Everybody whines about their supervisor being a jerk. But what if the guy you report to is outright evil — a real Beelze-boss? Here's how to avoid getting burned.

KATHY HOFFMAN was ecstatic when she landed a programming job just weeks after receiving her bachelor's degree in computer science. But her excitement was short-lived. Almost immediately after starting the job, she heard some disturbing news about the boss: He was a former lawyer who had given up his license rather than face disciplinary proceedings. "There were all sorts of lawsuits against him floating around from people he'd burned," Hoffman says.

She initially ignored the negative things she heard about the boss — even rumors that the staff was working on stolen computers — but things kept getting worse. Hoffman says she, along with other women in the office, was treated disrespectfully and called every name in the book. "I would go outside at lunchtime and cry," she says.

The final straw came four months into the job when Hoffman says she watched her boss — whom she refers to as Henry VIII — hit on a 17-year-old who worked for him part time after school. "It was bad enough that the adults were subjected to sexual harassment, but here he was, with his filthy, dirty mind, asking one of his drinking buddies' daughters to go to a strip joint with him," says Hoffman. "It was just awful."

One technical designer from Spokane, Wash., can relate. He, too, quit his job because he was outraged by his boss's behavior. "He was dumping wastes right out the back door," says the designer. "I should have known that he was bad. When I first started, he said, 'Normally, we have all our employees wear masks, but we're out. Can you deal with fine particles in the air?' I left three weeks later, after stumbling across a barrel labeled 'carcinogen' in big black letters."

The designer and Hoffman aren't the only employees with bosses who are bad to the bone. Gripe Web sites such as MyBossSucks.com and ToxicBoss.com are loaded with stories of superiors accused of everything from embezzling funds to sleeping with clients to ransacking employees' desks for personal information. "We've heard it all," says Chandra Louise, founder of ToxicBoss. Of the 100 stories posted each month on her site, she estimates that half pertain to bosses who lack integrity.

Sure, everybody needs to vent from time to time about a boss who's a jerk. But what if you're working for someone who's doing something truly unethical — or illegal? If it's a personal issue — e.g., your boss is having an affair — mum's the word. The worst thing you can do is gossip about it, says Jill Schwartz, a Winter Park, Fla., workplace-issues attorney. "Rumors get started and it gets back to the alleged perpetrator."

Even if it's something that affects you or the business, "most of the time you're better off saying nothing and leaving the company on your own," says Bradley Weiss, a Chicago attorney who represents employees who have blown the whistle on their employers. "I have had clients lose everything — their family, their health, their marriages. I even had a client have a heart attack in my arms because of the stress and anxiety from coming forward."

There are two instances, though, when you have an ethical, if not legal, obligation to speak up, Weiss says: "When you've been asked to do something illegal or when you've been asked to do something that can affect your or someone else's safety. If you don't report these cases, it could cost you your job or implicate you in the crime."

If you feel you need to take some action, first report the behavior internally — to the human resources department, in-house legal counsel or some other superior trained to deal with this type of situation. "The best thing you can do is resolve it within the organization," says Boston employment attorney Terry Dangel. "Let them decide whether or not to conduct an investigation."

Be candid, but pick your words carefully. Say that you value your job and would like to continue working there, but that you feel morally obligated to speak up. "Explain that you've been struggling to come forward with it, but that you're doing it for the good of the company," Schwartz suggests. Otherwise, you might come across as if you've got an ax to grind.

Before you say anything, have solid evidence that your boss is doing something wrong. "If you've heard damaging conversations or witnessed unethical behavior, make note of it and file it," Schwartz says. If you can, bring along a witness or two. And don't do anything illegal or unethical yourself to make your case — like breaking into your boss's filing cabinet. "Don't present material that you wouldn't otherwise have access to," advises Schwartz.

If the issue can't be resolved or your charge isn't taken seriously, you can always complain to the relevant federal agencies — the EEOC for discrimination issues, for instance, or OSHA for safety concerns — or speak to an attorney who specializes in employment matters.

For programmer Hoffman, though, leaving her job seemed like a much better alternative than dragging her complaints through a drawn-out investigation. "There was too much funny stuff going on," she says. "I couldn't wait to get out of there."