How to manage a difficult supervisor


With so much written about handling the problem employee, the difficult or problem supervisor sometimes is overlooked.

One issue is identifying when or if a difficult supervisor is really a problem. Is the supervisor just tough and demanding, or is the supervisor abusive, retaliatory or discriminatory? Sometimes the subordinate feels put upon by the supervisor’s demands. Sometimes these demands are reasonable, but harsh. Where is that line between George Patton and Attila the Hun? Sometimes a supervisor’s expectations are appropriate, but a lack of supervisory skills may inhibit him — particularly if he is new — from effectively overcoming resistance to changing a longstanding, but inefficient, culture.

On occasion, a new supervisor recognizes a problem with an immediate subordinate who happens to be well-connected to the supervisor’s boss. A situation like this — with end runs past the supervisor to the second level — can create a particularly toxic work environment for both the supervisor and supervisee.

There are many variations on the theme of the difficult supervisor, but let’s assume your supervisor is loud and abusive, plays favorites, sends mixed messages and then yells when you follow his direction that he changed midstream without notice. What can you do about it? Assess whether you are the only one who believes you have a difficult supervisor. Is it a systemic problem, or are you the victim of discrimination? Next, assess higher-level managers’ support of your supervisor. Do they want your office cleaned up, or do they seem unaware of the abusive environment? Several remedies are available to deal with the issue.

First, a grievance can be filed. If you decide to file, look at the procedures, whether you are using the administrative grievance procedure or the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by your union.

You do not want to miss time limits, and you want to be able to provide enough detail to satisfy grievance procedure requirements.

If you are in a bargaining unit, the union can be helpful in raising the issue of a difficult supervisor to the attention of higher-level management, par-ticularly in agencies with healthy labor-management relationships.

Sometimes all that is needed is some supervisory or leadership training. Other times, minor disciplinary action may be sufficient to get the supervisor’s attention and change his or her ways. Second, consider an equal employment opportunity complaint. The difficulty with EEO is that in the long run you have to prove discrimination based on a prohibited category such as race, gender or ethnicity.

Also, in the absence of major actions against you such as a suspension or failure to select for promotion, many EEO complaints concerning difficult supervisors are based on a hostile work environment theory, and this can be difficult to prove.

Despite these legal barriers, the EEO system can be helpful in bringing a difficult supervisor’s abuses to higher-level management’s attention.

Third, you can file a complaint with the inspector general’s office. While the decision to investigate your complaint is within the IG’s discretion, often the substance of the complaint is at least forwarded to a high-er level of management for consideration.

When higher-level management hears about employee discontent and specific examples of inappropriate supervisory behavior, a frequent response is to hire an independent investigator for a workplace environment assessment.

Typically, all employees are interviewed and assured confidentiality. The results of the survey are then used to determine future supervision of the office.

Working for a difficult supervisor can be frustrating and stressful. The above strategies are no guarantee, but they have resulted in workplace changes and are appropriate for dealing with a difficult supervisor.

The one bad strategy that is likely to never work is to be insubordinate or disrespectful to the difficult supervisor. Do not take on the supervisor yourself. That will just allow the supervisor to overcome your legitimate complaints by saying to his or her higher-ups that you are the problem.


About Author

Debra Roth

Debra L. Roth is a partner at the law firm Shaw Bransford & Roth, a federal employment law firm in Washington, D.C. She is general counsel to the Senior Executives Association and the Federal Managers Association, host of the “FEDtalk” program on Federal News Radio, and a regular contributor to Federal News Radio’s “Federal Drive” morning show. Email your legal questions to


  1. I have an EEOC complaint and it’s waiting to be assigned to a judge …this is a great article for those how having problems with their supervisor…

  2. Sometimes a supervisor’s expectations are appropriate, but a lack of supervisory skills may inhibit him — particularly if he is new — from effectively overcoming resistance to changing a longstanding, but inefficient, culture.

    I would recommend being careful with the word he: it could as you know be a she

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