Career Growth, Close Your Power Gaps, Empowerment, Leadership, Management, Professional Growth If You Expect Your Employees To Rat Out A Toxic Boss, You’re Failing In Your Executive Leadership Written by: Kathy Caprino

Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Today’s True Leadership”

Recently, a client called me to talk through a difficult situation that was making her very confused and upset. The upshot was that her boss (let’s call him “Fred”) was outright abusive to her and to a few others on the team on a regular basis, both in public—in meetings with other staff members and senior managers—and in their private meetings.

Fred put my client down, ridiculed her, made fun of her questions and implied she and the questions were “stupid” and she wasn’t fit for her job. Fred cast aspersion on my client’s commitment to the job too and overall made her doubt her competence and ability, and she began to feel very anxious and fearful. Many of my client’s colleagues witnessed this behavior and several privately (and confidentially) reached out to her to offer their kind words of support. But Fred engaged in this type of behavior and communication frequently and was this way to many folks on the team and in the wider organization, except for a precious few individuals (typically, those who kissed up to him and fed his narcissistic ego). He’d act out whenever the mood seemed to hit him to be cruel and demeaning, which was becoming more frequent.

My client’s question to me (which I’ve heard more times than I can count) went something like this:

“I’m so mad and sick about this. I’ve really had enough. I feel like quitting right this very second, but when I think about doing that, I have real concerns. There are some really great things about this job, and I’m learning so much. And I really like some of my colleagues and the projects I’m working on and I don’t want to leave. But can you talk me through the options for me in terms of how I can deal with this?”

In exploring the situation further with my client and identifying the best next steps (which include her actively engaging in looking for a great new role outside this company), she shared with me that she’d heard from some people at work that Fred had, about six months before this, been told outright by his supervisor that he would never advance at this organization or be promoted due to his behavior. Yet Fred was allowed to remain in his position, with his damaging behavior continuing unchecked.

According to the word around the office, Fred was considered a great “producer”—meaning he ran circles around the other directors in the organization in terms of sales results and made strong contributions in bringing in new business and new clients. This is a clear example of how “money talks,” and how, in broken and toxic work cultures, money also allows abusive managers to stay in their jobs without penalty.

As one would expect, other employees had quit because of Fred’s abuse, and several of these people told my client that they shared candidly about Fred’s behavior in their exit interviews with HR and other senior leaders, and discussed openly the harsh realities of working under him. At one of these exit interviews, one of the company’s leaders asked, “Why didn’t you say something before this? You should have told me this before you quit.”

So, why don’t employees share a serious complaint about their bosses to HR and senior leadership, and what are the situations in which they should not?

Here are four reasons they stay silent:

They know nothing will be done about the abusive behavior

In this case, my client, and everyone else, knew that absolutely nothing would be done about Fred’s behavior, because others have already complained and no serious action was taken.

Those who complain will be punished

Further, this type of abusive manager will most likely not let the complaint stand. From what my client shared with me (and from my former training and work as a therapist and in close to two decades of serving as a career and leadership coach), it appears to me that this boss demonstrates signs of a narcissistic personality disorder and people with these types of behavioral traits cannot and will not take accountability for their actions. What’s worse, this boss will very likely retaliate, as my client has witnessed firsthand whenever anyone tries to stand up to Fred’s behavior in public.

They are new to the organization and aren’t confident or secure enough in their roles to make a complaint

Many people who are relatively new to their jobs and fields haven’t developed the confidence or secure enough footing to feel comfortable to complain about a boss. I’ve seen evidence of this in my coaching work, surveys and research about what I’ve seen are the 7 most damaging power and confidence gaps that negatively impact a staggering 98% of professional women and 90% of men today, blocking them from reaching their highest potential and greatest success.

And younger folks (age 18-24) often have a deeper experience of several of these gaps as they haven’t yet had a chance to develop their confidence and self-esteem in their work and careers.  (To assess which, if any, of these power and confidence gaps are negatively impacting you today, take my brief Power Gap Survey.)

It’s a big move to complain about an abusive manager and they know it, and they believe they need more experience and information before going out on a limb and risking everything.

