The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

July 26, 2013

Watercooler: When a good boss goes bad

By Karla L. Miller
Special to The Washington Post

— Q: For six years, I've run an office that has two employees: me and my boss. About two months ago, he started being rude and demanding. If I don't respond to a text or call after hours, he'll keep texting or calling until I do. He used to be so appreciative that I didn't mind doing little extras, but now he yells when I don't have time to bring his bottle of fancy liquor to his home after work. He gets upset when he sends me a cryptic request full of unfamiliar abbreviations and I have to ask what he means. It's infuriating and totally unlike him. I've responded rudely on occasion — "Dude! I know how to file an appeal!" — and he's always super-apologetic, but then it happens again.

This change started when we took on a wealthy new client whose service fees cover all our current expenses. This guy is a huge jerk — my boss' new behavior is just like his.

My boss is a good man; he and his family have treated me like a little sister. Is there a diplomatic way to discuss this with him?

A: Sounds like big brother's the beta male in a bad bromance. But although that background might offer insight into his personality change, it's beside the point. You need to remind your boss that you're in his corner — but you're not his punching bag.

Start with a simple question in a calm moment: "Is everything OK?"

State the truth: "Until recently, I've felt like a valued teammate. But our work relationship has become tense and combative. Your expectations of me seem to have changed. You're impatient when I ask questions. I feel I have to be on call at all times. And while I used to run occasional personal errands for you as a favor, now it seems expected."

Draw your line: "If you think my job description needs to change or my performance is slipping, let's discuss that. Otherwise, I need you to stop yelling at me and to respect my personal time."

Ideally, you'll get an apology and a promise to do better. After that, it's a matter of reinforcement. If he starts ranting, hit your mental "pause" button and look at him with a neutral expression. After his spring winds down, calmly restate his request and add, "Is that correct?"

After hours: "Can this keep until morning?" For the unreasonable, such as fetching his schmancy booze: "I'm afraid I can't take care of that for you."

If he keeps acting like a jerk, there are bosses out there who will better respect your time and talent — even if you're not comfortable calling them "dude."

Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter,@KarlaAtWork.