on fire – I covered it with my least favorite pot.

        2. Anonymeece*

          Any type of dust or powder is actually super flammable because of the surface area as it disperses. There was some kind of factory explosion one time several miles from where we lived – flour or grain – and we could hear the “whumpf” as it went off.

          Baking soda will work on small grease fires, but for larger ones, it may not. I’ve always heard to smother a grease fire.

          (PSA: Fire extinguishers are always good to have in the home!)

        3. PhyllisB*

          When I was a teenager, I turned on some grease to heat up on the stove and forgot about it. Came back in to an inferno. There’s three steps to this: Throw flour on it and IMMEDIATELY slap a lid on it. The third step is call the fire department and leave the house (okay, four steps.) It’s a good thing I did step 3 because the fire had gone up the vent hood and caught the insulation on fire. Thanks to me my sister got a fully remodeled kitchen. This was before the days of cell phones. Now I would exist the house and then call the fire department. Anna, that’s a good tip about the vinegar. I’m surprised my son the nerd/chemist hasn’t told me that. Thanks for sharing.

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            For the love of god don’t use flour. Baking soda works because it gives off carbon dioxide when it heats up, which displaces oxygen and starves the fire. Most small particulates are highly flammable and you will not get the results you want.

        4. ket*

          Yeah, a kid I kinda know got his face burned off by a flour bomb. I’m being literal here — like melted skin and reshaped nose etc. Don’t use flour.

      2. Magenta Sky*

        Flour is flammable. As a fine powder, when it is blown into the air, it becomes explosive. Very, very explosive. It is basically a crude, homemade fuel-air explosive.

        Do not try this at home, kiddies.

        1. mark132*

          This is actually a large problem with grain elevators. There are explosions every year due to this, and frequent fatalities as well.

        2. RoadsLady*

          Back in the day at camp, we did this one skit that did involve dumping small amounts of flour on the campfire.

        3. Mr McGregor's Gardener*

          The Great Fire of London started in a bakery, from the flour dust. True fact!

      3. TardyTardis*

        Salt, use salt, it works, honest (the exclamation point on my keyboard is feeling poorly today. Need to clean the keyboard and probably remove a pound of cat hair from it).

  2. pleaset*

    I’ve told people that annoy me and are acting crazy in public to calm down in order to enrage them further. So it “works” in that way.

    1. Tangerina*

      I used to play with fire like this, until I realized it’s harmful and unproductive. (Ok I admit, it took until a situation got near physically violent to realize that this could have permanent and lethal consequences)

      1. Magenta Sky*

        Sometimes, it seems productive to prod them to step over a line so you can justify calling 911. Then they might get the help they need.

        Not a safe hobby, though.

  3. Snarkus Aurelius*

    There are two kinds of mistakes:

    1) The ones where you’re trying and you miss a decimal point or forget to sign a form, but your ultimate goal was to do task well. (Think Angela from the Office when she screwed up some forms and Dwight had to drive to NYC to fix.)

    2) The ones where you’re straight up careless, negligent, inattentive, lazy, malicious or all of the above. (Think Ilana from Broad City in ANY work situation.)

    Your post makes me think your error was in the first category. When you speak to the higher-ups, and you very well should, you really, really need to make this distinction because it’s important.

    One more way to try to diffuse yelling? Say nothing. Yeah the yelling will be hurtful, but after awhile, the yeller tires herself out because she has no one to spar with. When I did this with my boss, the atmosphere got weird when she’d utter some ridiculous thing and then pause to take a breath. At that point, I think she could hear how asinine she was being.

    1. aebhel*

      Even someone who makes a careless, lazy, and/or malicious mistake does not deserve to get screamed at for 15 minutes. If it’s that bad, it may warrant immediate termination, but there is basically nothing an employee can do that would warrant this kind of reaction. Wayyy out of line.

      And honestly, having known a lot of yellers in my life, saying nothing is just as likely to backfire, because people who are that keyed up often don’t give a damn what they sound like in the moment. I think that falls under the umbrella of ‘sitting there and taking the abuse’, which OP is in no way obligated to do.

      1. RVA Cat*

        This. It’s like how there is nothing an employee could do that would warrant punching them in the face.

      2. Jess*

        Agreed. But also want to mention that there’s a world of difference between careless/lazy and malicious. As in, the first is unintentional and negligent, while maliciousness means intentionality. Lazy/careless happens to everyone at some point, if not necessarily resulting in big mistakes. Mistakes made maliciously should be grounds for pretty immediate termination though. But they still don’t justify screaming at someone for 15 minutes.

      3. PhyllisB*

        To be honest, that’s what I have learned to do with my husband. He’s not abusive (physically) but sometimes he gets wound up about something and goes on and on. If I try to respond, he starts yelling insults at me. If I am quite and just wait for him to vent, most of the time he realizes how ridiculous he’s being, and will either apologize (sort of) or do something really sweet that makes me remember why I married him. :-)
        Of course, this is not something you want a boss to do (not the something sweet, but you get my drift.) You have to know your audience.
        And to those of you who think I’m in an abusive relationship; I am not. My husband is diabetic and I really think this happens when his blood sugar drops. (And telling a diabetic on a rant to eat something or check their blood sugar goes over like telling someone to calm down.)

        1. Marie*

          Sorry for getting off topic, but couldn’t let this lie.

          PhyllisB, as someone who has been in an emotionally abusive relationship, your protestations ring pretty hollow to me. If you have to start off a description of your relationship with the disclaimer, “But he’s not PHYSICALLY abusive…” you should maybe re-examine your assumptions about whether this is truly a healthy relationship. Also, emotionally abusive relationships often escalate into physically abusive ones.

          Being yelled at and having insults hurled at you by your significant other IS emotional abuse. This is no more acceptable than it would be if he were not a diabetic. You deserve to be in a loving, supportive relationship; what you described is not one.

          1. PhyllisB*

            Marie, I understand what you’re saying, and I realize that was not a good lead-in; I was just trying to forestall people speculating that he was abusive to the point of using physical. You may be right, and sometimes I think about the points you make, but for the sake of this thread, let’s just leave it as I was trying to make a point that responding/defending yourself against someone yelling at you is not always a good response. Also another non-helpful response is when they stop yelling is saying “are you through?” That starts another tirade. I know I made it sound worse than it is, but thank you caring.

            1. Marie*

              Hi PhyllisB, thank you for sharing your perspective on diffusing a situation or letting somebody work through their anger in the least explosive way possible. It’s especially important in the case off boss/employee when the power dynamics are such that you often feel that you cannot walk away.

              To respond to a comment downthread, posting a comment in reply to PhyllisB is not just for their benefit; it’s for anybody else who may be reading the thread and might be helped by seeing it.

              PhyllisB, I wish you all the best.

          2. Scarlet*

            Exactly. Abuse doesn’t have to get physical to be abuse. I don’t want to pile on and you’re the boss of you, PhyllisB, but ask yourself whether you would scream at your husband and insult him if YOU were feeling unwell. The cycle of abuse/doing something nice to make up for it is actually very common in abusive relationships. It’s also sadly common for people to make excuses for their abusive partners because they love them.
            Even if his abusive episodes are actually triggered by low blood sugar, if you were the one insulting your husband and you realized you needed to control your diabetes better in order to avoid that, wouldn’t you actually take measures to do it rather than subject your husband repeatedly to screaming and insults?

            1. Julia*

              I don’t think PhyllisB came here to be lecture, though. She came here to make a helpful comment for the OP, and didn’t ask for us to evaluate her relationship.

              1. Scarlet*

                It’s not a lecture, Julia. Having an outsider point out to me that my mother was emotionally abusive helped me realize I needed to put some distance at the time. It’s hard to see abuse for what it is when you love your abuser.

              2. Lynn Marie*

                +1! Disrespectful, one might even say emotionally abusive, not to take PhyllisB at her word. Leave it at that.

            2. Humble Schoolmarm*

              This comment isn’t to suggest the PhyllisB’s husband is justified in his behaviour at all, but having a low blood sugar is much more like being intoxicated than feeling unwell. There really is a similar personality change and loss of filter and, like drunkenness, it’s often difficult for the person to understand how off their behaviour is. I’m quite mild-mannered, but my worst teenager-parent fights as a teen were blood sugar related (PhyllisB is right about telling a diabetic to test). That being said, I understand and share the concern that her husband hasn’t managed to reduce his lows or hasn’t realized that this is a sign so he can go get juice before abusive tirade. Even low, he probably can make the “want to say horrible things – need sugar” connection.

              1. PhyllisB*

                I realize I should not have shared this, but I was trying to make a point about how to cope with someone yelling.
                To add info, he was just recently diagnosed with diabetes and he’s been having some heart concerns, so he’s kind of off-balance right now. PLUS, he’s quit drinking after some 30 years so he’s trying to process a lot right now. I am being patient and giving him time to adjust but if it continues, there will be a Come to Jesus meeting or two. Thank all of you for caring so much.

                1. nonymous*

                  PhyllisB – your comment and the subsequent discussion reminds me very much of my parents. My dad had symptoms similar to diabetes due to surgical removal of part of his pancreas and never monitored his blood sugar/diet in a consistent manner.

                  As a kid I found that leaving a small amount of snacks that would quickly raise blood sugar within reach of wherever he was grumping and taking off for a couple hours to be an effective management strategy. As an adult I recommend that you seek counseling for both you and husband to work on some coping skills during this transition period (go by yourself even if he doesn’t want to). The health situation sounds stressful and husband is going to need new coping skills, the quicker the better. It may be that your coping skills could use a brush up with all the changes. Good luck!

                2. Traffic_Spiral*

                  I’d have that “Come To Jesus” talk sooner rather than later. Once people get into the habit of relieving their stress through abuse (verbal or physical) it’s far harder to break.

              2. aebhel*

                Eh. My spouse is hypoglycemic and turns into a flaming a$$hole when his blood sugar drops, but once I started leaving the room when he got nasty, he managed to start self-regulating and getting a snack before he went off the rails.

                (This is true of being intoxicated, too)

                1. PhyllisB*

                  It may too late for anyone to see this, but sometimes I do leave the room. This doesn’t happen everyday, but when it does, it’s usually in the evening before he eats. He doesn’t eat at regular intervals like he should and suggesting that he does gets the same reaction as “calm down.” I have made a few statements about mutual respect. The way I figure it, in a long marriage (42 years) you have to give each other some grace. He put up with my hormone melt-downs during pregnancies, baby blues afterwards, and all the fun that goes with menopause. I won’t let this go on, but I will give him some adjustment time, and if it continues I may have a conversation with his doctors.
                  Once again, I thank everyone for their concern and caring, and I will give an up-date when there is one to give.

              3. Traffic_Spiral*

                ” but having a low blood sugar is much more like being intoxicated than feeling unwell.”
                and “he’s only abusive when he’s drunk” would be equally concerning.

        2. Traffic_Spiral*

          Eeeehh… the whole “use your partner as a verbal/physical punching bag and then apologize and give a gift after” thing is pretty textbook abuse behavior, yanno? Even if it’s low blood sugar, that doesn’t justify abusive behavior. You’re a person, not a stress pillow for him to scream into until he feels better.

        3. aebhel*

          My dad is a yeller, too, but I don’t allow people to talk to me like that. I just walk away (now. When I was younger, I’d yell back, and the screaming matches went on for hours). If this is a strategy that works for you, then I’m not going to judge that, but I think it’s a really bad strategy for dealing with a dynamic in the workplace, especially when the yeller is in a position of authority.

          Basically, you can choose in your own life, for a variety of reasons that are really no one’s business, to stand there and take verbal abuse. But I do not think that’s good general advice for dealing with verbally abusive people.

        4. Sue Wilson*

          Do you think he’s making some type of attempt to figure out what’s causing the yelling? If it’s a medical issue, then why doesn’t he want figure out what’s triggering him to stop yelling at you? I don’t know, I would check in with your relationship to determine whether he wants the behavior to stop, or if he’s just okay with this dynamic no matter the reason.

      4. General Ginger*

        IMHO, nobody has to take yelling with gentle good humor, or just stand there. I had abusive screamers in my family, and at school, and still have some triggers pertaining to men yelling. I would not be able to stand there saying nothing. Either I’m panicking, or I am able to say some version of do not yell at me, please/I’ll come back when you’re done yelling.

    2. Canonical23*

      I agree with your approach. A few months ago I went in to update my boss on some schedule adjustments and I don’t know what was wrong, we have a pretty affable relationship, but she went off on me. She started shouting and yelling and I was feeling so uncomfortable, but I kept my face even and just looked her in the eyes and didn’t say a word and within two minutes she had fallen silent. She then apologized for her reaction, I accepted the apology and then we worked through the new schedule for my team.

      I think it’s a good way to handle the situation – provided that you truly can keep an even face and not look hurt or angry – because you don’t risk saying something like “calm down” that can be misinterpreted in the heat of the moment.

    3. Future Homesteader*

      I’m not a fan of this approach. I don’t think you’re ever under any obligation to stay in a room when you’re being verbally abused, and *especially* not at work. I think Alison’s scripts are great – calmly and politely let the person know it’s not okay, and then LEAVE. If any workplace faults you for that…then they’re incredibly freakin’ dysfunctional.

    4. uranus wars*

      I don’t know, especially when the yelling starts to cross the line into attacks about character, etc. And when it’s in a professional setting where you feel physically threatened.

      I would advocate for walking away without saying anything before I can advocate for just sitting there and taking it. I like Alison’s scripts, though.

      I do think there is value in learning if this is a pattern or a particularly bad day in a string of bad days or a regular occurrence for the OPs sake.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Yes, I’ve been yelled at in frustration by someone when I made a mistake, but the minute personal attacks or name-calling enter the picture, I’m done. I have (thankfully!) only had one such incident despite working in a pretty intense industry, and it happened very early in my career (and I hadn’t made a mistake, a temporary employee had thrown out the work product I left for him and lied to cover his own mistake). I calmly told the yeller that I would be happy to discuss the situation with him when we could talk about it but I wasn’t going to be yelled at and personally insulted and walked out of the room. He did apologize (profusely), and it never happened again.

        I take that back – there is one other people I know pretty well who, I think, feels okay to let their guard down around me, and they’ve yelled at me (and, once, in an extreme situation, cursed at me) – in not my finest hour, I yelled back at them in what our boss called the most professionally-focused yelling match she’d ever had to quell. The feedback we got was that, had the conversation occurred in our indoor voices and with less profanity, it was a model of how to stay solution focused in a stressful situation. We failed miserably on tone and vocab, though.

    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I had a boss ream me for an “error” (turned out there was no error, she misread) and yell at me, insult my character and intelligence, etc., for over 15 minutes in a very small office in which I felt completely unsafe. I am not easily triggered or made emotional by batshit behavior, so I didn’t respond or say anything during her tirade.

      When I brought up the issue with her and her grandboss, she said she had no recollection of yelling at me and that she didn’t notice that I was silent and shaking for the rest of the day. I quit on the spot without a new job lined up (grandboss tried to give me paid leave for 2 weeks and have me return), and I did not regret it at all. Someone who flies off the handle and doesn’t remember it or think it was inappropriate will definitely do it again.

      There is literally no excuse for yelling at someone in this way—the only time it’s ok to yell at someone at work is when they’re at risk of imminent harm/death and need to get out of the way or protect themselves. If someone is going to fly off the handle that way, there is nothing OP can do to make it better/worse, because OP doesn’t control grandboss’s abusive behavior, the abusive grandboss does. Although I don’t think OP should say “calm down” (already triggering, and moreso when a man says it to a woman), I don’t think OP should have to endure that yelling, either.