It’s not the job of the employee to rid their work culture of a toxic, abusive manager

Finally, it’s just not the job of an employee to have to do the work of ridding their work culture of an abusive boss. That’s the job of leadership, and if you’re a leader and not doing it, then you’re not successful in your role.

You need to be a “toxicity handler” and understand what has to happen when a person underneath you in the hierarchy is hurting others.

If you are a leader in any organization, and you expect your employees to come forward and rat out the toxic boss, you’re simply not leading and managing the way you need to, to build a successful, thriving workplace.

What’s essential to understand is that many of these toxic, abusive managers (and cultures) will not be open to constructive feedback, and will not be willing to accept responsibility or accountability for their actions. And they most likely won’t engage in the hard work of change.

But in your leadership role, it’s critically important to give these damaging managers the hard but clear feedback they need, and to offer them the opportunity to address and modify their negative, destructive behavior, with outside help from an expert therapist or coach if necessary. And you must lay out clear consequences that they understand if they are not able or willing to modify and correct their behavior in a set amount of time.

In truth, wounded people wound people, and so many of these abusive managers are wounded themselves. Typically, if folks demonstrating this type of behavior get even the slightest inkling that one of their employees has complained about or bad-mouthed them, the job for that individual often becomes a living nightmare. But as a leader, you must take action to address this manager’s behavior and abuse directly, and you must set up mechanisms by which employees are protected from retaliation.

If you’re a leader and have ever said to an employee, “Why didn’t you tell me how bad it was?” under this boss, you’ll need to change your thinking and expectations and also implement new processes and procedures as soon as possible to ensure you’re building a positive work culture that works for all, with methods for employees to share their grievances in a safe and confidential way.

What to do? Here are some suggestions:

1) Regularly and consistently, take the pulse of your organization

Measure on a consistent basis, with anonymous surveys and vetted and proven benchmarking processes, the culture of your organization on a number of key criteria including how employees feel about:

  • If employees and the people around them feel they are treated with respect, both publicly and privately
  • If it’s an open culture of trust, belonging and psychological safety where challenge and pushback are accepted
  • If transparency, honesty, diversity and difference are encouraged and embraced
  • If there is a belief and trust that abusive behavior and mistreatment will not be tolerated and will be addressed in a satisfactory way

2) Build a mentoring community

…within your organization (see, Ambition In Motion and other mentoring platforms) and provide new opportunities for employees to obtain influential guidance, support and help inside and outside the organization.

3) Create a culture of trust, strength, and growth

…where all employees can communicate from strength, not fear of retaliation. Encourage employees to speak up openly about their opinions and ideas. Don’t allow managers to crush down those who challenge wrongdoing or the status quo or who represent change and innovation. Build a strong, open organization that supports strength and honesty in its people. If you need to see the business case of what happens when you build a more open, positive culture, here’s some research. Your ROI will soar when you do.

4) Stand up to mistreatment and understand the cost when you don’t

As a leader, you have the power and influence to stand up for fairness and justice and put a stop to all forms of mistreatment. This includes gender, racial, age and other forms of bias and discrimination, pay inequity, sexual harassment, narcissistic behavior, toxic communication, and emotional abuse. Remove perpetrators of abuse or get them the help they need to change. Be a role model and enforcer of a no-tolerance policy of abuse and don’t be weak on this. Build avenues of communication and support for people who feel they are being mistreated. Don’t go the way of so many now infamous organizations that have made headlines by systematically allowing and sustaining the abuse of others.

In the end, stop expecting your employees to rat out their bad bosses when they feel afraid to do so (and are justified in having this concern). That’s not their job and it’s too risky for them. It’s your job as a senior leader to assess and evaluate the work culture on a regular basis, and find new ways to keep employees safe and protected from mistreatment so they and the organization can thrive.

For more about closing your own power and confidence gaps and rising to the highest level in your positive impact and influence as a manager and leader, read Kathy’s book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss and take her The Most Powerful You video training course. For in-house communication and leadership training, explore Kathy’s Career and Leadership Growth private coaching programs and her speaking and training services for organizations.