It could be a sideways look, an unanswered e-mail or a meeting held without you that triggers the first nagging doubt.
The uneasiness builds and you lie awake at night, worrying: Is it my imagination, or does my boss hate me and my work?
It's a fear that just about every worker suffers from at some point. Often, the anxiety is fleeting, or lasts a day or so. But if it persists, the situation needs to be resolved and soon, or you might find it's affecting your performance and even your health.
"If your boss hates you, it can be pretty risky. It's a little bit like thinking your surgeon hates you before he cuts you open," said Joan Lloyd, a management consultant in Milwaukee.
"Your life is really in their hands, your career life, anyway. It's not just something you can shrug off or dismiss."
Here are some suggestions to help you determine the extent of the conflict and your options:
A little self-analysis
Set aside your emotions and ask yourself some questions about what's going on at work. Be as objective as possible with your answers.
- Is the boss' behavior just annoying, or is it something more serious that could hurt your career?
- Is he or she making demeaning comments about you in front of others?
- Is it a pattern of behavior with your co-workers as well, or just you?
- Did the behavior start after you made a mistake or said something out of turn?
- If the problem is that your boss is paying little attention to you, is it because the boss is busy?
- Have you had similar experiences with previous bosses?
- Do you often disagree with the boss or push his or her buttons?
"If the boss seems to have a doghouse that people rotate through, maybe it's just your turn," Lloyd said. "But if it's you, and it's long-term, then you've got a problem."
As you put go through this analysis, you should also review performance appraisals and any conversations or e-mail exchanges you've had with the boss. Were there suggestions, written or verbal, that you haven't followed? Has the boss made direct statements that you aren't meeting expectations, and have you since taken steps to try to meet them?
Talk to someone neutral
Seek advice from friends, co-workers or a counselor who will help you determine whether your boss behaves the same way with everyone or just with you. If you consult co-workers, keep a positive tone and avoid complaining about the boss.
For example, ask if they see anything in your relationship with the boss that would concern them if they were in your place, suggests psychologist Michael Klein, who owns MK Insights, a professional and personal development consultancy in Northampton, Mass.
Tracey Jennings, an organizational behavior instructor at the University of Colorado, said, "If this trusted source, who knows the characters involved, says, 'Wow, that does seem a little bit strange to me,' then you have some evidence that you're going to have to go to your boss" to discuss what's going on.
If it's just you
If you conclude your fears are unfounded, you just need to keep trying to do a good job and maintain a professional attitude.
If you're bothered so much that you can't eat, can't sleep or take medication to deal with anxiety, you need to take action, whether it's meeting with the boss or finding another job, Klein said. Or, you may want to get some counseling to help you develop some coping skills.
If it's the boss
Ask the boss if he/she has time to discuss your work, either in person or by phone.
Be neutral and respectful when you meet. For example, tell the boss you want to do what's best for yourself and the company.
"If you start there, instead of pointing a finger in their face, usually they'll come clean, usually they can respond to that," Lloyd said. "If you go in with guns blazing, 'How come you're mean to me? You just don't like me. How come you're playing favorites?' You're not going to get anywhere.
"I think there are many, many cases where a boss doesn't even realize what they're doing."
You should also come to the meeting prepared with performance appraisals and be able to cite specific examples of when you believe you have been treated unfairly.
Another approach is to tell your boss you sense he or she wants to see some improvement in your work. Or, if you think you've made a mistake in your work, acknowledge it and emphasize you will redouble your efforts in the future. In either case, you're letting the boss know you want a good working relationship.
If you're still dissatisfied, you might seek help from the company's human resources department or an attorney. But experts say those steps should be a last resort because it's better to try to work things out with your boss.
There's always the option of looking for another job, although that might not seem like a good idea in this uncertain economy. But if you decide to stick it out for as long as you can, be aware that it could be an ordeal.
Colleen Lynn could tell on her first day as an unpaid intern at a weekly newspaper back in 1991 that her boss was verbally abusive. But fresh out of college, she decided to hang in there to get some experience.
Two weeks into the job, the boss was berating Lynn for being incompetent, and told her to get on her hands and knees "like a dog" to pick up pieces of paper from the floor. Lynn was soon fired.
Lynn knows now she was hoping to do the impossible: "I was trying so hard to please her." And, that she didn't realize how terrible the experience was until after it was over.
Today, Lynn has a graphics design business. She turned her story into a winning "Worst Boss" essay in 2005 for The Seattle Times. Her advice to people in similar situations is to weigh both sides to determine if they need the job or would be better off someplace else.
"It depends upon where you are and what your goals are. You need to make a deal with yourself right away and get straight with it because this stuff will stay with you," she said.