5 ways to deal with a horrible EMS boss

Protecting yourself from verbal abuse from a patient is one thing, but what if it’s coming from someone who is supposed to be your support network?

EMS certainly has its share of bad leaders.

While horrible bosses may make good fodder for Hollywood movies, in real life they tend to be quite a bit less funny. There are few of us who’ve made EMS our career that don’t have one of two stories about a horrible boss that made the Hollywood versions look tame by comparison.

One of those employees is regular EMS1 reader John. He recently read my article, 6 ways to defend yourself against verbal abuse, and wrote me to ask about a different kind of verbal abuse. John asked, "What if the verbal abuse is coming from your boss?"

Protecting yourself from verbal abuse from a patient is one thing. Patient contacts rarely last more than an hour or so. But what if the verbal abuse is coming from someone who is expected to be your support network? You can’t just drop your boss off at the emergency room and move on to the next call. Verbal abuse from a boss can make your work-life an ongoing misery.

As we talked about in the verbal abuse article, the old 'sticks and stones' saying is wrong. Words can hurt. Words can leave injury and scars that aren’t as visible as physical wounds, but are every bit as real. If we aren’t properly prepared to defend ourselves, words can be devastating.

So what do you do if your boss is the one using words to embarrass, humiliate, or devalue you or your peers? Is there any defense against a horrible boss? While I would never suggest entertaining any of the homicidal solutions from the Horrible Bosses movie franchise, there are some things that you can do to address an intolerable workplace environment.

1. Find another employer

There’s a reason I put this one first. I know it sounds callous, but you were looking for a job when you found this one. Have you ever thought about quitting your crappy EMS job? Loss aversion often causes us to stick with an employer and a job that isn’t the right fit for us. Crummy EMS employers depend on loss aversion to keep a healthy supply of able bodied workers, regardless of their deplorable working conditions.

Ask yourself if an organization that employs and then promotes an individual who is verbally abusive is worth your time, your effort, your health and happiness, and your future. The company administrators surely see some of this behavior. Are these the people with whom you want to invest your career?

Also, understand that if you are being bullied, harassed or targeted by your boss for verbal abuse, your job is already at risk. Research suggests that 70 percent of employees who report verbal abuse in the workplace move to a new job within 23 months. Making the move sooner rather than later keeps you in control and keeps your work record clean.[1]

While seeking opportunity elsewhere is my preferred solution, it certainly isn’t the only one. If you aren’t convinced that it’s time to leave, I have a few other pieces of advice.

2. Focus your energy on the things that you can control

If your plan involves your boss somehow transforming into a different person, your plan is bound to fail. Humans don’t simply change their foundational behaviors without a significant motivating factor, and even then, it’s a monumental task.

Too often, we end up devoting far too much mental energy to the behaviors (or misbehaviors) of others. If our boss’s behavior becomes our fixation, we may start thinking about in from the minute we wake up. Will he be there when I arrive? Is she going to say something about that oil leak I submitted to the mechanics? Is he going to confront me about not wanting to work overtime last Friday? On and on our mental gymnastics go and every bit of that energy is worthless.

Decide that every bit of energy that doesn’t have to be used managing your interactions with your boss will instead be spent focusing on things you can control; your own performance, your own attitude your own joy for your job, and your own great patient care. Often, the more we choose to focus on our own greatness, the more insignificant the poor behaviors of other individuals become. Also, having your own house in order will be essential if you choose to confront your boss. (See number four.)

3. Try to see the story behind your boss’s behavior

Sometimes it’s helpful to consider the motivation behind your boss’s verbal tirades or inappropriate use of words. Often, if we recognize the root cause of the behavior we are witnessing it empowers us to peek-behind-the-curtains. Instead of becoming angry, think to yourself, “How interesting.” Then observe and wonder silently about the motivation behind the boss’s behavior.

If we can see that a person’s inappropriate behavior is linked to their insecurity or fear, we are sometimes more likely to forgive them. They cease to be a monster or tormentor and become a fallible human being. We all show up to our lives flawed in some way. If we see our boss’s behavior as rooted in their human flaws (and not ours) they may have less power over us.

4. Try being brave

I have written about the challenges of social courage and the need to confront unacceptable performance and behavior on the workplace. For a number of reasons, confronting individuals on their shortcomings, honestly, respectfully and in a supportive way, seems to be an insurmountable obstacle for so many of us. The reason is our own fear. So often we allow fear to keep us from having real conversations, regardless of how crucial or significant those conversations become.

Verbal abuse in the workplace isn’t only disrespectful and rude, it’s counterproductive, distracting and in some cases, illegal. There is no good reason to tolerate verbally abusive behavior. You can confront it and let your boss know that his or her behavior is unacceptable.

If you feel like you need help having this conversation you can talk to someone in human resources or a supervisor outside of your immediate chain-of-command. The goal isn’t to make your boss feel overwhelmed. The goal is to address the behavior in a productive way. Your boss may decide to change their behavior or they may simply direct it elsewhere.

5. Consider filing a grievance or other legal action

Bravery is sometimes an uncomfortable proposition, but you should at least try it, especially if you’re considering legal action. Understand that there is no specific law that addresses your boss being a jerk. There are many leadership behaviors that are actually illegal, but being a jerk or obnoxious isn’t one of them.

If you are going to pursue legal action against an employer, consider that you’ll need to demonstrate illegal behavior. Documentation is essential. Harassment based on race or gender is always illegal. If you feel the harassment is psychologically damaging you may be able to make a claim for workers compensation.

Workplace bullying is a new area of workplace law that also might apply. Specific behaviors like blocking exits or creating an environment of fear can be criminal in nature.

Making a case for workplace harassment, bullying, or a hostile work environment is subtle and complex. You’ll need to sit down with an employment attorney and review the details of your situation. For any legal action to take place, you will have to first document the behavior and your attempts to resolve the issue and that will require you to try being brave first.

Also consider that your human resources department may be able to help you address your issues with a horrible boss, but don’t see them as a hopeful solution. They do, after all, represent the company. Research suggests that less than four percent of bully bosses make a significant effort to correct the behaviors for which they were sanctioned. Of the 96 percent that remain horrible bosses, only 10 percent of those are ever transferred or fired. [1]

The statistics don’t bode well for the victim of a horrible boss, but that doesn’t mean that you are powerless. In each moment you are always in control of how you choose to respond to the indignities of others. You can hold your head high and maintain your own sense of pride. You can strive to do your job well. You can choose to confront unacceptable behavior and let others respectfully know what you will and will not tolerate.

Leaving is always an option

Remember, if you continue to be unsupported in your efforts to do your job well, you can pack up your things and leave. There are other good EMS employers out there who deserve your best efforts. Never be too afraid to shake the dust off your sandals and hit the road. I wish you well on your journey.


1. Gary Namie’s study at The Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute (WBTI), (2003 n=1,000)

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