Difficult bosses: The Audit Agony Aunt

Difficult bosses: The Audit Agony Aunt


Dealing with difficult people is a skill within itself and something which many auditors will find themselves facing from time to time, but having to cope with a difficult boss can be a step too far for many. Here the Audit Agony Aunt answers you questions on how to cope with difficult bosses, line managers and senior staff.


"I feel like my new line manager is undermining me. She started off criticising me in front of just one person, but now seems to be humiliating me in front of the whole team, raising her voice and making sarcastic remarks. She is always very short with me and doesn’t always share vital pieces of information. Is this bullying? I was so upset the other day that I ran into a meeting room and cried. Is there anything I can do before I complain to HR? And I’m worried about this backfiring on me if do decide to make a complaint."

Recent allegations at No 10 Downing Street have put workplace bullying firmly in the spotlight in recent months. What we have learnt from the global media coverage is that there is no universally agreed definition of what constitutes workplace bullying.  And, that it is depressingly widespread.  Trade union, Unison claims a third of us experience bullying at work, while The National Bullying Helpline states that 1 in 4 allege they are being bullied, and 1 in 8 are affected by bullying, in the workplace.

We’ve seen bullying dismissed as merely the ‘robust management' of  hard times or as a particular type of tough management style: ‘it’s just the way he is’. However, there are some common threads, namely:  humiliation, giving offence, personal attack, and abuse of power.

To decide whether your experience goes beyond robust management and constitutes bullying, consider these best practise principles for workplace feedback:

  • Non-personal.  Focus on actions or behaviour that can be changed as opposed to personality traits.  For example, telling someone they are incompetent or lazy is a personal attack on their character.
  • Specific.  Illustrate with practical examples of behaviour.  Generalisations or inferences should be avoided.   Talking about ‘bad attitude’ is not specific enough to enable change.
  • Constructive. Aim to help improve behaviour or performance, linking to professional development and individual or business objectives.  This is as opposed to causing discomfort, anxiety or stress.


  • Non-judgemental, factual, timely, private and confidential

Does your treatment violate any or all of these principles?  From what you’ve described and the emotive words you’ve used: undermining, criticising, humiliating, as well as the emotional effect it has had on you, I’m guessing that you would conclude that this is bullying.

So what can you do?
It should be reasonably straight forward to unobtrusively access your organisation’s policies and procedures.  Ask HR, download from the intranet or check out your Staff Handbook.  Familiarise yourself with the Anti-Bullying Code and Grievance & Disciplinary policies.  You’ll understand your rights, as well as the process, should you ultimately decide to take a formal route.

However, in the meantime, there are some effective actions you can take to help relieve your anxiety and actively manage the current situation:

  • Seek support. Find someone to confide in.  A friend, family member or colleague – someone who can provide a listening ear and help ease the pressure. An independent perspective can provide a different dimension, help you organise your thoughts and plan a way through.   Some employers offer a free confidential counselling process which is completely independent from HR. Or you can talk to The National Bullying Helpline on 0845 22 55 787.
  • Go direct.  Talk to your line manager.  Book some uninterrupted time and tell her how you feel and how her approach is affecting you.  Do not accuse her of ‘bullying’.  And aim to be cool, calm and unemotional.  Be specific: describe precise instances and how they have upset you.  And request that the two of you work in partnership in exploring other communication strategies.  It may seem hard to believe, but it could be that your manager does not have any awareness of her effect on you.

Keep records. If you do end up going down the official route you will need written records of times, places and specific incidents.  Be factual and objective but also record the impact on you.  Start now as diarising can be emotionally beneficial in itself.

Bullying in the workplace takes many forms and each incident can seem unimportant in isolation.  But there will a cumulative effect which can impact your mental and physical well-being.  Take some time to work through my recommendations and see what change you can affect.  But do protect yourself and seek the help of your HR department if you don’t see an improvement in the situation.



"I work from home three days a week, but my boss keeps bothering me on my days off. At first it was the odd five minutes, which I didn’t mind, but now it’s pretty regular and it’s getting difficult to juggle with my other commitments. I’m worried that if I make a fuss it will put my job at risk. Any ideas?"

Clearly a frustrating situation for you, but from the perspective of your boss and indeed the organisation as a whole, then the challenge is likely to be even more exacting.  Think about the sheer size of the transition for an employer, from the familiarity of the one-size-fits-all traditional full time office-based work week - to the myriad of flexible working options.

And that is why it is incumbent on you to educate and communicate.  Whether you enlist the support of your HR department or go direct to your boss, here are some areas where you need to agree ground rules:

  • Does your boss appreciate which days you are working, and which days you are not?  Make it easy by implementing aide-memoirs to remind him and flagging up with appropriate telephone and email alerts.
  • Agree criteria around contact on days off.  If it’s to deal with an ‘emergency’, then you need to define together, what constitutes an emergency.
  • Implement ‘back-up’ for days off.  That is, in your absence the first port-of-call for your boss.  For many matters cover could be provided by designated support staff who can debrief you on your next working day. For other projects, a team member or peer could be your back-up.

Above all adopt a positive and constructive approach to your communications.  Your overtures can be framed around getting in place the best working practices for the organisation, with of course the ancillary benefits of meeting individual expectations – that is your own, and those of your boss.



"I sit next to my boss who has a booming voice, a loud sneeze and often eats loudly at his desk. I’ve tried making light of this, but he’s not taking the hint. What can I do?"

