How to decipher workplace harassment from just having a tough boss


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It’s common that the nine-to-five (or longer) workweek cycle gets sprinkled with a few tense emails from a manager. And those messages are bound to just get to you. But, receiving tough feedback from time to time and chronic unhappiness at work are hardly the same scenario—kind of like having one sleepless night compared to a full-on bout of insomnia. In fact, dreading your workplace is linked to a whole bunch of negative implications. Studies show that hating your job is correlated with weight gain, a compromised sense of well-being, a higher risk of diabetes, and more.

Since research finds that workplace culture is actually a higher indicator of employee happiness than salary, it stands to reason that cultivating a solid, healthy relationship with your boss is a cause that’ll pay dividends in terms of mental health. But what’s the difference between a boss who simply harbors a no-nonsense approach to helping you improve your skills and get you to the next step in your career and one who’s flat-out harassing you, verbally or otherwise? Let’s take a closer look, so you can deal, no matter what the answer is.

A tough boss is still on your side

The simplest way to decode whether your boss is hard ass rather than an asshole? Decide whether they have your best interest at heart. Perhaps the underlying reason for their demeanor toward you is having high expectations. Maybe they just want you to reach your full potential. Stern and abusive are, after all, not one in the same.

“Many of us can withstand a certain amount of pressure if we are treated with respect, integrity and a sense of fair play,” says career counselor and business coach Kristin Schuchman. “Those who are in positions of influence over us bear a certain responsibility to wield their power fairly.”

Photo: Getty Images/Aja Koska

Trust your gut when you feel harassed

Harassment, Schuchman says, tends to takes the form of purposeful humiliation and marginalization in front of colleagues that can leave you feeling like you’re constantly being gaslit or undermined. That said, having a boss who believes you’re capable of great career success and one who acts inappropriately are not mutually-exclusive situations.

Harassment tends to takes the form of purposeful humiliation and marginalization in front of colleagues that can leave you feeling like you’re constantly being gaslit or undermined.

Take The Devil Wears Prada, for example: High-powered magazine editor Miranda Priestly may well have believed her assistant Andy Sachs to be an über-talented rising star, but that certainly doesn’t excuse the never-ending stream of near-impossible-to-complete tasks she pushed on her employee. (Hint: If you’re ever asked—after-hours, especially—to charter a plane in the middle of a hurricane, you’re almost certainly subject to unfair, toxic treatment, even if your boss thinks you’re bound to change the world with your undoubtedly genius ideas).

What about sexual harassment?

While verbal harassment is a problem in today’s workplace, the now ubiquity of the #MeToo movement has made it clear that sexual harassment at work is something we need to be talking about more—it simply happens way too much.

“Sexual harassment includes obscene comments, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Think inappropriate touching, lewd jokes, or demeaning monikers like ‘sweetie’ or ‘cutie,’” says Schuchman. “If the behavior of a boss or colleague is inappropriate, you usually know it in your gut.” She adds that if you’re experiencing sexual harassment, it’s important to not second-guess yourself: Go to HR and share what’s going on, and if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, confer with colleagues to see if they’re experiencing similar issues. If so, consider going to HR as a united front; there’s strength in numbers.

Your anti-harassment action plan

If you think you’re a victim of harassment but aren’t sure, Schuchman suggests talking it out with two people you trust. Then, depending how you feel (no matter what your confidantes think), seek out an HR representative.

“If your manager isn’t willing to communicate with you in ways that are respectful and clear, or if the added stress compromises your quality of life, that’s not good. That’s when it’s time to think about a change.” —Kristin Schuchman, career coach

Even if your manager isn’t harassing you but their management style and attitude still gets you down to the point that the negativity is affecting your OOO mental health and spurring Sunday Scaries like clockwork, remember that you have choices. Schedule a time to chat so you can explain how you feel and how a different mode of communication might be beneficial. If your manager is a good one, they’ll be receptive to how you’re feeling.

Another thing to keep in mind? You’re never stuck at a single job. “If your manager isn’t willing to communicate with you in ways that are respectful and clear, or if the added stress compromises your quality of life, that’s not good,” says Schuchman. “That’s when it’s time to think about a change.”

Maybe working remotely could give you some welcome space from a tense office. Here’s how to get your boss onboard with the arrangement and how to cultivate a stress-free home office.

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