@Work Advice: When a good boss goes bad


(Photograph by Deb Lindsey)

Reader: For six years, I’ve run an office that has two employees: me and my boss. About two months ago, he started being rude and demanding. If I don’t respond to a text or call after hours, he’ll keep texting or calling until I do. He used to be so appreciative that I didn’t mind doing little extras, but now he yells when I don’t have time to bring his bottle of fancy liquor to his home after work. He gets upset when he sends me a cryptic request full of unfamiliar abbreviations and I have to ask what he means. It’s infuriating and totally unlike him. I’ve responded rudely on occasion — “Dude! I know how to file an appeal!” — and he’s always super-apologetic, but then it happens again.

This change started when we took on a wealthy new client whose service fees cover all our current expenses. This guy is a huge jerk — my boss’s new behavior is just like his.

My boss is a good man; he and his family have treated me like a little sister. Is there a diplomatic way to discuss this with him?

Karla: Sounds like big brother’s the beta male in a bad bromance. But although that background might offer insight into his personality change, it’s beside the point. You need to remind your boss that you’re in his corner — but you’re not his punching bag.

Start with a simple question in a calm moment: “Is everything okay?”

State the truth: “Until recently, I’ve felt like a valued teammate. But our work relationship has become tense and combative. Your expectations of me seem to have changed. You’re impatient when I ask questions. I feel I have to be on call at all times. And while I used to run occasional personal errands for you as a favor, now it seems expected.”

Draw your line: “If you think my job description needs to change or my performance is slipping, let’s discuss that. Otherwise, I need you to stop yelling at me and to respect my personal time.”

Ideally, you’ll get an apology and a promise to do better. After that, it’s a matter of reinforcement. If he starts ranting, hit your mental “pause” button and look at him with a neutral expression. After his spring winds down, calmly restate his request and add, “Is that correct?”

After hours: “Can this keep until morning?” For the unreasonable, such as fetching his schmancy booze: “I’m afraid I can’t take care of that for you.”

If he keeps acting like a jerk, there are bosses out there who will better respect your time and talent — even if you’re not comfortable calling them “dude.”

Karla L. Miller is ready to hear your work dramas and traumas. Send your questions to wpmagazine@washpost.com. You can also find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork, or Facebook.

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Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. Miller, of South Riding, Va., was the winner of the 2011 @Work Advice Contest. E-mail your questions to Karla at wpmagazine@washpost.com.
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