Move desks?  Sounds a little trite but it really is one option! There’s a certain amount of subjectivity here with regard to personal tolerance levels.  What you find unacceptable may be within the bounds of normal to others.  A move could put him in the company of like-minded colleagues.

But if a move isn’t on the cards then you are going to have to be more direct.  You could tackle it from the point of view of your own concentration levels.  So rather than getting into the delicate area of his personal habits ask him to help you with your ‘problem’.  Enlist his help in improving the acoustics of your work area, minimising distractions, removing potential disturbances – like taking lunch elsewhere.  Play on your own delicate sensibilities in working towards a solution which will ultimately benefit the business.



"At my Christmas party, I had a bit too much to drink and I made the mistake of telling my line manager exactly what I thought of him, I wasn’t particularly flattering.  Since then relations between us have chilled.  I was hoping for a promotion in the New Year but now I think I may have blown my chances.  What can I do to get things back on track?"

First up, it may not be as bad as you think...

Your reality is not the same as your line manager’s.  You don’t really know how he took the exchange, you don’t really know what he’s thinking now.  Can you even recall the hard facts – what was actually said, how did he react at the time?  Right now your concerns are heavily based on assumption and speculation.  Plus your imagination is working overtime to fill in the gaps with worst possible scenarios.

Beware particularly of the self-fulfilling prophecy: are you making a sensitive situation even worse by perceiving a chilled atmosphere and responding accordingly?    You need to interrupt this pattern immediately.  Cut the ‘chills’ on your side, right now.  Don’t over-compensate – clearly being too ‘nice’ is unnatural , insincere, and won’t help you achieve your objective.  What you’re aiming for is the resumption of normality.   And once back to ‘business as usual’ on your side, at least, you can note the response elicited.  A thaw may be an indication that you have been over-reacting, while continued frostiness suggests that there probably is some damage to repair.

Either way, I’m afraid there’s no getting around it – if you want to repair the damage – perceived or real – you are going to have to have a frank conversation  with your manager.  Its cards on the table time.......

But first do some ground work.  Get some support.  Did anyone witness your conversation at the Christmas party –either the full monty or the aftermath?   A ‘witness’ may be able to help in recalling  what actually happened and interpreting how it was received – two perspectives are always better than one.

Alternatively, who could you confide in at work?  Perhaps someone who knows your manager well and can share with you, any fall-out they’ve witnessed.  Talking it through with someone who knows both him, and the politics of the organisation, may prove beneficial, as well as providing that valuable alternative perspective.

Once you’ve marshalled your resources, it’s time to take action.

At all costs avoid the desperate apology ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me.  I didn’t mean any of it’.  This will sound, and be, unconvincing and will do more damage than good.  Your manager, like the rest of us will no doubt be familiar with the old adage ‘in vino veritas’!

Instead be upfront, honest and sincere.  Use the ‘feedback sandwich’ technique – positive-negative-positive.  Along the lines of:
‘I’m really embarrassed about that conversation we had at the party.  You’ve always been very good at......But I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about.........and it just all spilled out.  I really value your...... And I hope that you’ll accept my apology, as I’d hate to damage our relationship’

It’s imperative that you fill in the dots with specifics – generalities are hollow and just won’t cut it. If you can’t immediately think of anything good to say about him – think hard – and think hard again.  There’s something positive in everybody’s character and behaviour – and your ability to find it is a good discipline to develop – it may be challenging but it’s an invaluable people skill.

Depending on the response you get you can then decide whether to be upfront about your promotion prospects.  As you were hoping for promotion in the New Year then this may well have been a proactive conversation you would be having anyway.  Common sense would suggest that you do uncouple it from the apology conversation.  But when you do talk promotion, don’t hark back to the party incident – if it’s relevant let your manager bring it up – otherwise draw a line and move on.

The sooner you have these conversations and face up to the consequences, the better, both in terms of your own peace of mind and your plan for getting back on track.  Don’t procrastinate any longer – just go for it!



"My line manager is always shifting the goalposts in terms of objectives we’ve agreed.  When I try and broach the subject about specific agreements, he is vague and then goes on to set completely different objectives.  How do I deal with this situation?"

Time for ‘managing upwards’.  For whatever reason, this isn’t one of your manager’s strengths so you’re going to have to find a way to fill in the gaps and really take control of your own performance management.

If you have HR department, check out how they could help.  Possibly a confidential conversation with some advice and guidance.  At the very least HR can provide resources such as competency frameworks, job specification and the organisation’s policy on performance management.

As for tackling your manager, start by (re)- introducing the SMART acronym. Effective goals have to be: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-framed.  Together, get the habit of testing all objectives against the SMART  criteria.

A key benefit of using SMART comes from the discipline of assigning hard measures and fixing timescales. This helps with moving goal posts.  Remind him ‘we agreed to achieve A by B, if we are now look at achieving C we need to agree a new timescale’.  This will also ensure you get the recognition for A before he’s got his sights on C.

To encourage specificity use questions like: ‘so what exactly would that look like’, ’how will you know when I’ve achieved that’ and reframing in your own words - ‘what you mean is ..... ‘

Perseverance is key.  Think of it as educating your manager; if he doesn’t get it first time, you’ll be using repetition, re-iteration and persistence to change the process.  Hang on in there – patience will pay.



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