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5 Valid Reasons to Report Your Boss — And What to Expect When You Do
Adobe Stock / Sathaporn
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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What do you do when you have a bad manager? It’s a question so many of us have had to ask at least once during our careers. Unfortunately, there many circumstances under which we simply don’t have many options other than to grin and bear it — or ultimately resign.

However, in other cases, bosses exhibit behavior that crosses a line professionally and can’t be overlooked. It’s not usually black and white, so it can be difficult to tell when that’s the case. So, how do you know when your boss’s behavior has crossed that line? Here are five reasons to report your boss.

5 reasons to report your boss.

1. They’re a bully.

Maybe your boss hasn’t actually done anything illegal like harass you (we’ll get to that below), but they have done a fair amount of bullying to you or someone else, creating a hostile work environment. If they frequently intimidate or criticize you in a way meant to humiliate you or put you down, that could be grounds for reporting them. That doesn’t mean you should run to HR every time you make a mistake and they reprimand you — that could be justified — but if their reaction involves screaming, petty insults that don’t seem to have much to do with your work, aggression or other behavior that upsets you, it might be time to report them. 

The same is true if you witness them doing this to someone else; often, people who act like these don’t just do so to one person — they might have a target (one that can change depending on their mood) or several, and it might not just be limited to employees. They might also act this way toward clients, customers, vendors or contractors, which is another reason why you shouldn’t keep this behavior to yourself — it could be bad for business.

2. They harass people.

In some cases, bullying isn’t just bullying — it’s harassment. Workplace harassment is a form of discrimination that’s illegal.

If your boss makes comments about your sex or gender or makes sexual advances toward you, that’s sexual harassment. But there are other forms of comments and behavior that fall into this category. For example, if your manager makes an offensive joke about someone’s religion or race, that’s also harassment. Offensive remarks and conduct regarding certain protected classes, including gender, disability, religion, age (for people aged 40 or older), nation origin, race and certain other attributes is illegal in a work context and should be reported, whether it happens to you or someone else. This isn’t specific to your boss, either. If you witness another employee conducting themselves this way, you should report them, too.

3. They’re doing something illegal.

Aside from harassment, there are other illegal behaviors that could warrant your reporting your boss. For example, if they’re clearly discriminating against a protected class because of their race, gender, age or something else, that’s illegal and unacceptable in the workplace. Perhaps they have unfair hiring practices that favor men over women or they take away responsibilities from an employee over the age of 40 because of their age, not job performance.

You might witness or be aware of other criminal behavior, such as misappropriating funds or stealing from the company. This is definite grounds for reporting them. In fact, if you know that you’re boss is doing something illegal and you don’t say something, it’s possible that you could get in trouble, too. Keep in mind that there are several laws meant to protect whistleblowers who report activities, including illegal ones, of their private, government or public employers from retaliation, such as the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA).

4. They’re violating company policy.

Perhaps your boss isn’t doing anything that’s actually illegal, but their behavior or actions do violate company policy. There may be minor infractions, of course, that don’t require reporting, but if they make you or others uncomfortable or do something that might affect the company’s reputation, that’s definitely grounds for taking the behavior to a higher authority.

Perhaps they’ve done something in a meeting with a client, such as making a promise they couldn’t keep, or they’ve used their corporate card for a non-company purchase. In these cases, you may have grounds for reporting them. 

5. You’ve raised the issue and nothing has changed.

For many employees, the first step when your boss is doing something inappropriate, illegal or otherwise unacceptable is to approach them with the issue. After all, they may not even be aware that they’ve been doing something wrong (there are, of course, some situations in which they may know perfectly well that what they’re doing is unacceptable). If you do attempt to broach the topic with your boss and they’re dismissive, unsympathetic or defensive, you’ll need to take further action and report them.

Or maybe they’re receptive to what you have to say and promise to work on their issues — but nothing changes. The behavior that upset you initially continues or even worsens. This, too, is a reason to go above their head. 

