What to Do When Your Boss Talks Down to You: 7 Easy Steps

Nobody likes being belittled but when your boss talks down to you in front of others it becomes even more challenging. Do nothing and everyone will think you are spineless, respond too aggressively and the situation can blow up in your face. Here are seven tips that actually work:

1. Is It Me or My Boss?

Some bosses are jerks and they behave like a jerk without even knowing it, but none of them will ever admit to intentionally being condescending. In their minds, there is always a reasonable explanation:
I was only joking
I was being sarcastic
The message was for the team and not directed at you specifically
I was just being direct so there was no confusion later
You are just being too sensitive
I didn’t talk down to you

Everyone has moments when they feel insecure about their work or about receiving instructions in public. After the interaction, get the perspective of someone else who was present for the exchange. They will understand the context of the conversation, hear the tone of how things were said, and also pick up on the non-verbal communication cues. Ask a trusted friend ‘Was it just me or was my boss really condescending when they … ?

If your sounding board confirms your boss was talking down to you then put it in context. Was this one of many instances when your boss was belittling – or was it an isolated event? You don’t want to make mountains out of molehills, but you also don’t want to be a doormat and let people walk all over you. Realize that this is your boss’s problem, not yours, and approach it with a problem-solving mindset.

2. Remain Calm and Respectful

Emotions run high when you feel insulted, but responding reflexively in the moment is only going to make the situation worse. No matter how you choose to respond you must remain professional. Keep your cool and keep the focus on the issue at hand. Don’t go looking for retribution, try to embarrass your boss, or tell them off because it can be viewed as insubordination and employee misconduct.

3. Best Option: Respond in the Moment

Severe cases are rare but they are also the most important to deal with immediately. For example, if your boss is speaking to you like this: ‘I … will … speak … slowly … so … you … can … keep … up …’ there is no reasonable explanation other than your boss is being condescending. You need to respond and we walk thru three examples below:

A humorous response might be ‘Very funny boss, I’ll be sure to ask you for a hall pass when I need a bathroom break‘. You acknowledge that they are your boss and the hall pass comment sends a clear message that you think they are treating you like a child. But by keeping the tone light you give them an out for their jerk behavior – everyone can chuckle and move on.

A constructive response provides a direct counterpoint to the unspoken message your boss is sending – that they are superior to you. So prove your expertise with relevant specifics in your response.

For example, if your boss is being condescending about the low response rate to an email marketing campaign you might respond with ‘email use is declining among our target demographic group of 18-24 year olds, I’ve done some research and we should increase our spend on direct messaging campaigns and emerging social media platforms‘.

Your facts are on-point and supported by data, not just opinions. When your statements demonstrate your expertise you are more effective at managing how the other people involved in the conversation will perceive you. This type of response is universally suitable for all situations and should be your go-to method.

Sarcasm kills your credibility! You must keep the focus on the business issue at hand, as soon as other perceive your response as a tit-for-tat exchange they are likely to step back out of the line of fire. You want to have their support as you push your boss’s rude behavior aside and get to work.

A serious response might be ‘lets keep it professional, now what are the deliverables you need?‘. This makes it clear that you don’t appreciate the insulting comments and your focus is on the work at hand. Make no mistake, the first part is a reprimand and no matter how well deserved your boss is unlikely to receive it well, especially if you deliver it in front of other people. You run the significant risk of damaging the relationship between you and your boss with this approach so it is best reserved for when other methods haven’t been successful.

4. Good Option: Followup Afterwards

If you are uncertain you can keep your cool, don’t engage in a discussion at the moment. It is vitally important that you take the high road when dealing with a boss that talks down to you. Once the situation has devolved to both of you and your boss being rude and unprofessional you will lose every time. If you are angry or upset, your best course of action in the moment is to move the conversation along to the next topic. Do this by acknowledging your boss with a clear ‘understood‘ or ‘copy that‘ if your workplace uses military jargon.

You might think that scheduling a meeting with your boss in private gives you the green light to let loose and really give them a piece of your mind. Unfortunately you need to keep that for your therapy session or the gym. You want to approach the meeting in problem solving mindset.

Address the recent issue directly and be specific – you don’t want your boss to think you are condemning their actions overall with generalizations – even if it does happen frequently. Use the most recent example and be truthful:

  • ‘Boss, I don’t like it when you joke about my mistake in front of the team. I know you were joking but it undercuts my credibility with the others and I’m not able to be as effective’.
  • ‘Boss, at the meeting today you interrupted and spoke over me three separate times. I want to support your direction so how can we get on the same page before the next meeting.’
  • ‘Boss, do you have concerns about my attendance? Your joke as I was walking in really took me by surprise. Yes, I was a few minutes late this morning but I called to let you know and it is the only event in the previous four months.’

