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My Boss is Creating a Hostile Work Environment

Q. I am the top HR person at a company run by a terrible leader, who happens to be my boss. He yells, swears and uses threatening language as “motivation.” He behaves like this with senior leaders, or when meeting with junior level employees. I can’t stand it anymore. He would never be violent, but this is crazy and no one will challenge him. Others have encouraged me to speak to him, but is that really my responsibility? Should I talk to him and risk being fired, or should I just quit?

A. If any organization has a leader behaving in that manner, it is the responsibility of every other senior leader and HR to meet with that person and strongly encourage him to change his behavior. This behavior presents a legal liability to the organization as it could be perceived as creating a hostile work environment; it has a negative impact on every person involved as well as the business.

As the top HR person, it is your responsibility to bring this behavior and the risks it brings to the organization to his attention. I recognize that you may feel you are putting your job on the line by having this conversation, and you probably are. If you have a board of directors, approach the chairman to see if this behavior is visible to the board. Discuss the positive leadership qualities your boss has and the need for a conversation with him; his behavior needs to change to protect the organization. Offer a solution, perhaps this behavior can be changed with the intervention of an executive coach. If the chairman feels you are lobbying for the offenders termination, your motives may become suspect. That may not be fair, but it is often the case.


The chairman should take the burden of this conversation, but if he/she chooses not to, let him/her know that in your role, you need to have this discussion. You fear your job may be at risk, and you will return to him or her for support as needed. Document this conversation, your planned conversation, your perceived risk and the exit package you want. Draft a resume, because chances are you won’t want to stay at this organization unless he changes his behavior or someone changes him out.
Arrange to meet with your manager privately to address his actions, have real examples and address the impact his behavior has on the organization and senior leadership. Have you had unwanted turnover? Is there background conversation about his mode of communication, but not the content of his message? If you can quantify the cost to the organization, do so, especially if he is an analytic type. Propose the coaching solution, showing him you are acting as a trusted advisor to ensure his success and longevity.
Though he may not agree with you, or see the impact he has on the organization, you served the organization by confronting this issue. Encourage him to choose another member of the senior team, or a board member to discuss and review the situation.
-Elaine Varelas, Managing Partner, Keystone Partners

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