Abusive Bosses and How to Save Yourself from Them

Abusive bosses are just insecure people who themselves were abused, likely as kids. But still, protect yourself.

Bad Bosses are Rampant

Updated: February 29, 2024

In the corporate world, you hear the most audacious stories of abuse from colleagues and bosses. A colleague reminded me of a former staff member who would violate federal law but escape due to the former CEO’s protection. He worked at an airport and would use his badge privilege to force airline staff to allow him on a flight after the gate closed. He and the boss were drinking buddies. Furthermore, the guy committed numerous acts of sexual harassment, and despite formal complaints, he escaped. Some bad bosses badger staff to assuage their insecurities. You must find ways to save yourself from these abusive coworkers.

Your workplace should be a safe and comfortable place to work. The impact on our well-being is tremendous because we spend most of our waking days here. However, often we don’t feel safe. Some bosses don’t have your back and will “throw you under the bus” to cover their insecurities.

During a leadership retreat to encourage staff comradery, one boss said, “Those who don’t do as he says will be thrown off the ship!” Yikes! During the break, one of his underlings bragged that she would threaten her staff face-to-face, ready to fight if necessary, when they complained of working conditions. She was from Chicago, so she was tough! Double yikes! She was perfect for her boss, intent on throwing people off the boat. Like her boss, she lasted less than two years in the company.

Others will attack periodically, making you spend endless time defending your integrity. At the same time, they attempt to economically destroy you, often because they have the power to use you to intoxicate their self-esteem. They always seem to aim for the reputational jugular to make sure you never work in the industry again. I wrote another post on my travel blog about how to stay sane in a crazy work environment. It’s already a stressful system keeping up with the economic cycle. Workers should not have a mad cat for a boss in the rat race. 

Staff are Not Lazy; they want to be Treated With Respect

Yet, bosses wonder about the great resignation. They claim that people don’t want to work because they are lazy. “They are still living off the government stimulus check,” I heard one head of a company complain. He was referring to the “aid for the unemployed, the hungry, and those facing eviction” provided by the government. I get it in some ways. I know how hard it is to find good, reliable workers with the right skills. I also know that when you find the right workers, they will leave if you don’t treat them right. These bosses want to get the work done. Some businesses cannot survive without workers, so we must act accordingly as bosses.

“Someone with a growth mindset views intelligence, abilities, and talents as learnable and capable of improvement through effort. On the other hand, someone with a fixed mindset views those same traits as inherently stable and unchangeable over time.

The concept of growth and fixed mindsets was coined by psychologist Carol Dweck in her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

According to Dweck, challenging situations can be catastrophic for those with fixed mindsets because of the implication that if they don’t already have the skills or intelligence to complete a task, there’s no chance of improvement.

When you have a growth mindset, you believe you [and your team] can gain the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed, which makes every challenge a learning opportunity. Given the numerous challenges entrepreneurs face, a growth mindset can be a powerful tool as you work toward your venture’s success.”

Catherine Cote, Harvard Business School

Colleagues can also be abusive to peers. It’s good when you have a boss who protects you and one you can confide in on work-related grievances. It’s terrible when you have a vindictive boss with a fixed mindset. In his last week on the job, I recall one who attacked my English language with a scathing email, screaming (in CAPS) that I had made grammatical errors in a report I wrote. Another colleague had shown me similarly obscene communication emanating from this same boss.

I wrote him about his unprofessional behavior. I also corrected his email to me with his errors. Even in your unprofessionalism, you should have an iota of decorum. Not surprisingly, he doubled down. I would have written him in Antigua, and we would have had a back-and-forth literary brawl.

But here in the USA, there is another element to consider. There is a sense of entitlement here that when someone feels wronged, they may not hesitate to get violent and massacre their colleagues. Always consider that a colleague could go postal and hurt people because, as a good friend once said, “Hurt people, hurt people.” I see colleagues who have been rude to their peers, always under tension like those old-time wound-up clocks, where you hope their spring will not break when you are around them. 

Protect your Peace of Mind

Protect your integrity, but consider how much of that fight is worth. Sometimes, someone’s mental health, temporary or permanent, may not allow for a rational adversary. People believe what they believe based on their societal grooming, and often, nothing shakes that, no matter how irrational and crazy it seems to the observer. That’s a solid fixed mindset.