      1. Lara*

        The reaction to this post is making me think I’ve tolerated a lot of… not great behaviour in the past that I really shouldn’t have.

      2. Been There, Done That*

        Princess, I am so grateful to read your post–and this topic in general–because I’ve been putting up with a verbally abusive boss for nearly 5 years. On occasions when I’m moved to bring up things she’s said to me, she looks at me as if I’m crazy and says, “I didn’t say that. I never said that.” She has insulted me to my face, criticized me in front of other people, including in staff meetings, expected me to sit silently while everyone else there criticized me, and shut me up when I tried to speak up for myself. She has chewed me out for doing my job precisely the way I was trained to do it. At first I was so shocked at her behavior I literally didn’t know what to do and eventually confided in another manager, who urged me to tell Grandboss. I was afraid to. I’d like to think I have choices, but I’m not in a position to risk my livelihood, medical, and retirement plans. Finally I did speak up to someone close to her boss and documented a couple of horrible things she said about me, so it’s a little less bad now. I also started job hunting but I don’t have much confidence left.

      3. Former Employee*

        “…grandboss tried to give me paid leave for 2 weeks and have me return…” .

        I would have been really tempted to take the paid leave and then advise them that I’d changed my mind and wasn’t coming back after all.

    6. OP!*

      Hiya, OP here! Thanks for this. I’ll say that in the midst of the shout-storm my response was basically to say nothing but “I know” and “I understand” — not really a thought-out sort of response but more a byproduct of my shock and discomfort — and even that backfired on me, as she picked up on my near-silence and threw it back at me with a “See, even now, you’re giving me an attitude” (which I couldn’t possibly defend myself against; how can you say “No I’m not” to such a thing without, well, sounding like you have an attitude?!)

      1. Jan*

        She sounds like she’s off her head! From what you say, I don’t think there was anything you could have done or said differently, she was obviously looking for a fight and you just happened to be the most convenient person to pick it with. Sorry you’re dealing with this. I’d be updating my CV as soon as I could.

      2. The other Louis*

        I have a colleague who has multiple times trapped me in an office and yelled at me. She has also yelled at various other people. She was always prone to getting too aggressive in arguments, but it got worse when she was Interferon, and so a lot of people thought it would be a violation of ADA to tell her not to yell at people (or to allow me to say I wouldn’t meet with her alone). She didn’t have an accommodation, hadn’t registered with ADA, and she honestly had no idea she was yelling. HR finally got involved and said I had every right to refuse to meet alone with her.

        So, it’s possible that she has a medical issue. That doesn’t make it any better from your perspective, but gives you a slightly different set of possible responses.

        1. Elspeth*

          Doesn’t really matter if it’s a medical issue or not. Tell them you will come back to discuss when they can stop yelling at you and walk out their office.

          1. JustaTech*

            Exactly. One time I threw out my back and I was in a lot of pain and on prednisone, which can (sometimes in some people) make you very rage-y. So I told my coworkers “hey, I’m in a lot of pain and on meds that might make me Hulk out, so if I start to do that let me know and I’ll go away”.

            It’s your job to manage your reactions, even if they are driven by medication. It’s an explanation, not an excuse.

        2. Massmatt*

          It’s possible that everyone any letter writer is writing about has a medical issue. We don’t have near enough information to say so, and not even a trained professional would make a diagnosis based on hearsay on an Internet forum. It is rarely if ever helpful to suggest, it turns the discussion away from the LW asking for help and toward the diagnosis, possible treatment, and other commentators’ experiences with the medical establishment.

          The LW is not asking why his grandboss is doing this, he is asking how best to deal with it.

          1. Crack-a-doodle-doo*

            Hear hear!!!

            You sound like you may have read Captain Awkward’s recent (and excellent) post about web diagnoses and re-focusing away from the person asking for help. Such a well-reasoned and insightful post!

            1. Massmatt*

              I was going to mention it, “diagnosing” has always bothered me but the captain’s post on the subject pointed out lots of things I had never thought of. Highly recommended!

      3. OhGee*

        This doesn’t surprise me at all. Growing up, I had an adult family member who was a screamer and one of my sister snever outwardly reacted to this person — which only made the screamer angrier. I’m sorry you had to go through that at work.

        1. pcake*

          Me, too. My dad (who was crazy and abusive) would yell for literally hours while no one said anything. Or if they did. I don’t think what we said or did ever changed what he did once he was in an abusive rage.

      4. Catherine*

        As someone who has parents that interpreted silence or agreement as defiance, you have my every sympathy.

      5. Indie*

        Nothing is worth being around a yeller, either personally or professionally. Either they can help it (and they’re malicious) or they can’t (and they’re out of control). Be very, very wary of anyone who claims or implies ‘I would never get physical ‘ or apologises with an excuse. There is no such thing as a correct/calming response.

        I would be job hunting.

      6. General Ginger*

        OP, I’m so sorry you had to deal with this. I still get triggered by men yelling sometimes, due to abusive yellers from when I was a kid, and every one of them interpreted my cowering silence as me giving them attitude. You have my utmost sympathy.

    7. SophieK*

      Not true.

      Being cool, calm and collected is actually a law enforcement technique. What it does is provoke a certain personality type to spin out of control like the Tasmanian Devil. They then confess or do something they can be arrested for.

      For a long time I was confused as to why some people reacted to me as if I was yelling when I was just being dead calm. Then I was hired as a security dispatcher and they filled me in.

      It can get dicey though–I ended up in a DV relationship where I was verbally attacked all the time even though all I ever did was to try to disarm and disengage and it enraged my (insert Internet diagnosis here) ex to the point he threatened to kill me. Obviously I got out, but just wanted to point out that often there is no fixing or managing people with anger issues.

    8. RoadsLady*

      I’ve been there. I’m generally pretty calm, but there’s a red streak and I can yell up a stream with the best of them. Every time, every time, I get to a point where I realize “good grief, you sound like a damn fool”.

  4. Turquoisecow*

    I wonder if there was something else going on, like this is the latest in a long string of mistakes (not necessarily by the OP, but my Boss or maybe other members of her team) or there is some extra stress going on in Boss’s life that she just let rip at the OP? Because either the OP is reading their relationship wrong or this is waaaay out of character.

    OP, is it possible the mistake was bigger than you thought, from a higher-ups’ perspective? Maybe Boss presented data to her boss with your error and it made her look stupid? Sometimes people pass on the criticisms they’ve gotten, with more intensity.

    1. Jessie the First (or second)*

      But it’s really important to say that regardless the excuse, there *is* no excuse. The boss is way out of line. I suppose knowing whether the issue is related to extra stress, or this is really how Boss behaves and he just didn’t know, or the Boss for some reason now has OP as a target, can help OP figure out a strategy going forward (and that strategy might be “get a new job” if the Boss is just…. like this) but it’s important to remember this is all on Boss and OP does not have to sit and take it. A normal, even large-size, mistake shouldn’t result in a 15-minute scary screamfest.

      1. Turquoisecow*

        Oh, agreed! It’s just that the response seems so over the top that I wonder if things aren’t as peachy as OP assumes, and he’s actually making more mistakes than he knows – this latest was just the straw that broke his boss’s patience.

        He still should definitely not be screamed at, though, but maybe he can take this perspective to boss, or boss’s boss? Like, I want to understand the mistake, and I’d rather you tell me when I make mistakes rather than just letting them build up and screaming at me?

        But yeah, rereading my original comment, it does sound a bit like unhelpful armchair diagnosis, sorry! :/

        1. Sylvan*

          Constructive criticism on avoiding future mistakes is helpful, but OP’s boss isn’t a good source for it. I would absolutely not ask somebody who screamed at me whether/how I provoked them.

          1. TurquoiseCow*

            In general, I’d agree, but OP still needs to work for this person. Assuming she has a logical reason for blowing up at him, means that maaaayyybe he can avoid having to experience one of these explosions again.

        2. Mongrel*

          “Oh, agreed! It’s just that the response seems so over the top that I wonder if things aren’t as peachy as OP assumes, and he’s actually making more mistakes than he knows – this latest was just the straw that broke his boss’s patience. ”

          Then the mistakes should be dealt with as they come up or within a practical time frame. “Saving up” all the issues for a random, angry rant does nothing to help the LW learn and move forward.

      2. Future Homesteader*

        I was just going to post this. This is not okay, period, full stop, end of discussion. No matter what kind of mistake OP made.

        1. Elaine*

          I took this to be the difference between a reason and an excuse. There might be reasons this happened and Turquoisecow suggested some. Knowing a reason might help you decide what to do next. But I didn’t get the feeling that any of that was offered as an excuse. Clearly, there is no excuse for what happened.

    2. aebhel*

      Eh, I mean, I’ve known plenty of people who are perfectly pleasant as long as you stay on their good side and turn into the Hulk the instant you’re not, no matter how minor the offense. This may not be the least bit out of character for her, although OP should talk to his immediate boss to find out.

      1. Turquoisecow*

        True. OP doesn’t mention if he’s ever made a mistake before and not had this happen, so maybe this is just how Boss reacts to mistakes in general.

        1. Turquoisecow*

          And if so, I’d honestly start looking, because the pressure to be perfect would make me very unlikely to be perfect.

      2. Fergus*

        Yea the people, who love you one second and then the next second hate you are not worth one minute of your life. That’s when it’s time to move on.

    3. OP!*

      Hi! The atmosphere in my workplace is chaotic at best these days; extremely high turnover (making me the most senior employee in my position, even though I’ve been there less than a year) and generally verrrry low morale. So yes, it’s possible that those factors together led to a blowout from Boss. I’m sure all things considered, she expected more from me (and she should!), but I don’t think I fundamentally misread our relationship before this incident!

      Also, for what it’s worth, she’s the owner of the business. So there’s no higher-ups to speak of here. Any criticisms are coming from her on down, not the other way around.

      1. Snickerdoodle*

        Ohhh dear. “Chaotic at best” and “verrry low morale” = get out. I’m now quite sure there has been a lot of other yelling or otherwise inappropriate behavior that you don’t know about, hence the high turnover. As I said before, this was the first, not the last time, you’ve experienced her yelling. With no one above her to rein that in, it will continue.

      2. This Daydreamer*

        Chaotic at best?! Get out of there before it starts to warp you. If you stay in a really dysfunctional environment, you start seeing it as normal as a coping mechanism. Look for the letter from someone who bit a coworker as an example of that – the update is an even better example.

      3. TurquoiseCow*

        Wow, that doesn’t sound great. Boss doesn’t have anyone looking over her shoulder, or anyone with the power to tell her it’s not acceptable to scream at her employees, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened more often, or that this HAS happened to other employees…leading to the high turnover.

      4. Mad Baggins*

        Woah, in that case this sounds like the first major red flag, with many lying in wait down the road. If this is how the owner/your boss reacts to pressure (ie by blowing up at the next mistake she finds), how do think she’ll respond next time you make a mistake? Come evaluation season? When turnover gets worse as your colleagues who overheard her yelling at you find other jobs and get the hell out?

      5. AnonInfinity*

        Hi, OP. You and I may have once worked at the same company (mostly kidding). I worked for a business owner who could be the most genuinely warm person on this planet one second and become a screaming, red-faced, rage monster the next second, usually over something petty and ridiculously minor. Even though I knew about the high turnover from about my first week there, and even though my boss snapped at me on day one and then apologized with a handful of candy about an hour later, I stayed three years after she screamed herself red at me the first time. (Have you ever noticed little things – like being snapped at and then getting a sweet, small apology from your boss soon after? If so, things like that aren’t indicative of a healthy relationship but an abusive one.)

        It never got better. She got worse, and I normalized it. I became passively suicidal and wanted a car to hit me on the way to work. I spent Friday nights worrying I’d screwed something up at work; Saturdays in a depressed haze of worry about the week before and worry about the week ahead; and Sundays crying about the week ahead. I saw no way out. I applied for jobs and then refused to take the phone calls to set up interviews. I was TERRIFIED and exhausted and had no idea how I could handle getting a new job, when… My boss threatened to fire us if she found out we were job hunting; she interrogated us if we took time off work for anything; and she threatened to fire us if we left work on time. There was no way to interview in the morning and call it a doctor’s appointment; there was no way to interview in the evening; THERE WAS NO WAY. She referred to us a “family” – which was great, because after the fifth time I cancelled on my friends because I wasn’t allowed to leave work and didn’t know when I COULD leave, I didn’t have a life beyond my coworkers and my spouse. It was chaotic. The ground was always moving.

        The longer you’re in a chaotic, abuse environment, the more worn down you become and the harder it is to find the energy, motivation, and courage to jump out of the fire; soon, you may even start to think that every workplace is like your bad one, so why bother. I think I only got out when I did because I saw how beaten down, miserable, scared, and subjugated the 20-year secretary had become, and I didn’t want to become her. It didn’t start out this intense – not at all. It started with the snapping and the candy on day one. And then it slowly got worse. And then I was a frog in a pot of boiling water.

        I’m still trying to unwind the unhealthy habits and expectations I learned from that environment. Every now and then, I check out the company website and see how many people in my old position that have walked in and right back out – and, in the four years since I’ve left, it’s about 8. 8 people who learned way faster than I did to GTFO. Two of my old coworkers are still there, including that secretary, and I’m sad for them.

        Please never tell yourself that you’ve done something so bad, or failed to meet expectations so horribly, that you deserve to be screamed at while at work. It’s never okay to scream or be screamed at while at work.

        Find another job.

        1. Massmatt*

          Wow what an awful situation, I am glad you were able to move on to something better. So many abusive things here. It brings home 2 really important things—1, the danger of getting used to a bad work environment can make abuse seem normal, and 2, a job or manager saying “we’re a FAMILY!” Is even more of a warning sign! Charles Manson called his group a family, too!

      6. J.B.*

        OK, this is a really bad sign. This is one incident, so I’m not willing to say yet this boss is a bully. However I had a boss who was a bully and I was the golden child for a while, and then went on the s+!t list. Talk to your supervisor or other superior in the picture about what happened. But if the answer is “yeah that is how this person is” then get out.

        I am far enough into my career that I can say point blank I won’t tolerate particular behavior. But I know I need to leave before bully in waiting gets promoted. Life is too short to be screamed at.

      7. General Ginger*

        OP, this is a lot of red flags. I think you should try to get out of there, and I very much sympathize.

  5. Bend & Snap*

    I wish I’d read this post a few years ago. My boss was in my office screaming about something we were working on but not at me, standing over me while I sat at my desk, and he slammed his hands down on my desk and got right in my face.

    I calmly told him he needed to go tell everyone he wasn’t disciplining me by yelling because you could hear the reaction from the coworkers. He quietly left but next time he yelled at me, it was in public.

    I’d recommend treating this woman like an angry rattlesnake from now on. Once someone knows you’ll take their screaming, they’ll do it again. Just my experience.

    1. irene adler*

      Yep. Me too. They scream once and you don’t call them on it, they will scream at you for everything.

    2. AKchic*

      I agree. I think this has become a turning point.

      For whatever reason, this manager felt it was acceptable to take her frustrations out on this employee. She inappropriately vented and it was unacceptable. Not only does the LW’s immediate supervisor need to know, but perhaps HR should be looped in as well.

    3. Snickerdoodle*

      That’s what I was thinking. This behavior isn’t the last time it’s going to happen; it’s the first. I’d stay well away from her in the future.

    4. OP!*

      Hi, OP here! I’m so sorry this happened to you, B&S. Rattlesnake advice: taken.

