How can we establish firm boundaries for acceptable behavior with those above us in the organizational hierarchy?
By Justin Baeder, PhD
What can you do if your boss or another high-level leader is verbally abusive or otherwise inappropriate toward you?
With supervisors and fellow administrators, it's important to set personal boundaries about how you are willing to be treated, and to be clear about how you will enforce them.
While you ultimately may decide you can't work for someone who treats you badly, here's how you can address the situation with as little disruption to your life as possible.
The Goal: Prevent The Situation From Happening Again
When a supervisor acts inappropriately toward you, the immediate goal is to prevent the behavior from occurring again.
Boundaries are designed to work regardless of the other person's behavior, for two reasons:
- We have a limited ability to change other people, and
- We can't make our well-being entirely contingent on the choices of others.
Instead, the goal is to prevent the behavior from recurring by preventing the situation in which it occurred from occurring again.
In other words, the goal is not to change the individual; the goal is to avoid giving the individual another opportunity to repeat the behavior.
That's why it's so important to put the boundary in place immediately, not to threaten to do so in the future if the behavior occurs again.
This can be tricky, since it's usually not possible to avoid future interactions entirely—especially with your direct supervisor.
Use the strategies below to set boundaries without escalating a tense situation.
You may ultimately need to find somewhere else to work, but here's what you can try first.
Set The Boundary Over Email
After an incident, you can send an email in which you:
- Identify the unacceptable behavior
- State your unwillingness to experience it again
- State your conditions for future interactions
- Involve other parties as appropriate
For example, a principal who was recently selected to move into the superintendent role next year recently shared on social media:
My current superintendent is very demeaning and verbally abusive. I have been very excited for him to show me the ropes; however, every time I go into his office he insists I shut the door so he can yell at me. I'm thinking the solution is merely to avoid him and to refuse to go into his office when it's just the two of us. Has anyone else experienced a similar situation? How did you handle it?
When someone is inappropriate in a given setting—for example, a 1:1 closed-door meeting—it's wise to avoid returning to that setting to address the issue.
Instead, use email or another venue to set boundaries.
For example, here's how the principal above might address an incident like those described above via email:
Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today. While I can appreciate the pressure that you are under, it is not appropriate for you to raise your voice or yell at me.
While I take responsibility for my actions and am always open to constructive criticism, I am not willing to be berated or yelled at. I look forward to working together in a respectful and professional manner.
We will probably need to speak several more times between now and the end of the school year. To ensure that these conversations are professional and productive, I will insist that we not meet alone behind closed doors.
If we need to discuss confidential matters again, I will bring Ms. Jenkins or Mr. Jackson, who are trustworthy and discreet. If you would prefer to have Dr. Thomas present for certain discussions, that would be fine as well.
An email of this type serves to document the behavior as well as set a boundary. While the email does not threaten to report the incident to third parties, such as human resources or the school board, the self-documenting nature of email implies that possibility.
Note that setting boundaries does not involve making threats, nor does it prevent you from taking other actions in the meantime.
There is no need to state what you will do if the behavior reoccurs, nor any need to make promises to let the matter go if it doesn't happen again.
How To Involve Others
I recommend not CC'ing anyone on a boundary-setting email, which could further escalate the issue.
However, it's not unwise to CC your personal email address, lest the supervisor be tempted to get the I.T. department to erase it.
If you need to notify someone else, such as your attorney, HR, or union rep, do so by forwarding the sent message, not CC'ing them on the initial email.
Going over someone's head—for example, reporting an incident with your boss to your boss's boss—is especially fraught.
Generally, if you'd be content if the situation didn't occur again, it's probably best not to report it to higher-ups, pending further reflection and experience.
However, more serious incidents do need to be reported—more on this below.
Boundaries Aren't About Feelings
When setting a boundary, it's not necessary to describe your feelings or how the behavior affected you, which may inadvertently shift the blame for the interaction to you.
When someone else is inappropriate, you're not the one creating a problem by being too sensitive. The problem is the other person's inappropriate conduct.
Because the root problem is inappropriate behavior, not hurt feelings, an apology is not the goal.
Beware of Apologies
Apologies are often an attempts to smooth things over without ensuring a change in behavior.
An apology may be helpful and appreciated, but it's not the goal of boundary-setting, and you can accept an apology while also upholding the boundary you've set.
That's why it's important to set the boundary first, without focusing on obtaining an apology, which:
- May or may not come
- May or may not be sincere
- May or may not be accompanied by a change in behavior
Why not focus on making amends?
Because you aren't the person in the wrong, and being too eager to repair your relationship with someone who has demonstrated a pattern of inappropriate behavior is likely to continue the pattern, not end it.
Boundaries Aren't Threats or Warnings
A boundary is not a threat to take action in the future if the behavior occurs again.
Threats are both inappropriate and ineffective.
As an employee, you do not have the right to threaten your supervisor (or anyone else). Threats have no place in a professional work environment.
Instead, boundaries describe what you are doing, now, to protect yourself from the other person's already-inappropriate behavior.
They do not rely on future hypotheticals; they are in place from the moment you announce them.
“I'm going to file a complaint with HR if you speak to me that way again” is a warning, not a boundary. It may be appropriate to make a statement like this at some point, but it's not the same as a boundary.
Boundaries describe the action you are taking now, based on what has already occurred, not action you will take in the future, contingent upon the other person's behavior.
