In the spring of 2001, Neil Patterson, the CEO of a software company based out of Kanas, bombarded 400 of the company’s managers with a threatening email. Patterson threatened that if the parking lot was not at half full on Saturdays he would begin firing people in two weeks.


Disgruntled by this email, a few of Patterson’s subordinates retaliated by publishing his threatening email to the Internet. Shortly after posting, the email went viral and caused the company’s asset value to decrease by 22%.


The employees of Patterson are not the first to experience abusive behavior from a boss. APS Fellow Harvey Hornstein states that a majority of employees will experience some form of abusive behavior throughout their career. However, how employees handle the abuse can vary.


Hornstein found that the most common reaction from an abused employee came in the form of retaliation.


Hornstein conducted a study on supervisor abuse by interviewing 100 working adults. The participants of the study were questioned on the different eight types of supervisor abuse. Including:


  • Cruelty
  • Dictating employee’s life outside of work
  • Lying
  • Disrespect
  • Threatening consequences
  • Showing favoritism
  • Using a subordinate as a scapegoat
  • Displays of personal superiority over subordinates


Hornstein noted that after experiencing abuse, disgruntled employees found strategies for deterring abuse or engaged in behaviors that would target their boss or the organization. If the payback is well-targeted, well-timed, and well-tempered, it can be successful. Although Hornstein does not condone retribution, he notes that vengeance is a typical reaction in the workplace and can produce more productive results than other strategies.


In a study published by Psychological Science, researchers Nathanael Fast and Serena Chen identified flattery as a strategy to tame a bullying boss. It was hypothesized that “people who hold positions of power at their places of work but feel chronically incompetent should display higher levels of generalized aggression than other workers.


While these strategies are commonly done among employees who have a boss as a bully, the best course of action is to report any instance of bullying to Human Resources. When reporting to Human Resources be sure to have clear documentation of all of the incidents. Make sure to include, the date, time, and place.


If you find that bullying is still occurring despite going to Human Resources, it may be time for you to leave the company. Remember that you leaving the company is not a poor reflection of you. The dysfunction in the workplace most likely existed before you arrived and will be there long after you leave.