If the thought of your boss makes you bury your head in the sand and break out in hives, it’s probably a sign that your boss is toxic. Those may be extreme reactions, but having a bully for a manager can have a serious, negative impact on your work life, your personal life, and your mental health. If your relationship with your boss is so poisonous that you’re considering leaving your job, you’re not alone: A 2015 Gallup study found that half of more than 7,000 adults surveyed had quit a job in order to get away from a bad boss.
No boss is going to be perfect. Bosses are human, and so they are subject to the same idiosyncrasies and faults that everyone else is. It’s also important to acknowledge that any working relationship is a two-way street; if you don’t gel very well with your boss, you should take a good, long look at the attitudes that you’re bringing to the table. But there’s a difference between an imperfect boss and someone that makes you dread going to work every morning — between someone who frustrates you occasionally and someone who makes you feel insecure and upset on a regular basis. You don’t have to LOVE your boss all the time — or even ever — but your boss shouldn’t make you miserable, either.
A terrible leader is bad for both employees and the company they work for. “A toxic boss can rapidly spread the negativity,” Laura MacLeod, HR expert and founder of From The Inside Out Project, tells Bustle. When put under the authority of a toxic person, employees will begin to “question their abilities and develop insecurities,” she says. That negativity ripples outward: Employees will hide rather than seek assistance, which in turn negatively impacts the organization as a whole. “You can't get anywhere if employees are not sharing and collaborating,” MacLeod explains. “Ultimately great employees will leave to work at a place where they can trust administrators and believe in the mission and culture.”
There are a wide variety of ways that a manager can undermine a workplace, but these are a few of the key signs that your boss is poisonous:
1. Your boss is critical. ALL. OF. THE. TIME.
It’s part of your boss’s job to point out where improvement is needed, but there’s a big difference between constructive criticism and constant, oppressive negativity. If your boss seems incapable of saying anything positive about your work performance — and, in fact, seems to go out of his or her way to criticize you — that behavior says less about your work than it does about you’re boss’s attitude.
2. Your boss has unpredictable mood swings.
If you’re boss’s responses to normal requests swing from “welcoming and reasonable” to “unaccountably enraged” for seemingly no reason, it’s no wonder you feel apprehensive. Sure, your boss has emotions like everyone else, and those emotions might influence how he or she acts. But, as an employee, you should be able to expect that your manager will react to normal occurrences without freaking out.
3. Your boss behaves inappropriately toward you.
It’s all well and good to be friendly toward one’s employees, but there are boundaries that a boss should not cross. A supervisor shouldn’t pressure you to share intimate details about your personal life, and he or she should not share highly personal information about his or her own romantic life, sexual activities, or bodily functions. And at no point should he or she transgress your physical boundaries. If your boss makes you feel emotionally or physically uncomfortable, that is a huge red flag.
4. Your boss micromanages.
Managers who feel the need to control every tiny aspect of their employees’ performance are doing a major disservice to their companies. First, by constantly interfering with employees’ work, they all but guarantee that their workers won’t get anything done. Second, their behavior tells employees that they aren’t trusted to do their jobs independently, which is bound to create anxiety, resentment, and, ultimately, a high turnover rate.
5. Your boss disappears.
Micromanaging is a sure way to smother an employee into madness (or at least quitting), but doing the opposite can be just as damaging. A boss who is completely disengaged — who won’t respond to emails, provide guidance, or make him or herself available for meetings — creates a toxic environment that leaves employees high and dry.
6. Your boss expects you to be on call 24/7.
Every job has different expectations of employee availability; some are strictly 8 to 5, while others require more flexibility. But if your boss expects you to be available all the time — at night, on the weekends, when you’re on vacation — that’s a problem, especially if he or she expects you to respond immediately to calls and emails about matters that could easily wait to be discussed during the work day. You are entitled to personal time, and nothing will poison your perception of your job like the feeling that you always have one foot in the office.
7. Your boss refuses to listen to you.
At the end of the day, it’s your boss’s job to make decisions and set company policy, but he or she should still be willing to listen to ideas and feedback from employees. A boss who refuses to listen to what employees have to say is implicitly telling workers that their thoughts don’t matter — and, even worse, that boss is wasting knowledge and creativity that could benefit the organization.
8. Your boss pits coworkers against each other.
A boss who plays favorites among staff or belittles employees in front of their peers creates a poisonous relationship, not only between management and workers, but also between the workers themselves. An employer's goal should be to promote cooperation (and therefore productivity) in the workplace, and a boss who deliberately undermines team cohesion isn’t doing a good job.
9. You dread going to work, and that feeling is centered on your boss.
If thinking about your boss fills you with anxiety — if you feel certain that any encounter with him or her will be negative and even traumatic — that’s a pretty sure sign that something is seriously wrong with your boss’s management style. If interacting with your boss leaves you feeling berated, devalued, or so upset that you can’t do your job, that is a dynamic that needs to change.
So you have a toxic boss. What can you do about it?
If lots of these qualities are pinging bells for you, congratulations! Or, er, condolences! You have a toxic boss! You have taken the first step of identifying the problem, but fixing it will be more difficult.
“Toxic bosses are often untamed bullies,” MacLeod tells Bustle. “Bullies are rarely confronted, so confronting your boss in a straightforward way may be the answer.” She suggests making statements that directly respond to what your boss is doing. When your boss screams at you, for example, calmly tell him or her, “You’re screaming at me.” You can even add in a smile, MacLeod says, to throw him or her off. “You are empowered and you haven't been aggressive or insubordinate,” she explains.
However, sometimes the only course of action is getting the hell out of there. “If you are honestly traumatized in any way by a toxic boss and have tried to work it out — and nothing has changed — absolutely get a new job,” MacLeod says. But first, report you’re boss’s toxic actions to the higher ups. As MacLeod says, “HR and the company need to know.”