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My boss told me off in front of everyone

Estimated reading time: 5 mins

You probably wished the earth would open up and swallow you whole. How will you respond?

The embarrassment can be just awful. You probably feel angry too – am I right?

Before you go off in a sulk with your arms folded, or psych yourself up to go into battle with your boss, consider a different approach.

Your emotions will soon be back in check. Until you’re back to a steady state, you might be tempted to do something you will regret.

So first, take a breather

Taking action whilst you’re emotionally rattled is not a good idea. Your cheeks might be burning, but take the wrong action now and it could be your resume that is set on fire. Take a breath, and calm down. Long, slow breaths calm your heart-rate. Distract yourself. Seriously – find something else to do that will take your mind off your current situation, and do it now. Distraction is a very effective way to level your emotional state. If it helps, count to 100 to distract yourself. Do a crossword. Whatever works for you.

Don’t discuss the detail of your ticking off with your colleagues just yet. Don’t bitch about your boss.

Now, re-assess the situation

Once you’ve calmed yourself, you’re ready to look at what just happened.

You will ask yourself:

  1. What caused the tick-off? What provoked the incident in the first place? Establish the facts – be objective. It might be tempting to settle for evidence that supports any feelings of injustice towards you, but keep a very open mind
  2. What was my involvement in it? Establish what your part was in the issue, if indeed there was one. Were you solely to blame? Or were you nothing to do with it? Again, it’s easy to deceive yourself by accepting evidence biased towards your lack of involvement
  3. Was my boss justified in ticking me off? Once clear on the cause, you can consider whether being told off was a reasonable thing for your boss to do. Did you deserve a reprimand? Are you getting off lightly with just a ticking off?
  4. Was my boss justified in telling me off in front of my colleagues? Finally, look at the situation. Was it reasonable for your boss to give you a roasting in front of your colleagues? Were you an example that needed to be set? Or was the audience completely unnecessary?

Does the punishment fit the crime?

Now you have gathered up information, objectively, you’re in a position to decide if the public ticking off – the punishment – fit your crime. Do you accept you’ve been handled fairly (but perhaps harshly) or was your boss completely wrong in the assessment of your involvement, or the impact of it?

Will you let it lie, or make a complaint?

If you were not a perpetrator in the alleged crime, then you have good reason to make a complaint.

Taking your complaint to your boss

So you’ve decided that the reprimand was unacceptable to you, so what are you going to do about it?

Taking a complaint to your boss is a courageous action, and needs to be thought through. You’ll be challenging your boss to reconsider his/her actions, and accept wrongdoing. Also, what do you want from the complaint? An apology? Or what will satisfy you?

Two things need to be achieved in your complaint.

  1. Seek agreement with your boss on what caused the issue, and your involvement in it. Using evidence gathered and your own account, explain your involvement in the issue that provoked the anger. If you’re entirely innocent, then explain your case based on facts. If you are culpable, then admit your involvement and where you made a mistake, and add that you have learned from the incident and will avoid a repeat incident. Until you’re agreed on what caused the incident, and your involvement in it, do not talk about the public roasting, and its effect on you.
  2. Explain your feelings and the impact of the public reprimand on you. Whether innocent or guilty, you might feel that the ticking off in front of your colleagues was unnecessary and wrong. Rather than attack your boss with statements like ‘You should not have…’ or ‘You were wrong to…’, instead talk about yourself in the ‘I’: I felt very embarrassed and awkward; I feel like I was being picked on; I feel shocked and my nerves are shattered; I am anxious about what happens from here.

Hopefully, your boss will see sense and issue an apology to you there and then. Is that enough? Will you insist that your boss apologizes to you in the presence of your colleagues?

Taking your complaint to HR

Take your complaint to Human Resources only if you’re not satisfied after taking your complaint to your boss. Don’t go to HR first, as they will probably ask you to take it up with your boss first, and send you away with a flea in your ear.

But if your boss has been obstinate, or just plain dismissive about it, then a consultation with HR might be right. Again, though, you should be clear about what you want from this… do you want a public apology, which is quite a reasonable expectation, or if you were to be totally honest, are you being vindictive and seeking revenge?

  • If your public ticking off was abusive, then HR have a very real duty to put it right and reprimand your boss. They must intervene to prevent this happening again, to you or anybody else. Will this course of action satisfy you and give you restitution?
  • If all your boss did was shout loud and develop a red face, then there might not be anything tangible HR can do. They might tell you that something will be put on your boss’s record… so what? They might even just send you on your way. Consider whether going to HR is worth the effort, and risk of being branded ‘sensitive’ or a ‘trouble causer’

Can you move on?

So you have your apology; or maybe your boss was reprimanded; or maybe nothing came of it. Can you put the episode behind you? Is your relationship with your boss irrecoverably damaged, or fixable? Are you anxious about the future?

Your boss is probably wondering exactly the same thing.

Were you told off in front of your colleagues?

Please share your experience by leaving a comment below, or start a conversation in my forums.

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This post is part 2 of 14 in the series You and Your Boss

About the author /


Simon is a creative and passionate business leader dedicated to having fun in the pursuit of high performance and personal development. He is co-founder of Applied Change, a Business Change consultancy based in the UK. Simon is also an Ambassador for Gloucestershire business. Simon is an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development.

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