When the boss crosses the line


I work as an assistant to eight people who all have extremely high demands and I've been successful at meeting these demands with no complaints. However, one of my bosses is a constant drain on me. It's not even work-related (although sometimes he questions whether I've done something in front of everyone). But a few instances he's really said some uncalled for things and most of the time it's when someone's not around.

He comes to my desk several times a day to complain about this client and that client. And, although I say I'm busy, he gets pissy, defensive and rude. If I say anything personal (which we all do when talk about our lives) it like comes back to haunt me, but if I keep quiet around my other bosses it's like I'm acting cold.

Last week, I came into the office and was visibly upset about some things that were going on personally with one of my family members. Although I try to keep my personal life out of things, I couldn't control my emotions. He came over to my desk (despite one my co-workers telling me to leave alone) and starting going on about how people he knew who died of cancer and blah blah blah. So, the next day, I pulled him outside and said, "please don't ever say anything like that to me ever again. You crossed the line and we don't discuss my personal life. You are my superior and you crossed the line."

Well, quite frankly, he heard me, but he didn't actually listen. He's still a jerk and doesn't get it. I've written down about five different instances of things he's said to me (if I wrote down everything the list would probably be a page long). I can't go to my supervisor because the one time I did say something about him that was work-related, it got back to him and then he acted like a complete baby for months because I "tattle-taled" on him.

I could go on about specific examples, but really I just need some advice on how to deal with him.

Kate, Boston MA

Charles Helliwell's Answer:

You've heard the expression "You can please most of the people most of the time; but none of the people, all of the time". This is an example of working with a team of seven Adults and one Child, so don't despair, because the situations you describe are not of your making.

You appear to be trying too hard to please someone who is never going to be pleased; no matter what you do and how hard you try. So stop right now trying to become the perfect assistant to everybody, because ultimately, your ability to work successfully with the others will suffer and that will reflect poorly on you.

Firstly, understand and accept that this particular individual is not your friend and does not have your interests at heart; he is only interested in himself. Once you have accepted that, it become much easier for you to deal with him.

He is one of eight with whom you work, and the only reason he is able to get under your skin is because you allow him to do so. Consequently, with immediate effect, start treating him as just one of eight. You don't have to like him and you don't even have to please him, if his workload is greater than an eight of the total which comes from the group. After all, you are responsible for all eight of them and not just one and you wouldn't want to tamper with the dynamics of the group by being seen to favour one over the others.

So, for example, when he publicly criticises you in front of the group, return the challenge by suggesting that since the other seven appear satisfied, it's perhaps his briefing or tasking of the work he wants done which may be at fault; and not your ability to deliver it. He won't question you publicly again in front of the group in a hurry; however, don't crow or become too smug at such a public humiliation, because you want the other group members to support you and no one likes a smart alec. Make this more of a rebuke than a humiliation and it's unlikely to happen again.

When he comes to your desk to complain about this client or that, it's not your problem. It's his. So unless you have been directly responsible for a client complaint, refer him to one of his peers, who you know to have good client-handling skills. For example, say to him, 'Speak to Bob. He seems to get on very well with his clients. He may be better placed to advise you than I am'. As the assistant to the group, you should a very good idea of who is good at what.

When he gets pissy and rude because you're busy, just remind him that you wouldn't want to be seen favouring any one member of the group over the others. He'll probably challenge you directly and say something like, 'Don't you like me anymore?' To which you reply that liking or disliking him wasn't an integral part of the job spec when you took the job.

Remember that we never leave all our personal baggage at the door when we clock in to work. Life is just not that simple; so don't adopt an artificial persona, if life outside the office is troubling you. Seek out one of the eight whom you believe has the strongest interpersonal skills and confide in him or her if you want to. Just the simple expression, 'May I ask your advice about something', is the open-sesame to everyone's heart.

Don't get drawn in to any conversations with this individual other than those which are work-related. If he tries to engage with you on a personal level, just say to him 'I'm not sure that I can help you about this; try speaking to one of your peers and colleagues'.

Never allow yourself to get into a one-to-one with him, without asking one of your colleagues or one his peers to join you. When that is challenged, exercise your prerogative of trust. Tell him and them that given his history to date, you have no basis or foundation to trust him or his word and make it clear that it only applies to him and not to the other seven.

Treat the other seven as you find them. If they're personable and engaging, respond in kind. If they're aloof and detached, accept that perhaps that's what they choose to be, as individuals.

Be prepared for what will follow, because in the short-term, this individual will attempt to make life increasingly difficult for you. However, this will ultimately prove his downfall, as he gets more and more desperate and takes greater and greater risks to get under your skin. Consequently you MUST start to log these instances by writing them down in a small pocket diary which you own and keep in your personal possessions. Log every instance of bullying and intimidation, no matter how inconsequential. Date them and time them all. This will be your evidence, should it ever come to a tribunal; which it probably won't.

Remember that what you are dealing with here is a needy and manipulative child. They crave attention and will do almost anything to feed that craving. However, the more you feed it, the greater the craving. So by stopping and taking just a few of these simple steps, there will be some short-term pain, but you will find that your life in the office will become transformed and more importantly, this individual WILL get the message and either move on, or get taken out.


About our Expert

Charles Helliwell
Charles Helliwell

For almost 20 years, Charles Helliwell has been enjoying a lifestyle and making a living as a behavioural and relationship mentor specialising in the personal and professional development of individuals and teams in the workplace.

Older Comments

Some people are never happy and always want to blame someone else for their shortcomings. Unfortunately, some of them need to be confronted with the impact of their conduct. Not only do some of them not understand the health and safety implications (both phyiscal and psychological) of their conduct, they fail to understand that their personal reputation and that of their organisation is being put at risk. Keeping records (evidence) of his behaviour is essential. Tell him that his behaviour is unacceptable, keep a record of what you said, what he said and his responses, any witnesses, what they said, what you told your supervisor. Read and understand your company workplace bullying/harassment policy. It also seems that he has a performance/communications issue that needs to be dealt with by his manager. If his manager is failing to manage this person, the manager may also be contributing to an unsafe workplace and not meeting their duty of care obligations. Some bullies will pick on people for no reason at all, simply because they can. This individual needs to be confronted and needs to understand that they are liability to their organisation. It also seems that he has too much time on his hand and he is not gainfully employed if all he can do is wander around complaining about clients. Maybe if he was performance managed and forced into problem solving with his clients, he would not have time to pick on you. No one ever deserves to be bullied, anywhere anytime for any reason. Stay safe and bully free. Good luck with dealing with this person.

Bernie Althofer Brisbane, Australia


Most people who see bullying and intimidation going on in the workplace, take a major detour. They just don't want to get involved. Relying on others to help isn't often an option for most people. Consequently, they have to tackle it head-on. In my experience, the conventional approach to dealing with it, just doesn't work, since most managers and colleagues go into denial, hoping that one way or the other it will just work itself out. What that means, is that they hope one or other of the parties will just give up and leave; and that's almost always the victim. Confronting a bully therefore with the conventional practices of process and procedure are often going to do nothing more than exacerbate an unpleasant situation, and that's why I prefer to advise victims to adopt a more inventive and unconventional approach.

Charles Helliwell London, UK