How to identify — and survive — a toxic boss

Sometimes, abusive relationships don't happen at home, but at the office

A toxic boss could take over your life.
(Image credit: Ikon Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

I've had many bosses in my life, but only two of them have been true mentors who later turned into lifelong friends. The others — all five of them — were toxic.

Recognizing a toxic boss isn't easy. She might actually seem nice at first, but beware: This is just the honeymoon phase. All my toxic bosses were on their best behavior at the beginning. It could take a week, a few months, or even years before their true nature came alive. But it always did, every time. Still, as with most abusive relationships — romantic or professional — it's hard to know objectively if you're in one. Here are what I've found to be the top traits to look for in a toxic boss, and some suggestions for surviving the ordeal.


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1. A Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality

The toxic boss frequently has two sides to his personality. He may kiss up to upper management while simultaneously treating his staff badly. He may shower his staff with respect in public, but be hostile toward them in private. She might flip from good to evil just with the staff and not others. These unpredictable behavioral shifts can vary from several times a day to longer expanses of days or weeks of friendly behavior followed by weeks of negative behavior.

2. Passive-aggressive behavior is the mood du jour

A toxic boss might dole out backhanded compliments: "That was great work you did, considering you're not too great with numbers," or "I'm glad you got the report in on time. Too bad you didn't include a summary page." Passive-aggressive behavior also reveals itself when your boss doesn't back you up in company meetings or acknowledge your achievements when someone outside the company praises you. He may even go so far as to take credit for your achievements himself. Many times this trait shows up when you sense something is wrong and ask your boss if everything is okay, only to have him answer with a terse, "Of course." It's a mind game.

3. The blame game

There's a bus. I'm throwing you under it. Toxic bosses will rarely take responsibility for their mistakes and frequently will find a subordinate to blame for them. What bosses don't realize is this: There are only so many buses and there are only so many times they can use this tactic before the employee retaliates or upper management clues in on what's happening. It might work a few times, but then, the jig is up.

4. Narcissism

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (or NPD) is an actual mental illness. Those afflicted exhibit an inability to accept responsibility for mistakes, a constant craving for attention, a feeling of superiority over all others, a belief that their presence should always be praised by others, and that everything in the world — or at least his world — revolves around them. NPD can manifest itself in something as simple as a sociable exchange: "Hey Bob, how was your weekend?" your boss might ask. "It was great. We went s…" and before you have a chance to finish, you're interrupted. "Hey awesome. You know, Kathy and I went wine tasting…" blah blah blah. He didn't actually want to know how your weekend was, he just wanted to tell you how his weekend was.

So, if your boss ticks some of the above boxes and is indeed an abusive, toxic manager, what can you do? If you can move to another department or to another company, that's the best option. But not all of us have the luxury of being able to quit our jobs. If you're stuck, there are a few ways to protect yourself, your career, and your sanity:


1. Keep a work diary

You should always document your interactions with — and directives from — your boss, even when you don't think it's necessary. If conditions are bad enough to warrant a lawsuit, you will need documentation. So while it may bum you out to start building a case against your boss early on, it could prove worthwhile in the end. You can do this at the end of your day: Designate 10 or 15 minutes to jotting down your interactions with your boss. This could also come in handy if you're forced to quit because of a hostile working environment and have to file for unemployment insurance. Generally, unemployment isn't awarded to employees who quit of their own accord, but if you have documentation that proves your case, you may be eligible.

2. Roll with the punches

Understand that your boss will never change. If you can prevent her from getting under your skin, you've won the battle. This can buy you some time to look for other work. Be agreeable, ask for directives in writing, and most importantly, resist the urge to give your boss some of her own medicine.

3. Always be on the lookout for work

Update your resume. Network. And if during an interview, you're asked why you're leaving your current role, for example, never criticize your boss. If you find yourself complaining to others (as you inevitably will), do your best to downplay any negativity toward your boss or the company.

4. Talk to HR

But be careful. You don't want to come across as a disgruntled employee. Remember that HR works for the company and is out to protect it from any harm — physical, legal, or otherwise. Threats never work, whether they're made toward your boss or come in the form of "I'll leave this place and then you'll miss me!" Present your case, provide documentation, and most importantly, approach HR with kid gloves. State that you've tried your best to deal with a difficult situation and ask HR for its help. That way, you won't be tagged as a potentially dangerous employee.

Toxic bosses will always be around, and dealing with them isn't easy. Keeping these tips in mind will hopefully make your day-to-day interactions a little better, and help you identify negative traits in future bosses so you can navigate your way to a successful career with mentors who truly support you.

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