6 ways to counter a condescending boss

Close to half of all working women in Britain face this form of sexism. Here are six ways to deal with a patronising boss.

New research reveals that 41 per cent of British women have experienced patronising behaviour in the workplace, with one in 10 dealing with this in their current role.

The study released by Crunch Accounting reveals that this is not generational or sector-specific, but women aged 25 to 34 feel patronised the most at work. Looking at the regions, East Anglian women come up against patronising attitudes at work most often (54 per cent), while women in the South East experience the issue the least (38 per cent).

This research follows recent news that revealed the most patronising pet names women encounter in the workplace, including unnecessary (and unwanted) terms of endearment like ‘love’, or ‘babe’. Labels like ‘bitchy’, ‘hormonal’, ‘high maintenance’ and ‘ball-breaker’ top the list for obvious reasons.

Justine Cobb, operations director at Crunch, who commissioned the research, sees this as hugely disappointing, although not surprising. “The corporate world has come a long way in terms of equality but it would be naïve to assume gender discrimination and patronising behaviour is a thing of the past. Given such experiences in the workplace, it’s no surprise there’s a growing number of women choosing to start their own businesses instead,” she said.

“With more female world leaders taking centre stage and gender issues being discussed and shared more openly, let’s hope such attitudes and behaviour soon become non-existent.”

But until such a day comes, here are four ways to counteract condescension at work.

Scope the situation

In our increasingly PC world, defenders of misogyny and outdated ideals always assume that whistleblowers are overreacting (“When did calling someone ‘love’ become an insult!”). In most cases, they are clearly wrong.

According to research from Warwick Business School, most UK whistleblowers lost their jobs, either by being pressured out of the organisation or being dismissed. If they did stay, they suffered retaliation through bullying, demotion, isolation, and harassment.

Whistleblowing as part of the compliance system, and while it largely refers to employees reporting corruption or unethical actions within organisations, workplace discrimination is just as serious, and needs to be called out. Understandably, employees who face discrimination at work tend to feel the same fear and guilt in raising the issue as whistleblowers.

Before you take any course of action, examine the situation closely. Is your your boss really talking down to you, or is there any other way to perceive their comments? For example, if your boss is a very abrupt person in general, she might come across as condescending when she really means to keep communications short. Get a second opinion from a trusted colleague before raising the issue to make sure you’re right in calling your boss out. Do some digging to see if there are others who have been on the receiving end of the same behaviour to strengthen your case.

Cut out email insinuations

If most of your communication with your boss is over email, it’s harder to read and understand tone and intent. Make more of an effort to speak to your boss in person so you can notice some of the physical signs of condescending behaviour, such as eye-rolling, smirking, or sarcasm. Personally deliver some work to your boss instead of using email, and schedule face-to-face meetings instead of sharing updates over email. It’s easier to handle the problem once you’re certain it is a problem. Of course, having written proof in the form of emails is always useful.

Call it out

Once you’re sure you’re being patronised, it’s time to speak up. Schedule a meeting with your boss to talk about it before it gets to the point where you shout it out in the heat of the moment. Try thinking about how your boss’s behaviour affects your work and productivity, and what you would like for them to do differently. Practice what you plan to say before the meeting, and have examples on hand to explain what offends you in particular.  There’s a good chance that once your boss is aware of the issue, and how unwarranted nicknames or dismissive remarks offend you, this behaviour will stop entirely. If it continues, at least you know you’ve tried to address it directly.

Don’t dwell on it

If the meeting with your boss doesn’t go well, don’t dwell on it. It’s likely that there are others who have been treated the same way, and there’s no point in taking it personally. If the behaviour persists, even after you’ve brought the issue up, then you know your boss is behaving this way on purpose. It is then your choice on whether you want to raise this to HR or even higher up.

Bring it up to HR

It’s a common misconception that human resources is there to protect the interest of employees. While HR departments can be good mediators, the truth is that HR protects the interests of the company first. You won’t have a case unless you document your boss’s patronising comments, and explain why it is affecting your work. Keep a written list of remarks made to you in person, and file away any comments in writing. Check with colleagues who have either received similar remarks or have witnessed your boss’s condescending behaviour towards you if they’re comfortable supporting you if you took the case to HR. Once you have enough evidence, set up a meeting with HR.

Know when to move on

Some people will never change. In a perfect world, honest and open communication should do the trick, but with certain personality types, confronting them or raising the issue will do more harm than good.

Talk is cheap for people who are condescending and critical by default. These people frequently interrupt their staff, refuse to listen to others, and generally bulldoze their way through life.  It is unlikely that they will modify their behaviour as all signs suggest these types have somehow made their way to the top of the food chain and may not budge. In this scenario, it may be best to quietly look for another job. Working at a place where you continually feel unappreciated can be draining, and could hurt your career in the long run. Their loss may be your gain, but make sure you give honest feedback at your exit interview.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.