Q: Your boss has begun to display a pattern of irrational behavior, and it is putting a strain on people in the office. What should you do?
A. A shift in your boss’s ordinary workplace behavior should arouse concern, said Gerald M. Groe, an organizational psychologist and professional development consultant in Parrish, Fla. “Just because your boss is the boss doesn’t mean he is impervious to stress and suffering,” said Mr. Groe, who has served as a human resources executive at both the American Express and Cigna.
Q: Which types of behavior are cause for alarm?
A: There’s no formula for assessing irrational behavior. “If you’ve worked for your boss for a while, you probably know what types of actions would seem odd,” said John Baldoni, a management consultant in Ann Arbor, Mich. He said that unprovoked tirades by the boss could be just as suggestive of trouble as his disappearing for days at a time.
Out of character behavior could be caused by almost anything – including personal issues such as alcoholism, chronic depression or problems at home, as well as under-the-radar stresses at work, such as an internal audit, lawsuit or performance review. Whatever the reason, Mr. Baldoni says it is prudent to note unusual behavior and to compile a written record of your observations in case you are asked for specifics down the line.
Q: Is it a good idea to discuss concerns about the boss with your colleagues?
A: Pamela J. Holland, chief operating officer of Brody Communications, a leadership training firm in Philadelphia, says that as long as you are careful not to say anything that may be regarded as undercutting your boss, sharing your concerns with co-workers may be helpful. “Talking about the situation with colleagues might help you realize that perhaps the boss’s behavior is indicative of a much larger problem,” said Ms. Holland, author of “Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move?” (Career Skills Press 2001).
Q: If your colleagues agree that something is wrong, should you act as a group?
A: Resist the urge to confront the boss as a group, said Alexandra Delis-Abrams, a psychologist in Sun Valley, Idaho. “If he’s going through a tough time, that could only make things worse,” Ms. Delis-Abrams said. She added that a group confrontation might be perceived as sabotage or mutiny. “Sometimes it’s just gentler to raise concerns in a more private forum”, she said.
Q: How do you broach the issue with your boss, one on one?
A: Respectfully, and only if you are close enough to your boss to approach him directly. Schedule a private meeting. If you think that your boss would be more comfortable having a discussion outside the office, ask him out to lunch, or suggest a midday walk for a breath of fresh air.
When you have your boss’s attention, be direct. Anna Maravelas, a licensed therapist and president of TheraRising.com in St. Paul, suggests beginning the conversation by stating appreciation for open lines of communication, then moving quickly into a statement of the facts that are cause for concern. Here, she said, it is important to call upon some of your documented observations, and to contrast the new behavior with patterns from the past.
“You want to ask the boss for his help in understanding the change,” she said. “After that, stay positive by asking what you can do to maintain your performance in light of the current situation.”
Q: What if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of a direct discussion?
A: While it’s best to engage your boss in person, there are ways to express your concern discreetly or even confidentially, and that may be a wise move if you are concerned that your boss may react negatively or retaliate against you at work. Mr. Baldoni, the consultant from Michigan, said it was perfectly acceptable for employees to take their documented observations and opinions directly to the boss’s boss, as long as they couch their opinions in broader terms of concern for the company’s performance.
“You’re not being a tattletale if you run up the ladder,” said Mr. Baldoni, author of “Great Motivation Secrets of Great Leaders” (McGraw Hill, 2005). “Just as a team has the right to confront an underperforming team member, a team has the right to demand more from its manager, as well.”
In cases in which a boss has committed sexual or physical harassment, employees should report the incident immediately to the human resources department and, if necessary, seek assistance outside the company.
Arthur H. Bell, professor of management communications at the McLaren School of Business at the University of San Francisco, said that such behavior violated Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that protects employees against hostile work environments of many kinds.
Q: How should you respond if your boss asks you for help?
A: Always lend an ear, but if your boss opens up about personal problems, be careful to keep the interaction professional.
Ms. Maravelas, the consultant from Minnesota, said that it was best to refer your boss to an outside specialist or an employee assistance program, if your company has one. “Don’t feel forced to take it upon yourself to fix your boss’s problems,” Ms. Maravelas said. “At a time of tension or stress, simply showing a thread of warmth and compassion can go a long, long way.”