Just Realized Your Old Boss Was a Bully? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I have been on sick leave for the last few months. Before that, I worked as an essential medical worker—administrative, not patient care—in a big city. It was intense. We had big refrigerated morgue trucks in the parking lot, and it felt like no one who was not in medicine understood quite how crazy things were.

I did, in fact, contract COVID and was sick, but I recovered fairly quickly. I am now on sick leave because of a chronic condition that I now realize was very much exacerbated by the stress of my job—and by the fact that my former boss was really, really mean.

I was told before I went on sick leave that I was being let go from the job that I had, but would be eligible to apply for other jobs in the hospital. I am not worried about finding a job. I am really good at a very narrow specialty and there are few people who can do what I do. But now that I’ve had some time to step back a little, I realize how awful my boss was to me. He was a bully who believed that my condition was all in my head and I just used it as a ploy to get sympathy. He even made fun of me in staff meetings. I laughed it off at the time, but now I see how wildly inappropriate his behavior was.

Now I’m wondering about myself. What on earth is it about me that allowed that ugliness? Am I just a victim? And how do I prevent that in my next job? Should I even try to go back to the hospital? Should I confront the bully? I keep going in circles and not getting anywhere. Any ideas you might have would be welcome.

At a Crossroads


Dear At a Crossroads,

Well, wow. I am always amazed at what people are capable of. Look at what you have been through, At a Crossroads, and yet here you are picking yourself up off the floor and getting ready to fling yourself back out there. My hat is off to you: your resilience, your courage, your clarity about what happened, and your self-awareness and willingness to wonder what part you might have played in how things went down.

Let’s get you out of circles and moving toward some action, shall we? I’ll address your excellent questions in order:

What on earth is it about you that allowed that ugliness? Are you just a victim? I ask: Indeed. Are you? Only you can tell, since you would have to look at your history. Has this ever happened before? If yes, is it a pattern? If yes, then you definitely will want to find a good therapist and take a good hard look at what is going on and how you can break the pattern. If no, this is an isolated incident, it’s possible you never really noticed how messed up things were because there was so much other crazy stuff going on.

Adults who are targets for bullies tend to be people who stand out because they are super competent, nice, and a little isolated. But most important, they don’t draw boundaries or fight back. You can read about another situation here. Many bullies will cease and desist when the person they are picking on simply says something like, “Are you serious right now?” or “That really hurts my feelings,” or “Wow, that is just mean. Are you trying to be mean?” Some people who are perceived as bullies are, in fact, bad people—but some are simply oblivious and have no idea how their behavior impacts others until someone calls it out.

How do you prevent this kind of thing in the future? If this isn’t a pattern, you are probably going to be fine. You will have your spidey sense up in the future and it will never happen again. You can certainly vet your next boss by asking questions about their leadership style and what is important to them. And you can also not accept a new position until after you have interviewed others who work for the potential boss.

Should you try to go back to the hospital? If you think you can stay out of Mr. Meanie’s way, sure. But think about the big picture. If you start from scratch, you will be able to research culture, training programs, and leadership development programs of different hospitals to find a place where leadership matters. Also, you can check out things like location, pay, benefits, and opportunity for advancement. Why not go for your perfect job? Or, if everything at your last position was perfect except for your boss, why not go back?

Should you confront the bully? Maybe. You would have to decide what you want to get out of it. Most fantasy scenarios never play out in real life. If you think your bully might be open to hearing feedback on how his behavior impacted you, it might be useful. But you will want to prepare really well. Some thoughts on that here. But honestly—why bother? It isn’t your problem anymore, and it doesn’t sound like you owe the bully anything. Giving feedback is a gift. I will only do it if it’s my job. No good deed goes unpunished—and, in this case, that will almost certainly be true. Perhaps you want an apology? You would need to ask for one directly, and even then, it is a long shot. If it is closure you want, you might consider writing a letter outlining your experience. Write it out point by point—what happened and how it made you feel. Then you can decide if you want to send it. Just writing it will help you get it out of your head, and hopefully let it go. The carefully crafted, heartfelt letter that is never sent is a beautiful recovery tool.

One note about your condition. Is it possible you would qualify as someone with a disability so that you would have protections in the future? It might be worth looking into. And if your condition is brought on by stress, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that you would be well served to explore stress management skills; meditation, mindfulness, prayer, yoga, exercise, getting a pet. All proven to help people reduce stress.

Sail on, At a Crossroads. Take care of yourself and go forth and find your perfect spot where you can do your special job beautifully for a nice boss who appreciates you.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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