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How to Survive a Young, Abusive Boss

If you’re feeling marginalized due to your age, follow these tips to create a healthier work environment

By Phyllis Weiss Haserot | May 29, 2013
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Phyllis Weiss Haserot, President of Practice Development Counsel, helps organizations and individuals solve inter-generational challenges among work colleagues and with clients. She writes regularly for Next Avenue. Reach her at pwhaserot@pdcounsel.com and www.pdcounsel.com.

The demography of today’s workforce – three notably different and competitive generations alongside one another – has been causing tension and jockeying for position on the job.
 
And now that growing numbers of young, ambitious and impatient managers have older workers reporting to them, you might find yourself subjected to poor treatment or even verbal abuse. This type of thing doesn’t occur frequently, but it does happen.
 
Marginalized Due to Your Age
 
“I’m seeing more senior professionals feeling marginalized by managers in their 30s,” said Gary Ireland, an employment attorney in New York. "They're being left out of e-mail communications and meeting invitations and set up for termination by exclusion."
 
(MORE: What to Do When You Work for a Bully)

The tactics used by some young bosses against older subordinates include sending abrupt, negative feedback — even "You're fired" — by e-mail or text. "There's usually no indication of poor performance reviews," said Ireland, "and these individuals are often frustrated by human resources policies that may exist, but are not being executed."
 
John Keil, an employment attorney in New York, says young, abusive bosses might also make inappropriate comments and jokes and refer to colleagues in their 50s, 60s and 70s with such derogatory terms as “geezers.”
 
Misinterpreting a Young Boss’s Style
 
Sometimes, though, Millennial managers who come across as blunt or insensitive to older staffers don’t mean to be offensive. They may just be behaving and talking the way members of their generation typically do. It’s also worth remembering that new managers often aren’t adept at interpersonal skills and navigating organizational politics, which can exacerbate a small misunderstanding or disagreement.
 
Even if you’re convinced that you are being treated badly due to your age (and your boss’), try to understand your manager’s perspective so you can come up with a strategy to fix the relationship or exit with dignity.
 
9 Tips for Dealing with a Young, Abusive Boss
 
Here’s how to prevent yourself from becoming the victim of an abusive boss and what to do if you find yourself in that position:
 
1. Establish friendly dialogue early. If you sense insecurity, look for ways to be helpful and make him or her look good, despite the manager’s inexperience. As New York life coach Stephen Pollan recently told Next Avenue, “You should be more preoccupied with your supervisor’s status than your own.”
 
Understand the boss’s goals and suggest, without arrogance or condescension, how they might be achieved based on your experience. Show some team spirit and (at least for a while) let your young manager take some credit for your good ideas.
 
(MORE: How Boomers Can Prove Their Value at Work)

2. If tension arises between you and your boss, talk about it in person. Don’t escalate disagreements by email, even if that’s how your supervisor prefers to communicate.
 
3. Look for workplace alliances and support early, before you run into any serious problems with your manager. Allies will know your value to the organization and can speak up for you with influential staffers and executives, if necessary.
 
4. Attend any diversity, inclusion, conflict resolution and team-building training that your employer offers. Doing so will demonstrate that you’re interested in harmonious relationships.
 
5. Make a special effort to prevent your boss from having reasons to discredit or fire you. An abusive boss may be looking for excuses to get you out because, in his or her mind, your age makes you dead wood.

So if there will be times when you can’t fulfill work commitments due to family or personal issues, team up with colleagues who can cover for you and vice versa.
 
6. If things start getting really unpleasant between you and your boss, look into the possibility of working for another manager. Just make it clear to the supervisor who's giving you trouble that you’re a loyal team player and want to continue in that role.
 
Start the discussion about switching managers with your boss and then, if you encounter resistance or a lack of interest, try talking with someone at a higher level.
 
7. If work becomes increasingly uncomfortable, talk with a human resources staffer or whoever handles personnel matters. Ask this professional for the best way to address the situation in a non-confrontational way.
 
(MORE: What It Takes to Win an Age Discrimination Suit)

You’ll want to keep a straightforward, running record of dates and details of your experiences, beginning with the first instance of what you believe were cases of wrongful, unjustifiable treatment or abuse. Remember to write down the names of anyone who observed the incidents.
 
8. When there is truly an acute situation, contact an attorney discreetly for advice. You’ll want to do this even before approaching human resources.
 
An attorney working behind the scenes can help you craft a formal complaint and show you the best way to navigate this stressful situation.
 
9. Take care not to become a target for retaliation. When speaking with your boss or with human resources, don’t indicate that you have a lawyer or threaten to sue. Also, be careful about what you say about your boss, out loud or in writing. Using nasty language or exaggerating your circumstances could ultimately get you fired, which is hardly the outcome you want.