An abusive boss may be condescending, competitive, or downright disrespectful to their employees. In some cases, they may act like bullies, and they might lose their temper (or sense of control) in the workplace. Abusive bosses can undoubtedly make for a hostile work environment, so it’s important to recognize the key warning signs, including the inability to take feedback and gaslighting.
Unfortunately, abusive relationships happen in all kinds of dynamics; however, most people only consider them in the context of parent-child or romantic relationships. In the workplace, such abuse may be more insidious. For instance, you may worry that you’re overreacting to the situation, or dismiss your boss’s behavior because they have authority over you, but the cycle of abuse can persist and impact your physical and emotional well-being.
“Toxic work environments cause health problems,” says Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute. “Trouble is that it is difficult to detect one’s personal gradual slide into ill health. Better to trust your physician’s opinion and indicators of the onset of stress-related health problems (e.g., hypertension, colitis, ulcers, cardiac issues, compromised immune system, onset of an autoimmune disorder, musculoskeletal pain). Your family and friends will also notice a decline before you tend to recognize it yourself. Trust them.”
Here are nineteen signs of an abusive boss:
1. Inability to Take Feedback
Abusive bosses often struggle with accepting personal responsibility or recognizing their own mistakes. As a result, they tend to get defensive when confronted. They may even shift the blame onto other people.
Gaslighting is one of the most destructive forms of abuse. Abusive bosses may use it to lie, downplay, or distort a particular situation. For example, they might insist they told you about a specific deadline when you’re sure they never did. Or, they might seem to enjoy “confusing” people about how to follow a certain protocol only to criticize them when they invariably make a mistake.1
3. Demanding Constant Praise
Many times, persistent feelings of inferiority drive a boss’s abusive behavior. This type of boss will want recognition or praise as often as possible. They may even fish for compliments in a way that seems embarrassingly obvious to others.
4. Yelling When Upset
Abusive bosses often struggle to control their tempers. These bosses can become unpredictable and even unhinged in meetings. Instead of expressing their needs appropriately, they resort to threatening tactics like shouting or threatening people.
5. Blatant Lying
Honesty is an essential part of a healthy relationship, so if you catch your boss lying to you, it’s a serious red flag. It could mean that they are avoiding necessary tasks at work, downplaying their deficits, or trying to take credit for things that aren’t theirs.>
6. Micromanaging Your Work
Micromanaging can be another subtle method of bullying. Abusive bosses often have control issues, and they may struggle to trust their team to perform the job effectively.2 As a result, your boss has created a work environment where your every move is being watched or your every decision is being scrutinized. This, of course, can make you feel anxious or resentful, especially when you know you’re capable of completing the assignments.
7. Frequently Gossiping
Abusive bosses may speak poorly about other managers or employees. In some ways, it may seem like they enjoy spreading rumors. Professional, respectable bosses may have opinions, but they keep those thoughts to themselves. Abusive bosses, on the other hand, may enjoy stirring the pot and watching the chaos unfold.
8. Ostracizing People
Abusive bosses undermine cohesive and collaborative work environments. Instead, they often play favorites and pit employees against one another. This tactic often keeps employees focused on taking their feelings out on one another rather than looking at the source of the problem.
9. Giving Vague or Unhelpful Directions
It’s important to feel prepared to manage your tasks efficiently. However, abusive bosses may be passive or indirect when giving you assignments. They might also seemingly expect you to read their mind. As a result, you might get stuck guessing what they want, leading to you feeling anxious or incompetent.
10. Meddling Into Your Lane
In a similar vein as micromanaging, some abusive bosses try to control every aspect of the workplace. For example, they might interfere with your work or try to do things that are clearly out of their scope of competence. This pattern can be frustrating for employees and detrimental to the company’s well-being.
11. Disrespecting Your Boundaries
Abusive bosses disregard other people’s limits, especially when those limits get in their own way. For example, even if you state your defined work hours, an abusive boss will likely try to shame or coerce you into working longer. They might also insist that you perform specific tasks or financially abuse you by withholding salary or compensation.
12. Stealing Your Work
Abusive bosses have no problem claiming someone else’s ideas, content, or even direct work. In some cases, your work speaks for itself, but we all know that receiving credit also matters. Therefore, it can be incredibly frustrating when someone takes credit. This frustration may be amplified when that person is your boss.3
13. Making Frequent Threats
Abusive bosses can become volatile and impulsive when they feel stressed. As a result, they may take out their frustrations on their employees. For example, they might threaten to downsize departments or fire people altogether.
