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18 'Harmless' Things Bosses Said to Employees That Were Actually Emotionally Abusive

We all know the story of the over-the-top horrible boss. You know, the one who makes your life miserable, deprives you of time to have a life and doesn’t seem to care about you at all — think Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada.”

But most of the time, abusive bosses don’t look quite as obvious as this. Sometimes, a manager’s abusive comments fly under the radar, seeming “harmless” at first, but then slowly eating away at your mental well-being at work. To shed light on what some of these comments can be, we turned to our community to share emotionally abusive comments they’ve heard from managers.

Before we begin, it’s important to remember managers are often placed in difficult situations — sometimes with little to no training on how to handle the situation at hand. Just like the rest of us, they are humans too and make mistakes. While it’s always a good practice to focus on your manager’s humanity, if your boss exhibits a pattern of behavior that tears you down, it might be time to consider changing departments, talking to HR or even leaving your job.

Here’s what our community shared with us: 

1. ‘Grow a backbone.’

“I had a narcissistic boss. Told me I needed to grow a ‘f*cking backbone’ and say no to helping family members because apparently it was taking too much time away from work.” — Kelli H.

“’Grow a backbone,’ he said. I cried in the parking lot afterward.” — Sara F.

2. ‘I can’t keep up with your on-again, off-again pregnancies.’

“Manager said, ‘I can’t keep up with your on-again, off-again pregnancy’ after a miscarriage.” — Sarah H.

“‘You were the right candidate for the position, but now you’re not.’ — My boss after finding out I was pregnant. Also said, ‘I’m disappointed in you’ — another comment about my pregnancy. I’m literally in therapy because of my old job.” — Cassie B.

3. ‘You’re wasting company money.’

“Oh, my favorite? That was recent. I was told that as a host for a bar, I wasn’t being ‘social’ enough, and because of that, I was a waste of money. I’m literally one of the most social people ever with zero shyness, but that also means I can read the room. Not everyone wants the host to just invite themselves into the conversation.” — Melissa C.

4. ‘Stay on your toes. You could be here one day, then fired the next.’

“‘I could like you one day and fire you the next.’ Also, ‘I’ve never failed.’” — Jason H.

5. ‘Everyone has personal problems. Draw a line between your personal and professional life.’

I explained how the death of my husband made me ill-suited to deal with customers at the front counter at this time and how my mental health was rapidly breaking down. I had just been put on antidepressants and was suicidal. I was told by one of my superiors that everyone has personal problems, but we all have to draw a line between professional and personal.” — Reagan C.

6. ‘Your therapy appointments make the company look bad.’

“‘Your visits to a therapist make the entire company look bad.’ That’s how I found out they had access to see what doctors you had seen recently.” — Lindsey S.

7. ‘We’re all sad and lonely. You still have to work.’

Whenever I would try to explain my mental health issues and why I couldn’t work because I was having an episode, I would get, ‘Well we’re all adults. We’re all sad and lonely, you still have to work.’ Which is only true to an extent. Yes, I’m an adult and yes I have to work, but not to the expense of my mental health.” — Tiffany W.

8. ‘Don’t talk to other employees about your mental health.’

“I’m a teacher and I had revealed to my principal that I suffered from depression. Initially, she’d been supportive and compassionate, but then she turned on me and targeted me for it. I had a meeting with her and my union rep and they both told me I should not tell any of my colleagues about my mental health struggles… I tried in vain to explain that my colleagues were my support system. Both of these people ganged up on me and insinuated I was emotionally unstable and that the next time I woke up and was having ‘a bad day,’ I just shouldn’t bother coming into school, as my need of support from my colleagues would take them away from their jobs.” — Danielle G.

9. ‘You shouldn’t be this upset. It’s not normal.’

“I had just been through a breakup with a partner that I cared about deeply and had been with for a year. My supervisor told me, ‘You shouldn’t be this upset about a breakup… it’s not normal.’ I worked at a social services agency and the person that said this was a licensed marriage and family therapist… seems like she could have been a bit more sensitive, eh?” — Chrissy W.

