Jeff Sessions' feud with Trump: How to manage a bullying boss

Sessions Trump

President Trump’s ongoing public clash with his embattled U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions highlights a challenge many workers face every day in the corporate world – how to remain a productive member of the team despite a contentious relationship with their boss.

Trump has drawn widespread criticism for publicly attacking Sessions, one of his first political supporters, on social media and at official press briefings. The president has taken issue with Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from an FBI investigation into purported Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as to perceived weakness in Sessions’ approach to Hillary Clinton.

"It's clear that President Trump is trying to bully his attorney general out of office. How can anyone draw a different conclusion?" Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Tuesday. "He wants him out."

If Sessions feels as though he’s being bullied by his boss, statistics show he isn’t alone. A 2014 CareerBuilder study of more than 3,000 adult private-sector employees found 28% of workers felt they had been bullied in the workplace. Of that total, 45% said their boss was the chief bully.

“Workplace bullying takes three forms: aggressive communication, humiliation, and manipulation,” Catherine Mattice Zundel, a workplace bullying expert for Civility Partners consulting firm in San Diego, told FOX Business. “Usually ‘a bully’ includes all of three of these categories in their behavior, but most often uses manipulation. I'd say Trump's overtly aggressive style is actually less common than the under the radar manipulation.”

While Trump’s one-sided feud with Sessions is far more public than the average workplace dispute, combative situations can play out in similar fashion in more traditional offices. Here are some steps on how to resolve instances of workplace bullying in corporate America.

Talk It Out

When dealing with a workplace dispute, reopening lines of communication is a natural starting point, according to Gene Marks, a small business expert and president of the Marks Group. That way, both the superior and the subordinate can discuss the source of their differences and take steps to reach common ground over time.

“I have this situation at a client right now,” Marks told FOX Business. “A sales manager is not getting along with his boss. I've heard the stories from both sides - neither of them particularly like each other. I advised they talk about this directly to each other and professionally air their grievances. Then give it another 30 days.”

Change Their Mind (If You Can)

If a boss has specific complaints about an employee’s job performance, Mattice Zundel says it is possible that the employee can take steps to address their concerns and re-establish positive relations – particularly in workplaces that encourage dialogue between management and the rank-and-file. However, companies that rely on more autocratic management styles can make disputes more difficult to navigate.

“If the organization focuses on collaborative performance management, then the manager would be open to hearing how the employee's work is improving, and thus, over time, the employee could change management's mind,” Mattice Zundel said. “But if the organization has a hierarchical structure and culture, I would bet the employee doesn't stand a chance at changing the manager's mind.”

Get Human Resources’ Attention

In situations where a boss’ actions turn from combative to outwardly hostile, employees can alert their human resources department about the situation. However, Mattice Zundel advises employees to be careful how they explain the situation to HR.

“Often employees tell HR that ‘it's a hostile work environment’ - and this often works against them. HR is so caught up in the law and compliance, that when they hear those words they go looking for harassment or discrimination, which is bullying focused on a protected class,” she said. “If HR finds no evidence of the bullying being focused on a protected class, then they will tell the worker, ‘I don't see a hostile work environment, so get back to work.’”

If HR is unwilling or unable to step in and the situation is untenable, employees can approach upper management and ask them to review the boss’ behavior.

“If the leaders won't help, then quit. Negativity affects us so profoundly that it literally does damage to our brain and body. Get out of there and go somewhere that cares about your well-being,” Mattice Zundel said.

Have a Backup Plan

If, as in Sessions’ case, the boss does not have a superior, workers can simply look for other employment – either by quitting their job or by quietly looking for a new one while continuing their current duties. This is especially true in the current economic environment, where unemployment is hovering at less than 5%.

“There are plenty of companies that would be interested in [hiring] - unemployment is low and it's competitive for good employees,” Marks said. “Besides, life is too short to work with people - particularly your boss - that you don't enjoy being around.”

Not to mention, Mattice Zundel adds, remaining in a hostile work environment can impact your health.

“Negativity affects us so profoundly that it literally does damage to our brain and body. Get out of there and go somewhere that cares about your well-being,” she said.