Horrible Bosses: When your boss is a bully

July 8, 2011, 2:30 PM UTC

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: A friend of mine sent me your column about five ways to cope with an autocratic boss, but I’m facing a problem with my immediate supervisor that is actually quite a bit worse. Since I started this job about two months ago (it’s my first “real” job out of college), my boss has become a nightmare. He constantly snipes at everything I do, makes sarcastic remarks, and about once a week has a totally out-of-control screaming fit where he calls me, and a couple of my coworkers, names I don’t even want to repeat.

Another thing I’ve discovered: After cutting our time short to complete assignments, which he always does at the last minute so there’s no way to make up the lost time, he complains to higher-ups — who all seem to think he walks on water — about how “lazy” we are. I really want to succeed at this company, but I’m not sure how long I can stand it. Should I talk to the person above him, who seems like a reasonable human being? If not, what can I do? — Ulcer in the Making

Dear U.M.: Your boss sounds like a classic workplace bully, defined as someone who repeatedly inflicts on others “verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation or humiliation” as well as “sabotage that prevents work from getting done” (those suddenly altered deadlines).

That definition comes from the Workplace Bullying Institute, a nonprofit research and training organization. Alas, it’s not an unusual problem: About 50% of the U.S. workforce reports either having been bullied by someone at work or having witnessed someone else being mistreated, according to a survey of 4,210 American adults that WBI conducted last year.

Another poll last month, by job site CareerBuilders, found that 27% of U.S. employees have experienced some form of bullying at work. Most “never confronted or reported” the bully, the study says.

The WBI research shows that about three-quarters (72%) of bullies are bosses, and one reason they get away with it is that, in most states, abusing employees is not illegal unless the mistreatment is demonstrably based on age, sex, race, or religion, so it flies under the radar of corporate human resources and legal departments. That is slowly changing. So far, 21 states have passed anti-workplace-bullying laws, and 11 more are considering following suit.

Even if you live in a state where bullying is illegal now, suing your employer is probably not your best move. Neither is complaining about your boss to the person above him. For one thing, your boss fits a profile that WBI chief Gary Namie recognizes all too well: The supervisor who is adept at kissing up and kicking down, as the saying goes, and is careful to make a great impression on higher-ups.

“Bullies sneak into companies disguised as high performers and desirably ambitious go-getters,” Namie says. In other words, you’re likely to be perceived as far more dispensable than they are. That’s probably why, a 2007 WBI survey shows, 53% of employers did nothing when employees reported a bullying boss. In 24% of cases, it was even worse: The person who complained got fired.

So what can you do? First, since you want to succeed at this company, start looking around to see if opportunities exist, or may soon exist, that would put you out of this person’s reach. Get to know as many people as you can in other areas of the company where you might want to work, and keep an eye out for job openings. Just knowing that you won’t be working for this boss forever can make it a little easier to put up with him.

Namie, who is co-author of useful book called The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job, offers three other suggestions for protecting your psyche — and your stomach — from your bullying boss:

1. Practice tuning out the tantrums. One way to keep your cool when your boss starts screaming is to practice repeating a mantra in your head like, “Ignore the anger. It’s not yours.” Another approach is to “simply think about the one aspect of the bully’s physical appearance you find most awkward,” Namie says. Focusing on the boss’s goofy haircut or oversized ears “can help you to stay calm” because “you’re not taking him too seriously.”

2. Get a reality check. Bullies have a knack for knowing exactly “how to make you feel incompetent or unworthy,” Namie notes. “When confronted by a constant critic who picks apart both your work and your worthiness, it’s hard not to believe he’s right.”

To counteract that, he says, you need a good friend or respected ally at work “who could help you determine whether any of the criticism is useful to your work. Which parts are valid, and which are incorrect, misinformed, malicious, or just plain whiny?”

3. Enlist supporters. Since you mention that a few of your coworkers have also been on the receiving end of your boss’s screaming fits, try sounding them out about the problem, Namie suggests. “Are they willing to brainstorm with you about possible ways to improve the situation, without anyone having to take on the boss alone?”

Even as a group of like-minded fellow sufferers, Namie warns, you probably can’t transform a bully’s behavior. After all, it’s clearly been working pretty well for him so far. But at the very least, you can provide each other with enough moral support to last until you no longer work for this bozo.

Good luck.

Talkback: Have you ever worked for a boss who was a bully? How did you cope? Leave a comment below.