      Another question for the crowd, while I’ve got you all here: this incident happened almost a month ago now. I’ve seen Boss only a couple of times since then, and both times I played nice and didn’t let on that I was still upset about the yelling. Did I play it wrong? I don’t want to mope around the workplace or give her the cold shoulder but I also feel sort of gross exchanging pleasantries with someone who screamed at me.

      1. Snickerdoodle*

        Does your boss and/or HR know about it? What did they say? I think you should base how you deal with her on that. Whatever they, “impeccable professionalism” when dealing with her is probably your best bet. If management doesn’t deal with the yelling, I’d seriously consider jobhunting. I wouldn’t want to stay in a job where yelling wasn’t dealt with harshly.

        1. Snickerdoodle*

          Foisted by my own rephrasing. I meant to say “‘Impeccable professionalism’ when dealing with her is probably your best bet.”

      2. Close Bracket*

        No, your instincts on how to act are right on. Just remember, exchanging pleasantries at work is not the same as being friends. Think of your boss as a bicycle that you absolutely hate and the pleasantries as the grease you put on the chain bc it’s your only form of transportation at the moment and you need it to work. Try to view her with a little bit of detachment, like you are a reporter observing the hair-trigger executive at the workplace.

        1. Girl friday*

          I would have said like riding a bicycle without a seat, but same thought. Thankfully I’m not currently in that situation myself, either at work or at home.

      3. General Ginger*

        I think you’re handling it well, OP — being pleasant enough so you can keep doing your job. Polite, professional, but keep in mind this isn’t your friend or ally, and start looking.

  6. Tangerina*

    I’ve never accepted the idea that it’s okay to scream at people in a professional environment. I turned down a very good job offer because the dotted-line manager of the position mentioned that things can get “shouty” because people are passionate. It’s my stance that I operate best in a culture where it’s not acceptable for respect to be abandoned even with the stakes are high.

    If this is truly out of character for her, I wonder if something’s up in her life. But I wouldn’t blame you for always being a bit cautious with her going forward.

    1. Bea*

      Ew. At least you got a heads up so you could dodge that hellhole!

      I tell people during interviews I don’t do hostility and screaming environments. You only scream if someone is in danger or if you need to be heard over loud machinery. Every decent human I’ve worked for has had a physical reaction of saying “What? People yell at their staff?” any one who didn’t have that reaction is not on the list of people in interested in dealing with.

    2. Snickerdoodle*

      Ew. I had a phone interview once where they casually described their staff as cutting up and cursing each other out in the hallway as if it were all in good fun. I cut off my interviewer to say that I was . . . looking for something a little more structured. Also, that was the exact environment I was trying to escape. I learned from then on to ask how jobs dealt with drama in the office.

      That same job I was leaving, my coworker was also looking for a new job, and she went to an interview and left before it even started because she heard her would-be future boss screaming at an employee in her office. No wonder they had a vacancy.

    3. Kat in VA*

      I applied for a job at a tax office where it all sounded pretty aboveboard when I spoke to the principal that I would have supported.

      Then I got 30 minutes with the other EA in the office, and she told me (among other things) I’d have to be able to take a “stern talking-to without crying because sometimes he does that.”

      Bemused, I wanted to know if that included yelling and screaming?

      “Well, no. But he can be very stern, and sometimes he can get very personal about things like looks or clothing when he’s upset with you.” I didn’t ask her to elaborate further, and she didn’t offer.

      Ah. So, you have a boss who thinks it’s ok to talk garbage about your face or your shirt while ostensibly giving you a talking-to about work-related issues – and I’m supposed to be OK with that? How does that even compute?


      They did not offer the position and I would not have taken it anyway. I understand if I screw up that bosses can be stern, or give you a “talking-to”, however that translates. But veer into actual personal territory and things will get very strident, very fast on my end. I ate garbage for many years from entitled executives in the 90s who felt that since you were their EA/PA, they owned you and could say (and unfortunately, DO) just about any dang thing they wanted, up to and including things like: telling me I was just another stupid woman (“And ALL women are stupid!”), telling me to “lay off the ramen at lunch because you’re getting chubby”, grabbing a handful of butt on my way out of the room in an aggressive, possessive manner (and I was newly married!), telling me my husband was lazy and worthless while he recovered from back surgery, telling me I should get a boob job (yes, really), ordering me to wear more makeup so I’d look “sexier”, and scores of other things I’ve forgotten. And this wasn’t even the same executive!

      Fast forward to a kinder, gentler era (we hope?) and no way am I going to tolerate my boss talking smack about my looks or my clothing (or heaven knows what else) because I’ve messed up on something at work and they feel they have the right to rip me up and down over any old thing they want.

      I hope whoever they hired at that company has the spine to tell him it’s inappropriate and unacceptable to get personal when you’re dealing with an employee issue!

      1. General Ginger*

        Hit ‘submit’ too soon. What I was going to say, this is very unsurprising based on what I recall my mother saying about more than one of her workplaces in the 80s and 90s.

  7. Delta Delta*

    This is not okay. It feels like it would be a deal-breaker for me and I’d be looking to leave. I think if possible, OP should probably talk to someone else in management (however the structure there works) and make others aware of what happened. I’m all for appropriate reprimands or corrections where needed, but there really isn’t any excuse for screaming.

    1. Is It Performance Art*

      I second saying something to management , because screaming and yelling is one of those things that causes people to leave in droves. I would want to know if one of my reports was yelling.
      Yelling says more about the yeller than the person getting yelled at: mainly that they are either out of control or think it is acceptable to behave as if they are out of control. Neither is a good quality in a manager.

      1. Snickerdoodle*

        I worked overnight stock in a big box store where our boss yelled at us constantly. Not personal tirades, but still. It caused huge turnover, walkouts, no-shows, you name it. Of course HR acted like it was a big mystery. (To be fair, when somebody walks out mid-shift without notice or exit interview, you don’t know exactly what happened, but it can’t be that hard to put two and two together when it happens that often.) HR called several of the best employees (myself included) into a room one day to ask us about the pros and cons of the job and what could help reduce turnover. There was an awkward pause, and I said “The yelling has to stop.” That opened the floodgates. The yelling stopped for about two weeks and then started again, triggering a cycle of yelling, HR complaints, two weeks of no yelling, etc. You can bet money I listed EXACTLY why I was leaving when I left.

    2. MLB*

      Screaming is never okay in a work environment, but I don’t think this one incident is cause for leaving immediately. If he talks to his direct supervisor and nothing comes of it, then maybe start looking. I would be tempted to speak to HR honestly, just so they have it on record if it happens again. I had a manager once who was always very calm and collected, but twice he was extra stressed and while he didn’t scream, he spoke to me as if I was the dirt on the bottom of his shoe. I was getting ready to speak to him (and possibly HR) but I got laid off so I never got the opportunity. Regardless, even for those who make a lot of mistakes and are the worst employees in the universe, nobody deserves to be screamed, especially to point of feeling unsafe.

      1. Girl friday*

        Actually, yelling in the workplace is a very big deal. Volume is usually determined by the group: that’s why you can go into one office and find everyone yelling like monkeys, and then go into another office and find the same people quiet as mice. It’s what makes us talk loudly on the subway and be quiet in libraries, most of us do it everyday all day long and never even think about it . To ever deviate from the norm in volume varies on a spectrum from rhetorical effect to yelling fire in a theater. It’s a very big deal. Something is definitely wrong, and since it’s continuing to happen something should be said.

  8. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    I’d keep a wary eye out. The yelling is bad enough. But descending into personal attacks? Never okay.

    Talk to your boss and let them know what happened. But I’d definitely be careful around her going forward. Personal attacks never, ever belong in the workplace.

  9. Future Homesteader*

    OP, I’m so sorry this happened. Being yelled at sucks and there is absolutely no room for it in the workplace, full stop. I hope she apologizes for real, because apologizing for being “intense” is in no way sufficient acknowledgement for a 15-minute session of verbal abuse, Grandboss or no. I hope you can get some insight into what happened, so you can make a good decision about whether or not this is something that might continue – because this sounds like the making of a workplace nightmare.

  10. aebhel*

    OP, definitely DO NOT tell her to calm down. But yes, you should inform her that you’re not willing to be spoken to like that, and if she doesn’t knock it off, leave. Nobody is obligated to take this kind of abuse.

    …this genuinely may get you fired. But if that’s a possibility you’re willing to accept, then I think it’s worth drawing that line. And it’s just as likely that she’ll behave better in the future if she knows that you’re not going to stand there and act as a verbal punching bag.

    1. Ragazzoverde*

      Surely the boss herself would be more likely to be fired by whoever is above her in this situation? That’s not an appropriate way to behave at work.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        I’d love to say yes, but, in a lot of organizations, high producers or people that bring in a lot of business can get away with a lot. I worked for an organization like that once, and, at my exit interview, I was clear that I was leaving because the sales guy was a jackass to me and everyone around me.

        One of the things I like about my current organization is that they’re big on the whole no-assholes thing. Even if you’re a big rainmaker, your work’s not going to get done if you can’t play nicely with others. With rare exception, everyone is professional and courteous.

        1. Massmatt*

          Agreed, it sucks but it’s very true. And yelling/screaming is just one part of the verbally abusive boss spectrum. I worked for someone who never raised his voice but could be incredibly nasty. The fact that it was delivered in a seemingly calm and matter of fact way made it somehow worse.

    2. Bea*

      You’re at risk of being fired regardless. So you may as well stand up for your right not to be screamed at by someone. She’s already angry AF and not phased by apologies.

    3. OP!*

      OP here. Understood! Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but in the moment I was so certain that speaking up or standing up for myself would have led directly to her saying “Well, you’re fired.” And I wasn’t ready for that! So instead I nodded and apologized and kept my head down. (I’m pretty ashamed, to this day, that I didn’t have more of a backbone, but what can you do?)

      Of course when the day comes that I’m out the door for good — hopefully sooner rather than later — I’ll bring this up again and make it clear that this incident is a large part of what led me to leave.

      1. This Daydreamer*

        You’ve got a backbone! You weren’t sure how to respond in the moment, and very few people would, but you remained calm, didn’t let her convince you that you were deserving of her treatment, and you have remained professionally calm since then.

        You thought you were having a meeting with someone you work with, not a tornado. Hardly anyone would be prepared for that.

      2. Sara without an H*

        Hi, OP — I can understand why you froze. It’s a normal response when somebody you thought was a rational human being turns into the Incredible Hulk right before your eyes.

        Even if you haven’t decided to start looking for another position, it might not hurt to do some advance planning, such as checking in with your network, revising your resume, and clearing your desk and computer of anything personal. If there’s another episode, it would be easier to make a quick exit and start job hunting.

      3. Plague of frogs*

        Your backbone sounds just fine. There’s no perfect response to this sort of thing, because *you’re* not the one misbehaving.

      4. tangerineRose*

        Don’t be ashamed. Speaking up for yourself easily might have gotten you fired. Hope you find a new job soon!

      5. chi type*

        Don’t be down on yourself, OP. You did what you had to in the moment to keep your livelihood intact. This person has power over your ability to care for yourself financially so I don’t think anyone can judge you for not making some big heroic stand.

      6. General Ginger*

        OP, don’t blame yourself for freezing up and apologizing in the moment! Unprofessional, unexpected screaming can be very hard to respond to; you were expecting a normal meeting with your boss, and it makes perfect sense that you were not prepared to somehow try and reason with a yeller. I wish you much luck in your search!

  11. EmKay*

    Never in known history has telling an upset woman to calm down resulted in her actually calming down.

    As comedienne DebraDiGiovanni said “First, I was sorta upset, but now? Now I want your blood.”

      1. aebhel*

        Yeah, someone who’s completely lost control of themselves to the point that they’re screaming invective at a subordinate for 15 minutes straight is probably not going to calm down no matter WHAT you say to them, tbh. The best you can do in that case is draw a boundary about how you’re willing to be spoken to at work, and if that boundary isn’t respected (which it probably won’t be), LEAVE.

      2. Thursday Next*

        Or a child.

        When someone’s upset, chances are they won’t respond well to being told to stop being upset. I think the best approach in most adult interactions is to remove oneself from the vicinity of the tantrum-thrower. Any words spoken should be as brief as possible: “I won’t continue this conversation while you’re yelling. We can pick this up later.”

    1. uranus wars*

      Men also don’t react very well to those words. it’s not a gender thing – it’s an upset person thing.

      1. rldk*

        But as OP alluded to, there is a particularly fraught history of men telling women to “calm down” as a condescending act/way of minimizing a legitimate reaction. No one likes being told to calm down, but women like the grandboss in this scenario are likely to have been subjected to it more than a man would have, so the reaction against it may be even stronger.

        1. Snickerdoodle*

          Exactly. Men telling women to “be reasonable” sounds like “Agree with me!” or “Stop whining!”

      2. EmKay*

        I’ve had good luck with looking them in the eye and saying “Stop. Yelling. At me.” first in a very soft tone, and then in my patented I-am-about-to-lose-my-shit-and-burn-this-house-down tone, but only with partners, and only because they were more scared of angry me than I was of angry them. I don’t see that working at work with a superior.

        1. On Fire*

          My husband’s dad is the only person who ever yelled at me. He did it once. I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Do not yell at me. Do. Not.” He stopped – and basically we don’t speak anymore at all, but that’s okay. ;-)

          1. EmKay*

            Hehe I’ll bet. Once my ex in laws were over for dinner, and the food was ready when my ex husband and I usually ate, which was WAY too late for his dad’s taste. He kept mumbling about it under his breath, but loud enough so we could all hear him, and finally I had enough and told him that’s the time we eat dinner in this house, and if he’s not happy about it, he can very well go back to his own house. Stared at me like a fish out of water. Clearly nobody had ever spoken to him that way, never mind his wife or his son, but I was 100% over his crap and I was not going to have any more of it in my own damn house.

              1. London Calling*

                Actually that was the worst part of mine. Their son I could live without but the in-laws were sweet.

                1. Paquita*

                  My coworker told me that after her second divorce she took TWO subsequent boyfriends to meet the ex in-laws. She is married again and still talks to them sometimes.

  12. Cordoba*

    I’ve had good luck with “Hey, be cool” as an alternative to “calm down”.

    Somebody may not want to calm down for whatever reason, but most people want to be cool.

    1. SierraSkiing*

      That may be less effective in a workplace setting than a social one. If I was managing someone and annoyed about a mistake, the mistake-maker telling me “hey, be cool” would move my irritation level up to Defcon 4. It sounds a little too casual and dismissive. (That said, no level of irritation justifies screaming in someone’s face.)

      1. CM*

        I agree, I would be annoyed if told to “calm down,” but furious at “be cool” because it’s like, not only is this person telling me I’m being unreasonable and emotional, they’re also not taking this seriously at all. (Also, this may be a demographic thing, but I can’t think of a single situation where I would like being told to “be cool.”)

        1. SoCalHR*

          ^^A bar fight…that’s where “be cool” works… but I agree not in a professional setting (its reminiscent of the “I thought you were cool” intern from last week)

          1. Cordoba*

            If somebody has started yelling and screaming and barking at the moon they have made it a decidedly un-professional setting already. I don’t see any reason not to pack that up and return to sender.

        2. Jaguar*

          If you were screaming, you were acting emotionally. Don’t put that on the other person with “how dare they tell me I’m being unreasonable?”

          It’s a bad strategy to tell someone to calm down when they’re off the handle, but let’s not extend that to mean that they don’t deserve to hear it.

    2. Snack Management*

      This works best if you’re George Clooney in a 1996 Robert Rodriguez movie.

