It can be challenging and fulfilling to work for a tough boss — someone who pushes you to work to the best of your ability, encourages you to set high goals, and expects a lot from you. When “toughness” is combined with fairness and support, it can be hugely rewarding — and also help you get ahead in your career.
There is, however, a big difference between a tough boss and a bully. Almost 60% of US workers are affected by the problem, according to the 2017 US Workplace Bullying Survey. A 2015 survey of UK workers found nearly a third reported bullying at work — and in nearly three-quarters (72%) of cases, the bullying was carried out by a manager.
In some cases, bullying is obvious. When Giorgia* started university in the UK, she took a part-time job in an Italian restaurant where she worked for an abusive manager. “There were five floor staff who were Italian: the owner, a guy, and three girls including me. Everyone else didn't understand Italian,” she said.
“The owner would comment on nearly every single woman coming in, calling them ‘ugly’ if he didn't like them. Always in Italian, mostly directed at the Italian guy in the team. He didn't spare racist comments either, calling most of the non-white customers all sorts of names.
“He was clearly keeping some tips as he was giving us a flat rate every week based on how many hours we did, around £2 per hour,” Giorgia said. “At Christmas, when people get drunk and tip like crazy, we got the same. I asked him how it was possible. He went completely nuts, shouted at me with veins nearly exploding on his forehead, said I should be respectful as he could be my father instead of calling him a thief in his own restaurant.”
Cases like this are pretty clear-cut. Name-calling, sexism, and other forms of abuse can easily be identified as bullying. But in other instances, it can be easy to mistake toughness for bullying. So what’s the difference?
“A tough boss is someone prepared to put pressure on employees but will be consistent in their treatment,” according to Alan Price, group operations director and HR expert at global employment law consultancy Peninsula. “Although they may set challenging tasks and deadlines, they will ensure that what is being asked of their employees is not unreasonable and that they have all the information they need. They will also be willing to take into account the opinions of their employees but be prepared to disagree with them if need be.”
On the other hand, a bullying boss will constantly try to assert their power over others, setting unrealistic targets, changing tasks at the last minute, and punishing employees despite this.
“A bully is also more likely to take all the credit when tasks get done well and not make sure that praise is extended to where it is due,” Price said. “Whilst a tough boss will reprimand everyone equally, a bully will tend to target individuals on the team, constantly belittling them even in situations where they are doing their job to the required standard.”
Even if a boss is fair, it can still be difficult if they’re tough. There are benefits to being challenged at work however, Price said, as this can encourage employees to go that extra mile and develop their skills.
“Tough but fair bosses will also be more approachable than bullies, which can help managers to identify any issues that may be developing amongst their workforce and therefore work against them better,” he said. “For example, employees are more likely to speak to bosses about illness, disability, or other personal issues that may affect their ability to conduct their role. This can help companies take steps to hold onto valuable members of staff.”
It’s still important to recognise when someone displays bullying behaviour. When colleagues are pushed too hard and don’t feel supported by their boss, it can have a serious impact on their self-esteem and wellbeing.
“Company response to bullying should be consistent regardless of seniority. Although it may be possible to have an informal chat with the individual to tell them that they need to change their behaviour, companies should not be afraid to go down a disciplinary route if needed,” Price said. “If managers are exhibiting bullying behaviour, they could also benefit from further training in more appropriate ways to manage a team.”
It’s important to keep a diary of what is happening and to talk to someone trusted for advice. You may be able to make a complaint to your HR department.
“All complaints of bullying should be taken seriously and investigated fully. It is important to remember that how individuals perceive their treatment can be key in this situation,” Price said.
“Different employers may work in different ways and the employee may think they are being bullied when they are being managed. To this end, all concerns must be listened to discussed fully with the employee to ascertain why they feel they are being mistreated.”