Here are seven things you can do, starting today, to protect yourself if your boss is a bully:
- CYA: If your boss tells you to do things, then denies it later, document everything. If she tells you, for instance, to do something you know violates company policy, send her an email along these lines: "This will confirm your instruction that you want me to do XYZ even though this would normally be contrary to Policy No. 123. Unless you advise me that this is incorrect by (insert a time), I will follow your instruction forthwith."
- Don't be insubordinate: If the bully tries to bait you, don't react. Be calm. He's trying to get you to do something stupid so he can say you were insubordinate. As much as you want to grab him by the collar, don't do it. If he orders you to do something, even if it's demeaning, do it (unless it's unsafe or illegal). Then document it. Use it as evidence if you figure out that he's engaging in discrimination or something else illegal.
- Keep track of the bullying targets: While bullying at work isn't illegal in any state, workplace bullies are just like the old playground bullies. Who do bullies target? The weak and the different. If your coworkers and you (or just you) are being targeted because of race, age, sex, religion, national origin, pregnancy, disability, taking Family and Medical Leave, making a worker's compensation claim or some other protected category, then the bully is breaking the law.
- Safety in numbers: Let's say the bully isn't doing anything illegal, like discrimination. If he's picking on coworkers too (and you aren't a supervisor yourself) then you are allowed to discuss working conditions with coworkers. The National Labor Relations Act protects most non-government employees against retaliation for these discussions with coworkers. You're also protected against retaliation if a group of coworkers gets together to complain about working conditions. If you complain on your own behalf as well as at least one other coworker, you are probably protected against retaliation even if you aren't protected when you complain for yourself alone. So get together and write a complaint to HR signed by the bully's targets. It will possibly go in his personnel file and might even get the company to take some action.
- Complain so you're protected: If you're alone, and you still want to complain, make sure you complain about something the bully is doing that's illegal. For example, if you've figured out that she's targeting older employees, then call it a "Formal Complaint of Age Discrimination." Put it in writing and lay out all the evidence you have of ways younger employees are favored over older employees, ways older employees are targeted for discipline that younger employees don't get, age-related comments, promotions going to younger employees, anything you have that makes your point. Don't focus on "unfair treatment" or bullying. Focus on what's illegal. That way you'll be legally protected against retaliation.
- Don't quit without having a job: If the bully is intolerable, then leave, but do it when you have something lined up. Don't let a bully force you out of a job you need to support your family and you. Because discrimination against the unemployed is still legal in most states, it's easier to get a job if you have a job.
- Start looking: It may seem obvious, but I can't tell you how many people come to me after they were fired, and they'd been tortured for years. I ask why they didn't get the heck out of there and they look at me funny. Sometimes, if a boss is abusive, the bully can convince you nobody would hire you, and that you're worthless. They're wrong. Don't wait until you're fired. Leave on your own terms, not the bully's.
If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs. While I can't answer every question here, your question might be featured in one of my columns, or in our upcoming live video chat.