      1. SpellingBee*

        Or if you’re Jules talking Honey Bunny down! “C’mon, Yolanda, what’s Fonzie like?” “He’s . . . cool?” “Correct-amundo! And that’s what we’re gonna be, we’re gonna be cool.”

        1. Cordoba*

          There’s also Keanu Reeves from Speed: “We’re just two cool guys, just hanging out”.

    3. Traffic_Spiral*

      Buddy, you tell me to ‘be cool’ and you better be Samuel L. Jackson His Own Fucking Self. Or it better be a situation where ‘hey bro, chill out,’ is acceptable. If I’m hangry because the lunch is late, yeah, ‘be cool’ is fine. But if I have a work issue I’m upset about ‘be cool’ would *not* improve things.

  13. Cait*

    The descent into personal attacks, work issues that had nothing to do with the OP and the OP feeling physically unsafe are really sticking out to me in this letter.

    OP – if you find yourself in this situation again, I would try to bring your boss into the meeting as well (not always feasible in the moment) but I would do everything I could to not be alone with this person again.

    1. aebhel*

      Yeah, that’s what stood out to me as well. I had a boss who really hated her job, and ever dressing down (she never did it to me, but it’s a small office and I overheard plenty) would digress into a lengthy rant about all of her issues with the company, how she was mistreated, conspiracies against her, etc. That’s what makes me think that her issue is really only tangentially about the OP; even if his mistake was bigger than he thought, this seems like it’s much more of a ‘I hate EVERYTHING and you’re a convenient target’ than a dressing-down–even a OTT one.

    2. OP!*

      OP here. Such good advice! “I don’t think this is a conversation that can continue with just the two of us here” is one of those things I wish I had said in the moment. Let’s hope I don’t have to put it into practice anytime soon.

      1. J.B.*

        OP, I’m sorry you are going through this. Next time don’t say anything, just walk out. Make sure that if she’s going to yell at you it is in front of witnesses.

    3. RoadsLady*

      Some years ago, I had a parent call me, furious (I’m a teacher). I had done something bad without realizing it (would have handled it differently if I had known the situation). I got screamed at for awhile, and after awhile the woman was venting to me about all the trials in her life. I barely said five words in that conversation, and it eventually ended on a very good note. I didn’t appreciate being screamed at, I don’t recommend people doing it, but after awhile I realized I just happened to be the person this lady was releasing her frustrations to. I sort of wish she had been in person so I could offer her chocolate and a box of tissues.

      1. General Ginger*

        I do some customer service as part of my job, and boy, I’ve definitely had this phone call, more than once. Though (and I’m aware that correlation may not imply causation) I’ve been getting fewer yellers now that I’m reliably gendered male on the phone.

  14. OHCFO*

    OP, is it possible your error is a bigger deal than you realize? If you’re appearing to be blind to the magnitude of the issue, and only apologizing—not owning the severity, I can see why that might enrage (totally inexcusable) big boss further.

    1. SierraSkiing*

      The “three part apology” can help calm people down: acknowledge the impact of what you did, apologize for what you did, and then say how you’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again. “I’m sorry, I understand that my mistake with the ingredients order will slow down chocolate teapot production and cost us significantly. I should have checked the order more carefully, and I’m adding double-checking the chocolate type to my checklist for finalizing requests so that this doesn’t happen again.”

    2. Bea*

      This is fair to acknowledge as well. The one time I had to remove myself from a situation was a report who shrugged off big deal mistakes. “We lose a customer when you do this.” “They’ll understand!” “No. They do not. They now can’t trust us. They found a new vendor. I spoke with them myself.” “They’re just ridiculous then.” “NO…they’re not. Whatever. If you do it again, your job is on the line.” “I said sorry, jeeeeeeez.”

      I’m twitching remembering that person. Firing them was the easiest thing I’ve done.

      1. irene adler*

        Imagine if we handled your paycheck in the same manner. For example, suppose we shorted you $100-$200 every pay period. Would you be okay with that?

    3. neverjaunty*

      Why does this matter? OP could be the scion of Clan Clueless and it wouldn’t justify or explain any of this. Becoming “enraged” in response to an employee Not Getting It about how big a mistake was – and then screaming at him for fifteen minutes – is an abnormal reaction.

      1. Augusta Sugarbean*

        If it’s out of character for this boss, it’s absolutely worth stepping back and analyzing the whole situation. We can say screaming is not acceptable *and* let’s look at what lead up to the freak out. These aren’t mutually exclusive.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Yes, we certainly can ask the workplace equivalent of “but what did you say to make him so angry?”, but perhaps we shouldn’t.

          1. Close Bracket*

            “Let’s look at what lead up to the freak out” does not have to mean “what did you say to make him so angry.”

            1. General Ginger*

              I still don’t think it matters. Yelling at one’s reports is unprofessional, and really should not be acceptable. Yeah, sure, maybe the employee did commit some kind of awful mistake, but should he be yelled at for it? Nope.

        2. AMPG*

          But that’s not the question being asked. The OP didn’t ask how to avoid mistakes in the future; he asked how to deal with being screamed at in the workplace.

    4. Indie*

      I think this is a dreadful assumption because not only is it victim blamey; it’s beside the point. Yelling and verbal abuse are inexcusable; even if you’re on the point of firing someone you’re still expected to have an above-toddler level of behaviour.

  15. There is a Life Outside the Library*

    Even if this was a one time thing, I really wish people would realize how damaging incidents like this are. It whittles away trust and respect and it can be so hard to piece it back together. Do not yell at each other! Do not use these situations to air unrelated grievances! Even if you got yelled at or embarrassed because of something your employee did! Don’t pass that BS along! Stop the cycle!

    1. irene adler*


      She should have realized she was going to react emotionally and taken a walk to settle herself before talking to the OP. No shame in that.

    2. Argh!*

      I imagine that secretly, the grandboss here did not have trust or respect for LW in the first place, and once the lid was off let it go. At least there’s no secret about what grandboss is capable of now.

  16. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    “In general, the specific words “calm down” tend not to go over well when someone is already worked up. In fact, “calm down” tends to do the opposite.”
    Can someone please explain this to my husband? Lol.

    AAM didn’t go down this path far, but I will: OP, your manager has an important action item here. OP’s manager needs to discuss this incident with the uber-boss. If I was OP’s manager, I would be trying to get to the bottom of this, because I wouldn’t want my direct report subject to this kind of treatment. I would want to handle any performance issues directly with my report, and I wouldn’t want uber-boss addressing performance issues directly with my reports.

    1. Yvette*

      OP should let her manager know what happened not only because of the reasons Alison and Mr. Bob Dobalina said (love the Monkees reference) but also because her manager will probably hear about it from other sources, and the letter writer should have an opportunity to present their case. Not too mention that the incident was precipitated by a mistake on the part of the letter writer, and I have always been a fan of owning your mistakes.

    2. Lynn Whitehat*

      I took a leadership class at work where they said that in order to get someone to trust you, you need to match their energy level. Shortly after that, my grandmother died. My flight to the funeral was cancelled. So I went to the counter to try to get on a different flight.

      My gate attendant was very reassuring. I guess you could say she matched my energy level. She pulled her boss over, “oh my God! I’ve got a bereavement fare, and her flight’s been cancelled! What can we do?” It was very reassuring that they understood what the stakes were. Meanwhile, the guy next to me was also on a can’t-miss can’t-reschedule trip of some sort, and his gate attendant did not get it at all. “Sir, sir, if you’ll just caaaaaaaaaallllllmmmmm doooowwwwwwnnnnnn…” “DON’T YOU TELL ME TO CALM DOWN!”

      1. Ralph Wiggum*

        Yeah, you need to recognize their emotions before moving on to dealing with the actual problem.

        I learned that from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (Works great on adults, too).

    3. CM*

      I’ve taught my kids that they should never use the phrases “calm down” or “no offense.”

  17. Bea*

    Nobody gets to yell at you and corner you. Don’t use the phrase “you need to calm down” but do use Alison’s wording.

    My response is to say that I’m not willing to be yelled at unless I could have killed someone or gotten killed. Then ask them if we can talk about it when the emotions have died down. If they keep screaming, walk right out and to HR to file a grievance. Again, nobody gets to yell at anyone.

  18. voyager1*

    I don’t really understand how saying calm down is any better or worse then doing what AAM suggests. Telling someone to stop yelling and leaving the room… seriously? I get you were maybe a little scared but leaving the room probably is going to go worse then “calm down.”

    I liked what somone up thread suggested, stand/sit there in silence. Silence works wonders with people like that who work themselves up silly.

    1. Manders*

      For me, what ended up working well was always bringing a pen and notebook into meetings with a volatile boss. Writing notes gave me something else to focus on when I was struggling to stay calm myself. Something about seeing me write notes down made my boss feel like I was being attentive, which calmed him down faster than anything I could have said in the moment.

      He didn’t know that all my “notes” were really my exit strategy. Every time he threw a fit, I worked on my checklist of all the things I had to do to apply for other jobs. I drafted a really killer cover letter while he was yelling at me.

      1. Argh!*

        Holding up a cell phone and pretending to make a video tends to make bad drivers behave, too.

    2. Future Homesteader*

      Hard disagree. No one should be scared at work because of the actions of another employee, ever. And the moment you’re concerned about your safety, you have every right to walk away. No rational human being should get upset with you for that (obviously the yeller might, but then, they’re not being rational), and anyone who does is part of the toxic environment.

      1. LCL*

        Well, how effective walking out is depends almost entirely on how the situation is physically configured. Obviously nobody should have to sit there and be threatened and yelled at. But I have read many times, on this blog and elsewhere, about a bully hectoring someone while standing in such a way that the victim would have to push or body check or hit the bully to get out of the room. OP was there and knows what would work best. I can see why he opted to stay and is looking for help.

    3. Ralph Wiggum*

      “leaving the room probably is going to go worse”

      OP’s boss can’t keep yelling at him is he isn’t there. It gives the boss the opportunity to calm down before resuming the conversation and is non-confrontational.

    4. rldk*

      OP said he felt threatened/in danger. No one ever needs to endure that. The grandboss’ actions were bad – no one should be screaming at work. Following Alison’s script of exiting but affirming that you are willing to talk about this without yelling is not worse or comparable. Saying calm down is worse because it’s a) unlikely to be effective and b) can be seen as an order/direction for grandboss’ behavior.

    5. voyager1*

      Oh forgot one thing. The personal attacks worries me more. You now know what your manager thinks of you. Don’t let that get in your head.

      For me that would be a bigger issue and I would see if she apologizes. If not, warm up to resume for sure.

    6. Mirve*

      The difference is between telling someone else what to do with themselves: “calm down” and what you are willing to do/have happen “I am not willing to be yelled at, cannot listen when you are yelling”.

      1. voyager1*

        That is working under the assumption that someone yelling and lobbing personal insults is going to recognize that distinction.

        1. Courageous cat*

          I mean, they probably will – they’re not five! If you make it to management chances are you have decent enough people skills that you will understand the difference enough to not freak out worse when someone calmly removes themselves from that situation.

          1. voyager1*

            I would assume they probably wouldn’t. If we are to the point of personal insults… frankly they are acting 5.

            1. SoCalHR*

              I think its more of a subconscious distinction – because there is a huge innate difference and I think the wall/rage automatically goes up when someone is told what to do (especially if they’re already mad).

              Its like the recommendation when you’re fighting with a significant other to say “I feel like you are disrespecting me when you do xyz” versus “you need to stop doing xyz”

            2. Courageous cat*

              Fair point, I agree that they are acting 5, but I dunno. It just depends on the context I guess, but if this is a one-off for this boss, then I would hope they would get the distinction. Who knows.

          2. Mad Baggins*

            In my experience it really doesn’t matter. “Calm down” vs “You’re yelling at me” don’t really make a difference whether the person is genuinely overreacting, or they’re being gaslit. Either way the result is the person is being told their emotions seem out of control.

            If I threw myself into a tizzy about the latest CW TV show and someone (male or female) told me to “calm down” or “you’re getting kind of heated” I might check myself and pause. But if I was speaking forcefully about an important topic, whether someone told me “calm down” or “I will not be yelled at” or “I can’t listen to you when you yell *walks out*”… I think I’d be incensed either way. So I’m not sure if the semantics make a difference so much as the personalities and power balance of the people involved.

        2. ket*

          That’s why you leave! It gives them some time to recognize that distinction, or notice that they’re following you out into the hall to scream at you in front of other people, which may give them a reality check.

        3. General Ginger*

          If they’re not going to recognize that distinction, then they’re probably going to read some other nonsense into OP just standing there and taking it. Every yeller in my life always thought me standing there, cowering, was an act of horrible defiance and attitude, and it made things worse for me. True, I didn’t have the power to walk out of a lot of these situations, or at least didn’t think I did, with some — but walking out would have been a thousand times emotionally better for me, and not resulted in lasting anxiety, panic, and triggers.

    7. nep*

      I think there is an enormous difference between someone saying ‘stop yelling’ (not Alison’s recommendation here) and ‘I’m not willing to be yelled at, but I’d be glad to talk with you about this later once you’re no longer yelling.’

      1. Thursday Next*

        Yep, the first is a directive to “you,” while the second is just an “I” statement: “here’s what *I* am doing in this situation.” Very important distinction.

    8. Specialk9*

      Voyager1, I am a very reasonable person. I have never hit an adult in my life (outside of sparring), I have not yelled at another human past childhood, and in arguments I keep my cool and come back later if I get upset.

      Do you know what would have me turn into the visible incarnation of Medusa, including an ominous hissing for a voice? Being told to Calm Down by a man. There would be a white light as my rage shorted my synapses.

      In short, lots of women react especially badly to this. Men too, but with its association with sexist gaslighting it’s especially bad for women. It’s like saying “you people” to a person of color.

      1. voyager1*

        I get the gender issues. But you got a person so upset that they are lobbing insults and yelling. Saying calm down vs walking out of the room. Either is going to be seen as incredibly disrespectful to the irrational person. I get some people might make a distinction one is worse then the other, but that doesn’t mean that walking out is going to have some kind of positive result and cause some kind of self reflective moment on the person doing the yelling.

        Sorry if that wasn’t clear earlier in my first comment.

        1. Le Sigh*

          I mean, you’re right, it might not go great for the OP no matter what he does. But at least one option doesn’t come with loaded, sexist baggage. Better to go with the non-sexist option and take it from there.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I disagree—walking out is not great, but it’s way better than telling the person to calm down. Walking out is letting the fire burn/spread. Telling a person to “calm down” is throwing gasoline on a low-level fire.

          1. Thursday Next*

            Yes, this. Walking out is an action that is confined to the actor, not a command issued to someone else. *I* have control over *my* body and where it is right now, and I don’t want to be yelled out.

          2. nep*

            Not only that–Saying ‘calm down’ is futile and does not serve the yellee’s purpose. In this moment it’s not about what that other person does; it’s about the yellee will and won’t accept. This is why Alison’s wording is spot on.

        3. Traffic_Spiral*

          They are very clearly different, because one is telling the other person what to do, and the other is telling the person what YOU will do. “Calm down” will get a “don’t tell me what to do” response. “I won’t continue this conversation if you yell,” and then leaving doesn’t tell them what to do. It simply establishes what their choices are. Then they can sit in an empty room and fume “how dare they not let me yell at them” until they realize how bad that sounds.

    9. mf*

      No–sitting in silence without responding tells the verbal abusive person that you’re willing to endure their tirade. It tells them they can act this way without direct repercussions from you.

      But getting up and leaving in a polite/professional tells them you won’t tolerate this kind of treatment.

