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Addressing a Bully Boss: Expert Advice on Establishing Boundaries and Seeking Support

Dealing with a bully boss can be a challenging and stressful experience that can impact your well-being and work performance. It is important to establish appropriate boundaries and address the issue effectively to protect your personal and professional growth. As an HR, leadership, and change management consultant and executive coach, I have witnessed the negative impact of bullying behavior on individuals and the organization.

In this article, I will provide advice and share some methods to address a bully boss and establish appropriate boundaries. I will also provide tips on how to approach HR or request mediation to resolve the issue.

The Modern-Day Bully Boss

The traditional image of a bully boss is becoming less common in the workplace. This is due to market forces that demand managers to be "high empathy" and create psychologically safe environments for their team. However, a new type of negative persona has emerged that can convincingly mimic the traits of an empathetic leader. This modern-day bully boss uses more subtle and insidious forms of mistreatment, such as ignoring and isolating colleagues they do not rate.

The modern-day bully boss is high ego and wants to feel good about themselves. They tend to hire their friends and people who share their perspectives to avoid challenge, creating a "mirror-tocracy" that is bad news for under-represented but talented staff. This approach makes it less likely that a friend they hire will attempt to keep their isolating behavior in check like an outsider might.

It is important to know how to navigate a problematic boss since they are the gatekeeper to progression, promotion, and pay within your organization. Taking your focus off your boss and paying more attention to opportunities in the wider organization can help. Expanding your networks and seeking out external opportunities can also be beneficial. If the relationship does not improve, it might be time to set a strict deadline to get yourself a new boss doing the same job elsewhere.

In addition to these strategies, it is important to establish boundaries between your work and home life that allow you to switch off and improve your wellbeing. This can help you manage a tricky relationship with your boss and improve your overall quality of life.

My behavioral science research at the London School of Economics has identified other archetypes of bad bosses, such as the egotist, the mediocre manager, and the overly nice boss. Each of these types has their own set of challenges and requires a unique approach to navigating the relationship.

Overall, it is important to recognize that the traditional image of a bully boss is becoming less common in the workplace. However, the modern-day bully boss is a particular threat as subtler forms of harassment are less likely to be taken seriously by HR. It is important to know how to navigate a problematic boss and establish boundaries that allow you to switch off and improve your wellbeing.

How You Can Identify If Your Boss is a Modern-Day Bully Boss

Identifying if your boss is a modern-day bully boss can be challenging, as their behavior is often more subtle and insidious compared to traditional bully bosses. However, there are some key signs to look out for:

  1. Isolation and Exclusion: Pay attention to whether your boss consistently ignores or isolates certain colleagues, particularly those they do not rate or who challenge their perspectives. This can manifest in excluding individuals from important meetings, decision-making processes, or social events.

  2. Favoritism and Nepotism: Notice if your boss tends to hire or promote their friends and people who share their perspectives. This can create a "mirror-tocracy" where those who are different or under-represented are overlooked or undervalued.

  3. Lack of Empathy: Assess whether your boss demonstrates a genuine lack of empathy towards colleagues. This can manifest in dismissive or disrespectful behavior, failure to listen or consider others' perspectives, and an overall disregard for the well-being and feelings of their team members.

  4. Lack of Accountability: Observe if your boss consistently avoids taking responsibility for their actions or decisions. They may deflect blame onto others or refuse to admit when they are wrong. This can create a toxic work environment where accountability is lacking.

  5. Inconsistent Treatment: Note if your boss displays inconsistent treatment towards different individuals on the team. They may show favoritism towards certain employees while being overly critical or dismissive of others, leading to a lack of fairness and equity.

  6. Micromanagement and Control: Watch for signs of excessive micromanagement and a need for control. Modern-day bully bosses may use their authority to closely monitor and dictate every aspect of their team's work, leaving little room for autonomy or growth.

It is important to remember that these signs alone may not definitively identify a modern-day bully boss. However, if you notice a combination of these behaviors consistently displayed by your boss, it may be an indication that they are creating a toxic work environment. In such cases, seeking support from HR or considering other career opportunities may be necessary for your well-being and professional growth.

Methods to Address a Bully-Boss and Establish Appropriate Boundaries

When dealing with a bully boss and establishing appropriate boundaries, it is important to approach the situation strategically and assertively. Here are some methods to consider:

  1. Self-Awareness: Reflect on your own values, strengths, and boundaries. Understand what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior for you. This self-awareness will help you establish and communicate your boundaries effectively.

  2. Document Incidents: Keep a record of specific incidents where your boss's behavior crosses the line. Document dates, times, and details of each incident, including any witnesses. This documentation will serve as evidence if you need to address the issue formally.

  3. Seek Support: Reach out to trusted colleagues, mentors, or HR professionals who can provide guidance and support. Share your experiences and concerns with them to gain different perspectives and advice on how to navigate the situation.

  4. Communicate Assertively: When addressing your bully boss, express your concerns and boundaries in a clear, calm, and assertive manner. Use "I" statements to describe the impact of their behavior on you and provide specific examples. Avoid becoming defensive or confrontational, as it may escalate the situation.

  5. Set Boundaries: Clearly communicate your boundaries to your boss. Be specific about what behaviors are unacceptable and how you expect to be treated. State your expectations regarding communication, workload, and respect. Reiterate these boundaries as needed and hold your boss accountable if they cross them.

  6. Seek Mediation or Intervention: If the situation does not improve or becomes unbearable, consider involving HR or requesting mediation. Provide them with your documented incidents and share your concerns. They can help facilitate a conversation between you and your boss or initiate appropriate action to address the issue.

  7. Focus on Self-Care: Take care of your well-being during this challenging time. Engage in activities that reduce stress and promote a healthy work-life balance. Seek support from friends, family, or a professional coach or counselor to help you navigate the emotional toll of dealing with a bully boss.

Remember, addressing a bully boss and establishing boundaries requires courage and persistence. It is crucial to advocate for yourself and take action to protect your well-being and professional growth.

Tips on How to Approach HR or Request Mediation

Here are some tips on how to approach HR or request mediation.

  1. Research your company's policy: Before approaching HR, it is important to know your company's policy on bullying and harassment. Review the company handbook or policy manuals to understand the process, procedures, and resources available to you.

  2. Consider the timing and context: Choose an appropriate time and place to approach HR or request mediation. Consider the context of the situation and plan ahead to ensure you can present your concerns in a calm and professional manner.

  3. Be specific and clear: When presenting your concerns, be specific and clear about the incidents and behaviors that are affecting you. Provide details, dates, and any documentation you have gathered.

  4. Emphasize the impact on your well-being and work: Explain how the behavior is impacting your well-being, work performance, and the work environment. Provide examples of how the behavior is affecting your ability to work effectively.

  5. Ask for support and resources: Request support and resources from HR, such as mediation, coaching, or counseling. Ask for guidance on how to navigate the situation and protect your well-being.

  6. Follow up: After presenting your concerns, follow up with HR to ensure that appropriate action is being taken. Stay engaged and communicate any updates or concerns.

Remember that HR is there to support you and ensure a safe and healthy work environment. By approaching HR and requesting mediation, you are taking a positive step towards addressing the bullying behavior and protecting your well-being.


Dealing with a bully boss requires courage, persistence, and strategic planning. By establishing appropriate boundaries and addressing the issue effectively, you can protect your well-being and professional growth. Remember to seek support, communicate assertively, and hold your boss accountable if they cross your boundaries. If the situation becomes unbearable, consider involving HR or requesting mediation. By taking action, you are sending a message that bullying behavior is not acceptable and creating a safe and healthy work environment for yourself and others.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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