Boundary-Setting Formats & Examples
Boundaries take the form of:
- [Behavior that has already occurred] is not acceptable
- I am [boundary you are putting in place]
- We can [alternative acceptable behavior]
- “It's not appropriate for you to berate me and yell at me in front of my admin team. If you have concerns about my leadership, we can always talk about them privately, and you're always free to reach out to my APs directly if you need to speak with them, but we're going to adjourn our meeting immediately if there's yelling or if we're getting into something that needs to be handled individually.”
- “I'm not going to allow my staff to be called ‘lazy' in front of other principals in our district data meetings. We have a lot of work to do, and I'm committed to doing that work, but I'm not going to participate in a meeting where people are disparaging my staff. We can talk about any concerns offline, but I'll be heading back to campus immediately if that kind of talk takes place.”
- “I'm not comfortable talking in my classroom after everyone else has left. I would be happy to come down to the office while Karen and Kelsey are still here, or happy to talk when Amanda and Steve are working in their rooms.”
As this last example shows, it's not always necessary to identify misconduct before putting a boundary in place.
If something makes you uncomfortable, you can use a boundary to create conditions that protect you against mistreatment.
However, boundaries are about appropriateness, not about feelings, so be sure not to pin the problem on yourself.
What About Recording Conversations?
A recording can serve as a virtual third party in a tense conversation, protecting you against abusive behavior.
In some states, recording someone without notifying them is against the law. This is known as “Two-Party Consent” but applies to all parties in a conversation, not just two.
At this writing, 11 US states require two-party consent, but it's a best practice to always notify someone that they are being recorded, regardless of whether it's required by law.
Make no mistake: recording a conversation raises the stakes. However, it's a boundary you may need to put in place if previous efforts have not prevented the behavior from recurring.
For example, if the superintendent described above calls and starts berating the principal over the phone, the principal may need to interject:
I need to let you know that I'm recording this conversation from this point on. We can continue talking, but I am hitting record now. OK, you were saying?
At this point, the caller may change their tone, or may choose to end the conversation. Either outcome achieves your goal: stopping the behavior.
If the caller continues to be inappropriate, you can decide whether to continue recording the conversation, or to end the call yourself.
Ending An Inappropriate Conversation
If your supervisor is inappropriate on a call, it's appropriate to interject and stop the behavior.
I need to pause here and let you know I'm not willing to be spoken to in this way. If we can proceed in a respectful and professional manner, I'm willing to continue this conversation, but if not, we'll need to find another time to talk.
Obviously, it's not an option to avoid talking to your supervisor entirely, but you can always end the call and offer to speak at another time (perhaps with someone else present).
And if someone is continuing to be verbally abusive, you can simply hang up. Again, this raises the stakes considerably, but may be necessary.
Proportional Boundaries: How and When To Escalate
Especially with your supervisor or another senior leader, it's essential not to escalate a tense situation unnecessarily.
This can get complicated quickly, especially if the inappropriate treatment occurs in the context of discussing a perceived issue with your performance or a mistake you've supposedly made.
Even so, it may be necessary to implement stronger boundaries if inappropriate behavior continues.
It's importance not to create the appearance of avoidance. If your supervisor needs to speak with you, they should be able to do so at any time.
However, you can take steps to protect yourself against mistreatment, such as:
- Keeping the door open
- Involving a third party
- Recording the conversation
Ask yourself: what has already occurred, and what boundaries do I need to have in place to keep this from happening again?
You can't rely on the other person doing the right thing, especially if they've already done the wrong thing. Give yourself the conditions you need for success.
Keep any escalations proportional: strengthen your boundaries if it's clear you need to, but don't overshoot, and avoid warnings and threats.
What if things have already gone too far?
No Second Chances for Crimes
If the behavior is not just inappropriate but illegal—for example, if you've been physically assaulted or threatened with violence—there's no need to wait for it to happen again.
Don't delay if you need to take more serious recourse, such as:
- File a police report
- Speak with an attorney
- Contact your union or professional association
- Request reassignment to another setting with your current employer
- Take a leave of absence from work
- Resign & seek new employment
Hopefully it won't come to this, but no job is worth abuse or injury.
Deciding When To Walk Away
Nothing above should be construed as advice to stay in a toxic or abusive work situation.
You are under no obligation to tolerate verbal abuse from a supervisor.
It's my hope that the steps above can help you assess your situation and, if possible, prevent it from escalating, while ensuring the working conditions you need to succeed.
That may or may not work. If you need to leave, leave.
If you're not sure what to do, talk with people you trust—family, friends, and colleagues who will keep your conversation in confidence and steer you in the right direction.
And don't be afraid to speak with a professional, such as a therapist or attorney.
This information is provided for general information only, and does not constitute legal advice.
About the Author
Justin Baeder, PhD is Director of The Principal Center, where he helps senior leaders in K-12 organizations build capacity for instructional leadership by helping school leaders:
- Confidently get into classrooms every day
- Have feedback conversations that change teacher practice
- Discover their best opportunities for student learning
He holds a PhD in Educational Leadership & Policy from the University of Washington, and is the host of Principal Center Radio, where he interviews education thought leaders.
His book Now We're Talking! 21 Days to High-Performance Instructional Leadership (Solution Tree) is the definitive guide to classroom walkthroughs, and his book Mapping Professional Practice (with Heather Bell-Williams) helps instructional leaders create instructional frameworks to establish shared expectations for practice.