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career girl: how to deal with a bullying boss


Work. Employment. Doing it for the money – as lame as it can sometimes be, working is inherently a big part of our lives. Australia has a massive work culture – independence and financial stability are highly valued, and labour market attachment can be a huge definer of social mobility, welfare and our culture more generally.

This new column will cover topics work-related – getting a job, tales of workplace woe, inspiring stories of careers gone well, and much more. I have worked in a wide range of different roles, from call centre operator to drug peddler (aka, pharmacy worker), and am keen to share some of my experiences.

I entered the labour market when I was 16, and have been slinging from workplace to workplace ever since. I remember being in high school, and hearing that my best friend had recently been hired by the local Subway franchise. Suddenly she seemed so grown up, cosmopolitan – a woman of means.

I wanted to be a woman of means – to have savings, and a proper bank account instead of just a tally in the back of my mum’s address book where she kept score of birthday money and extra pocket money that I somehow managed not to spend.

I started scouring the local newspaper for vacancies, unwilling to stoop to food service unless I absolutely had to. I had recently watched Empire Records for the first time, and wanted nothing more than to be employed with a band of misfits in a cute record store, where I got to wear no uniform and maybe even choose the music each morning.

So, when a local antique/retro store advertised a casual sales position, I leapt at the chance. This place was seriously cool – housed in a 1940’s Laundromat building on the main street of my small town, it was packed with retro ‘60s and ‘70s furniture, played awesome ‘60s rock & roll and 80’s hits all day, and even had a little ‘pancake café’ in the old kitchen, replete with a bright red fridge, a massive old coffee machine and adorable ‘50s tables.

The only other person who worked there was a sassy uni student who was instantly friendly, and wore a Pink Lady jacket she made herself on my first day of training. How could this be anything but perfect?!

I was determined to be a good employee, and was always on time, dressed to impress, and picked up the till system quickly. And yet, my boss still yelled and swore at me every day, often several times.

My boss was an intimidating man – he was tall and large, and he would tower over me while yelling at me about innocuous things, like making his coffee too strong or polishing the furniture the wrong way.

It was Summer when I first took the job, and the only ventilation in the store was a big, industrial sized fan. Sometimes, as he would yell at me, sweat would fly off my boss’ nose to spray me alongside his saliva. It was terrifying and disgusting at the same time.

Frighteningly, however, the yelling would be interspersed with moments of kindness, where we’d chat about other things, and he’d tell me what a great employee I was. These mood swings, if anything, where more upsetting and anxiety inducing than the actual yelling – I never knew when he would snap, or what I was doing to incur is wrath.

I started suffering from real anxiety – in the afternoons, I would get home and sit on the couch crying. I would get so stressed the night before work, that I would barely sleep. The days when I was in the store alone where the best, and I would revel in being able to tidy, sell and take care of things without constantly feeling his eyes burning into my back.

Finally, I got to the point where I couldn’t take the pressure any longer – I was young, scared, and fairly certain that work didn’t have to be like this.

I quit in tears, and he managed to yell at me even while trying to get me to stay. When he finally realised my mind was made up, he gave me my last task – to clean out the toilets – and I left with relief.

Coping with a bullying boss can be difficult. The power dynamic that exists between employers and employees puts you in a difficult position from the get-go. As the employee, you can feel vulnerable and unable to stand up for yourself for fear of losing your job.

Here are some of my tips for dealing with a bullying boss:

Ask them to change their tone, or to speak to you in a more reasonable manner.

This might seem a bit aggressive, but it’s important that you let them know that they are speaking to you in an inappropriate manner. My ex-boss used to swear at me, which I found really alarming. A simple ‘Can we please talk about this calmly’, or ‘Please don’t raise your voice’ can be a good way to remind your boss that they are crossing a line, and to draw the conversation back to more civil territory.

Try to identify what the real issue is.

It’s important to try and understand where the aggression is coming from – have you behaved incorrectly at some point? Has there been a miscommunication about your duties? Ask your boss to explain where they’re coming from, if they are criticising your work. Read through your contract and position description to make sure you know what your role and obligations are, and suggest a sit-down meeting with your boss to clarify any misunderstandings.

Know your rights.

Remember, workplace bullying and harassment are against the law, and there are measures in place to protect your rights at work. The Reach Out website can be a good resource to help you find assistance and more info.

Ultimately, remember that you have a right to feel safe and comfortable at work, both physically and mentally. Bullying is never ok, and you are under no obligation to put up with it.

As for my bullying boss from the antique store? Well, about a month after I quit, the store caught fire and burnt down – true story*.


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*I didn’t set the place on fire, if that’s what you’re thinking! Seriously.


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