Let me tell you about the time a priest almost punched me in the face.

I was at work. In fact, he was my boss. Not sure if that makes it better or worse.

I walked into the building, ready to get my photographers together to go on their daily shoots. I was the senior producer for the communications arm of a Catholic Diocese, and it was my job to put together a weekly magazine show with the pertinent news of the day. The vibe was off in the room. Sally was scurrying around with her head down, no greeting, and Bryce was holed up in his editing bay with the door shut. I checked on our footage from the previous day, but the tape deck wouldn’t play. It was broken.

“Hey, Sally, the deck is broken. I’m going to go tell Father Joe.”

“No! Don’t do that!” There was fear in her voice. “He’ll say we broke it. He’ll be mad.”

I asked if they had broken it, and they had not. Time had. It was 30 years old.

I was the new hire, and in my mind, when you tell the boss an old piece of equipment isn’t working, the boss takes care of it. The end.

But I was wrong. Sally was right.

Father doesn’t know best

When I told Father Joe, he stormed into the room and demanded to know who had broken the deck. He was actually angry and he wouldn’t stop yelling. You could tell the rest of the staff was used to this. They cowered, and stayed silent, eyes down. They accepted their ‘punishments.’ Bryce was ordered to dredge the pond on the property, and Sally had to wash the Father’s car.

As a typical American worker, I was taken aback. I said no. This was my staff and we had real work to do. When I didn’t back down, he intensified and so did I, until we were yelling at each other, face-to-face, in the hallway.

Suddenly, I was staring at the business end of my boss’s fist which stopped, as if frozen, right above his shoulder, where I assume he’d pulled it back out of some caveman reflex or something. He never threw that punch, but as a 26-year-old woman, it was scary even posed in threat.

I stood my ground. He backed off.

He never apologized, and I continued to work for him (jobs are hard to come by). We got a new tape deck.

We’ve all been there

Most bosses aren’t that bad, but almost everyone has had at least one horrible boss in their careers. Whether it’s the micromanaging middle manager, the team lead who sabotages her own working group members to look better, or the CEO who says he can’t do it all, yet pops up in every meeting with a racist, misogynistic or narcissistic story, to which his underlings must nod along or risk losing their jobs.

Motivation killers

Currently, my boss frequently says things like “we need to hot it up,” and he “holds working groups,” and “circles back offline,” and wants his staff to be “proactive in recruiting volunteers,” and constantly reprimands people for not replying on Slack in the correct thread. Honestly, this inane dribble wears at my soul just as much.

What do you do when your boss is a complete asshat?

1)      Fly under the radar.

Don’t do what I did, if it can be avoided. If you need the work, and your boss is annoying but not a detriment to your mental health (or violent), it can be beneficial to keep your head down and do your work, with as little interaction as possible. You don’t want to completely ignore the boss, or give him or her an inkling that you don’t want to talk to them. You want to be completely neutral. Pleasant on the outside, when you cross paths, but keeping that path-crossing to a minimum.

The best way to do this is to meet your benchmarks, do solid work, clock in, clock out, and get out of there.

2)      Find common ground.

Simply existing at work is not a tenable solution for the long term. It will suck the soul out of you, and leave no energy for your life outside of work. It will become a spiral of exhaustion and negativity that you keep inside, and it will hollow you out.

A better way to get around your boss is to charm them somehow. Think of it as tactical training. Find areas that interest them that you can fall back on during conversation, be amenable and kind, and steer the conversation away from topics that irk you with nuance and grace.

3)      Keep organized notes and copious records.

For the boss who is never pleased, try not to take it personally (even if it is or seems very personal). Keep notes on every step of every project you complete. Use spreadsheets with marked goals and keep all responsible parties in the loop at every advancement. This way, when questions arise, you have direct and quantifiable answers for your boss, a marked past plan and steps into the future. It covers you, and also shows organizational skills and project management.

4)      Find your people.

Usually, if a boss is a bad apple, there are workers who know it, and to make it bearable, they bring the jokes. Find them, and your life will be immeasurably better. Texting ridiculous one-liners back and forth can make the obscene and annoying things coming out of the boss’s mouth fodder for creativity and laughter, rather than feeling belittled, unheard, and disgusted by the end of the meeting. Inside jokes among friends to point out the absurdities of life and work at the expense of the cause can make the days go by. We laugh so we don’t cry, right?

5)      Look at your contract and consider human resources

There are some things that cross a line, some things that cannot be handled with deferment or politeness, or one-on-one at all. If someone is causing harm through bullying, racism, homophobia, or sexism, it needs to be addressed further up the chain. 

Keep in mind, these are things that go well beyond your typical boss asshattery. Before going to corporate or human resources, if you have that structure to fall back on, check out the contract you signed before starting work. Look for clauses that will protect you when you bring complaints against your boss. Know exactly what your rights are, and what boxes you need to check.

Look into your human resources department before lodging your complaint. While HR is supposed to be neutral, some companies and nonprofits have it set up so that HR is only there to protect the power structure. They will harangue you and cause you to doubt yourself, and look for information to discredit you if you need to escalate. Most human resources departments, however, are independent and will take your query seriously.

Keep the ACLU and other rights groups in your pocket for extra layers, if you need to go outside the company.

6)      Start sending out that resume.

Many times, just knowing you are taking steps to get out of a bad situation will lift your spirits. Give your own self hope by making moves to get out. Every bad joke, every mean-spirited jab, every micromanaging nag seems less onerous when you have one foot out the door. And it will give your work a new purpose, too. Take on projects that will pad your portfolio. Learn new skills, and increase your value while there. You do you. Living well will be a good revenge.

All in all, you are in the hard spot, since you most likely need the job. I know I did. But most of the time, you can find ways to work and deal and get on with everything in spite of your ridiculous boss.

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About Darlena Cunha

Darlena Cunha is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Florida and freelance writer whose work appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and more.

View all posts by Darlena Cunha