Workplace violence that harms you and diminishes your life’s energy is not worth the trouble. No job is worth losing your sanity, family, and future economic value. Report the verbal or physical abuse and bullying, but where it’s a protected boss, you may want to plan your exit quickly and move on to someplace safer. It’s not worth your stress levels, reduced immunity, hypertension, anxiety, or retaliation that perhaps triggers you to snap from the pressure of a dysfunctional workplace and equally toxic bosses.

Nothing beats your peace of mind and good health. Without these, you may not be able to get another job, let alone enjoy your life with family and friends. I will tell you one final story. While working at the WTO Secretariat, I had lunch with two colleagues one day. Lunch with colleagues was not uncommon, but on that day, one complained about an abusive boss. I listened and empathized, letting her vent. I was used to letting people let off steam by venting to me. Besides, her boss was a jerk to his staff.

Suddenly, she triggered an epileptic episode. For 8 minutes, she lost consciousness while her body convulsed uncontrollably. I stayed calm for the event, aiding her until the paramedics arrived. I later had debilitating abdominal cramps that prevented me from functioning that afternoon. Our office nurse attributed my condition to my mentally recounting the occurrence. The experience left me with one crucial point. The stress of a job and the abuse can rapidly trigger physical health deterioration, as did my friend, or gradually via hypertension and other stress-related disorders. No job is worth that. Just quit and find something else.

Thanks for reading. I would love to hear comments from others.


  1. The story about the lunch with colleagues was a powerful reminder of how stress and abuse at work can manifest physically. We need to take this seriously. I hope she was okay and eventually quit that job.

  2. It’s articles like these that start important conversations in the corporate world. We need to hold bad bosses accountable.

  3. I appreciate the practical advice on handling workplace abuse. It’s a tough situation, but knowing there are steps to take is empowering.

  4. The part about ‘hurt people, hurt people’ really made me think. It’s a cycle of toxicity that needs to be broken.

    • It’s a poignant reminder of the underlying issues that often perpetuate toxic environments. Breaking this cycle is indeed crucial, and it starts with awareness and empathy. Each of us has the power to contribute to a healthier, more supportive workplace by understanding our own actions and their impacts. Your reflection on this is a valuable step towards fostering positive change. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Witnessed a colleague suffer under a bad boss, and it was heartbreaking. She was crying and he still continued to shout at her. He did not even close the door to his office. I guess he wanted everyone to see how tough he was at humiliating his staff. He is a beast and I am looking for wanther job as I write this. Your advice on protecting one’s peace of mind is invaluable.

  6. Your comment truly resonates with me, and I’m heartened to hear that the article served as a catalyst for such a positive shift in your mindset. It’s a powerful realization to acknowledge that our time and well-being are too precious to be compromised by a less-than-ideal work environment. Your decision to seek new opportunities is a brave step towards reclaiming your happiness and professional fulfillment.

    Remember, embarking on this journey may present its own set of challenges, but it’s all part of navigating towards a role that aligns more closely with your values, skills, and aspirations. YOLO!! Life indeed is too short to spend in misery, especially considering the significant portion of our lives dedicated to our careers. Seeking a job where you feel valued, respected, and inspired not only enhances your personal life but also contributes to your professional growth and success.

    I encourage you to approach this transition with optimism and an open mind. The right opportunity is out there for you, and it’s only a matter of time before you find it. Keep believing in your worth and the unique contributions you can bring to a workplace that appreciates you. Here’s to new beginnings and to a future where your work brings you joy and satisfaction. Wishing you all the best in your search for a more fulfilling job. Your courage to make a change is commendable and inspiring to others who might be in a similar situation.

  7. Lived through a similar experience and it was debilitating. Articles like this shine a light on what many prefer to ignore. Thank you for speaking up.

  8. I think this article overlooks the responsibility of employees to adapt and overcome challenges. Not every tough situation is ‘abuse.

  9. A brilliant piece! It’s high time the conversation around workplace health includes mental health and the role of leadership in fostering it.

  10. The personal anecdotes really hit home. It’s stories like these that need to be shared more often to bring about change in workplace cultures. Please update when you can because the last paragraph seemed to have a period missing. I will follow more of your writings. Note that I also looked at your travel blog and I will subscribe to get all the goodies about dating you have hidden.

    • Thanks so much for your feedback. I wholeheartedly agree that sharing these stories is crucial for fostering change in workplace cultures. Your encouragement inspires me to continue uncovering and writing about these important topics. I’ll make sure to review and update the article for any missing details, including that last paragraph.

