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How to deal with screaming boss
August 27, 2011 2:32 PM   Subscribe

My boss is harassing me, she has always been hyper and hateful, but this week was hell.

One day I made the mistake of offering my opinion on a change in the office structure, but I was just being honest when the subject was brought up. I did not even realize the boss was terribly upset until 4 hours later at quitting time she stopped me in the hall and told me loudly where everyone in the office could hear that she “WAS THE BOSS, WHAT SHE SAID WENT, THAT WHAT I THOUGHT DID NOT MATTER”, you get the idea. She proceeded following me in my office screaming, I told her to let it drop before we both said something we would regret, she did not. After a tirade of about 3 minutes I tried to explain myself (what I said was - it was just my thoughts, sorry I offended her, we were all under a lot of stress) she started apologizing and then of course everything is suppose to be ok. The next day everyone that witnessed the incident told me I did not deserve it and I handled it very well. I have tried to stay quite since, but it seems the boss deliberately tries to get me to say things about the very subject I was jumped on to about and when I answer shortly with no opinion it seems to make her mad.

I am afraid everyone in the office has had a round with this woman, but I would like to know how to handle this in the future. I do not want to be the one who goes to management, no one else has and I am afraid I will be the lone ranger if I did. What I really would like advice on is how to handle a temper tantrum like this if and when it happens again, this person has serious issues (paranoid, self-centered, defensive, makes fun of people, just mean).
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
If there is an HR department in your company, you should talk to them about this and get their advice as to what to do. Then, if things should get worse, you'll have acted according to company guidelines. HR also needs to be made aware that your boss's behaviour is a problem. And yes, you may be the first to do so, but your boss will not get dealt with properly until some of the people who report to her take these kind of steps.
posted by orange swan at 2:40 PM on August 27, 2011


When a boss/coworker starts yelling at you like that, state calmly and firmly, "I will not be screamed at. If you continue to raise your voice, I will leave the room until you're ready to discuss this calmly." Be prepared to do so.

As someone who dreads confrontation, I have not always been able to do this. But it is one of my rules -- you scream at me, and I either set things straight right away, or else I secretly begin looking for another job.

(Naturally I wouldn't push this if there was a real emergency in which panic or intense emotions seemed like natural reactions.)
posted by hermitosis at 2:53 PM on August 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Honestly, just start looking for a new job. HR is not there to help you, but rather to manage you for the benefit of company; HR will not fix your boss, but rather label you a trouble maker. I had a boss like this, and nothing can make someone behave in a decent manner if they are crazy and mean. I made myself sick and sank into depression trying to adjust to my Paranoid Mean Boss, and finally abruptly quit my job. Best decision ever.
posted by Malla at 2:54 PM on August 27, 2011 [37 favorites]


I'm here with the advice I always have in these situations: never go to HR. HR is there to protect management and make sure that your company is in compliance with the law. If you go to HR, you are now the problem person who does not get along with her manager. Even as I post this, I am sure there are others who are writing posts advising you to "document." I would advise you not to bother. If you are in the U.S., there is no law that says your manager cannot treat you like shit, unless you are in a protected class. Make plans to leave ASAP. Toxic managers can ultimately mess up your mental and physical health, and yours sounds like a classic.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:56 PM on August 27, 2011 [25 favorites]


Walk away from the tantrum. Walk out of your office, down the corridor, out of the front doors of the building and away from this job.

Dealing with a child is hard enough when it's having a strop like this. Dealing with someone who can fire you when they act like this is nigh on impossible. Don't engage with the crazy. That's the only way to win.
posted by Solomon at 3:03 PM on August 27, 2011 [7 favorites]


There are millions of jobs where people generally act like human beings. Go, and consider it a sort of reverse "vote with your wallet" situation - if you don't condone the behavior by staying and allowing yourself to be treated that way, she's more likely to be recognized as a problem.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:11 PM on August 27, 2011


You can't really manage an OMG-WTF-BBQ-CRAZY-PSYCHO-BOSS. Look around for a new job.

