How to Give Your Employer a Backhanded Compliment

It is not unusual for an employer to make her/his employees feel peon-ish. Intentional or not, here are some tips for rebuttals to this demeaning behaviour. When delivered subtly, this advice can range from sending a tactful "back off" (for the more perceptive higher-up), to reestablishing a sense of acceptable boundaries/roles, to blowing off some steam in a jovial, non-threatening way.


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    Evaluate the work situation and your employer. The beauty of sarcasm and dry humor lies in it not coming off as a petty insult, but being perceived as unexpected wit by the object of your disdain. Think about your employer. Does s/he have a sense of humor? Is s/he clever enough to catch your drift? If so, will this potentially scar the relationship in ways that can make going to work difficult?
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    Evaluate your ability to deliver the goods. Can you keep a poker face? Do you blush easily? Does your temper flare? Are you even clever in the first place? Nothing is worse than a failed attempt at wit, so if you aren't ready to give a quality performance, consider dropping the insult and dealing.
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    When discussing your responsibilities with a difficult employer, you may discover a prime opportunity to pointedly yet subtly highlight your employer's unacceptable behavior. This is the classic "story about a friend" technique: Mention a "friend" who works under conditions which mirror your own, describing her situation in vivid yet brief detail. Conclude your anecdote with, "Of course, neither you nor I would tolerate such a situation" or "Naturally such a condition would never exist under your helm." You might wish to follow your rhetorical statement with an equally knowing look, for added emphasis.
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    Take advantage of moments of foresight. There is no better feeling--and no worse insult--then having foreseen that which your employer has overlooked. Complete key tasks far in advance. A week after you have done your part, your boss will state, "I need 30 copies of Report XYZ immediately. This is urgent." This is your moment: Raise an eyebrow, level your gaze at him/her, and say, "It's on your desk; I put it there last week."
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    When your usually-patronizing employer actually asks you to step up and make a decision or take some carefully doled-out responsibility, highlight this measured reward by feigning humility. Sarcastically chirp, "Oh, I couldn't. You are in charge. I feel more comfortable following your excellent leadership."
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    Sometimes, a nonverbal insult is best. This technique is often successfully used in situations when simple, obvious information is being imparted to you under the assumption that you couldn't possibly know what your employer is talking about. When your boss asks, "Any questions?" level your gaze at him. Allow the life to go out of your eyes. A slightly agape mouth emphasizes the stare. Hold the expression as long as you think is appropriate. While your employer will assume that you are simply processing information, the quiet message you will communicate will be one of astonishment at the insulting stupidity of others.
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    Consider s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g out directions or annoyingly repeating questions your employer has just given you. Jot notes and furl brow for a dramatic flair. Ask for simple tasks to be further broken down into steps, or question inane detail (Shall I spread the mulch clockwise or counterclockwise around the tree?). This will underscore the lack of faith your employer seems to have in your abilities.
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    With employers who retain a sense of humor, sarcasm can be your most lethal weapon, allowing you to point out unacceptable demands while appearing to engage in innocent office camaraderie or making small talk. For instance: "I will always remember my time in this office" or "This meeting has been extremely productive. I had often wondered whether the corporate toilet paper should unroll from the top or bottom, and now I have my answer." Tone of voice and the appearance of sincerity are key in effectively delivering such statements.


  • If you must vent your frustrations to someone other than your employer, do so to an uninvolved third-party and in a manner that will not return to haunt you. Remember that--especially in small cities, office buildings, and companies--interconnections that are not immediately obvious may exist, and that gossip travels quickly.
  • Try our suggestions at your own risk. Remember that we all work for a reason. Don't let a sharp tongue mess up a good situation.
  • Don't talk about the employer with others in the workplace. It is better to be blunt and talk with the person in charge, or deal with the situation with humor than to idly bemoan a situation. Make change happen or decide to take your lumps with a grain of salt.

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Categories: Interacting with Bosses