The ill-tempered boss

June 1, 2002
The doctor I work with has problems controlling his temper. One day last week during lunch, he picked up a chair in his private office and slammed it against the wall.

Dear Dianne,

The doctor I work with has problems controlling his temper. One day last week during lunch, he picked up a chair in his private office and slammed it against the wall. My two co-workers and I have no idea what ticked him off. Everything had gone smoothly that morning, and there had not been any unpleasant patients. The incident made us all feel very frightened. We wondered if we had done something wrong.

There have been other incidents. He sometimes throws charts and instruments when a procedure does not go well. I have heard him slamming cabinet doors in the lab area. I should also mention that he has cursed my co-workers and me.

I live too far from the office to go home at lunch. However, I make it a point to get out of the building, because the atmosphere is so stressful. Sometimes I eat lunch in my car. At least I feel safe there.

Recently, the doctor came to me and asked if anything was wrong. I told him that I just did not like it there anymore. He asked if the patients were too hard. I replied, "I love the patients and my co-workers, but I don't like you and the way you act." Did I say the wrong thing?

I graduated from hygiene school only one year ago, so this is my first office. Should I start looking for another office? Are most dentists bad-tempered and moody like my boss?

Feeling Frightened in Carolina

Dear Frightened,

It sounds like your boss is dangerously near a mental breakdown. Outbursts like the ones you describe are not normal for an emotionally stable individual. Two possibilities occur to me: the doctor could be suffering severe anxiety because of marital and/or financial problems; or substance abuse could be negatively affecting the doctor's ability to cope. You may never know the real reasons behind his outbursts of temper.

However, all employers have a moral, ethical, and legal obligation to provide employees with a safe working environment. Our federal government has created a whole department called Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) that is devoted entirely to workplace safety. Throwing instruments and slamming chairs certainly would constitute workplace violence. You obviously feel unsafe there, knowing that you could be caught in the crossfire of one of his outbursts. Further, an employer cursing his/her employees could constitute verbal harassment, depending on what was actually said.

If the doctor has a history of problems controlling his temper, a secondary problem arises - staff turnover. Nobody wants to work for a person who uses intimidation to control other people. Employers can be "marked" as being bad to work for as exiting staff members share their unpleasant experiences with their peers.

If patients have witnessed any of his untoward behaviors, he risks having a complaint filed against him with his state board of dental examiners. Patient retention problems could arise. Personally, I would not return to a dentist if I saw him do any of the things you described.

It is unfortunate that this is your first office since graduating from hygiene school. The unpleasant experiences to which you have been subjected will tend to make you cautious and maybe a little fearful in future work situations. However, I can assure you that the majority of dental practices have doctors who do not lose their tempers nor display emotional outbursts like you have described.

I commend you for your unwavering honesty when the doctor asked you if anything was wrong. I know that it took a healthy dose of courage to let him know that his bad behavior is making you unhappy. You said exactly what you should have said.

Obviously, there are serious issues here that call for the help of a qualified professional. If this doctor does not learn how to control his anger, there will be a continuing stream of negative consequences, which will only exacerbate his anger.

Dentistry is stressful enough without having to work in a volatile environment. I cannot imagine how it would feel to work in an office where the doctor's behavior is like a ticking time bomb. You must consider your own emotional security and physical safety.

What should you do? Only you can make that decision. The noble thing to do would be to give the doctor a two-week notice before leaving. I cannot remember a time where I advised a staff member to leave his/her position without such a notice. However, since this is a situation where your leaving may invoke more anger, you might be safer by just quietly gathering your things and taking your license down off the wall at the end of the week. Then telephone the doctor to say you will not be coming back. At that point, gently urge the doctor to seek professional help with anger control.

As professionals, it is in our best interest to depart gracefully. Retali-ating in anger against the doctor would be counter-productive. Since you are dealing with a man who is emotionally unstable, I would advise against discussing the unpleasant incidents with future co-workers. Doing so might cause you to be charged with character defamation if the offending doctor heard of it.

As far as jobs go, it sounds like you got the "bottom of the barrel." But cheer up! There are many wonderful dental offices with excellent doctors, and I hope you find one. You certainly deserve it.


Dianne D. Glasscoe, RDH, BS, is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant to dental practices across the United States. She is CEO of Professional Dental Management, based in Lexington, N.C. To contact Glasscoe for speaking or consulting, call (336) 472-3515, fax (336) 472-5567, or email dglasscoe@ Visit her Web site at