You want to show your boss you are on their side and not against them, while still making it clear how their actions are affecting your work and a constructive suggestion for how to move forward. The constructive path forward is probably the most important, without it your boss is likely to see your meeting as you blaming them for a problem and expecting your boss to solve it.

5. OK Option: Ignore the Problem

Sometimes the best response is no response. When your boss talks down to you just keep going as if it didn’t happen. If they see the exchange as a joke or if they are attempting to motivate you in their own twisted logic, then not responding removes all satisfaction for your boss. Another option is to act like you don’t understand. You need to be careful because this choice walks a line that could embarrass your boss and can come off as passive-aggressive. Simply respond with ‘I don’t understand what you mean‘. Now your boss is in the position of either continuing their condescending actions after you’ve called attention to them, or more often they will move on.

Trying to avoid a boss that talks down to you won’t make the problem go away. If your boss doesn’t recognize the problem on their own it is likely to get worse because in their mind they might see it as helping. Everyone at work needs to give the benefit of the doubt for one-time interactions that are out of character, but repeated issues indicate a deeper problem. Bully’s get a little boost of self-esteem when they put down others so if you don’t call attention to the issue you can expect more of the same treatment.

6. Have Some Patience

Your boss is unlikely to do an immediate 180° turn after your conversation – habits take time to change. Consider it a win if you make eye contact with your boss and they recognize your hint. Progress is key. Remember, your goal is to have a productive outcome where your boss respects you so you can have a positive working relationship.

There is little hope for a truly toxic boss, but you may be able to reach a tolerable situation. Use the time to gain better understanding of what triggers your boss and minimize those circumstances. Everyone has preferred communication styles and you may find that simple, minor adjustments are all it takes. Once your boss sees that you will speak up, they will at least appreciate that they won’t be able to just roll over you as they please.

7. Realize Going to HR Probably Won’t Help

Unless and until it reaches the point of a hostile work environment, bringing your concerns to HR puts you at risk for retaliation from your boss. Human Resources is there to protect the company and is not an advocate for the employee in these matters. HR has a clear directive to make the narrative so that the company is not liable for the situation. It is not illegal for your boss to be a jerk unless there is discrimination against a protected class.

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Now many HR professionals are engaged with their organization and will become involved with jerk behavior, just understand it is not the primary responsibility and they may have limited authority. A pattern of complaints and issues on record with HR will likely interfere with your boss’s next promotion. Leadership promotions typically receive HR review before approval to identify potential liability for the company.

How to Handle a Boss Who Always Corrects You

Annoying as it may be, if your statements are incorrect or your boss has newly updated information, then they should communicate this out. You need to defer to your boss in this situation and let them give the update.

Some bosses just must have the last word, not matter what. Once you recognize this pattern you can easily transition the conversation – provide your update and then look to your boss and ask ‘do you have anything to add boss?‘. Do it with sincerity and your boss will appreciate the respect. This method is also effective for the boss that feels the need to add small details just so everyone knows they contributed.

Now if the ‘correction’ is really expressing a different opinion the best approach is to have a follow-up meeting with your boss following the guide in step 4. It is unlikely your boss wants to engage in a public debate, so discuss with your boss how to align with them in a more private forum.

Can Your Boss Yell At You In Front of Others?

Management books have promoted the concept of ‘praise in public, criticize in private’ since Vince Lombardi popularized the saying. In the sense that public humiliation works against constructive outcomes the saying is accurate, but business does not operate like football. Football players operate as a team, but they are individually in control of their own outcomes. Business is more complicated and since 2010 the best management advice advocates a level of open communication and public accountability for undesired outcomes.

When you miss deadlines and it affects the larger group, expect acknowledgement of the miss in a group setting to drive accountability. Your boss may say ‘We’ve had some dates slip recently that have impacted our team milestones. When you have similar challenges make sure you communicate the issues!‘.

Accountability can sting. Nobody wants to have their mistakes aired publicly, but open review is vital for an agile workplace to learn and improve overall performance. In many companies the factors for psychological safety are missing and employees will try to gloss over mistakes or even intentionally hide them when a culture of fear exists.

Your boss yelling about an issue probably doesn’t cross any lines even if it not in line with expected leadership behavior and company policy. However personal insults ‘You are so stupid!‘ or public statements that reveal confidential personal information ‘You are already on a PIP and now you make this mistake?!‘ may cross a legal boundary. Try to de-escalate the situation, make notes to capture the details of what was said an who was a witness, and contact your HR representative.

Dan Sawyer

Founding editor and head writer of ExpertEmployee.com. Dan is a job interview and career expert, with more than 20 years of experience in senior roles at high tech leaders Space Exploration Technologies and Samsung Austin Semiconductor.

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