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Pandemic stress is bringing out our boss’s nasty side

One reader wants to stand up to a stressed-out boss; another reader is concerned about a disgruntled employee who is being let go for underperforming


Reader: This pandemic has brought out an ugly side of my boss’s personality. He publicly shoots down our team’s ideas in a dismissive and antagonistic way, then complains that no one is taking any initiative.

I don’t think I can talk to him about it. I think he is overwhelmed by stress but would not react well to any suggestion that he’s not himself.

I talk with my therapist about how this affects me and how I can take care of myself. But I’m increasingly resentful of his behavior and unwilling to let it go without saying something in those moments when my team and I are being treated like idiots or slackers.

Karla: If the pandemic were a board game, we would all at some point have landed on a square marked “blow your stack, lose one turn.” Still, anxiety is not an excuse to drag everyone else into your vortex. Bosses in particular have a responsibility to demonstrate calm, even-keeled leadership and be open to feedback about requests that seem erratic or inconsistent.

“Being comfortable talking about your emotional life is so important now” for healthy communication in the workplace, says Claire Odom, a clinical social worker with the inclusiveness-promoting program Workplace Initiative. Although most everyone is anxious and stressed now, she says, “people don’t know that they’re anxious.”

Work Advice: Is this angry boss a jerk, or could he have Alzheimer's?

So confronting your boss with a diagnosis is not likely to lead to a good outcome. A Boss Whisperer who has his ear could simply ask, “Is everything okay?” But if he’s not the kind to admit when he’s acting under the influence of human emotions, that may not get you anywhere either.

I recommend an all-business approach. Meet with your boss in private to focus on a work issue that needs solving — but use common therapy tools designed to defuse defensiveness: validating, mirroring, drawing him out.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said about taking more initiative. Can we review these options for solving [the work issue]?” Then, if (when) he shoots them all down: “I’m hearing these ideas don’t work for you. If we had to pick one, what would you prefer? Or is there something else I’m not thinking of?”

If he goes into puffer fish mode: “Maybe this isn’t a good time. What would be a better time to talk about this?” If you are able to reach a consensus, send a follow-up email afterward summarizing what you and he agreed to.

You’ve probably already addressed this in therapy, but keep tabs on your own state of mind when responding to your boss so you can maintain a neutral tone. Coronavirus pandemic stress may be making you a little raw as well.

Reader 2: We will have to let a popular employee go at the end of the summer due to changing circumstances around his position. He is not the best performer, which made the decision easier — but we didn’t bring up his performance since we wouldn’t have fired him for it otherwise, and we didn’t want to alienate him while he continues to work for us.

Work Advice: The office snitch is stressing me out!

The problem is that he’s telling the rest of our small staff about his termination, and a couple of staff members tell me they feel it is unfair he’s being let go. To protect his privacy, I don’t want to explain that his performance is also a factor, and hinting obscurely about “other reasons” would incite gossip. I don’t want him to feel that we misled him when we first discussed his termination, and don’t want him to get resentful and “poison” the rest of the staff.

Karla: But you did mislead him. You fed him an “it’s not you, it’s us” line when it’s actually at least a little bit of “him.” Granted, there’s no good way to say, “Your performance just didn’t inspire us to fight to keep you around” — and there’s no value in saying it this late in the game.

Giving advance notice can be a kindness, or it can backfire. A disgruntled employee will produce progressively lower-quality work, damage office morale and possibly goad you into blurting a hurtful truth.

Even though it’s inconvenient and costly, the quickest and most face-saving option would be to send him off now with a severance package equal to what he would have earned for the rest of the summer. First check with a lawyer to make sure (1) you’re not violating any contractual obligations and (2) you’re not opening yourself to charges of retaliation for engaging in work-environment-related discussions protected under the National Labor Relations Act.