      I’m thrilled to hear you’ve explored my travel blog as well and are considering subscribing! There’s a lot more content to come, not just on travel but also on other lifestyle topics like dating. Your interest and support mean a lot to me, and I look forward to sharing more stories and insights with you. Keep an eye out for updates, and thank you once again for your engaging and thoughtful response!

  11. Thank you for addressing the great resignation in the context of bad leadership. It’s a real issue, and many don’t realize how much it’s about respect and mental well-being.

  12. This paints with too broad a brush. There are two sides to every story. Sometimes what’s perceived as ‘abuse’ might just be high standards.

    • I appreciate your perspective and the reminder that every situation does indeed have multiple facets. It’s true that what some may view as a demanding work environment, others might see as an opportunity for growth under high standards. The intention of highlighting these experiences isn’t to generalize all challenging situations as abusive but rather to shed light on instances where the line between pushing for excellence and mistreating employees becomes blurred.

      Your point brings an important balance to the conversation, emphasizing the need for open dialogue between employees and management to clarify expectations and perceptions. It’s crucial for leaders to communicate their high standards in ways that inspire and motivate, rather than intimidate and demean. This dialogue can lead to a deeper understanding on both sides, potentially transforming a perceived toxic environment into a thriving, high-performing one. Thank you for contributing this important viewpoint to the discussion.

  13. This piece is a must-read for anyone feeling trapped in a toxic work environment. Knowing that there are others out there experiencing the same thing is somewhat comforting. Just last year, I worked in a marketing firm where the culture was driven by fear and intimidation. Our boss would set unrealistic targets and publicly shame anyone who fell short. During team meetings, he’d single out individuals for minor mistakes, turning constructive feedback sessions into personal attacks. It created an atmosphere where everyone was too scared to innovate or even communicate openly, for fear of being the next target. This article reminds me that it’s not just isolated incidents but a widespread issue that needs addressing. Sharing experiences like mine and the ones in the article helps highlight the urgent need for change in how companies manage and lead their teams.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience. It’s stories like yours that underscore the importance of discussing and addressing toxic workplace cultures. I’m truly sorry to hear about the challenges you faced in your previous role. No one should have to endure such an environment where fear and intimidation overshadow creativity and growth.

      Your courage to speak out is commendable, and I hope your story inspires others to recognize their worth and seek healthier, more supportive workplaces. Remember, your skills, ideas, and well-being are valuable, and there are organizations out there that will appreciate and nurture them. I encourage you to continue looking forward and to not settle for a workplace that diminishes your spirit. A better job, one that respects and fosters your growth, is out there waiting for you. Wishing you all the best in your search for a more positive and rewarding work environment.

  14. Can relate 100%. Worked under a boss who thought belittling staff was motivational. It’s important to recognize these signs early and act. Great read!

  15. Articles like this only encourage a victim mentality. Sometimes challenges at work are opportunities to grow. Have you every considered that as part of your “growth mindset??” Maybe it’s not the bosses – maybe it’s you.

    • You may be right! I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on the different perspectives that contribute to our work experiences. It’s true that challenges can indeed serve as catalysts for personal and professional growth. Embracing a growth mindset is important, not only in how we perceive the actions of others, including our bosses but also in how we approach our own development and reactions to workplace dynamics.

      However, recognizing the need for a respectful and supportive work environment is also a fundamental aspect of nurturing a healthy professional life. My decision to seek new opportunities was driven by the desire for a workplace that aligns with both my growth aspirations and my standards for mutual respect and civility.

      Thank you for engaging with the article and for sharing your thoughts. It’s through such dialogues that we can explore the multifaceted nature of work environments and the role we each play in shaping our experiences.

  16. Reading this felt like therapy. It’s reassuring to know that what I felt was not ‘just in my head.’ I will read that book. The growth mindset section was particularly enlightening. Thanks.

  17. While I sympathize with those who’ve had bad experiences, not all bosses are terrible. Sometimes, it’s about communication and understanding each other’s expectations. We should also focus on the positive stories.

  18. This article is spot-on. I’ve worked under a boss who made every day a nightmare. He actually held on to my pay for two months saying that the donors did not pay them. I later found out he committed fraud. Your piece was a breath of fresh air to read that I’m not alone and that there are ways to protect my peace. Thank you for sharing!

  19. Finally, someone said it! Bad bosses can ruin not just your career but your entire life. I’ve been there, and it’s crucial to know when to walk away. I now work for myself and it was the best thing I ever did. Thanks to my wife and family for their support. Appreciate you bringing this to light.

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