How to Deal With an Unfair Boss

Do you feel like you're the target of unfair treatment at work?
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Yesterday, an employee -- let's call here Charlotte -- e-mailed her boss, Greg, regarding an idea for marketing the company's services on social media. For the first time in weeks, Charlotte felt truly excited about her job. She had a million ideas, and she couldn't wait to get started. Later that afternoon, Greg appeared at the entrance to Charlotte's cubicle. "Those invoices aren't going to input themselves," he said, half-jokingly. "Maybe if you spent less time on Facebook and more time doing your job, we could talk about your 'initiatives.'" He winked at her and strolled away.

It's true: Charlotte had a whole stack of invoices to input. Before the encounter, she was making good progress. Afterward, she couldn't concentrate. Her stomach was churning. "I'm so stupid," she berated herself, "Maybe if I was an automaton like Nancy in payroll, or impeccably groomed like Nick in sales, or maybe if I wasn't five minutes late to work half the time, my boss would take me seriously."


Dealing with an unfair boss is inarguably stressful. Studies have shown corollaries between workplace stress and a host of psychological disorders and illnesses, including depression, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, suicide, cancer and impaired immune function [source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath]. In August 2010, Omar Thornton, a beer delivery driver in Hartford, Conn., shot and killed nine of his coworkers after being asked to resign. Although Thornton never filed a formal complaint, his family reports that the last thing he said to them before he turned his gun on himself was that prejudice from his supervisors had pushed him over the edge [source: Singer]. Whether the discrimination was real or perceived, the results were undeniably tragic.

Charlotte's response to her unfair boss was to blame herself and wonder whether if her boss might have taken her seriously if only she'd been "perfect." Thornton, on the other hand, turned his anger outward and took the lives of nine people. While Thornton's response was unjustifiably extreme, Charlotte's response was also unhelpful. In the next section, we'll talk about how to respond to an unfair boss.


Responding to an Unfair Boss

What should you do or say if your boss treats you differently?
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Unfair bosses are often psychologically abusive. When Greg dismissed Charlotte's suggestion, he winked and used a joking tone to remind Charlotte that he held the power. By using sarcasm, Greg made it abundantly clear that he viewed Charlotte's initiative as laughable. Other types of things an unfair boss might do include:

  • Sending e-mails containing personal attacks
  • Publicly humiliating employees in subtle ways
  • Communicating with sarcasm or teasing
  • Acting as if an employee doesn't exist

Even great bosses occasionally act like jerks. However, if you repeatedly find yourself feeling demoralized after interacting with your superior, chances are you're dealing with an unfair boss.


When workers feel demeaned, attacked or ignored, they often attempt to regain control by complaining to other coworkers, launching minor attacks or giving the boss the cold shoulder. While an "I'm not speaking to you" strategy may feel good in the short term, these types of responses are ultimately self-defeating.

A better strategy would be to:

  • Develop a certain degree of emotional detachment. By allowing her whole self-esteem to be wrapped up in her job, Charlotte made herself needlessly vulnerable.
  • Look for little victories. Charlotte did nothing wrong in showing initiative. However, since her boss Greg dismissed her ideas, maybe Charlotte could regain a sense of control by being successful at a series of smaller tasks.
  • Seek out support. Without venting or gossiping, Charlotte may still regain some equilibrium in the workplace by developing positive relationships with fellow coworkers.

By definition, bosses have power over their employees. Employees depend upon bosses for information and access, as well as good reviews and promotions. If your job security and/or civil liberties are threatened by unfair treatment from your supervisor, it may be time to take the next step. We discuss how to report an unfair boss in the next section.


Reporting an Unfair Boss

If you think your boss is being unfair, talk to your human resources representative.
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Before you report an unfair boss, prepare yourself:

  • If you've ever behaved poorly because of unfair treatment, make a list of these incidents and prepare yourself for how you will respond if your boss questions your past behavior.
  • Gather evidence. Save demeaning e-mails and keep notes about incidences in which you feel you were treated unfairly.
  • Prepare a written statement. Your statement should be no more than one page summarizing your concerns
  • Compose yourself. You want to have a clear head and controlled emotions before addressing your boss.

Before going over your bosses' head, try addressing your concerns with him or her directly. Discuss your concerns and give your boss a chance to respond. Together, develop a plan for improving the situation. Then, set a time, perhaps 30 days in the future, to meet again and evaluate the improvements.


If your boss dismisses your concerns, or if the situation fails to improve, then it's time to move up the chain of command. Large companies and labor unions generally have processes for filing formal complaints. Check with your human resources department or union representative for the next step. For smaller companies, request a meeting and share your concerns with your human resources director or your bosses' direct supervisor.

In Charlotte's case, a face-to-face meeting with Greg revealed that he was frustrated because he'd hired her to do accounting, but she clearly preferred marketing. He apologized for his passive-aggressive sarcasm. They agreed that if she could demonstrate speed and accuracy at her accounting tasks, then she could develop a social media marketing strategy for the company in her spare time. They met regularly to review her progress and soon developed a warm working relationship.

Not all working relationships are so easy to heal. Systemic workplace discrimination or a boss who is an unapologetic bully can make the workplace unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst. However, by keeping a cool head, documenting your concerns, and addressing your supervisors in a clear, noncombative way, you'll give yourself the best chance at improving a difficult, stressful situation.

See the next page for related articles and lots more information.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Lawson, Willow. "Good Boss, Bad Boss." Psychology Today. Nov. 1, 2005. (Sept. 30, 2010)
  • Marano, Hara Estroff. "When the Boss Is a Bully." Psychology Today. Sept. 1, 1995. (Sept. 30, 2010)
  • Puder-York, Marilyn. "Managing Your Boss." American Psychological Association. (Sept. 30, 2010)
  • Singer, Stephen. "Hartford Distributors Shooting: Nine Dead in Workplace Massacre." Huffington Post. Aug. 3, 2010. (Sept. 30, 2010)
  • "Stress … At Work." National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (Sept. 30, 2010)