When it comes to getting ahead at work, the rule of thumb is to never say “no.” Whether your boss wants you to cover for absent colleagues, take on an extra project, or do work not in your job description, you’re supposed to hop to it, and with a smile on your face to boot. Assuming your boss is a semi-reasonable person, you might not have a problem taking on whatever tasks they hand out. But when you have a bad boss, constantly saying “yes” can quickly lead to a miserable work situation. Whether you’re dealing with bullying in the workplace, pressure to skirt the rules, or unrealistic performance expectations, there are times when you just have to stand up to your boss.
Confronting your nightmare of a boss can be scary, but doing so may make your work life less miserable. While employees might fear retaliation when they push back against a bad boss, even subtle forms of resistance, such as ignoring a difficult supervisor, can make beaten-down employees feel less victimized at work, a study by researchers at The Ohio State University and University of Georgia found.
“Definitely the results of our study imply that if a person is getting abused by their supervisor, a sustained display of hostility, that standing up for yourself and making yourself not feel like you’re being victim is important and that makes them feel more committed and more satisfied,” said Marie Mitchell, a coauthor of the study, told the Chicago Tribune. “They don’t feel the psychological distress of an individual who just takes it.”
The study’s authors don’t necessarily advocate taking revenge on your boss like Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5. “There may be other responses to hostile bosses that may be more beneficial,” study author Bennett Tepper said in a statement. Confronting your manager directly or reporting them to HR might be better ways to deal with bullying in the workplace and other bad boss behaviors than passive-aggressive retaliation.
Before you choose to confront a horrible boss, however, you need to know if it’s an issue worth taking a stand about. Though some workplace slights and annoyances can be overlooked, others need to be addressed head on. Here are five times when you need to stand up to your bad boss.
1. When you’re overworked
Everyone has to stay late at the office occasionally, but if your boss’s never-ending demands have you teetering on the edge of burnout, you need to put your foot down. Working too much isn’t just bad for your health, it can also lead to mistakes on the job. Before you quit in a blaze of glory, confront your boss about the amount of work you’re really doing. If you’re a valuable employee, they may be willing to develop a solution that will make you both happy.
“Trying to accomplish the impossible is a recipe for failure — yours as well as the company’s. It’s even possible your boss isn’t aware of the weight of your workload. The ‘reward’ for a dependable achiever is often to be given more work,” career expert Karen Burns wrote in an article for U.S. News & World Report.
2. When they ask you to break the law
Your boss has suggested you get creative with the accounting, told you to fire someone illegally, or instructed you to overlook or ignore a clear safety violation. Being asked to break the law by your boss puts you in a lose-lose position. Refuse to comply with their demands and you could find yourself out of job. But if you go along with the illegal activity, you could feel the heat yourself.
“You could end up in a lawsuit or even jail, if your boss is involved with something nefarious,” Lynn Taylor, the author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job, told Business Insider. “Just because you were obeying your manager’s orders will not provide a defense.”
3. When they want you to do something unethical
When a boss asks you to do something illegal, at least you have the law to back you up when you refuse. Stand up to a boss who wants you to do something unethical, and you’re on your own. You may lack the protections that come with blowing the whistle on illegal activity, and your boss probably won’t appreciate it when you draw attention to their own ethical shortcomings. But continually putting yourself in a position where you’re forced to compromise your values isn’t healthy either.
If you’re losing sleep over an ethical or moral quandary at the office, you can raise the issue with your boss in a non-confrontational way, workplace expert Amy Gallo suggested in an article for Harvard Business Review. It’s possible your boss hasn’t considered the implications of their request or doesn’t see them as wrong. If a conversation doesn’t work, you may need to escalate the issue to HR or your boss’s boss, or seek out a new job that’s a better fit for your values.
4. When you’re being harassed or abused
Bullying in the workplace is a serious problem, and it sometimes crosses the line into outright harassment. One out of three women have been sexually harassed at work, with 38% saying the harassment came from a manager. Many other employees, both male and female, find themselves in situations where they’re being harassed or abused by a boss, often verbally, but sometimes physically as well.
Workplace harassment is illegal, but many people avoid reporting it for fear of retaliation or concerns they won’t be believed. Though it can be difficult, consider confronting the harasser about his or her behavior (unless you fear for your physical safety). While standing up to harassment might not be enough to stop the problem, it can help strengthen any future complaints you make against your boss, according to the Feminist Majority Foundation.
5. When their being completely unreasonable
Sometimes, enough is enough. Take the high-performing employee who quit without notice after her boss wouldn’t give her a few hours off to attend her college graduation, even though she’d made exceptions to accommodate other employees’ schedules. The clueless boss then wrote to Alison Green’s Ask a Manager blog, wondering if it would be OK to reach out to the employee — who’d formerly been homeless and in foster care — to teach her “professional norms.”
Green, however, took the employee’s side, congratulating her on standing up to an unreasonable, inflexible boss. “I’m not usually a fan of people quitting on the spot, but I applaud her for doing it in this case,” Green wrote. “She never missed a day of work in six years, she was your go-to person, she covered for every other person there, and she was all-around excellent … and yet when she needed you to help her out with something that was important to her, you refused. There’s a lesson to be learned here, but it’s not for her.”