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How to deal with a difficult boss in PR

You may have the job of your dreams in PR, but if you don’t get on with your boss, it can make every day a misery. 

However, you may be focusing on one person, when in fact it is the culture that is wrong. As Kate Gard, business director at PR agency PrettyGreen Group, says: “It’s often less about a bad boss and more about a negative culture. Where working long hours is a badge of honour. Where there is inflexibility on the hours you work and where you work them. Where there isn’t transparency of pay. And where they don’t invest in your development. If this resonates, then you may be part of ‘the great resignation’ and interviewing for new roles.”

Gard gives this advice for making sure you don’t get sucked into another job that could demoralise you further: “Use interviews to build a picture of what it is really like to work there. What are their values? How do they invest in retention and reward? How do they support their staff’s health and wellbeing? What are their working practices? Feel confident you have the information to know whether this is the type of business (and people) you would like to work with.”

Sometimes, though, it really is your boss who is the main cause of your problems. Below, we describe how bad bosses can ruin your working life and outline best ways to resolve difficult situations.

Case studies

Examples of terrible bosses

Shola Kaye, culture change DEI speaker and Rhiannon Bates, director of agency Garnet PR and business mentor, describe the traits of bad bosses they have experienced first hand and offer advice for dealing with a boss who does not support you.

Shola Kaye: “Most of us have at some time or another experienced bosses who are demanding or micromanaging. But, how about the boss who's difficult because they never give you any feedback? This can be a real challenge for people from underrepresented groups. Managers can feel uncomfortable around you, or experience reluctance to give you ongoing feedback to help you improve because they're afraid of how you'll take it. They might think you'll get angry or accuse them of bias. Therefore, they don't take you aside on a regular basis to offer nurturing tips and tricks to help you improve. Instead, these kinds of bosses tend to wait until the once or twice a year performance review. During these big 'crunch' moments, they'll deal you the blow that you weren't good enough or don't deserve that promotion, or raise. This is often shocking news to the recipient because they had no clue that their boss wasn't happy. It can be pretty demotivating, discouraging and even prompt people to want to leave the organisation or move to a different department.

“I experienced bosses like this a couple of times early in my career. The first time was a shock. The second time was too much - I was let go at the end of my six-month review, even though my boss gave me no warning of how he felt. As I walked away from that company, I vowed I'd never work for another organisation like that again.. and decided to change career and work for myself from that moment on.

“Should you have an inkling early on that your boss isn't giving you enough helpful feedback, take a friendly approach and tell them you respect and admire them, want to do a great job and would love regular feedback, whether good or bad. Let them know you welcome their opinion and if they're reluctant to give feedback, ask them - whether by email or in person - specific questions that allow them to open up about aspects of your performance. If you're still not getting much joy, consider trying to build a stronger relationship with your boss's boss, or other managers at the organisation who might be able to help.”

Rhiannon Bates: “I experienced a string of difficult bosses in one particular role in my early-mid 20s, which over time had a drastic impact on my mental health. I struggled to understand why their bullying, passive-aggressive behaviour and unreasonable demands were acceptable, it gave me terrible anxiety and imposter syndrome, eventually I had to seek counselling and therapy. Now, with hindsight and more experience, I know the behaviour was not acceptable. 

“My advice is to understand your boundaries and limits, and to learn to differentiate between pressure from a role and stress caused by poor people or bad behaviour. If your boss is behaving unacceptably, keep a log so you can share with HR if needed, if nothing is done it may be time to walk away. They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but I disagree; mental torment, workplace bullying and the risk of burnout isn't worth sticking it out for sometimes. 

“In my role as a business mentor, I have a lot of women, in particular, coming to me setting up or growing their own businesses, and I'd say 75% of them have experienced a bad boss or workplace culture which eventually drove them to leave. However, there are lots of great bosses out there - get clear on your values, understand that sometimes situations will arise that are challenging, but that you should never feel continuously bullied. It's important to recognise the signs, and if an honest conversation doesn't change things, put yourself and your own wellbeing first.”

Steps for resolving bad-boss issues

Talk to your manager first

Alisa Mistry, HR advice manager at Charlie HR: “Speak to your manager in your next one to one and raise any concerns that you have openly and clearly. Try to keep the issue private - a matter between you and your manager - and don’t involve other team members or gossip about any issues you are having.”

Offer solutions

Alisa Mistry: “When you discuss the concern with your manager offer up some solutions you think could help. Whilst you wait for the issue to be resolved, try and not let it affect your work. Take control by deciding to act as a leader yourself - just because you aren't a manager, doesn't mean you still can’t be a leader.”

Share your concerns

Alisa Mistry: “If there are no changes, the next step would be to raise your concerns with another manager you feel comfortable speaking to. You should only consider leaving if there are still no improvements and it is making you unhappy in your role - but make sure your intentions are made very clear to senior management and within your exit interview if it does come to that.”

If nothing works, walk away

Amy Stone, communications consultant at marketing and communications consultancy Hard Numbers: “If I could go back and give myself one piece of advice about dealing with a difficult boss as a junior PR, it would be this: If your boss constantly demands more than you can give, and makes you feel bad for not being able to work harder, it’s okay to walk away to find a boss that values what you can give.

“You can love your work, but demands from senior leaders that push you to exceed your capacity on a daily basis can take a mental toll. If you're in an environment where making choices that prioritise your mental health are considered an indication of ‘poor work ethic’, it's time to walk away. I’m now much happier at an agency that values my mental health and wellbeing as much as I do with bosses that respect and support my capacity limits when I flag them.”

Right now, it is a candidate-led business in PR (this article explains why there is a shortage of talent) so if it is impossible for you to resolve the problems you have with your boss, it should be relatively easy to find a better one.

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