What's your Problem?

My bullying manager is the boss's son...

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I work for a smallish family firm of 10 people, where most of the employees are from the owner's family or have never worked elsewhere. I think I'm being bullied by the managing director (this is my first job, and I'm not really sure what correct behaviour is), but my manager is the boss's son, so I can hardly complain to him. I need this job - I'm in no position to just walk out. What should I do?

A: It seems almost impossible for small family-owned firms not to nurture a two-class system: there are those who are family members and there are those who aren't. In a way, it's understandable and perhaps even inevitable - but it's no fun at all for those in second class. Part of the problem is that non-family staff go home for evenings and weekends, whereas family members continue to see each other - and talk and gossip and make plans and decisions. By the time everyone reassembles, the gulf between the two groups has become even wider.

The bullying, however, is an even more serious matter. To be bullied in your first job can have long-term consequences. The first thing you must try is to hold your own - however difficult. Bullies pounce on the obviously weak, and newcomers are a popular target. Sometimes, they do it for their own sadistic pleasure - and sometimes they do it as a kind of test.

Since yours is a family firm, I suspect it's a bit of a test: are you a fit person to be allowed into this club? Are you up for it?

It takes courage for people in their first jobs to stand up for themselves in front of senior, established people. It also takes a great deal of control - because the last thing you must do is to be seen to lose your cool. Lose your cool and the bully will smell victory and you'll have lost. Just hang on to the knowledge that tests don't last for very long.

If you can stay polite - if you can maintain your self-assurance and your good humour and never once let fear or anger show - the chances are you'll find, quite soon, that you're in: you've been accepted.

Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office? is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@managementtoday.com. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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