How to report your boss.

Knowing you need to report your boss is one thing — but how do you actually do it? It can be an intimidating process, after all, and one that demands some delicacy. So, you’re wondering, how do I complain about my boss without getting fired?

1. Go to your boss first.

Going to your boss is often the first step, although, as we’ve discussed, this may not always go the way you want it to. It’s also okay to skip this step if you have reason to believe your boss will retaliate, the behavior will escalate or it makes you very uncomfortable. For example, if your manager has sexually harassed you, it’s understandable that you don’t want to be in a room alone with them.

If you do discuss it with them, do so in private, unless you have a colleague who has also been affected by the behavior and wishes to join you. Plan out what you’re going to say beforehand, and stick to the actions rather than the person themselves. Otherwise, they’ll likely get defensive. You may want to ask your boss’s manager to join you if you’re uncomfortable or go straight to them if the behavior is particularly upsetting or egregious.

2. Document everything.

Keep careful records of your boss’s actions, including what they said and did at specific times. Write everything down, describing what happened and who was involved. If you take legal action down the line, your documentation could become important evidence. Even if you’re just going to HR, your notes will help paint a clear picture of what’s been going on.

Try to find other people who can attest to your boss’s behavior. This, too, will allow you to present a stronger case. Perhaps a colleague witnessed your boss berating or harassing you or experienced it themselves and is willing to speak up.

3. Go to HR. 

Your next stop (or perhaps your first) is HR. You may ask them to keep the matter confidential, but often, they’ll have to address the issue with your boss in order for anything to change. If you’re part of a union, you should talk to your union representative, too, and they’ll likely be present in the meeting with HR.

What happens next depends on the situation, your company and the HR team. Hopefully, HR will handle it appropriately, taking action against your manager as the situation warrants, whether it’s putting them on probation or even firing them. But they may not handle it as well as you hope and could even make the situation worse, so be prepared.

4. Seek legal counsel.

If you’ve taken the above steps and nothing has changed, you may want to talk to an employment attorney, especially if you’ve experienced harassment or discrimination or otherwise been subject to or witnessed illegal behavior. Be careful about talking to anyone in your company’s legal department — they represent your employer, not you. Instead, speak to an outside attorney who can advise you on the next steps.

What to expect when reporting

Before you report your boss, look up the procedure for doing so. It should be clearly outlined in your company handbook, probably according to the violation. Follow the procedure for reporting the incident(s) as much as you’re comfortable doing so; it’s likely to go more smoothly (as much as possible in these situations) if you do, although there may be some circumstances under which that’s just not possible. 

How can a manager get fired? If that’s what you’re hoping for, it’s important to temper your expectations. Many employers will protect high-level employees, even if what they’re doing is clearly wrong. Be prepared for HR to administer a slap on the wrist, if that, to your boss. In some cases, your boss may be fired because of what they’ve done, but it’s important to understand that this won’t always happen. You also shouldn’t expect confidentiality even if you ask for it. These things almost always have a way of coming out. 

You may experience retaliation from your boss or other colleagues — bullying and even harassment, for example. You can also be dismissed. While this is illegal, some employers may claim the dismissal has nothing to do with what you’ve reported. This is why it’s important to document everything and seek legal counsel if necessary.

When you should leave vs. attempting to resolve the situation

In a perfect world, you’ll report the incident and the behavior will be corrected with no consequences to you. But often, that won’t be the case. Even if you’re boss is reprimanded or fired, you may continue to experience retaliation and a hostile work environment. And if you have to continue working for your toxic boss, things could get even worse.

Whether you choose to stay depends on your level of comfort. If the situation is unbearable, it’s probably time to call it quits, even if you don’t have another job lined up

The 2017 Mind the Workplace report by The Faas Foundation and Mental Health America found that 63% of workers reported that their workplace stress took a significant toll on their mental health. If your work life is adversely affecting your mental health or personal life, that’s a good reason to resign.

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