You also haven't told us enough about what sets her off to give any useful generalized advice on avoiding it. But I do think it's worth mentioning that your description of events makes it seem like you didn't exactly handle things in a nonconfrontational way.
She proceeded following me in my office screaming, I told her to let it drop before we both said something we would regret, she did not. After a tirade of about 3 minutes I tried to explain myself (what I said was - it was just my thoughts, sorry I offended her, we were all under a lot of stress) she started apologizing and then of course everything is suppose to be ok.
Why didn't you start by explaining yourself? "Shove off and drop it before we both say something we regret" almost implicitly carries with it a veiled threat, and it's certainly much less conciliatory than something like "I was just offering my thoughts, not trying to usurp your authority."
posted by J. Wilson at 3:14 PM on August 27, 2011


Hey, could you clarify whether your boss is the uber-boss, or middle management? And whether this is a large institution or a small one? And whether you have an HR department and its reputation? And how important it is to you to stay in this job?

You will get pro-HR and anti-HR, but no one will know if you have one or not and how it functions in this kind of situation. And lots of advice to quit the job, etc.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 3:38 PM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't talk to the crazy. That's what she is, when she's acting like this. The crazy is looking for a response. The best way to deal with the crazy is to not deal with the crazy at all. You can't calm crazy down. You can't shut crazy up. All you can do is escalate the situation by responding, or de-escalate it by removing yourself from it.
posted by Solomon at 3:40 PM on August 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


I find that when people hit the screaming phase, the best thing to do is listen to them carefully, then after they've finished talking, take a second or two to form your response, then respond calmly to the last point they made. If they interrupt, let them keep talking, and take a second or two, and respond to the last point they made this time. Keep doing that. Let them scream themselves hoarse if they don't give you that couple of seconds. Eventually, they'll realize that you're not rising to their bait.

This requires that you be able to make yourself not rise to their bait. If you can't do that, then just run away. To the door outside if you have to, and then down the street or across the parking lot, but just keep going. That way, when you just can't take it anymore and you start yelling back, you can start with, "WHY THE FUCK DID YOU FOLLOW ME ALL THE GODDAMN WAY TO THE FUCKING STARBUCKS FOR CHRIST'S SAKE" and maybe that will show the other person how insane they're being.
posted by Etrigan at 3:48 PM on August 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Make plans to leave ASAP. Toxic managers can ultimately mess up your mental and physical health, and yours sounds like a classic.

I just quit my job because of a boss like this. I stayed a year longer than I should have, trying to make it work.

I couldn't sleep, couldn't focus on anything, and have gained enough weight to resemble any of the larger aquatic mammals.

You need to start looking for something else, because crazy is not fixable.

What I did to cope until I couldn't cope any more:

1. I documented, not so I could go to HR immediately, but so that if she started anything I could bring it all down on her head in retaliation.
2. I DID NOT ENGAGE when she started screaming. I just shut down. I never referred to her screaming. Saying anything to a screamer is a threat to them, and it will make them even madder, because they think you're trying to fight back.
3. Find at least one person that you can trust to talk to about it, and do not talk to anyone else. If the environment is that toxic, everyone else there will be delighted to throw you under the bus to protect themselves at the slightest provocation. Do not trust the other people you work with, because they'll not defend you at their own expense should the boss ask if you've talked about it with them. Do not talk about her behavior other than with that one trustworthy person, ever.
posted by winna at 4:02 PM on August 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Cynical, "HR is just an arm of THE MAN" FUD-peddling notwithstanding: only in rare situations is your going to HR going to make the situation any worse, especially in a situation in which the tantrum was witnessed by a bunch of people.

It might not help and HR/management might circle the wagons and make you look like the trouble-maker, but there are legitimately helpful HR departments, staffed by real human beings, who understand that the place in the org chart is not necessarily indicative of merit, skill, or value to the company. Not all of them, but you're certainly not going to know what kind you have without talking to them.

