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my coworkers resent that my boss no longer yells at me — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

During the interview for my current job at a small family-owned company, I was informed that one of the people I would be working with, Bob, had a strong personality and was challenging to work with. What I wasn’t told is that Bob is the owner’s husband. One of the reasons he’s difficult to work with is because he yells a lot.

This has become a daily occurrence at my job. Bob enters the room where everyone is working and singles out an employee he thinks looks idle (his words) and asks them to do something unrelated to the company. This includes tasks like finding a new golf partner because the old one canceled a game, making reservations for tomorrow at a nearly impossible-to-book restaurant, or calling his doctor claiming he needs an appointment urgently.

The big issue arises if the unfortunate chosen employee asks any follow-up questions (like the reservation time or which golf partner to call first). Bob will respond by shouting that he’s the owner of the company (even though he’s not familiar with the day-to-day operations), and he’ll continue yelling for a few minutes. It’s terrible. One of the employees left in tears and never returned to work. They’ve tried hiring someone specifically to deal with Bob, but no one has lasted more than a month.

For weeks, I watched Bob’s outbursts from the sidelines. But this week, in a moment when I was handling something urgent that would cost the company money if not completed by the end of the day, Bob chose me as his target. He asked me to drop everything I was doing and find a quote for some gadget he saw in an ad. I said no. And predictably, he started yelling.

Believe me when I say I’m not a confrontational person. I never raise my voice, especially not in the workplace. I can’t explain how it happened, but I stood up (I’m a tall woman, nearly as tall as Bob) and shouted back. I explained, in a raised voice, that I was in the middle of task X and if I didn’t finish it by the end of the day, we’d lose money. But if he wanted the company to lose money while I did his research, that was fine.

Then, the unexpected happened. Bob returned to a normal and professional tone of voice and said it was okay; I could continue with task X, and when I finished, I could do the research for him. Since then, Bob hasn’t yelled at me. Even if he’s shouting at another employee, he pauses mid-sentence, addresses me in a normal voice before yelling at someone else.

However, my coworkers are now resentful because I no longer receive Bob’s outbursts. They spend their days making jokes about how I’m Bob’s favorite (I suggested they stand up to him too), that I should offer to do everything he asks (no thanks), and last Friday, when I mentioned needing a drink after a stressful week, a colleague pointed out that their week was even more stressful due to Bob’s shouting and that I shouldn’t join them so they could vent about Bob without me.

I’m actively looking for a new job to get away from Bob and my coworkers. But until that happens, do you have any advice on how to ease my coworkers’ resentment because I’m no longer the target of Bob’s outbursts? The job was already stressful before, but now that my coworkers won’t stop making comments about my “luck” in being Bob’s favorite, it’s become unbearable. Any ideas to improve this situation would be greatly appreciated.

P.S. The company has only 10 employees, and the closest thing we have to a Human Resources department is the company owner, who is also Bob’s wife.

Before we can get into your question, I first have to say: what a mess. It’s not okay for anyone to be yelling in an office, let alone repeatedly (daily!) and let alone because a colleague declined to do personal, non-work tasks for them. Does the company owner know her husband behaves like this? Is she around to see it? The whole thing is abusive and unacceptable, and ultimately as the owner she’s as responsible for it as her insufferable husband is.

But to your question. I’m not surprised that Bob backed down when you stood up to him and that he now treats you with more respect. That’s a common pattern for office bullies — not 100% of the time, but often. Abusive jerks like Bob pick on people who they think have less power and no choice but to take it (see also: people who are rude to waiters) and so when someone stands up to them, that shakes up that power equation in their mind, making them more likely to shift their bullying to targets who don’t give them a hard time. (Again, not always. And we certainly shouldn’t blame people who don’t feel safe standing up to bullies. But sometimes it does work.)

It’s sad that your coworkers saw you stand up to Bob and now resent you for no longer being his target! It’s a sign of how sick your office’s culture is that you’re getting the blame for escaping, rather than Bob getting the blame for being an asshole.

You can’t heal that sick system; you don’t have the power to do that. You can offer to help your coworkers strategize on how to deal with Bob themselves. (If you do, keep in mind that it might not be as simple as “yell back” for all of them; it’s possible you have characteristics that made Bob back off and which they lack, or that they’ll just never feel safe doing that, and that’s their call to make.)

It might even make sense to point out to the most sensible among them, “We’ve all been wanting someone to stand up to Bob for years and it really sucks that when I finally did it, I’m getting flack for it. Can we step back and agree the problem here is Bob, no matter who he does or doesn’t target?”

Also — has anyone tried talking to the owner? Yes, she’s Bob’s wife, but that doesn’t mean she’ll definitely be okay with him terrorizing her staff.


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