How to handle a toxic boss

No matter how desperate life may seem under a toxic boss, there’s a strategy for addressing the problem

How to handle a toxic boss

A toxic worker is far from the quiet, introverted, low-performing employee who only stays in their cubicle during lunch. Toxic employees are sometimes top performers – or, worse, they may even be the boss.

A toxic boss doesn’t just fly under the radar. They go out of their way to criticise, sabotage and humiliate any threat or nuisance in the workplace.

‘Power-hungry’ and ‘incompetent’
Having a toxic boss isn’t as uncommon as one might think. In a 2018 survey by, three in four employees (76%) said they currently have or recently had a toxic boss. Among those with a bad experience with an employer:

  • 26% – described their boss as ‘power-hungry’
  • 18% – as micromanagers
  • 17% – as incompetent
  • 15% – as missing in action

Of course, dealing with a tough boss is different from dealing with a toxic one. But the differences aren’t always so clear since the two archetypes share some traits.

One of them is about being upfront about their demands. A tough boss might keep their staff to a high standard, but they would also make sure to support their workers and set them up for success.

For Alan Cavaiola, clinical psychologist and author of the book ‘Impossible to Please’: “Bosses who are tough yet supportive tend to take their mentoring role seriously. They tend to be conscientious in explaining what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and why.”

A toxic boss, on the other hand, might lay out similar expectations, but they dismiss the efforts of their workers and ignore the challenges their subordinates face along the way. It matters little to them if a worker is stressed or overworked as long as the worker gets the job done and makes the boss look good in the eyes of senior management. In short, a toxic boss only looks out for themselves.

An employer who expects staff to come in early for an 8 a.m. meeting on Monday may be considered tough. But a toxic boss emails and expects a reply from staff at 11 p.m. the night before.

5 signs of a toxic boss

When does a tough boss become a bully? Here are five common signs of a toxic boss and their bullying tactics:

1. They are NEVER wrong
A toxic boss lacks the humility to admit they don’t know everything or that other people may be better than them at certain things. If they see someone presenting facts contrary to their beliefs, then they might take liberties in interpreting such facts to make them fit into their narrative.

If they feel humiliated at having been corrected, then they might dismiss the other person’s ideas and attack them for having spoken out.

2. They downplay other people’s accomplishments
Similar to the first sign, a toxic boss who is made to feel inferior, especially in public, might lash out or make light of other people’s ideas. But one undeniable sign an employer is being a bully is when they exclude certain people from projects despite how beneficial a person’s expertise or experience might be to the undertaking. This is their way of downplaying or limiting the potential of others.

3. They cause division
Competition may be healthy in a social environment but not when it causes division among team members. A toxic boss thrives in conflict: there is less tendency for them to be defeated. They maintain the status quo by destroying any sign of unity or rapport within their team, and either play favourites, talk about people behind their back, and throw shade in public.

4. They micromanage their staff
Trust is one of the biggest factors behind a successful team. But there’s no greater sign of a lack of trust than the act of micromanaging employees.

Good managers monitor team performance by allowing employees to handle the job and to report accomplishments and challenges at certain pit stops.

But toxic managers are uncomfortable relinquishing control so they feel the need to keep a close watch at every move. Not only do they distrust their systems and processes; they also lack confidence in the ability of other people.

Micromanaging – being territorial and showing distrust – may also indicate an underlying passive aggression.

5. They neglect people and treat them as objects
The most important sign of a toxic boss boils down to how they disrespect people: from cutting people off during a meeting and ignoring their ideas, to failing to give constructive feedback, gossiping and making offensive remarks, to an overall lack of concern for the wellbeing of staff.

While most people would often just ignore the bad behaviour of senior staff, instances of harassment and discrimination may be grounds for a manager’s dismissal, suspension or demotion.

How to handle a toxic boss

1. Know your rights
It’s important to get educated on your company’s code of conduct and your state or province’s employment laws to help you determine first-hand whether there’s been a violation. Knowing your rights in specific situations will also give you the language necessary for pinpointing, narrating, and documenting instances in which you’ve felt harassed or bullied.

2. Take note of interactions with the boss
Document instances of harassment and discrimination. It may be a simple journal of how, why, when, where and how many times you encountered your boss. Indicate the names of witnesses and collect supporting (documentary) evidence of your boss’s negative actions toward you.

3. Assess your feelings and the facts about the situation
Be prepared to answer tough questions about your interactions with your boss. Determine how your boss made you feel. You may opt to have a life/career coach or a therapist go over the situations with you. With the help of people you trust at work, you can find out whether others feel the same way about the person and whether there have been previous complaints.

4. Talk to HR
After analysing the facts of the situation and its impact on your health, wellbeing and performance at work, talk to Human Resources and present a chronicle of events. File a formal complaint and allow HR to investigate and map out a way forward.

5. Get professional help
If you feel you’ve been the target of discrimination and bullying by higher-ups, but you aren’t sure how to pinpoint negative behaviour, then it’s best to seek professional health and legal advice. If you’ve decided to take action on your organisation, ask the help of a good employment lawyer to explore all legal remedies. Find a support group that can point you to the right lawyers, career coaches, and therapists who can help you navigate your way.

6. Take care of yourself and remember your worth
Constant encounters with a toxic boss can cause mental, emotional and physical fatigue, as well as anxiety and depression. Remember to prioritise your health by taking a break from work, getting enough sleep and activity, and reconnecting with friends and loved ones who know and value you.

No matter how desperate a situation may seem under a toxic boss, there are people willing to help and there are strategies for addressing the problem.

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