real life

'My boss is a toxic bully. She's also my sister.'

As told to Ann DeGrey. 

It's not every day that your boss is also your sister. Yet, here I am, navigating the treacherous waters of working under Sally, my older sister, who has somehow morphed into the most daunting bully I've ever encountered. The dynamics of our relationship have always been complex, but they reached a new level of complication when I started working at the marketing firm she co-founded.

Sally has always been fiercely ambitious and assertive. However, these traits have a dark side when it comes to how she manages her team. She's the type of boss who believes that fear drives productivity, a philosophy that permeates through our office like a thick fog, suffocating and relentless.

Her bullying takes various forms, public humiliation is her weapon of choice. During meetings, she would single out individuals for even the slightest mistakes, pulling their work apart with a cruelty that left many, including myself, fighting back tears. Emails meant to offer guidance were nasty and condescending, often copied to the entire team to ensure maximum embarrassment.

Another harrowing incident that showcased Sally's bullying involved a younger colleague who was relatively new to the team. Emily had been tasked with presenting a marketing strategy she'd been developing for weeks. Mid-presentation, Sally interrupted with a harsh tone, "Stop, just stop. This is going nowhere. Did you actually think this was good enough? It's amateur at best."


The room was silent, every eye fixed on the unfolding scene. Emily tried to defend her work, her voice quivering, "I thought... I believed it aligned with our objectives."

Watch: How to tell if your boss is a psychopath, with David Gillespie. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

Sally cut her off, "You failed. We can't afford this level of mediocrity." 

Emily rushed out, unable to hold back tears. The incident was a stark reminder of the toxic environment Sally had cultivated, where fear and humiliation were used as tools to maintain control.

Sally also has a knack for pitting employees against one another, creating an environment of constant competition and mistrust. She'd often make offhand comments about someone's performance to another team member. It was as if she thrived on the chaos, as it kept everyone too distracted to question her authority.

For a long time, I suffered in silence. Being her sister didn't grant me any special immunity; if anything, it made me a more frequent target. Sally justified her harshness towards me as tough love, a way to "toughen me up" for the real world. But there's a fine line between tough love and outright bullying, a line she crossed repeatedly.


Dealing with this situation was a daily struggle. At first, I tried to keep my head down, hoping that if I made myself small enough, she wouldn't notice me. But that only made me more miserable. 

She was quite different outside of work, she was charming and fun. But she became a different person in the office and her bullying tactics were both overt and subtle. During a team meeting, she berated a colleague in front of everyone. "This report is a joke, Tom. Did you even review it before submitting, or were you too busy going through your divorce papers?" She knew Tom was devastated that his wife had left him.  

Emails from Sally were no less scathing. "I expect better from you," she wrote in one to me, CC'ing the entire team. "Your lack of attention to detail is not only disappointing but also detrimental to our project's success. Do better." 

I started seeking support from my colleagues, many of whom were enduring their own battles with Sally's bullying. Together, we shared coping strategies, from mindfulness exercises to venting sessions after work, which helped alleviate some of the stress that came with working under Sally.

But the real turning point came when I decided to confront my sister. I chose a neutral setting outside of work, inviting her for coffee on a quiet Sunday morning. 

Sitting across from her, I saw not just my boss but my sister, someone who, despite everything, I still cared deeply about. I spoke from the heart, expressing how her behaviour was not only hurting me but also damaging the morale and productivity of the entire team. I highlighted specific incidents, focusing on how those actions made me feel rather than accusing her of being a bully.


The conversation was tense, with moments where I thought Sally would revert to her defensive, confrontational self. For the first time in a long time, she listened, really listened.

I told her we all lived in fear of her, including me. "I didn’t realise everyone hated me so much," she said. 

In the weeks that followed, Sally tried to moderate her approach. She began offering constructive criticism instead of outright condemnation and started recognising the team's achievements, however small.

Two of our colleagues resigned as they couldn't bear working with Sally any longer—and I don't blame them. My relationship with my sister is still a work in progress, both as siblings and as colleagues. Yet, taking that step to confront Sally about her bullying behaviour has opened a pathway to a brighter place. Things have improved but they are not perfect yet. I'm looking for a new job as I don't want to continue working with Sally but this experience has shown me the power of communication and the importance of standing up for yourself, even when the bully is someone as close as your sister.

Feature Image: Canva.

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