    10. Le Sigh*

      Nope, sorry. I’ve absorbed some pretty crappy stuff in the workplace, including yelling, but I’m over it at this point. I’m not the OP, but it’s not professional in the least and what the OP describes is ridiculous.Someone being my boss does not entitle them to hurl personal character insults and scream like a child (because really, come on, this is some childish nonsense) or require me to absorb it. I’m here to do a job, not be someone’s sponge for abuse.

      The day in my late 20s I told my screaming, in-my-face grandboss and his obnoxious cohort (who were in their effing 50s and yelling at me for something my boss did, not something I did) to get out of my office was a good day for me.

      1. So very anon today*

        I dealt not with an abusive boss, but a family situation blown all out of proportion in a similar way, many years ago:
        Timid younger me was in the hospital for a while , and my very invasive controlling parents and siblings were “visiting” me, giving me a fairly hard time. Basically, they defined I brought everything in my life (including said hospital stay) on myself, and ordered me to move back home ASAP. (I had just escaped them a few years before.)

        In walks my then (fairly crappy) boyfriend.
        Immediately a huge fight at my bed ensues while I am lying there in pain, each side telling the other to get out, physical harm threatened etc. Things get ugly.
        The doctor comes in, wondering about the uproar.
        Family turns to me, ordering me to tell the doctor to throw boyfriend out!
        Boyfriend splutters incoherently, basically orders me the same.

        I was so over the entire brouhaha and *everybody* present that in a haze of pain and upset I suddenly grew a spine, and asked the doctor to officially have *all persons present, yes, ALL of them* immediately removed!
        This was implemented in shocked silence.

        I never felt so good, and commenced to heal in various different ways. :-)

    11. OP!*

      Hi, OP here. I think I agree with you on one thing, and that’s that leaving the room didn’t seem like the best option at the time — rather, taking that option seemed like something I couldn’t walk away from, so to speak. I wasn’t locked in the room or physically barred from exiting, like some people are wondering, but I knew that turning on my heel and walking away from my boss in the middle of this “conversation” would’ve meant I was quitting the job, or opening myself right up to immediate termination, and I wasn’t ready, or emotionally in the right place, to make that decision. It’s like every bad breakup fight ever — “If you walk out of here right now, don’t you dare show your face here ever again!”

      As I said in another comment thread, standing in silence — while it was my default, shocked response — didn’t work for me, as Boss took my silence as me “giving her attitude” and added it to her litany of grievances.

      1. voyager1*

        If silence was seen by here as giving her attitude, anything you said would have gotten you into more trouble. Walking out would have been probably a job loss. You need to get out of there, start applying for every job you can find. Your boss is a ticking bomb.

      2. Close Bracket*

        “leaving the room didn’t seem like the best option at the time”

        Getting up and leaving with no explanation isn’t the best option. Prefacing it with, “I’m not going to be yelled at; let’s revisit the conversation at a later time,” doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s a fair tactic. It sounds like something snapped in her and nothing you would have done would have gone over well, though.

      3. Mad Baggins*

        Honestly, OP, I think we can all sit here and give you a thousand options for how to respond in the best possible way with no negative connotations, but at the end of the day there is nothing you can do or could have done to get her to stop. There is no magic combination of words and actions that would have gotten her to change her reaction. As you saw, sitting in silence=giving her attitude. If you talked back=even more attitude. Ultimately there’s nothing you can do to change an unreasonable person into a reasonable one–you just need to get out of there (the job).

      4. Bagpuss*

        This is really tricky.

        I think that saying something like “I need to step away right now now, because I can’t deal with being yelled at. I’m happy to discuss this later and to address your concerns”

        Now, 4 weeks later, i would still consider raising it, perhaps ask to met with your boss and their boss, and at that meeting, explain what happened, and that it caused you to feel physically threatened and unsafe,. Explain that you would like to get back to having a positive working relationship with boss and (as appropriate) that you recognise that you did make a mistake and that it was not inappropriate for your boss to address that with you and/or discipline you, but that you feel that the way she behaved to you was inappropriate even given that context.

    12. Elaine*

      I don’t know why, but telling an angry/upset person to calm down is pretty much guaranteed to set off an explosion. Calmly saying you won’t be yelled at and removing yourself from the situation if you can might also set off an explosion. But it might not. You have a better chance of an acceptable outcome by leaving than by saying the words “calm down.” Generally I think it works better to say something about yourself (I won’t be yelled at) rather than telling the other person what to do (calm down, take a deep breath, control yourself, etc.).

    13. aebhel*

      It’s not about whether or not leaving is going to make them calm down. It’s about the fact that a person does not have a professional obligation to stand there and be verbally abused, and they are perfectly entitled to walk away if someone is treating them like that.

  19. seller of teapots*

    I once had a boss yell at me (multiple times) over the phone. I was remote, so that made the situation a little easier on my end. When he would raise his voice, I would calmly and persistently say, “I’m not comfortable with your tone of voice right now. There’s no reason to be talking to me in this fashion, and I need you to lower your voice.” I basically refused to discuss the issue at hand (in this case, the mistake you made) until he returned to a reasonable state.

    I also brought the issue to HR, where they unsatisfactorily “mediated,” and then I got a new job and quit a month later. So also i recommend quitting! haha

    1. Cordoba*

      It would have been very tempting to say something about “driving into a tunnel, probably going to lose you” every time he started yelling.

    2. CMart*

      This was essentially how we were instructed to deal with abusively angry customers at the upscale restaurant I worked at.

      “I’m very uncomfortable with how you’re speaking to me right now, and I’d like to ask you to lower your voice/not use that language. I can’t help you if we continue like this.”

      Of course, we had the luxury of then wandering away to find a manager and foisting that person off on someone with a higher pay grade, but it was pretty effective in at least stopping the yelling a majority of the time.

    3. Mallory Janis Ian*

      I had a boss who wore all her emotions on her sleeve with all her employees. She would casually drop snippy, snide insults into conversations about work projects, yell at people, have days-long grumpy sulks, etc. So after a few months of this, I started looking at the job ads at the university where I’d previously worked, and I had three or four positions in mind to perhaps apply to.

      She eventually called me into a conference room and started snipping at me about a project. I tried to answer her questions, but she was only interested in verbally jabbing a someone but not in hearing any conversation back. She started yelling at me, and right in the middle of her tirade I realized that I was, indeed, going to apply for those campus jobs. As soon as that thought entered my mind, I SMILED! She was yelling, and I was standing there, gazing into the distance, and smiling. She stopped yelling and started asking me, “What’s that look on your face, Mallory? What’s that look?!”

      I applied for four campus jobs and started one within a month of the yelling incident.

    4. London Calling*

      In my very first job, waaaaayyy back in the last century, grandboss gave us permission to tell abusive customers that we were going to put the phone down right now, and actually do it. Give them time to cool down, she said. At 21 and fresh out of university that was a bit of a step for me, but it worked.

  20. Plague of frogs*

    A coworker screamed at me for ten minutes on the phone once, and then calmed down and said he would do exactly what I wanted him to do (the thing that was making him scream). Sometimes it can be good to let these people get it out of their system, and then leverage their guilt afterward.

  21. Zes*

    Just for fun, let’s imagine the genders were reversed here. If a male boss’s boss brought a female employee into his office and screamed at her for upwards of 15 minutes — to the point where she “began to feel physically unsafe” — I imagine she’d be advised to go directly to HR, the result of which would be the boss’ loss of employment.

    I’m not saying that’s what should happen in this case, but why do we look at things so differently when it’s a female boss and a male employee? Not only did the male employee feel he needed to accept this bullying treatment, it sounds as if he actually was worried that he would offend his female boss by complaining about it. Frankly, I’m surprised that Ms. Green didn’t look address the situation from this perspective. Coddling a female manager by being overly concerned about her emotions, even when she’s behaving abominably, certainly isn’t going to help the cause of achieving equality in the workplace.

    1. There is a Life Outside the Library*

      Uh, if every (male) could get fired for yelling at women there would be no male faculty at universities.

        1. There is a Life Outside the Library*

          Not strictly, but Yelling Male Geniuses of the Academy Who are Tolerated Till Their Retirement or Death are a thing.

          1. HereKittyKitty*

            It took 3 Title IX complaints and an outside FOI request from a journalist that spooked the university to get our Yelling Male Genius out. Over the course of about 20 years.

          2. my two cents*

            Same goes for Old White Guy in the Power Industry Who Can’t Even Insert Pics into PowerPoint.

        2. Polymer Phil*

          Yes, it definitely is. I don’t think it’s a gendered thing – woman professors can be equally sadistic, and grad students of both genders are targets of abuse, yelling, etc. In my first industry job after grad school, my (female) boss tended to fly into rages and scream at subordinates, and I saw absolutely nothing wrong with this because I had grown accustomed to the sick, twisted environment of academia.

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          In my experience, it’s an entitled, slightly more powerful older man (often non-minority) thing. Sometimes women do it, too, but it’s more about the power dynamic and privilege regardless of setting, IME.

      1. Cat Herder*

        Well, that’s just not true. Maybe you are exaggerating for effect, but I don;t think this is a good place to do that.
        Plenty of male faculty never yell at anybody.

          1. General Ginger*

            I’ve both been yelled at by female professors/teachers, and had male professors who were perfectly even-tempered, but frankly, the number of male educators who felt completely comfortable yelling at their students on a routine basis outnumbers both of them by an incredible margin.

        1. There is a Life Outside the Library*

          I haven’t left it yet, but it was part of why I left my last job. I’m pretty sure any day now I will see a news report that he punched someone and gets to keep his job still.

    2. Jessie the First (or second)*

      AAM rarely recommends going right to HR. That’s not often the very first step of any work place issue. Unless I am mistaken in my memory, she often recommends going to a manager first. That’s not “coddling,” that’s looping in a manager to get more info and flag a problem, and is pretty consistent with her advice generally.

      (And, uh, where is it that if genders are reversed HR takes swift action and boss loses his job? Because in my 20 years of work experience, while anecdotal and not data, “male boss behaves inappropriately and female subordinate goes to HR and so male boss loses his job” is just not how it plays out)

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        It’s far more likely that it’s “male boss behaves inappropriately and female subordinate goes to HR and so FEMALE SUBORDINATE loses HER job [for some bullshit made up reason].”

      2. JamieS*

        True HR is rarely the first step in Alison’s but based on past letters I agree the answer would’ve had a much different tone .

        I simply can’t imagine this post:

        OP: I’m a woman and today my male grandboss, Bob, yelled at me for 15 minutes to the point I felt unsafe.

        Alison: tell your direct manager about it because she might have some insight. Maybe you’ll hear Bob was just having a bad day.

        1. Jessie the First (or second)*

          That misrepresents Alison’s response to this letter pretty drastically. She didn’t use the word “insight” to suggest OP needed to calm down about it – she used the word insight in relation to holy cow this is so terribly wrong, it is abuse, you do not need to stand for it, you need to get a sense whether this is likely to happen again and talk to your manager.

          If you are going to argue that Alison doesn’t respond fairly to male letter writers, don’t misrepresent or distort the answers. It wrecks your argument.

          1. JamieS*

            No it doesn’t misrepresent anything. Also I didn’t say she didn’t respond fairly to the OP, I said the letter would’ve had a different tone if the genders were reversed.

            1. Kate*

              Impartial third party piping up to say: yes, you misrepresented AAM’s advice, and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. She was suggesting the OP talk to his manager as a next step to get more context, which he can factor into his decision making around this boss and this job going forward. Your synopsis absolutely minimized her thoughtful answer. Don’t be surprised when people object.

              1. JamieS*

                No I did not.

                Given that, I’d talk to your direct manager, explain her boss screamed at you and that you were too shocked to address it in the moment, and ask if she has any insight into what happened. It’s possible that you’ll hear “yeah, this isn’t uncommon for her” or “she’s under a huge amount of stress and she told me later she was embarrassed” or who knows what. But your boss should know that this happened, and it’s possible she’ll have more insight for you. And you need that, because right now you’re working around someone who behaved in such an out-of-line, volatile way that it’s hard to imagine just continuing to work as if everything’s normal

                That paragraph wouldn’t have been put in if the genders were reversed, mentioned multiple times the need for insight into her behavior (read: find excuses for), and the take away from it was “see if your manager has more insight to make her behavior not seem as bad.”

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  As the person who actually wrote the paragraph (and does think you’re misrepresenting me), I can tell you my advice would be the same if the genders were reversed: talk to your direct manager about what happened and see if she hasn’t any idea what this was about, because you need to figure out what this is all about (pattern or one-time aberration) before anyone can move forward.

    3. rldk*

      I don’t think this the suggested remedy is coddling at all. The OP is being aware of the fraught history of men telling women to calm down, and Alison is reaffirming that no matter who is doing it, screaming in the office is not okay. Her advice helps exit the situation without escalating in the moment, and she urges OP to seek out another opinion from his direct manager. It’s just like every other bit of advice she gives, where she advises trying to resolve it with a coworker/manager before going to HR.

    4. CMart*

      I think we look at things differently because as the OP astutely recognizes there are much larger social factors at play. Regardless of whether or not it’s merited, “calm down, you’re getting too emotional about this” is a weapon that has been leveled against women for attempting to exercise autonomy and agency for a very, very long time.

      Men don’t routinely get fired for yelling at their female subordinates. Sometimes? Maybe? In a rare turn of a company taking abusive behavior seriously? Perhaps, but not as a matter of course. Often because the women getting yelled at in a physically unsafe way also do not feel safe (job-wise) making a fuss about it. There’s the worry of looking ‘weak’, of like you can’t hack it. The worry of making waves and being hard to work with and ultimately passed over or made redundant because you couldn’t just go with the flow.

      This is a very charged dynamic–the yelling and the being yelled at, and the hierarchical differences and social gendered difference all matter when dealing with reality. It’s all well and good to want to blaze ahead and treat every situation in a black and white way (yelling = bad, therefore boss = bad and justice shall be served), but the actual situation has all the ugly gray reality and history mixed in.

      1. Thursday Next*

        I thought OP had really great instincts to avoid saying something inflammatory, and shows great awareness in bringing up gender as a context in which to consider his situation.

    5. nom de plume*

      This is such a strawman argument. You seem to be trying to be inflammatory with the tired “let’s reverse the sexes” tactic. The response Alison gave is in no way “coddling,” but your response characterizing women as “emotional” and needing to be coddled certainly does reveal your bad faith argument and underlying sexism.

      TL;DR: it’s transparent, just stop.

    6. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      I don’t think the gender roles matter in this one, and what’s important is that OP’s manager deals proactively with this issue. OP’s manager needs to draw the line with uber-boss and make it clear that this was inappropriate. If this happened with my direct report, I would be all over it, protecting my direct report, setting expectations with my boss and generally trying to make sure my boss never treated my direct report that way again.

    7. RVA Cat*

      The physical safety part isn’t necessarily gendered, especially if this was in the US where there’s non-zero chance Angry Boss has a firearm.

    8. Plague of frogs*

      You think the male boss would immediately lose his job? For what, exactly?

      If you refer to my comment directly above yours, I gave a nice story of being screamed at at length by a male (I’m female) when I hadn’t even made a mistake. No HR visits or job loss ensued.

    9. Cordoba*

      Eh, on average I’d be more concerned by an out-of-control yelling male boss than a female one once it crossed into the realm of “genuine physical safety concern”.

      In the absence of further clarifying details the level of physical hazard isn’t the same across the overall population, even allowing for the likely existence of thousands of Ronda Rousey type exceptions.

      I saw a female yelling at a male in a out-of-control way I wouldn’t be too concerned about his safety because even if she hit him it would be unlikely to cause a serious injury. If the genders were reversed I’d be much more concerned, because if he snaps she’s more likely to get seriously hurt.