Besides, it sounds like them firing you would actually be a huge benefit in the long-term, so unless you're in a tiny industry or company (or both) I see going to HR in this situation as a win/win.
posted by toomuchpete at 4:47 PM on August 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


One other thing, in re going to HR:

Make it your last step after you've tried dealing normally with this person. When you go to HR, use the words "hostile work environment." Say them very slowly, while looking directly into the HR person's eyes. Make sure they realize -- if they take nothing else away from your meeting with them -- that you know what those three words mean and what a good lawyer can do with them.
posted by Etrigan at 4:55 PM on August 27, 2011 [9 favorites]


If you do go to HR, and if it was a good HR they will council your boss, and might even involve you in some awkward mediation. I would look for a new job, going to work is shit enough without having to put up with an aggressive loon.

Also, HR probably know what she's like.

That is if your org has an HR department.
posted by the noob at 5:22 PM on August 27, 2011


If you have a good HR department/division, you should have an EAP service. Talk to them first.

If you don't have an EAP service, see if you can transfer to working under a different direct supervisor.

If that's not possible, consider carefully exactly what kind of HR department you have. Good signs are that it runs lots of educational programs, that you have a confidential complaint hotline, that there are official rules for supervisors to follow, that you have a code of employee conduct that specifically addresses tantrum-like behavior or civility or something along those lines.

If you have a lot of those good signs, go to HR. Explain the specific incident, name your witnesses, and advise them that this is part of an ongoing pattern that they should be aware of. Then see what they do. Be ready to repeat this information for your boss's direct supervisor.

In any case, you should have a well-written, current resume on hand. If you don't, start working on it. If you do, be actively looking for new opportunities elsewhere. This happens at the same time as whatever else you're doing about your specific situation: it should be happening on a continuous basis.
posted by SMPA at 6:11 PM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


When you go to HR, use the words "hostile work environment."

And be prepared to receive either a clear explanation of what that phrase really means -- "discriminatory conduct or behavior in the place of work that is unwelcome and offensive to an employee or group of employees based on a protected class status" -- or to be fired.

Listen to the people telling you that HR is not your friend, and ignore the advice to try to scare them into making this boss nicer. She can yell, scream, and be hostile as much as she sees fit. HR protects the company, and in doing so will terminate people who violate the law.
posted by ellF at 6:16 PM on August 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think I have posted this elsewhere, but it is good advice that I read one of the Mythbusters saying once:

When someone is screaming at you, in a very calm and detached way say "You have something stuck in your teeth." it puts people on the defensive,

If they keep screaming, just say "It's still there."
posted by 4ster at 8:31 PM on August 27, 2011 [16 favorites]


A couple of thoughts about inter-personal communication, since you say you "don't do confrontation well".

One: Telling somebody to "calm down" just makes them more upset.

Two: Telling somebody to "drop it" is very confrontational; it's not really appropriate to say to a peer and is highly inappropriate to say to a superior.

Three: Since you know you "don't do confrontation well", learn how to do it better. Think of aikido: you don't want to confront the other person head-on, you want to step to the side out of the way of their anger and hostility and approach it from a different angle.

For example, if somebody is yelling at you and you can't get a word in edgewise, instead of getting louder, try getting quieter.

So, the way it went:
YourBoss: GRAR GRAR GRAR ANGRY HOW DARE YOU—

You: Look, boss, I—

YourBoss: GRAR GRAR DON'T DO THAT ARGH IF YOU—

You: LOOK, BOSS—

YourBoss:GRAR GRAR GRAR ARE YOU ACTUALLY RAISING YOUR VOICE TO ME???
The way it might have gone:
YourBoss: GRAR GRAR GRAR ANGRY HOW DARE YOU—

You: Look, boss, I—

YourBoss: GRAR GRAR DON'T DO THAT ARGH IF YOU—

You: Boss, I can tell this has upset you and I want to discuss how we can—

YourBoss: GRAR GRAR grar displeased upset—

You: I think we're dealing with a misunderstanding here and need to be sure that—

YourBoss: ...what?
posted by Lexica at 9:09 PM on August 27, 2011 [10 favorites]


Sorry, maybe I wasn't clear. I don't doubt that you really did want her to drop it, which is a natural and fair feeling. What I'm trying to say is that telling someone to 'drop it' does not calm a situation down.

