Expert Tips for Surviving a Bad Boss

If you’ve been in the workforce for a while, you’ve likely encountered a bad manager or supervisor. Working for a bad boss, whether he or she is simply ineffective or outright abusive, can be damaging to your personal health and your career growth. Karyn Schoenbart, CEO of THE NPD Group and author of the book MOM.B.A., offers advice for surviving when you work for a bad boss.


What are some bad boss red flags to look for during an interview?

A good boss (or anyone doing an interview) should show respect for you and the interview process, including not keeping you waiting and not taking interruptions or calls during the interview. If there is something that requires their attention, they should apologize.

Additionally, they should ask you relevant questions and demonstrate that they are good listeners. Finally, they should leave time for you to ask questions and take the time to answer them to your satisfaction.

If someone is working for a bad boss, what can he or she do to cope with the stress?

It’s important to define “bad”. If you have a serious problem with your manager that involves sexual or racial harassment, abusive behavior, or substance abuse, this issue should be brought to HR immediately and not discussed with others in the company. It’s HR’s job to identify an effective (and legal) way to resolve the situation.

Assuming that isn’t the case, understand what is bad about the boss. Interestingly, a boss who is bad all the time, is not as stressful as one who is bad sometimes. It helps to know what you are dealing with.

Although it can be uncomfortable, you can learn as much, and sometimes more, from a bad boss than a good one. When managers are more junior and in the process of developing their own skills, they don’t always make the best bosses. Whether this is the case, or if you work for a manager with a style that is different than yours, you should think about the fact that this is a learning opportunity. Consider tough experiences at work to be notches in your belt. The more notches you get, the better manager you can ultimately become.

Most people who have been in business a long time will have sub-optimal managers at some point. This isn’t always the worst thing. When you experience different approaches, you begin building your own view of how you want to manage. Then, if you become a supervisor yourself, you can select the aspects of previous managers that best gel with your own style. You choose those that you want to emulate versus those you want to avoid. The more varied management experiences you have, the more you can empathize with your own direct reports and develop into a well-rounded leader.

Do you have any advice for ensuring that a bad boss doesn’t put a set back in your career progress?

If you have a bad boss, don’t let your discouragement affect your work. Especially if you like the company, you want to shine so that there is no question you are an employee worth retaining. Why sabotage your success by slacking off? Instead, understand what your goals are and keep a record of how you’re progressing relative to these goals. This will give you a platform to showcase your achievements in discussions with the HR department and other senior people in your company.

If your manager can’t or won’t be your advocate, others may be willing to step in. This is one reason why you should build your internal network before you run into issues and regardless of whether your manager is good or not.

Look for people with whom you have had an opportunity to connect on a project or assignment. Today, there are an increasing number of matrixed management relationships, so you may be able to tap other senior people besides your boss who reside in your business circle. If you have proven yourself to be a valuable contributor that the company does not want to lose, these connections can serve as allies in ensuring that your career isn’t set back due to your direct manager.

How does one know it’s time to leave a negative work situation? Should workers ever leave because of a bad boss, even if they love the work they do?

First, make sure it isn’t you. I once heard a comment that if you think all your roommates are jerks, then maybe you’re the jerk. If you think that all your managers are bad, take a careful look in the mirror and make sure you aren’t the one with the problem. For example, if every supervisor you have had micromanages you, then perhaps you aren’t demonstrating that you are on top of things and can complete a project autonomously. Or, if you feel that none of your managers give you enough feedback, maybe you are coming across as defensive.

If you are sure that the issue is with your manager, the first step is to talk with them directly. It is best not to do this when you are angry or upset. In the past, I found it helpful to make a list of everything that bothered me about my boss. When I stepped back and reviewed the list, I realized that many of the things were petty and that I’d have a better outcome if I focused on the one or two most important issues. I wrote out my talking points and practiced them, and then asked for a private meeting in a quiet place to voice my concerns. I was careful not to make the conversation about the things my boss was doing wrong, but rather stayed focused on how the situation made me feel. People will be more willing to listen to what you have to say if it doesn’t come across as an attack on them.

Assuming you have tried to talk with your manager directly about the issues at hand, but things are still not improving, what do you do? Sometimes it just requires patience. I was once moved into a lateral position as a stepping stone to a much bigger job. I wasn’t happy with my manager in this role and it was a bit hard on my ego, but I was pretty sure it was temporary and basically had to suck it up. I wasn’t negative, and I didn’t speak badly of my manager to my peers. I did whatever I could to demonstrate my own leadership skills by taking on special assignments and projects while connecting with other company leaders. In the not-too-distant future, I was able to move on.

You can also reach out in professional way to HR and/or to a trusted supporter, you’ve opened a dialogue. If you have proven yourself as an asset to the company by doing exceptional work and going above and beyond, hopefully the higher-ups won’t want to lose you. Then you can safely engage in a discussion about how to improve the situation. It might result in a new opportunity or manager. If others have similar issues, the manager may be moved out of their role. And yes, there will be times that even after talking with HR and/or senior people you respect, you can’t forge any change and continue to be unhappy. In these cases, it may be time to dust off your resume.

A graduate of the university of Massachusetts, Karyn Schoenbart has over 30 years of market research experience. She is currently CEO of The NPD Group. Karyn received the 2016 Long Island Brava Award, which recognizes high-impact female business leaders, and was named one of the Top 25 Most Influential Women of the Mid-Market for 2017, 2016 and 2015 by the CEO Connection®. She is also a recipient of the 2017 Legacy Award from Women in Consumer Technology, an organization that promotes the advancement of women in the consumer technology industry. For more career advice from Ms. Schoenbart, visit and purchase a copy of her new book MOM.B.A.