      1. Specialk9*

        I know where you’re going here, but people saying this kind of thing is why female on male abusers get away with it. There’s this terrible stigma.

        But also, it’s this bizarre idea that CROWS can use tools but WOMEN somehow can’t. I guarantee you that if I were determined to commit violence, I would be capable of finding a tool to enable it, despite my body being equipped with a vagina.

        For example, my ex’s mother knocked him unconscious as a young teen, with a frying pan to the head, despite his superior height and weight. She did that because she was a violent abuser.

        1. Cordoba*

          That is all true.

          I still contend that “what is the apparent size and strength of angry person” is a valid consideration when determining “what is the degree to which I should consider angry person to be a threat to somebody’s physical safety”.

      2. Ralph Wiggum*

        “I saw a female yelling at a male in a out-of-control way I wouldn’t be too concerned about his safety because even if she hit him it would be unlikely to cause a serious injury.”

        Wow. This is seriously out of line.

      3. CM*

        Hard disagree. If a person is willing to physically injure somebody else, it doesn’t matter how large they are. It’s not like a boxing match, where both people are prepared to fight and the larger person has an advantage. I, a small woman, could very seriously injure somebody in my office if I wanted to, even a large and strong man.

        1. Alton*

          Yeah, I think looking at it just in terms of relative physical strength is an oversimplification. Psychology and power dynamics play a huge role–the willingness of the abused party to fight back, the confidence of the abuser that they can get away with violence, etc. When women physically assault men, I think the perception that men are stronger and shouldn’t hit women can make the victim less likely to fight back and the assailant more comfortable lashing out (because a woman hitting a man isn’t seen as a big deal).

          I don’t find physically “weaker” people less threatening at all. People are as dangerous as their willingness or inclination toward violence.

      4. OP!*

        OP here. Cordoba, these are sort of strange things to be saying here. “Even if she hit him”? Nobody should be hitting anybody, if you ask me, and the fact that we’re even discussing this with regards to a boss/subordinate relationship should be a big red flag.

        All I’ll add is that at a certain point while she was yelling, she took a step toward me and I reflexively looked up at the security camera in the room and thought Well at least when she slaps me it’ll be on camera. That’s all it takes to feel unsafe. Nobody should be made to feel that way at work, regardless of what the gender dynamic is.

        1. AMPG*

          You’re totally right, OP. The fact that you genuinely thought she might hit you in this interaction is a really scary thing, and brings it to an entirely new level of unacceptable. I would let your own manager know about that aspect of it, to underscore how inappropriate she was being.

        2. aebhel*

          Yeah. ‘I feel unsafe’ doesn’t have to mean ‘I think my boss might beat me to death here and now’. If you think that your boss might hit you, that’s feeling unsafe.

          I mean, I’ve done martial arts, I know how to take a punch and how to fall correctly; I’m also a fairly large woman (taller than all but one of the men in my workplace). I could probably win a fistfight with most of them, if it came down to it. That doesn’t make it okay for my boss to clock me.

          I’m so sorry you had to deal with this.

      5. JamieS*

        I somewhat agree on the level of threat to my own safety I’d most likely feel if a woman directly threatened me vs if a man did. However I don’t think that matters. The behavior is still inappropriate regardless of the level of threat the person who’s being targeted personally feels. Even if I wouldn’t personally feel unsafe if my boss threatened to punch me I’d still expect her to at least be written up if not fired for even making the threat.

        Further, I don’t think I can dictate to others how they should feel based on how I think I’d feel in a similar situation. Especially since I’ve never been in a situation where I thought my boss or grandboss would become violent. Also, while I know this probably isn’t the most PC thing to say, I think if push came to shove I’d feel empowered to physically fight back against another woman (even my boss) while many men plausibly wouldn’t.

    10. Database Developer Dude*

      Still, the point remains. Perhaps the male was afraid that complaining would make things worse.

    11. McWhadden*

      ” I imagine she’d be advised to go directly to HR, the result of which would be the boss’ loss of employment.”

      Find examples where Allison has had this as the very first piece of advice or don’t go around making baseless accusations.

      1. Eliza*

        Also, OP has mentioned further up that the boss in this case is the owner of the company, so there’s nobody who can fire her.

    12. Hrovitnir*

      I love that every single reply on here has called the boss’ behaviour abhorrent, Alison (rightly) called it abusive, but someone still had to come in here and say “if the genders were reversed [the response would have been harsher]”. Mmm.

  22. EB*

    I agree with Alison that you’ll want to get out of the room and get the message across that you’re not okay with being yelled at. I say this from experience because I’ve tried waiting it out and got in even more trouble for “smirking” during a “conversation” that was more like a one-way yelling session– I could barely get a word in. I definitely did not smile intentionally, it’s sort of a nervous habit that I have that I wasn’t aware of until that moment. So I would not assume that waiting it out will diffuse the situation.

    1. Courageous cat*

      Hahaha, I have been chastised for that exact thing, by bosses *and* ex-boyfriends. Apparently my face contorts into a smile when I’m in trouble or being yelled at/scolded. I have to be consciously aware of my face during those situations now. I think it was probably always more of a grimace, but who knows.

      1. Snickerdoodle*

        LOL, you KNOW it was a grimace and they were gaslighting you on top of being verbally abusive.

        1. Specialk9*

          It was actually probably a smile. A smile that for most neurotypical people gets decoded as tense/ nervous/ uncomfortable. Most people do smile when uncomfortable, for some reason, but we also learn to decode smiles for that reason, unless we have motivation to misinterpret. (Eg ‘I wanted to, and she was smiling so she must have liked it’, or an abuser choosing to be enraged within specific situations.)

          1. Snickerdoodle*

            Ah, yes, I was thinking “abuser choosing to be enraged” because I’ve seen that a lot. I’ve had a couple of different exes yell at me, act confused when I left, deny that they heard me telling them I would leave if the yelling continued, etc. The first one once claimed I “looked gleeful” when I was actually awkward and embarrassed about something or other. The second one, I’ve noticed, conveniently omits the screaming when telling the story of our breakup.

        2. Courageous cat*

          I wonder that! I genuinely don’t think I was smiling but I’ve heard it so often that I’m honestly not sure. Now I just focus on keeping my mouth corners downturned, haha.

      2. DogTrainer*

        Look up pictures of the “submissive grin” on dogs. Sounds like a similar biological phenomenon!

    2. Who the eff is Hank?*

      I have the habit of smiling or laughing in tense, uncomfortable situations. I have no idea why I do it and can’t control it! My last boss was a yeller and I definitely got the full extent of her wrath when I let out a small laugh during one of her tirades.

    3. Specialk9*

      There are lots of kinds of smiles, and the unhappy/scared smile does look like a smirk.

      A 1924 experimenter made subjects do and see upsetting things in his lab. “Even during the most violent tasks, the most common reaction wasn’t to cry or rage – it was to smile. He wrote: “So far as this experiment goes I have found no expression other than a smile, which was present in enough photographs to be considered as typical of any situation.””

      1. FaintlyMacabre*

        So fascinating! When my ex would rail at me and I wouldn’t say anything, it really pissed him off. I wonder if I had an uncomfortable smirk going, because he sometimes accused me of thinking I was so superior. (Instead of, you know, being super unhappy and wondering why the dude who supposedly loved me was going off on me about how I made coffee.)

  23. CMart*

    One of the co-owners of the business my husband works for acts like OP’s yelling boss constantly (getting far more heated, loud, and outright yelling about minor things than they merit, and once the initial topic has been thoroughly yelled about changes to berating him for his various personal/professional failings). For him, it’s something he’s had to learn to live with given that he otherwise likes his job.

    The interesting/complicating factor for him is that my husband’s yelling boss is adamant that she’s NOT yelling, has never yelled, and is only offering her thoughts and opinions about how things could improve. It’s such a small business (the two co-owners are spouses, husband is the only FT employee) that there’s unfortunately no one to coach her on less-yelly ways of communicating her thoughts. Hopefully if this wasn’t a one-off situation and it continues, OP works somewhere with more of a structure that his boss’ boss can get some coaching.

    Otherwise, if it’s something he decides he wants to live with, he can cope like my husband does: insisting to himself that she’s just “kindly sharing her thoughts, in a very loud and angry-sounding voice. She’s actually perfectly calm right now” and gritting his teeth through until the ‘sorry I got so intense’ part.

    1. Lynn Whitehat*

      Typical. Yellers always deny it. Never engage with the idea that regardless of what you want to call it, it’s clearly counter-productive unless your goal is just to scare the crap out of people. Because that’s what they want, but they don’t want to admit it.

  24. Fiona*

    It’s so hard to know what to do in the moment, but now you know what to do the next time (and there will probably be a next time…) this happens.

    In my prior job, I really regret not standing up for myself in a moment like this. I was working with a film editor (I was the assistant editor) and he slammed down on the table and started screaming about some music or graphics or something. I was not the target of the yelling and it probably lasted 30 seconds, but I was really startled by it. I wish I could have stood up and just said, “I’ll come back later” or something to indicate that it wasn’t okay. But I just sat there, frozen. Unless you literally work in a medical emergency room, there’s just never a reason to be screaming in the workplace. There just isn’t.

    1. SierraSkiing*

      And even in a medical emergency room, there still isn’t a good reason to scream in the workplace. In patient safety studies, they’ve found surgical teams with higher rates of conflict have worse outcomes, and more cooperative interactions produce better results. (I can’t find the paper I saw that said that… I think it was an article in Science?)

        1. Fiona*

          Ha, I meant more like screaming volume-wise as opposed to in anger. But this is fully based in watching TV and not in real life. (e.g. “someone get him a blood transfusion, stat!!!”)

  25. Bones*

    My first boss out of college was a screamer, and would do so frequently. I really wish I’d had to courage to tell him he doesn’t get to treat me that way. It’s left scars I can still feel several jobs later.

    1. Bagpuss*

      Yes, I had a boss who was like this, early in my career. He only actually yelled at me one, I hadn’t seem him like that before and said the first thing that came into my head which was “You seem very upset, can we talk about this later when you are feeling calmer?” which actually made him stop (I later realised that this was because I hadn’t followed the script. What he wanted was for me to lose my temper and yell back, and then it would have been *my* fault for yelling at the boss)
      He didn’t yell at me again because, I think, he hadn’t got the reaction he wanted, but I saw it play out with other people in our (very small) office, and he was toxic in a lot of other ways that left me with a load of scars about workplace norms. I wish I had left much sooner than I did, but it was my 2nd job out of university (and in a very difficult job market for my field)

  26. nep*

    I really like this phrasing–“I’m not willing to be yelled at, but I’d be glad to talk with you about this later once you’re no longer yelling.”
    Says what must be said, plainly and forcefully.

  27. Budgie lover*

    Yikes. This is not a problem of calm of not calm. This is an abuse problem. Lots of people get worked up for a variety of reasons without screaming and hurling insults at their employees. No amount upset justifies that.

  28. Anon attorney*

    “I’m sorry about the mistake, and I’m willing to discuss how we can resolve this and what you need me to do to make things right, but I’m not prepared to be shouted at. If it’s not possible to discuss this right now, I’ll come back in X minutes so we can pick up from there.”

    I think your instinct not to tell her to calm down was correct, but I also don’t think that what you needed to convey was “calm down” anyway – it was “I will not tolerate this” which is different. She can calm down or she can continue to yell, but the point is that you will only discuss the error civilly. I don’t even think it matters how bad the error was, in this framing. It’s about your boundaries.

    I would not work somewhere I was verbally abused in this manner, personally.

  29. Courageous cat*

    I agree with Alison’s response. My personal go-to, at least with the bosses I’ve had, would probably be something a little bit like, “I will be happy to talk about this calmly and professionally, so I’d rather regroup later when you’re ready to do that.”

    And if there’s any tone, then, well… it’s kinda warranted. You have to know your boss, though.

  30. Jenny*

    Time to leave.

    I had this happen to me. I tuned the conversation out, which seemed to make my colleague more irate (and she held it over me in future conversations: “I told you that time…”). I was not the only person that had been yelled at by this individual, so I went straight to her boss (2 above me) and HR, who pretty much said they could do nothing. This was at a university–she had tenure, I did not, so her bullying was constantly pushed under a rug.

    Ultimately, I left what I can now see was a very toxic workplace. Academia and tenure can make a little toxicity endemic.

  31. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    “Calm down” is pretty dismissive and demanding and makes the yeller feel that they are being ignored — so they yell louder to be heard and taken seriously.

    I try to stick to “I” statements during a conflict. This really depends on your situation and you have a better read of the immediate environment and potential for retaliation, but I would immediately state, “I don’t feel safe right now. I want to bring in (other manager, security, HR rep, another coworker, someone close by) to finish this conversation.” I think stating that you don’t feel safe and invoking a third party can shock a generally reasonable person out of their lapse in judgement. It also doesn’t have quite the same air of insubordination as just walking out and stating you want to reschedule this conversation to a later time. Note: this will not work for someone who is really a bully or a threat because that is exactly what they want you to feel — unsafe and alone.

    Also, if you have a good HR, there should be a way to ask that the boss be given conflict resolution training after the fact. It doesn’t matter why she lost control, only that she needs to learn strategies for not losing it in the future.

    1. Argh!*

      Some disrespectful people don’t respond well to “I” statements, because if they cared about other people they wouldn’t be yelling in the first place. Sometimes an impersonal “This is getting heated, can we come back to it later?” will take the onus off both the bully (in your mind) and the pussy (in the bully’s mind).

      1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

        Not all people who yell are bullies. People sometimes don’t know how to express themselves well and frustration can manifest in all sorts of ways — like bursting into tears, or raising their voices, or avoiding any conversation. It’s not that they either don’t care or that they want to hurt the other person — just that they lack emotional skills. Skills can be taught. With those people, using “I” statements and bringing in a third party to act as a buffer can go a long way to resolve the situation.

        Someone who intimidates and degrades another person and doesn’t care if they harm the other person is a bully — especially if they think their target is a “pussy” as you stated. That is why I noted that it wouldn’t work with a bully. Taking out the “I” and using the impersonal “this is getting heated…” won’t work either. A bully certainly won’t be deterred by asking permission to come back later. Why would they give up their power like that?

  32. JSPA*

    If I may play devil’s advocate; I know we don’t question the questioners, and if someone is subjectively scared, then they were scared, and that’s never good.

    That said, it’s pretty well demonstrated that, in the context of an intense and direct conversation, people with higher-pitched voices (regardless of gender) are penalized for getting louder, when a similar increase in volume, at a lower pitch, is not perceived as being out-of-control or scary. Furthermore, though that time may be passing, there certainly has been a period where any woman in a superior position who loses her cool, suffers disproportionate consequences, as far as being perceived as supportive, trustworthy, etc.

    Ideally, if we make space for men to get “intense” and “negative” and “forceful” in speech, we need to give women the same space. Even if their voices (which start out higher) may become uncomfortable-sounding sooner. Alternatively, we could stop cutting men slack for loud argument or verbal-dressing-down. (I’ve heard, “he really tore me a new one over the Johnson fiasco, but we’re good now” or “the boss reamed Jim up and down over his conduct at the convention” often enough.)

    Again, not saying that the grandboss here was justified!

    But let’s consider what a harsh dressing-down sounds like, depending whether it’s dropped an octave or raised an octave. As to time, and as to getting personal…Fifteen minutes may not be at all excessive for a harsh dressing-down. Especially if a mistake comes in some wider context. And “getting personal” can include, “you’ve been careless about these issues since you started here, and I’m done accepting excuses and facile apologies.” That’s entirely different from, “you have no sense of style, everybody hates you, and the world would be better if you stuck your head in the toilet and flushed.”