10. ‘If your depression doesn’t get better, I’m going to fire you.’

“‘If your depression does not get better, I’m going to have to fire you.’ This was the district manager. I had a mental breakdown where I was going to hurt myself but… I know he should have never said that.” — Miyako I.

11. ‘Once you recover from your mental illnesses, you might have a shot at a promotion.’

“‘Once you get over your illness (meaning my PTSD/BPD) you will move up the ladder.’ I was thinking great there is no ‘cure’ so I guess I am stuck in the entry-level position, so I left.’” — Lois V.

12. ‘It’s time to get over your loss and get back to work.’

“[After] I came back from bereavement when my father passed away, I heard ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ — the song that was played at my father’s funeral. After I came back from putting cold water on my face to snap out of it, my manager [said], ‘You need to get over the death of your father now and get back to work.’ I was in shock.” — Cynthia H.

13. ‘No one else has complained about him sexually harassing them. Besides a little attention is a good thing!’

“When I was sexually assaulted and harassed by a coworker, I mentioned it to him in an effort to get put on a different schedule that would keep me away from said coworker. His reply was, ‘Well he’s extremely well-liked by customers and hasn’t had any problems with anybody else, so I don’t see the issue. He showed interest in you, that’s not a bad thing.’ I quit a week later, stating the assault and harassment as my reason for leaving.” — Sara M.

14. ‘Why’d you cut your hair? You were so much prettier before.’

“My first job in fast food as a cashier, when I was 18. When I started I had shoulder-length hair. I cut it to a pixie cut, my manager asked me one day, ‘When are you gonna be that pretty girl I hired again?’ A week later another coworker asked me why I cut my hair and my manager interrupted, ‘Because she doesn’t like being pretty.’” — Alec W.

15. ‘Are you having ‘lady problems’ today?’

“‘Aww, are you having ‘lady problems’ today?’ Said when I was sitting on the floor of the office dying in pain. I ended up going to the ER and the doctors got mad because I didn’t leave work early.” — Clarissa H.

16. ‘What do you know about stress?’

“When I was 19, I had an internship. At the end of that internship, I gave everyone a gift. I gave my boss some nice bath salts, and she looked at me and said, ‘What the f*ck do you know about stress?’ …. Yep, I actually regretted giving her a gift.” — Maddy F.

17. ‘Stop playing the victim.’

After dealing with bullying in the workplace, I finally told my manager I was having issues with my coworkers. I was told to, ‘stop playing the victim.’ I’ve never really gotten over that and, even now, can’t bring myself to stand up for myself in fear of ‘playing the victim’ again.” — Katherine K.

18. ‘You’re too dramatic to work in HR.’

“Pretty much that I couldn’t be a good HR person because I was ‘dramatic.’ If ever the pot called kettle black, it was this boss. He was just as emotionally-driven as he presumed me to be. Projection much?” — Annette M.

If you’ve ever been hurt by a boss, you’re not alone. It’s only natural to feel hurt in your professional interactions sometimes, but if your manager frequently exhibits emotionally abusive behavior detrimental to your mental health, it’s important to think about your options.

There is, of course, the option to leave your job. But if you (like most of us) depend on your job for financial security, health or any number of benefits that come from working, sometimes the answer isn’t just to quit — as much as you might want to.

The Harvard Business Review did a study on shifting the power balance with an abusive boss. Researchers found that in addition to the options of confronting or avoiding a boss (often believed to be the only ways to “solve” the abusive boss problem), employees could actually learn to shift power in two ways.

First, they could increase their own value a.k.a. increase their superior’s dependence on them. This might look like gaining the skills necessary to meet their manager’s goals or pain points, thus making them an indispensable employee. The second option was banding together with fellow employees, especially ones who have good standing with the boss. In this scenario, a supervisor would slowly realize their own abusive comments or behavior would increase opposition from his entire team, not just the person targeted.

Have you ever had an abusive boss? How did you manage it? Let us know in the comments.

Getty Images photo via z_wei

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