I'm not sure if it reads as an act/assertion of dominance or what, but it's clearly directly confrontational -- just in a different way than the confrontation Crazy Boss Lady was seeking to have.

As Lexica explains nicely, you want to deflect and sidestep the anger. You certainly don't want to meet it head on -- not if you're trying to avoid confrontation.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:35 PM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


In my experience, bad bosses do not get better and the higher-ups/HR would rather you just take it than tell them about something they don't want to deal with. You have two realistic options - keep your job with the reality that you will be dealing with this on a semi-regular basis or find something else. Like the union told me when I told them about my abusive boss, "You should do everything he says and you might want to look for a new job." Meaning "Nobody is going to save you but YOU."
posted by Foam Pants at 10:59 PM on August 27, 2011


The deeper wisdom behind Lexica's excellent advice is that some people with anger management problems actually don't know that they're doing this.
I worked with someone who literally forgot/eclipsed the angry and yell-prone episodes and was seriously confused about everyone always acting out aggressively against her. she had no idea at all what she herself was doing. So if you raise your voice in response to her outburst, you're possibly aggressor #1 to her mind.

[I would look for a new job too]
posted by Namlit at 2:36 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Silence. Just listen and don't engage. Document the event, the comments from other staff, and the subsequent comments. If you have a union, call them right now. If there is an employee manual, on paper or on the web, try to make a copy of relevant portions. Decide what you want. Employee assistance Program, if available, is a great option.

Want to keep the job? Learn to manage the Boss. Watch others, watch the boss from an analytical point of view, and see what works. Boss may be susceptible to flattery or humor or you may notice boss gets a coffee and candy bar at 3, and at 3:30 is a cranky lunatic when her blood sugar crashes. Make it clear to her that you have the company's best interest in mind, and are a team player, on board with her goals.

Want to leave? Document her behavior. Use plain factual, unemotional language. Do good work and document the good work. You can check your state's labor laws and see what your rights are. Maybe there's harassment or hostile work environment. If you leave, you may be able to say it was Constructive Termination and get unemployment. Pursuing legal action is likely to generate lots of poo-flinging, and you will likely find it very unpleasant.

Look at your life, your way of communicating. How can you learn from this? All your life you will encounter difficult people. Use her as a guinea pig to improve your skills, and you will have won.
posted by theora55 at 9:44 AM on August 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Make it your last step after you've tried dealing normally with this person. When you go to HR, use the words "hostile work environment." Say them very slowly, while looking directly into the HR person's eyes. Make sure they realize -- if they take nothing else away from your meeting with them -- that you know what those three words mean and what a good lawyer can do with them.

What a good lawyer would do would be to run those three words right up your ass. This advice -- so emphatic, certain, and authoritative, begetting approval by virtue of its conviction -- captures for me so much of Metafilter's limitations.

This kind of conduct *can* be part of a hostile work environment claim if we are dealing with a protected class, such as if the OP is a racial minority, and if other facts are shown. And hitting, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, etc., can be the basis for a different kind of claim, though based on what you have said I don't yet see them.

OP, it would be helpful if you returned to clarify your situation per my questions upthread, but I hope that in any event you have found some kind of solution. Legality aside, this kind of behavior is reprehensible.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 11:34 AM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


A hostile work environment can also be relevant to good cause to quit and maintaining eligibility to collect unemployment benefits. In that case, though, the best course of action is still to find a new job and then leave.
posted by J. Wilson at 12:18 PM on August 28, 2011


If you're weighing whether going to HR will be beneficial, my central question would be whether your boss is good at HER job or not. If she's not (and it's hard to believe that she would be, given this kind of behavior), then your calm efforts to bring this to light may be just the camel-back-breaking-straw that upper management has been seeking in order to let her go.

If, however, she is considered successful, or even just effective -- her department is considered valuable to the company and that she is leading it well and her superiors have never witnessed this kind of behavior first-hand -- then I'd quickly join the Quit This Job camp.

Best of luck.
posted by argonauta at 12:28 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


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