    Finally, it seems like a lot of people are speaking in favor of firing, for any offense severe enough to warrant a major dressing down. Am I entirely alone in feeling that I’d rather have a harsh correction–a heads-up that my attitude, my perceptions of the job, my perceptions of my overall work quality and reliability, and my appreciation of the seriousness of my mistakes are way out of whack…and that I need to stop screwing up and then apologizing and start fixing the underlying issues, right now–rather than being fired on the spot? This point is withdrawn if the chewing out is followed by firing. But if the raking over the coals is by way of a chance to save one’s job, that’s actually a kindness. At least, if other attempts to clue the rakee in to their tenuous status have failed. (Again, this is something that OP can’t, by defintion, know; someone who’s been blind to guidance doesn’t know that’s what’s been happening.)

    After all, minus context, we don’t know if GrandBoss has been wanting to fire OP for a while, and Boss has been smoothing things over; if GrandBoss is always a tyrant, and Boss has been mediating; or if this is some totally random event.

    Boss should be able to clarify, at which point, OP can decide if GB is evil, or if he wants to make some needed correction, or what.

    1. Cedrus Libani*

      You can dress someone down for a major screw-up without resorting to personal insults, though.

      Even good people have bad days, or lapses in judgement. Or they wind up in jobs that they really aren’t suited for. A good boss might have to say “this is unacceptable, and if it happens again you will be fired” – but a professional adult should know where the line is, and not get into “what kind of an idiot would do that” territory.

      1. Amethystmoon*

        I agree. And you can give people negative feedback without making them cry. It is indeed possible.

    2. Hrovitnir*

      I’d prefer that we gave men less room to be “intense” or “forceful”, not vice-versa, when we’re talking about yelling at someone for 15 minutes. Or anything remotely resembling it.

      You’re probably not alone that you’d rather have a “harsh correction” than be fired on the spot, but to me there is absolutely never, ever a justification to scream at someone (I’m going to trust the use of this word despite your not-invalid point about how women’s voice’s are often read more harshly) or attack their character at work. It’s not OK.

      Personally, I’d rather have a damn adult discussion, a serious and uncomfortable one, about what needs to change. Yelling at me will absolutely in no way whatsoever underline your point, but it will make me lose respect for you.

      1. JSPA*

        Totally agree.

        But we also give love to people who write in to say something like,

        “my report has a report of their own who makes many small mistakes, seemingly without noticing; she either fails to correct him, or corrects him so gently that he misses the message. Yesterday, he made a significantly larger mistake. I first tried to coach my report on how to deal with it. I was getting increasingly frustrated by her probably correct assessment that he has a skill set that we can’t do without, and that we would have a hard time firing him and replacing him, and her general unwillingness to apply the necessary feedback and corrections. I therefore (unwisely, given my level of irritation) called him in and read him the riot act. Instead of accepting the magnitude of his mistake, agreeing with my assessment that this mistake was part of a problematic pattern, and my feedback that he’d been failing to notice and respond to corrections from my report / his boss, he interrupted me with constant yet vague apologies, argued with me about the magnitude of the current mistake, and about the existence of a pattern. I kept escalating my language, volume and tone, trying to drive home the point that this wasn’t a one-off, and that “humans make mistakes, I’m human” didn’t give me confidence in his attitude nor his approach. By the end of 15 minutes I was red-faced, high-pitched and breathing hard. He looked completely befuddled, distressed, angry and even fearful. I am unsure whether the substance of my comments ever reached him. How do I walk back my tone, without weakening (or, while strengthening) the substance of my comments?”

        And we’d probably tell her to send an email saying something like, a) she apologizes entirely for allowing the tone of her feedback to become heated b) she hopes that the tone of her feedback did not prevent the grand-report from hearing that there were important issues (both short-term and longer-term) and that c) they would need to meet, along with the intermediate boss, to work productively on a plan to make sure that the grand-report can better self-assess his work, understand what the direct boss means when she comments on his work, and set up a self-check strategy to prevent larger errors from ever happening again. And finally, that d), rather than branding a person as (e.g.) “careless,” she will, moving forward, focus on the character and qualities of the work, rather than the character and qualities of the person. That is, they will have a shared goal of preventing “careless work” or “incompletely revised work” or “work that does not consistently meet our six sigma standard” (or whatever the goalpost is).

        The OP may be able to do this work for his grandboss (not that he should have to, but if he wants the job, he may be able to help clear the air). Basically, by dealing with these same issues.
        1. If there is a pattern of problems that he’s unaware of, or if he’s been missing the substance of gentle directives from his direct boss, he’d like to know about that.
        2. If there are additional self-check procedures he should be doing, he’d like to have that made part of his duties (so that he’s not self-assigning levels of cross-checking that are an inappropriate use of his time).
        3. If there are specific areas where mistakes are unusually costly, in ways that are invisible to him, he’d appreciate a heads-up, so that he can re-check those in particular
        4. He takes these issues very seriously.
        5. Because he does in fact take these issues seriously, and is fully committed to doing whatever it takes to produce work that’s at or above the standard, he would appreciate if further feedback focuses exclusively on the quality of the work, rather than personal characterizations / discussions of his patterns and habits / whatever else came up in the discussion.

    3. aebhel*

      Frankly, as a woman, I would really rather we stop giving so much benefit of the doubt to women who behave in outrageous or verbally abusive ways. What the OP describes is not intense, negative, or forceful; what he describes is personal attacks and unrelated ranting. I see no reason not to take him at his word, and assuming that we do that, the boss’s behavior here is completely unacceptable.

      And if your ‘guidance’ is so subtle that you have to scream at someone for 15 minutes for them to get that they have a problem, then you thoroughly fail at giving feedback.

  33. Database Developer Dude*

    In a previous job, I witnessed this exchange:

    Boss: “You @#$@#$ idiot, I ought to come across this table and slap the @#$@#$@# out of you”.
    Employee: “By threatening physical violence against me, you’ve made me feel not safe. Do you really want me to escalate this encounter?”.

    That took the wind COMPLETELY out of the boss’ sails…. Granted, I don’t have the backstory, as I wasn’t involved in the exchange, but damn that employee kept her cool.

    Later on, I found out (and this was before *I* even got into it) that she was a taekwondo black belt. Made me glad I wasn’t involved in the situation….I didn’t have the skills I do now. I have to tell you though, that did make me see that the office was toxic, and I needed to leave. I did, under my own power, a few weeks later.

    1. Specialk9*

      Ha, if she was a black belt, you know she was thinking about what escalating would look like, specifically. What an admirable response.

    2. Argh!*

      I have taken self-defense courses, and one of the big benefits is knowing that you can defend yourself, which gives you the freedom to try other tactics. I once stared down a coworker wielding a knife at me. My stare was on him, but mentally I was rehearsing my knife defense moves.

      He put the knife away.

  34. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    When I was a young sprite just out of college at my first job, I was in a meeting with my boss discussing a work matter (him at his desk and me sitting in a guest chair facing his desk). The uber-boss interrupted by storming in and standing more or less in front of me, his back to me (next to the desk), like I wasn’t there, yelling at my boss about something I knew nothing about and wasn’t working on. This continued for at least 5 minutes, which felt like an eternity–the uber-boss yelling and screaming and cursing at my boss, belittling my boss. I felt so sorry for my boss. My boss was totally cowed. So after witnessing this for far too long, feeling completely embarrassed as well as highly uncomfortable, I got up silently and left the room. The yelling continued without a hitch–I didn’t even think the uber-boss noticed my departure. But I was so wrong. I got “written up” and sent to HR for “walking out on a meeting”. I explained to HR the circumstances surrounding this, but HR didn’t care. Not the least little bit. HR told me I was wrong and unprofessional to just walk out. Oh, the sweet memories of my youth!

    1. Specialk9*

      My interpretation is that your boss was humiliated and looking for a way to poop downward, not that you did anything wrong. You saw it, which was the offense.

      1. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

        It was the uber-boss that had me written up. He was a jerk through-and-through. My boss didn’t defend me. No one would stand up to the uber-boss. It was a highly dysfunctional work environment.

        1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

          Uber-boss wanted you to witness your boss being humiliated because that increased the humiliation factor. You walking out took away his audience.

    2. Close Bracket*

      Waling out without saying anything was sort of unprofessional. Walking out after saying, “This is getting heated, and I’m not going to be yelled at,” is extremely professional (although there is no guarantee that you won’t get written up since these things are rarely actually about professionalism).

      1. Hrovitnir*

        I don’t really think it’s unprofessional to walk away from that, personally. I cannot see any benefit from getting involved (it would guarantee getting a piece of the abuse action as far as I can see), and it’s not like that line would have saved you from an HR who cared that little.

        1. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

          I thought about it a lot after getting in trouble. If I had said anything at all, even just excusing myself, I would have immediately become a target. I do think it’s true that the uber-boss wanted a witness, to make my boss’s humiliation worse. Even all these years later, I don’t know that there was any action I could have taken that would have produced a better outcome for me, in that dysfunctional environment. I got off light, compared to what happened to other people there. This was a law firm in NYC.

          I left out some details because they weren’t about yelling, but here they are, because they are pretty funny in retrospect… I was actually written up for 4 items. I was a real problem child! The other 3 items were this:
          1. I didn’t smile enough as I was walking through the office hallways. (For real, not kidding.)
          2. According to the receptionist log, I came in up to 5 minutes late at least once a week, and even though I regularly worked 60 hours per week, being a few minutes late was unacceptable. (No, I wasn’t an admin assistant or providing any personal support and my tardiness didn’t cause any actual problem. They were just jerks.)
          3. On one evening around 7:30 pm, my boss needed me and looked for me at my desk and I wasn’t there, and I needed to make myself more immediately available. (Well folks, I was just in the bathroom (!), which I explained to my boss when I returned minutes later. But my boss still considered this a reportable problem.)

          Those were the days!

  35. Snickerdoodle*

    I got screamed at once when I didn’t even do anything wrong. I was working retail in a mall where our store had two kiosks elsewhere in the mall. I arrived for my shift one day and checked to see which location I was working in and went there, double checked with the person working there that I was supposed to be working that location, and triple checked by calling the main store to verify. A few minutes later, the assistant manager called the location where I was and told me to go to the other one. When I got there, she pulled me aside behind a curtain and huffed “I told you you were scheduled at THIS location, DID I NOT?” Super princessy. It got worse. I told her I’d checked the written schedule and received verbal confirmation twice on where I was supposed to be, but she would have none of it and FLIPPED OUT screaming at me in this little store whose curtain muffled exactly zero sound. I was pretty freaked out because she was between me and the exit, but finally I interrupted her with words to the effect of “I’m not going to take this; I’m leaving,” and she said something like “Oh yes you will! You’re staying right here!” I was completely freaked out, clocked out, and went home. The store blew up my phone, but, thinking it was her calling to scream at me some more, I didn’t answer. Finally, one of my coworkers got a hold of me and explained that the manager wanted to see if I was okay, assured me that I still had a job, and I was scheduled around the assistant manager from then on. (It was a seasonal job, so it was only about two more weeks, otherwise this might be a very different story.)

    It turned out that the assistant manager who did all the screaming was severely bipolar and had stopped taking her medication, which no doubt had a lot to do with it, but it was a lesson on dealing with yelling in the workplace. I could probably have handled it better, but it was a relief to see that exiting a scary situation and not yelling back turned out as well as could be expected for me.

    On a related note, I think it’s worth noting whether the people who do the yelling in these situations ever apologize. That doesn’t make it okay, but I’ve noticed a 100% correlation between unapologetic screaming and blaming you for other problems not your fault.

      1. Snickerdoodle*

        Fair enough. It’s not like there’s a magic combination of words that will stop the out-of-control screaming. I kind of wish I hadn’t walked out or had stopped to talk to the manager first, but I was terrified and angry at the time and just wanted OUT.

    1. Amethystmoon*

      The toxic manager in my situation never apologized and acted like I should apologize to her instead. I was gratified when she got fired a couple of months after I left that job. Not sure why she got fired, but we think she yelled at a vendor or customer.

  36. Wicked Witch of the West*

    Many years ago I was a staff accountant in a CPA firm, back when we still did “books” in pencil on paper in large ledgers and journals. I got called into GrandBoss’s office, where he immediately started berating me about something that was wrong with the books on his desk. A quick glance told me I had not done that work. He wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise. It probably didn’t help that I was under 30 and looked like Alice in Wonderland. I just left, went back to my desk, and got back to my work. Whoosh, called into my direct supervisor’s office, along with GrandBoss. Supervisor was not happy. Explained I didn’t do the work and GrandBoss wouldn’t listen. He never really apologized, but was nice as pie to me the several more years I worked there. He was impressed this “little girl”, as he had referred to me, had stood up to him.

    If the boss is yelling, walk away.

    1. CM*

      I have had similar experiences several times before at different jobs: yelled at by senior man, calmly explained even though they didn’t listen, walked out (usually after the yelling, it wasn’t an extended 15 minute thing like the OP describes), and after that they treated me way better because they were impressed at how I handled it. Really weird situation, especially the “tough little lady” dynamic.

      I think this is a very different situation from what the OP is describing, though. Nobody should be subject to extended screaming which includes personal attacks.

  37. Argh!*

    My favorite line is “Do you need a moment before we continue?”

    That way you’re sending a message that you’re aware she’s out of control and at the same time a message that you know she can do better, plus gives her an “out.” Taking a few deep breaths alone really does help regain control.

  38. Technical_Kitty*

    I’ve worked for abusive semi-crazy before. Document this in a discussion with your direct supervisor and if it ever happens again, escalate to HR.

  39. Amethystmoon*

    It really depends on where you work. On my last team, there was a middle manager —not my boss but still a manager— who regularly lost her temper at support people in public over what were 99.99999% of the time minor issues. It was a major reason why I left that job.

    I once tried reporting to my actual boss a particularly over-the-top occurrence where she made me cry, accused me of faking crying, and then laughed at me, over something no one else would get yelled at for. I was outright accused of lying. Needless to say, I finally got a job offer about a month after that happened.

    People should not have to take verbal abuse at work, but sometimes management is entrenched in protecting each other.

  40. BoB*

    YMMV I actually don’t think the OP’s boss will be of any help here – when grand boss took it upon herself to give OP the dressing down for his mistake, that’s either a huge vote of no confidence in the boss or an indication that the size of the mistake is much bigger than the OP realized.

    I work for DoD, though, so I wouldn’t have said that grandboss was much out of line – it was in private not public, a mistake big enough to skip a rank in the chain of command is going to be a big deal, and 15 minutes isn’t long, especially if OP was also attempting to repeat apologies. Attempting to leave your dressing down because the grandboss was yelling would not go well!

    1. Elspeth*

      Nope. Absolutely no excuse for abusive behavior like this. I’ve told people before that I’ll come back when they can discuss the problem, but I will not allow anyone to treat me like this.

    2. tangerineRose*

      Screaming at a subordinate at all (except in cases of emergency) was out of line, let alone for 15 minutes.

