How To Handle a Bad Boss Remotely
“Don’t push send…don’t push send” I kept telling myself after I wrote an email that my anger wanted me to send but my instinct for self-preservation didn’t.
Like Abraham Lincoln’s “hot letters” it was better to write it down to get it off my chest then shove it in an 1800's desk drawer or the ‘deleted items’ folder never to be seen again.
Bad bosses are bad bosses whether they’re in the next cubicle or 100 miles away. 3 out of 4 employees say their boss is the worst part of their job. This doesn’t change when you go from brick-and-mortar to remote work.
I’ve been in various leadership positions for 25 years and have seen effective ways people have dealt with bad bosses that have kept both their career and well-being intact.
Here they are.
#1. Talk to Them First
The lost art of the one-on-one or heart-to-heart talk must be practiced first.
Tons of people, including bosses, simply aren’t acutely emotionally intelligent. Some people won’t notice that your upset even if tears are gushing down your face let alone be able to read your troubled mind over Zoom.
Sometimes, most of the time, you just need to communicate your concerns clearly and professionally and use your voice to do it, not the keyboard.
This method is also the most respectful of that boss and respected by most bosses. It won’t work though if you present your problem with belligerence. Instead, use all the tact and respect you can muster — that’s your best shot at solving the problem.
It takes more courage on your part to do this, but doesn’t your well-being deserve that courage?
Talk straight first…always.
#2. Choose the Right Communication Tool
Most of us know that the most sensitive subjects aren’t for emails…and definitely not for texts.
Just like you should never commit the classless faux pas of breaking up with someone over text, you should never air your serious grievances that way. Be very choosy about how negative you get on emails as well.
Speaking of communication, never communicate with a boss electronically after drinking a few beers. Don’t ask me how I know this isn’t a wise idea.
Most sensitive things should be handled via your calm human voice.
Especially the big things.
#3. Lead the Leader
Sometimes if an employee models the behavior they wish their boss had, that boss steps up to meet the behavior eye-to-eye. Most people don’t want to be the least professional person in the room.
If employees are polite, professional, and in control of their negative emotions, this encourages the boss to raise their game…sometimes.
On the other hand, if you stoop to their level and act like they do, the downward spiral may never reach bottom. You being the lowly subordinate won’t fare well in this situation.
Always remember, you don’t have to be in charge to be a leader.
Leading yourself and setting the example as an employee often inspires others, even a boss sometimes, to follow your example.
It’s hard to really know what everyone is doing on your team. Put yourself in your boss’s shoes.
Your boss can’t see you most of the time. They may over-schedule meetings to hear all about what everyone is doing, but really the best thing to do is for you to keep them informed.
At least be able to coherently list your activities when they ask. Keeping a list helps. Even if you are super busy but can’t list your actions coherently, you sound like you are making things up.
Communicating clearly and often keeps their minds from painting pictures of you sleeping until noon and watching Netflix all day.
#5. Look Professional
I heard a friend recently describing what a coworker looked like on Zoom. “People don’t care what you look like on Zoom, but if you look like Tom Hanks after a year talking to Wilson in Castaway, it isn’t the best look.”
People often decide how to treat you by how you look. This isn’t necessarily fair, but most truth isn’t fair.
A 3-day facial hair growth, messed up hair, and a wrinkled flannel don’t set the table for people to take you seriously. They can probably faintly smell your morning breath through the screen as well.
You don’t have to wear nice pants, or pants at all, but you should wear a clean shirt, comb your hair, and appear how you want people to treat you. This is all common sense but it is worth repeating in this context of toxic bosses.
Because you’re less likely to be a target for your toxic boss if you don’t make yourself an easy target.
#6. Delineate Work/Home Boundaries
Having a bad boss be able to look into your home, your sanctuary, can be daunting and disturbing.
It can feel like work is spilling over into your personal life very easily.
I’ve personally worked from home for over a decade and have had good bosses and still the best thing I can tell you is do everything you can to separate work and home with time and space.
One of my favorite fellow writers used to get in a shirt and tie and go to the other room in his house to do his writing. It made him feel like he was at work. When done at 5, he would get back into “home” clothes and not go back into that room.
You don’t to deliniate to this extreme necessarily, but the closer you can get to this the better. Don’t work all hours of the night. Unplug. Don’t blend work and home or you’ll always feel like you’re at work…and that is a terrible thing.
When you can seperate work and home, your toxic boss has less access to spread those toxins to pollute the air in your home-sweet-home.
#7. Think Before You Speak or Hit Send
Always be careful what you send via email. If there are any heated emotions involved in writing the email, it’s best to wait until those emotions subside before you hit send. Or better yet, delete then rewrite when calm.
Same with talking to someone. If your boss or a coworker just gets your blood boiling, it’s in your best interest to cool down before you respond.
Emotions are temporary, but email is forever.
In fact, this applies to every single aspect of your life. Tell me the last time you were happy with what you said when you were upset with your kids or spouse and you said something in the heat of the moment. My guess is never. Same with talking to your boss.
Practice mental or physical “hot-letters” and just cool down before you speak or send. Then everyone including you will be better off.
This can help your career, dignity, and mental well-being (by not dealing with regret) stay intact.
If your boss is that toxic, you may need to look for another job. But in most cases, if you can weather the storm, better days are ahead. Either you or they will move on.
To recap ways to handle a bad boss remotely:
#1. Try talking first through issues first. The best way to control the bull is taking it by the horns with tact.
#2. Match your message to the right tool for communication.
#3. Set the professional example of the behavior you’d like your boss to have. They may just follow it.
#4. Over-communicate so your boss is aware of what you are doing and isn’t imagining you working 20 minutes a day with a cocktail in the hot tub.
#5. Look professional. Not suit and tie probably, but clean.
#6. Set clear boundaries between work and home time so you don’t feel like you live at work…the horror!
#7. Cool down before you speak or send. Remember Lincoln’s “hot letters.”
The best way to deal with a bad boss remotely is to just talk to them. With tact, professionalism, respect, and honesty. Tell them what your issues are.
Most half-decent human beings will respond to that. Some won’t. And if they don’t, try not to let it change who you are.
Because better days are always ahead when you just stay you and keep doing your very best.
And you delete that heat instead of send it.