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What to Do About an Unprofessional Supervisor?

by Kenya Lucas

When you think of a supervisor, the first word that comes to mind is “professional.” She works well on her own and with a team. She’s mentally sharp and emotionally intelligent. She does not take a narrow view of success; she sees the bigger picture. A professional supervisor can bring out your best. And, unfortunately, an unprofessional supervisor can bring out your worst.

Communicate One-on-One

Your first approach should be to speak directly with your supervisor. But first, take a personal inventory to clarify whether you may be the source of the problem, or what role your actions are playing. Request a meeting and inform your boss calmly and politely how you perceive her behavior. Frame any challenges in terms of productivity -- your supervisor may be unaware of the negative effects of her actions -- and while your words will take time to process, she ultimately may appreciate your feedback. It's wise to request regular meetings that focus on issues to be resolved, as ongoing communication will allow you both to discuss future interactions more comfortably.

Talk With a Trusted Colleague

If talking one-on-one with your boss does not work, discuss things with a trusted colleague. Make this your first step in a very uncomfortable situation. Choose someone who will keep your conversations private, works with both parties and is aware of company politics. More importantly, talk with someone whose work style you admire -- and who’s navigated similar challenges in the past. Brainstorm solutions, which may include a fellow employee intervening with your boss or filing a formal complaint.

Consult Human Resources

Consulting your organization’s human resources department is another option. Before you take this step, know when it’s appropriate. While it might be extremely uncomfortable to have a boss who micromanages you or takes credit for everything, this is not cause for your company to take significant action. If you’re being discriminated against, however, because of your gender, race, age, sexual orientation, disabilities or other characteristics, then you’re obligated to file a complaint. There are other cases that apply, such as when your boss is engaged in alcoholism, substance abuse or other destructive behavior that is not conducive to a place of work. When in doubt, let a human resources representative advise you.

Consider Other Employment

It’s possible that after taking all of these steps your boss’s behavior still won’t change. Unfortunately, many organizations keep unprofessional supervisors in place. An August 2007 article, titled Bad Bosses Get Promoted, Not Punished? on the Reuters website, discusses an online survey by Professors Ben Shaw, Anthony Erickson and Zha Agabe of Bond University in Australia, in which 240 U.S. and Australian workers were among those who responded to questions about what happened to an especially “bad leader” for whom they worked. Almost 45 percent reported that the supervisor was promoted, 19 percent shared that nothing happened to the boss, and just 13 percent said that the supervisor was forced to leave the company. If you’re unable to resolve things using all of the resources at your disposal, it’s time to explore other job options.

About the Author

Kenya Lucas has been writing professionally since 1998. Her work has appeared in “Anthropology & Medicine,” “New Directions for Evaluation,” “Psychology of Women Quarterly” and “Journal of the Grant Professionals Association.” She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins University and Brown University.

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