How to Survive a Bad Boss

Seven tips for thriving under a terrible manager.

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Have you heard the one about the boss who made his assistant check his sandwich every day to be sure it didn’t contain tomatoes? Or the boss who always worked weekends and put dated notes on everyone’s desk saying, “I was here. Where were you?”

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Maybe your boss isn’t as bad as all that. Maybe your boss is merely lazy, inept, or unreasonable. Of course you should count yourself lucky if you still have a job in this economy. But if that job comes with a “bad boss,” your life is not exactly a walk in the park either. Here are seven ideas for managing the boss from hell:

Put everything in writing. This is good business practice for anyone, but if you have a bad boss, it’s essential. Take notes at meetings. Write and date progress reports, including noting the time of day. When you receive verbal instructions, summarize them in an E-mail or memo. Reconfirm all deadlines. Carry a pen and paper with you at all times, and keep a paper trail.

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Be a star performer. Having a bad boss isn’t an excuse to be a bad employee. In fact, one of the keys to managing a bad boss is to be an unusually good employee. Take this strategy one step further and maintain a positive demeanor at all times. It’s harder for a boss to attack you if you’re doing a great job and smiling about it. Plus, acting happy can help you feel happy.

Pick your moments. No matter how tempting, don’t avoid your bad boss. Instead, study his or her patterns. You’ll find that some times of the day are better than others. If your boss is a nutcase first thing in the morning, or just before end of day, that’s when to steer clear. Does lunch put a smile on your boss’s face? Then, as much as possible, schedule your interactions for the early afternoons.

Seek community. Building strong ties with coworkers and managers in other departments can save your sanity—and maybe even your job. It can also be a smart idea to befriend the boss’s assistants. Just be careful not to vent to them or say anything that your boss could use against you. Your behavior should be businesslike and above reproach at all times. Also, do you have a mentor? You should. This person can serve as a sounding board as well as a source of advice and support. Finally, find someone outside of work to confide in (and vent to). Choose someone discreet who knows you and loves you and will remind you of your worth.

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Control what you can. This is sad but true: We can’t control the behavior of others, we can only control our response to it. So look past your boss’s tone—whether it's accusing, scolding, belittling or intimidating—and respond only to the substance of what he or she says. Keep your cool! And take good care of yourself: Eat right, get enough sleep, exercise, and spend time with smart, sane people.

Know your rights. If your boss is illegally harassing you, you may be able to remedy your situation by consulting your company’s human resources department. Before you do this: (1) have good documentation of the problem, (2) be able to describe what you’ve done to try to solve the problem, and (3) know what you are asking for (a transfer? a severance package?). Most important: In all your dealings with human resources people, remember that their first loyalty is to the company, not to you. Sorry.

Identify the exits. Let’s face it, your boss is not likely to wake up one day and say, "Hey, I’m not gonna be a bad boss anymore." Often, your only recourse will be to find another job. But do not let your bad boss bully you into action before you’re ready! Be smart and create a sound long-term strategy. In the meantime, do something every day that leads you to getting a better job—take a class, polish your résumé, research new companies, build your savings account. It not only gets you closer to that happy day when you can say “arrivederci,” it’s also a way of taking back your power.

Finally, consider that the bad boss experience might have something to teach you. A micromanager can improve your attention to detail. An incompetent boss will force you to work better and smarter. Bad bosses also serve as great examples of how not to act, should you ever become a manager yourself. Hang in there. Good luck.

Karen Burns is the author of the illustrated career advice book The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use, recently released by Running Press. She blogs at www.karenburnsworkinggirl.com.

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