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Are you being bullied by your boss?

Posted in: Dealing with Fellow Scientists
Are you being bullied by your boss?

There are many kinds of supervisors out there, ranging from the amazingly laid back to the crazy micromanagers. There are various strategies for dealing with all of them, but what do you do when your boss is a bully?

Recognize it

Bullying in a work environment is a far cry from the hair pulling and pushing around of playground days and, therefore, is  not always easy to identify. However, a few signs that your boss is a bully include:

  • Verbal abuse – this doesn’t mean shouting obscenities at people, but are they always making snide comments or putting their staff down for no reason?
  • Public humiliation – again we’re not talking about the playground type of humiliation, but things like repeatedly undermining you and your data at departmental seminars or lab meetings . It can be a real confidence shaker, especially if you had discussed the data previously and they raised no issues with it at the time. Deliberately waiting for a chance to embarrass you in front of your peers and other members of your institute should be a big warning sign!
  • Ignoring you – sometimes bosses, especially PIs with grant deadlines and paper submissions on their mind, are too busy to meet with you, which is perfectly normal. However, if you find that boss always has something else they need to be doing rather than meeting with you, you might have a problem. If your boss is constantly dismissing you in favor of other tasks or other lab members, it could be a sign that they aren’t particularly interested in you or your work.
  • You dread going in to work – and I’m not talking about the kind of dread you get when you know you have a hectic week ahead, I mean real dread. The kind of dread where you can barely find the motivation to get out of bed in the morning (and not just because it’s cold and you might have stayed up too late last night watching Netflix!), when you have come to expect the worst from work and find yourself looking for any excuse not to go. You might find your work interesting and get on with your coworkers but still get that gut wrenching feeling of terror when you open your emails in the morning. It takes a while to notice that you feel this way, but when you do, alarm bells should start going off! This is not a healthy way to feel and you need to do something about it!!

Nip it in the bud (if possible!)

Sometimes you can tell within a few weeks if your boss is a bit of a bully. They put everyone down and are just generally not nice. Believe it or not, this can actually be one of the easier types of bully to deal with – they’re not singling you out, they’re just a rubbish person – and if you set the tone in your relationship early you can make a great effort of nipping this in the bud. The first time they verbally thrash you at a lab meeting pull them aside afterwards and have a very brief chat about how you didn’t feel it was appropriate. Similarly if they’re rude or disparaging in a meeting, call them up on it – point out that their negative comments aren’t productive and ask for suggestions to help make your data more robust. If from the word go you refuse to tolerate being spoken down to, and constantly steer the discussion back to improving your data and how it can be of use to the lab, your PI might take the hint and come to respect your work-focused attitude….but sadly not always!

For PhD students, this might be the time to consider switching to another supervisor if it’s possible, unfortunately postdocs don’t have this option so…..

Speak to someone impartial

Often voicing how you’ve been feeling out loud to someone who doesn’t have a stake in it can help you realize exactly how you feel and which issues are affecting you the most. Having a frank and open chat with a counselor or a member of your HR team will also help reassure you that you’re not over-reacting to a normal situation. You have to remember that science isn’t a typical career path, with the short contracts and the competitive nature of grants and publications tensions run higher in this line of work than many other professions. The kind of pressure we get put under is immense, and many of us wouldn’t have it any other way – but that doesn’t mean you should have to put up with being bullied! It’s okay to speak out against a bullying boss and talking to people can really make a huge difference.

Keep a record

Depending on the type of bullying you’re on the receiving end of, and the position of your boss within the hierarchy of the university, you might struggle to get anything done to help you even if you do take a complaint to HR. We’ve all heard horror stories of top professors behaving outrageously and getting away with it because of the senior positions they hold; accusations of abuse from junior staff members can often be brushed aside to spare the institutions blushes if their biggest research superstar was seen to be disciplined for abusing their position of power.

For this reason, if you’re planning to make an official complaint it’s vitally important that you keep records! A small notebook with the dates and details of every incidence where you have felt bullied by your boss, a list of any people who might have witnessed it and copies of any offending emails (be sure to email these to a personal email address) will make you much harder to brush aside or ignore.

But unfortunately sometimes, even with the best attitude, a positive outlook and a complete record of all incidences of bullying, you might still find yourself in a position where nothing is going to be done to help you, in which case…..

Know when to walk away

Deciding to leave a PhD studentship or postdoc position is never easy. We often hear stories of how it will negatively affect our careers or worry about how it will make us seem like trouble makers who can’t just get on with their work. The fear of how this might negatively impact our professional lives is often paralyzing; people convince themselves that if they just make it through another 2 years of misery they can then move on without having to quit. Sometimes, hanging in there is the right option; but not always.

When your mental and physical health are at risk and your quality of life is suffering because of it, sometimes you need to seriously consider walking away:

  • Is the mediocre reference that your bully of a boss (might!) provide worth your sanity?
  • Can you deal with this sub-par quality of life for much longer?
  • Can the people you love deal with how this is affecting your behavior towards them?
  • Will this actually seriously impact your career perspectives or do you just think it will?

Have you had a run in with a troublesome bully of a boss? How did you deal with it – let us know in the comments!

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Image Credit: Working Word


  1. Lindsay on August 10, 2017 at 3:32 am

    I just left my lab a week ago–my Dean and Associate Dean were super supportive along with my Department Chair. My previous PI was derogatory on a daily basis and was blindsided by my decision to leave, but I have faith that this is the bets choice for me. I already feel so much better–no more anxiety checking emails or nausea walking into work every day. No more micro (or nano) managing!

  2. SRA42day on August 20, 2016 at 3:09 am

    Powerful people can & will abuse you. My boss hasn’t spoken to me in 6 months & has refused to promote me & provide the raise he promised me when I took his job. A true bait and switch. A hard earned PhD to be his scheduler…. He is using bullying to make me so unhappy I walk away backed with the power of administration.

  3. dogma on June 7, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    This is wonderful piece of advice. Unfortunately i was in same position with my boss, head of an SME and a crazy crazy micromanager with completely different field of expertise from what i am working on. His sole intention was to get funded and repeat published articles, submit lengthy project reports to please funding bodies. Sounds like EU/Germany funding bodies are joke. But definetely not, sadly they know but support the SMEs with capital to innovate from knowledge transfer, and to create jobs. Its kind of incubator to find a good match between project partners. If proposal is written well, funding bodies even undermine simple details on infrastructure/expertise that are required to accomplish the proposed outcome. By the way my boss is meticulous sales man.

    As mentioned by you, there were many instances i thought to leave, but do not have energy to start over at a new place. Although my best advice is also to leave such boss at once before it get worse! Despite several bad experiences, I hanged there for a bit over one year. Spoke with my Prof at univ, who did guided my boss. I would not say it got better, but on positive outlook i a m running towards finish line probably safely soon!!!

    How i dealt him is a different story: I did wait patiently with the hope that he change. Since, a dogs tail can not be straigtened – i changed my self. Probably i evolved as good sales man and a KGB agent rather than a researcher! I got more tollerant to attitude of others, a bit outspoken now. I played bully back, always feed him BS when casually encountered. Keep him in a loop of admiration and high hopes. Find a new BS before old one cracks. Conceal any ongoing work until a story emerges.

    These are lifeskills hard to learn normally. This arduous experience remind me an adage – to get something you need to loose something. I am sure i lost good traits like open mindedness and trusting others.

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