  41. Gypsy_Acidqueen*

    OP, I just want to say I have been in your shoes and it was done to me by a male boss and very high on the chain of command. He physically punched a desk as he berated me over a human error. At the time, I silently nodded and listened to his screaming and didn’t show emotion as I did it. I have a thing where I cannot cry in front of people. Other coworkers said that they have cried before and he’s backed off, but that’s not my style. It was explained to me that “oh he has diabetes and has these rage outs” as an excuse for his behavior. Sometimes he apologized to people, but I was not one of them. He would then recorrect for days later by acting “super chummy and jokey” to try and pretend like it didn’t happen, but never an apology. I have prepared for the day I make another mistake and this happens, and Alison’s script is spot on. “I apologize for X and am willing to work on fixing this, but I cannot be functional with you in this state. I would like to reconvene when emotions are not high and discuss what we need to do from here on out.” I have also added (in my head), “And if that isn’t possible, then it we need to discuss what is next.”

    I also had a coworker that was a peer that flipped on me in a rage, and I did do that type of script and walk away. He was angry at the subject I brought up and not me, but removing myself from the situation and being the better person was the kick in the pants they needed to calm themselves down. In that case, I said something along the lines of, “I understand that you are angry towards X and not me, but you are yelling at me. I will be back later when things have subsided and we can discuss this more clearly.”

    1. LCL*

      I just wanted to say shoutout for Tommy reference!
      Seriously, does your bully boss ever get angrier when you won’t react? I have ran into two people like that, both in supervisory positions.

      1. Gypsy_Acidqueen*

        It has happened in the past, with other situations and people. It has the potential of labeling you as”uncaring” about the situation, but I mean the writing should be on the wall of your eyes wide and welled with tears you are gonna FIGHT to not let leave. I think the berater is looking for things to pick at, and want their cake and eat it, too. They want you upset and crying, but omg why are you crying stop this makes me have FEELINGS OF REGRET.

        Thanks about the name! It’s my favorite anony-handle!

  42. Q*

    Time for a new job. My old boss was engaged to the CEO of the company and would terrorize anyone and everyone (except in front of her fiancé/boss). We never knew what personality she would be using when she walked in each morning, and on the really horrible days she would just pick on someone the whole day. I ended up quiting when I became the target, but it was before I had a job offer in hand. I had gone on a couple interviews and 3 jobs got back to me the day after I gave my two weeks notice. It was priceless to give notice to this horrible woman when she loved to toy with people (scream at them, reduce them tears, etc) and then fire them. When people start screaming at work it’s a sign it’s disfunctional and time to move on. The best thing you can do is not react, because seeing it upsets you vindicates the bully and make them feel they have power over you to upset you. Hang in there and look for jobs if it continues.

    1. This Daydreamer*

      Nope. Telling her to calm down is virtually guaranteed to make things worse.

  43. LGC*

    No real advice other than what’s been given, but holy cow OP. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.

  44. Totally Minnie*

    OP, you should definitely make your direct supervisor aware of this incident. And honestly? Unless your grandboss gives you the gold plated Cadillac of apologies, I would recommend looking for other work.

  45. Phil*

    “In general, the specific words “calm down” tend not to go over well when someone is already worked up. In fact, “calm down” tends to do the opposite.”

    “Things will not calm down, Daniel Jackson. They will, in fact, calm up.”
    — Teal’c, Stargate SG-1

  46. MissDisplaced*

    I had a bad boss who was a yeller, a gunny sacker and went to personal attacks.
    I fought back.

    Strangely, I didn’t get fired. Seems he liked the fight or would treat you even worse if you didn’t (and I’ve seen that).

  47. Teapotsinc*

    J have had this situation with my older male boss. The yelling lasted two hours and was very personal, resulting from asking for time to work on another project which I am paid todo. I have seen this pattern of behaviour before with junior female colleagues, so kept calm and followed a script Similar to Alison’s but he wouldn’t let me leave. Eventually I had to report it. Keeping calm and acting genuinely confused about the disproportionate behaviour seemed to help, but if you’ve never seen this pattern before, maybe something else is going on for your boss.

    1. Magenta Sky*

      I’d have lasted about two minutes before walking. And if by “wouldn’t let me leave,” you mean physically prevented, well, that’s what 911 is for (since that is a criminal offense).

  48. Catabodua*

    There was recently a meme on Facebook …

    Never in the history of calming down has anyone actually calmed down when told to calm down.

  49. Hannah*

    I think I might even go a step further by saying “I want this conversation to be productive so that this mistake doesn’t happen in the future, so I’m going to step away until we can talk about this professionally and constructively.”

    I mean, I doubt I could think of that on the spot when someone is yelling at me, but ideally that is what I would want to say in that situation!

  50. Semiacademic*

    OP, from experience, look hard for a new job or at least a new team.

    The crux of your letter: “My repeated apologies were shouted down, and the topic of her tirade quickly switched from this one error to a litany of attacks on my personal character and complaints about the work environment at large, many of which had nothing to do with me. She was so intense that I actually began to feel physically unsafe.”

    I’m a little surprised at how many comments are speculating how serious or precedented your error was. That’s missing the point. There is no workplace screwup to which this is an appropriate response, ever. It’s a sign of a manager feeling out of control and losing all professional boundaries in the process. And unless this is a truly isolated incident that comes with a profuse apology (not the vague one you mentioned for being “intense”) and possibly a convincing explanation of temporary external circumstances, this behavior won’t go away.

    To your question of what to say in the moment, other than “calm down,” besides AAM’s wise words, consider interrupting with a neutral face and low volume:
    – “I don’t think it’s safe for me to have this conversation with you right now. Let’s continue it later.” Then leave.
    – “This isn’t how I can listen to you.”
    – “Uhhh…I’m going to step out.” Then do.

    If there is a subsequent apology that you want to accept to continue the working relationship without condoning the behavior, consider:
    – “Thanks for saying so. Glad to be moving forward.” Without an “it’s okay” anywhere in there.

    And while YMMV depending on your workplace environment, do consider documenting it all for (at least) yourself, your own manager, and possibly HR. Good luck.

  51. Quickbeam*

    I once got yelled at and my physical disability mocked by my manager. She had told me to take a workplace issue to the next level up. When I did she stormed the meeting and was spitting angry.

    I let it go. Took the high road. I am well paid and near retirement. The workplace issue is still problematic but I’ve moved it way down on my list of things to worry about. We get along well now so I’d rather have peace than rancor my last few years. However my company has a robust exit interview program and I will certainly produce my documentation on the way out.

  52. LGC*

    So…I managed to read this further, and yeah, my initial assessment that your grandboss was TERRIBLE to you stands, OP. And I’m still sorry that you had to go through that.


    1) As everyone else said, gender doesn’t really matter here – telling someone who’s angry at you to just calm down is not going to work because they’re already angry at you and it comes off as dismissive of their FEELINGS (even when – like in this case – you’d be stating the most reasonable thing to do). Plus, you have good instincts – I don’t think it would be sexist in this case (because she was acting objectively unreasonable and her female identity has nothing to do with that perception), but it could very easily be construed that way.

    2) It…probably wasn’t just about you. One of my friends has a really nice saying about when he gets overly upset – “you’re not the target, you’re just in the blast radius.” It was probably the error that set her off, but it sounds like a lot of things have been building up to this. The big tell was that she started ranting about the work environment in general – your error might have been the cause of her meltdown, but her real issue might be that things aren’t going as planned with her department and she’s getting heat for it.

    2a) Although, to be fair, the point above is essentially fanfic about your grandboss. I don’t know her. (Although I’ll take your word that she’s usually a pretty level-headed woman.) But in my experience with people losing their minds (and having lost my mind a couple of times myself), it is usually not really about the direct instigation.

    2b) I also called it a “meltdown” because…to be honest, that’s probably the most logical way to explain it. It’s infantilizing, I know. That’s kind of the point – she was acting like the world’s largest toddler in that moment!

    3) But also…I just thought of something. My initial reaction was “don’t engage at all (because she cray).” But…I haven’t lost my temper with my employees, but I have been very frustrated. And one of the bad habits I have is that I get visibly annoyed if I don’t feel like they’re acknowledging what I have to say either way – that they just want me to shut up and go away. (Which – I mean, they’re probably right, but they can’t tell me that! I’m their boss, dammit!)

    So I think on balance…and I admit I feel a little dirty about this, because it’s essentially rewarding her for her bad behavior…is almost to dissociate a little, but also to validate the fact that she is angry to some extent. Like, you don’t have to sit there and take her tirade about how Fergus always lets her down, but at least let her know that yeah, you can see that she’s super upset about this, but…maybe later would be better to work this out? It’s a delicate balancing act.

    1. LGC*

      And yes, I admit this is possibly TERRIBLE advice. But…for whatever reason, my read on this is that given all the context, she just needed to be heard, or feel like she was being heard.

  53. AllInAHandbasket*

    Long time reader delurking to comment….

    OP, as other commenters have said, it might work to talk to her now and lay out your perspectiv and request how you wnat to see yourself treated when such situtaions arise in the future.

    It worked for me when dealing with a bully boss form hell. She’s a tenured senior prof. and director who is known for her volatility, bullyish behavoiur- she’d pick a new person from the department every few months to really bully and grind down. Especially when you have stuff in your life going on (getting married, a death in the family, had a baby, a sick relative, an illness etc.), it was as if she wanted to preemptively scare you into not being unreliabale or unavailable to her (not the job, I think it was some deep seated personal history stuff)… so much so that staff kept all talk and planning or reacting to events to a minimum when she was around. Anyhow, terrible, toxic, sadistic bully person.

    When I joined she acted as if the sun shone out of my arse, she’d bullied my predecessor out and hated her guts and thought I was somehowa better person (note: not better worker, but person- how crazy, she didn’t know me well), she had just finished bullying her no. 2 a tenured junior prof., was onto bullying staff scientist A and her secretary. Despite that we got on well at the beginning. After about 11 months in that job my mother died unexpectedly and suddenly- well I became flavour of the season for about 6 months. She did the whole text book bullying- withdrawing me from projects or tasks, shouting, berating me for small mistakes, micro-managing, mistrusting me, having melt-downs about me to her “favourites” etc. I didn’t want to quit because I was afraid of just sitting at home and succumbing to grief induced depression or worse (I had no friends or family in that area, just my bf at the time), the staff council and HR were useless (bully boss lady is way higher in the food chain and they were fed up of dealing with her). So one day I requested a brief appointment that she tried to wiggle out of but I got in anyway, sat down and told her that a) I like working b) I made errors or minor mistakes like anyone who works although I won’t open that can of worms of discussing the details of her perception and what actually happenend c) I will not be shouted at. A reasonable, even tense discussion yes, but no shouting , no personal attacks, no loss of control. Her face made a weird transition from something like smiling, smirking, sulking, over baring teeth, to anger, she kept her voice level but said that it was an affront to her, to be making such demands when I’m so full of faults and prone to mistakes (again perceptions and definitions differ, other staff involved in the situation were perplex as to what suddenly counted as a mistake). I reiterated that I find it unwise to go into that, that I expect a more calm and respecful tone and demeanor, in order to be able to do the job that I like, said that I’ll leave her now since she’s clearly busy and left her office. She was much better after that- she tried to shout me down once shortly after on the phone and I told her that I’ll put the phone down to the side while she calms down and I work on a solution. I stayed on to complete the project for one more year, by the end of which she had bullied 4-5 others and I was again in her good favours, she asked me to come back if she ever wins another research grant and I got an A+*(!) recommendation letter from her. I would never want to go back to that place, or ever see her again, I’m still haunted by the time there and am working on getting rid of some maladaptations aquired from working with her, and from getting panic attacks when I notice tensions with my current director (who also has a similar style of leadership). Such abuse sticks for a long time and grinds your sense of worth and abilites down, but I’m proud that I nontheless faced up to her and that it worked.

  54. Al who is that Al*

    I’m shocked by all the people who appear to excusing the behaviour of the boss for yelling at somebody for FIFTEEN minutes and the OP having all their apologies shouted down. If it had been a male boss doing it to me he would have been on the floor looking for his teeth and a female one would have got screamed at back until I walked out. The only reason people do this is because they think they can get away with it. They rely on the culture of fear and “ooh you won’t get a job if you walk out of this one” and once you show you don’t care and are prepared to over top them, all the people I’ve done it to have backed down.

  55. Maddie*

    Screamers are the very worst and it’s never ok. But you also seem very casual about a “medium-sized careless error”. This could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

  56. AdvertisingAce*

    At my current workplace, a day without being yelled at is the measure of a great day. Unfortunately, the owner of the advertising firm is a yeller and it gets worse if you reply in any way. If you say “I’m sorry” she says “you’re not sorry yet, I’ll make you sorry”. If you say “I understand the mistake now” she says “why were you too stupid to see it before?” If you sit silently then she’ll wear herself out after 15 minutes or so.
    And she’s cultivated a client list of people just like her, so there are days when I go from yelling call to yelling call for 9 hours. It’s draining.

  57. Workfromhome*

    You have the right as a human being not to be abused. Its very unlikely you will stop abuse by getting the other person to change their behavior (telling them to go from rage to calm by saying calm down) So you have every right to remove yourself from that situation to stop the abuse.

    Do not stand there quietly and take it. I had some people in my life when I was younger that used to like to lose their temper and yell. The more I refused to get into a yelling match with them or get angry back at them the angrier it would make them. I find that many yellers take a lake of reaction as “dismissive” as if you aren’t taking them seriously if you don’t engage them.

    If had people yell and even try to intrude on personal space in the threatening manner. Definitely calmly say that you cant continue the discussion while being yelled at and that you will be leaving and will continue it when it can be done in a calm manner. Then I suggest backing out of the room “gracefully” turning your back on someone can be seen as dismissive and you never know what someone might do in that state so best not be surprised.

    I also have found that if they do encroach on your space, start pounding the desk etc. its good to say loudly enough for others to hear (without yelling back at them :”Your behavior is becoming threating or I feel uncomfortable/unsafe with your behavior so I will remove myself from the situation”. When other people realize that observers hear your concern for safety it often jolts them when they realize they may get hit with harassment/bullying and there are witnesses.
    Where its so out of character for the OP boss it might be worthwhile to find out if there was any aggravating circumstances. It doesn’t excuse the behavior but I’d be more inclined to think it was a one time occurrence and move on if I found out they just found out a loved one passed away ,they were on medication etc. Workplace stress is not an excuse but there are things in the world that can cause people to lose it that don’t represent their normal behavior if your inclined to forgive them.

  58. Liz*

    There’s an old saying that goes something like, “you can’t speak rationally with the irrational.” In my own experience working in a yell-y (and, frankly, abusive) workplace, this was definitely true. My tactic was to say something like, “it sounds like you need some time to consider your words before we discuss this. Feel free to find me later if you want to continue the conversation.” And then I walked away, no matter what they said in response.

    I would also say that if OP feels physically unsafe, it’s important to escalate that issue to HR. Anyone who creates an environment where people feel unsafe are a huge risk to the business, and HR should step in to investigate and mitigate that risk.

  59. HermioneMe*

    My very first boss (male) was a screamer. (This was about 35 years ago, btw.) It was a company that did only simple divorce paperwork, with most of the information & work done over the phone. If the employees did not use the EXACT script with every caller (no matter what the caller wanted to ask), the boss made the employee put the caller on hold, would scream at the employee in front of others, then made the employee go back to the caller and follow the “script.” Most new hires lasted less than a month, many quit after a week or a day. I lasted 5 months only because it was my first job and I was a single parent with 2 kids to support.

    He screamed at me for the last time right before Christmas. I took a walk at lunch (didn’t have a car), crying the whole time. When I got back, I told the boss I needed to speak with him. Before I said a word, he asked me to hold on for a second while he wrote something down. Before I could speak, he held up what he had written: “I quit!” He if he was correct. I said yes, left and never looked back!

    Of course this was coming from a guy who was having an affair with the married office manager (who later left her husband and kids for him) who had a sign on his office wall that said “Italian Stallion…” lol

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