14. Constant Interrupting
If your boss talks over people in meetings or daily conversations, it’s a red flag. It means they likely don’t respect what you have to say, and they don’t take the time to listen to their employees’ needs.
15. Humiliating Others
It’s never okay to mock or shame employees publicly, but abusive bosses often belittle people to yield their power. They may insult them in meetings, disregard their feelings, or use sarcasm to justify their cruel behavior.
16. Nitpicking Your Actions
While effective bosses provide feedback and constructive criticism, abusive bosses often find fault with everything. This can include negative feedback on non-work related issues, such as what you bring for lunch or the attire that you wear to work. This creates a hostile and stressful environment where you often second-guess not only your skills, but everything you’re doing while in the workplace.
17. Acting Like Your Friend
It’s OK to be on friendly terms, but abusive bosses might try to force a friendship. For instance, they may pressure you to accept their social media friend request, or repeatedly ask you to eat lunch with them. Sometimes, this is because they genuinely want to be friends (which usually isn’t appropriate within this dynamic). Other times, it’s because they want to get dirt on you or others.
18. Bothering You After Hours
Emergencies happen, but your boss shouldn’t be emailing or calling you at all hours of the night. They also should not shame you when you take personal or sick time. If your boss acts like you need to be on 24/7, it’s a sign that they don’t respect your inherent need for work-life balance.
19. Sexual Harassment
Unfortunately, sexual harassment is rampant in many workplaces. Quid pro quo harassment refers to people of power (bosses or managers) harassing their subordinates and offering or suggesting that an employee will be given something in return for some sort of sexual favor.4 In any form, sexual harassment can be blatant, but it also may feel more subtle. For example, a more insidious, abusive boss may make sexual jokes but then insist they’re joking if confronted.
Effects of Abusive Bosses
It’s no secret that abusive bosses cultivate hostile work environments. Their toxic behavior can make your job feel generally unsafe and unhealthy. As a result, you may frequently feel frustrated or anxious when performing everyday duties. This chronic impact can significantly jeopardize your mental health, physical well-being, and job security.
Some effects of an abusive boss include:
- Apathy or dread about going to work
- Work anxiety
- Body tension, muscle aches, and unexplained pains
- Sleep issues
- Increased desire to engage in escape behaviors (substance use, gambling, shopping)
- Low self-esteem
- Self-doubt and questioning your self-worth
- Social isolation
- Feeling ashamed or guilty (like you deserve the abuse)
- Tension with other coworkers or bosses
- Decreased productivity
- PTSD symptoms
Remember that abuse is never your fault. You didn’t cause or provoke your boss to act this way. Bosses have ethical responsibilities to treat their employees with dignity and respect. These symptoms can be frustrating, but they result from a significant problem that has nothing to do with you.
How to Respond to an Abusive Boss
People react to abusive bosses in different ways. Some suffer in silence, some hoard information about their boss’s behavior, and others respond aggressively.5 Ultimately, in the moment, it’s best to maintain professionalism while also mentally recording (then documenting) abusive behavior. Even if it’s tempting, matching their energy will likely exacerbate abusive behavior.
Here are ways to respond to an abusive boss:
- Pausing before reacting
- Speaking clearly and assertively about your needs
- Avoiding any shouting, belittling, or threats
- Documenting objective data for HR or other administrators
- Ignoring gossip or their attempts to lure you into drama
How to Handle an Abusive Boss
Dealing with an abusive boss is scary. Furthermore, it’s possible to experience trauma-bonding, meaning you feel attached to them despite their cruel behavior. Some employees may benefit from joining with coworkers or contacting HR directly. Others will find the situation improves after practicing indifference, setting healthy work boundaries, learning how to say no, or ignoring the behavior. In some cases, employees may need to either switch departments or get a new job.
Benefits of Therapy
There isn’t necessarily a straightforward answer for dealing with an abusive boss. However, seeking professional support may better help you understand your feelings and needs in the workplace. A therapist can also provide you with a practical roadmap for coping with your situation effectively.
Ideally, you should look for a therapist with experience in treating emotional abuse. You can start your search using a professional therapist directory.
No matter the situation, all abusive relationships can feel stressful and discouraging. However, reaching out for support, seeking therapy, and learning to be proactive in your next steps can significantly improve how you feel when you’re faced with an emotionally abusive boss.