I thought I liked my new boss, but I’m worried about how she treated a coworker

A reader writes:

I started my first full-time job about four months ago. The position is a staff role in academia. I work in a fairly small team (three people, one of whom is my director). We also sit in the same office space as my associate dean.

Even though I had hesitations about the associate dean from my interview with her, I liked my boss and was fairly happy in my role until about six weeks ago, when they told me that a significant part of the job I had just learned would be transferred to a new hire. Last week, things went to a new level, when my boss and my associate dean brought my coworker into a meeting and presented her with a list of things she had said that “undermined my boss’s authority.” I was present for all the instances described and my boss never said anything to my coworker in the moment. Instead, she wrote all of these instances down and then brought them to the associate dean. I’ve certainly noticed tension between my coworker and boss, but not anything on the level my boss seems to be suggesting. I have also been witness to very poor management from my boss, including making comments about how attractive a student was to me. After what happened with my coworker last week, my boss sent me an IM to tell me she was sorry, which was very awkward and made me uncomfortable.

Long story short, my trust in my boss is completely blown. Even though there are no issues with my performance now (I have received nothing but glowing reviews), I am afraid that if I ever do anything that rubs my boss the wrong way, she won’t address it with me productively. I also feel very uncomfortable to be the third person on a team when there are such deep issues between two other people. Do you think I should try to speak to my boss about this? HR? Or should I just cut my ties and look for another position?

Ick, yeah, your boss sucks.

Well, probably. That’s if your coworker’s account can be fully trusted. It’s possible that there’s some wider context that you don’t know about that would change the way it looks. But if it’s what it looks like on the surface, then you have a boss who doesn’t address concerns head-on and instead drags people into meetings with third parties — indicating that she doesn’t know how to give direct feedback and address problems matter-of-factly and then move on, and also indicating that she isn’t very confident in her own authority. None of those things are good.

But.

This is your first job. You’ve been in it for four months. You were happy with your boss and your job until a few weeks ago. Much of what you’re unhappy with now is a situation that you’re not actually involved in and which you’re presumably hearing about secondhand.

It would be premature to jump ship at this point. That’s especially true since you’re still establishing yourself in your career (and frankly, especially since you’re still developing the ability to assess and calibrate these situations well), but it would be true for anyone at this point. You just don’t have enough firsthand information to make a decision like that. And it’s not like if you jump ship, you’ll magically end up with a great boss. Great managers aren’t especially common, and there’s a decent chance that you’ll end up with another one who’s inept in at least some ways.

That doesn’t mean that you should accept all bad behavior from a boss, no matter how terrible — but it does mean that you should probably have more reason for leaving than just what you’ve described here.

You asked whether you should talk to your boss or HR about this. I don’t think there’s reason to. What happened was between your boss and your coworker, not you. Focus on your own work and your own relationship with your boss. If you sense your boss is troubled by something and not talking with you about it, ask directly. But at this point, it sounds like you’re just speculating that that might happen, but it hasn’t actually occurred. Keep your eyes open, absolutely, but don’t be quite so trigger-happy.

{ 94 comments… read them below }

    1. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor

      That’s a wise decision. I worked in it for a few years, and thank my lucky stars that I am no longer there. Every. Single. Day.

      1. moss

        my first job after academia, I was astonished at the lack of screaming fights in the office. The new job had its own issues but at least everyone acted like a grownup.

      2. Vanishing Girl

        Count me among the ones no longer in academia (as support staff/librarian) and very happy to be out!

        But I would say, give it a chance if you feel at all drawn to it. I thought for many years that I definitely wanted to work in academia/nonprofits, and now am surprised to have found the corporate atmosphere is actually a better fit for me. I don’t have as many good stories about the weird stuff that happened every single day at work, but overall I am happier and more productive. You have to figure out what works best for you, and sometimes that only comes by experiencing a variety of environments.

        1. OldAdmin

          Long long ago I also worked in academia, and the infighting and mistreatment was absolutely nuts.
          I do understand where it came from, though – the researchers were constantly fighting for funding and their jobs, afraid the results would not be what they hoped for, constantly running on the “publish or die treadmill”.
          Everybody was pretty tense.

    2. Adam

      From all I’ve gathered about the world of professional academia (though having never really worked in it aside as an undergraduate library peon), it’s like it’s own little microcosm of culture that people in the “regular” world would slowly be driven insane from. I have a friend who used to be an assistant to a college dean. Her direct boss (the dean) was the only positive thing I ever heard her say about the job. Any time the professors came up in conversation though she got this glint in her eye that hinted this sweet warm person was holding back a dam of curse words.

      1. BRR

        It’s important to differentiate between administrative academia and professorial academia. Some parts have less academic involvement such as HR, finance, and development.

        On the other hand professors really do have their own microcosm. My fiance’s dream job is to be a professor and so I’m witnessing all of it first hand and comparing it my learning of non-academic office culture. My opinion is that the bubble is created by professors in departments really don’t need to collaborate with each other, department chairs are usually not the best person for the job because most professors want to continue to teach and/or do research, their goal is to get and hold basically one position for life as opposed to having their career progress through different jobs/employers, and tenure/collective bargaining agreements. The list could go on but these are some of the main contributors to academia being different and making most of AAM advice non applicable.

    3. Matthew Soffen

      And be warned working in a “spin off” company that is originally from acedemia too.

      The one I worked at was PHD/Book Smart heavy and “life” dumb. They made less than optimal decisions and wound up being their own worst enemies.

    4. Sherm

      There are definitely personalities in academia. And “eccentric” does not always mean “funny.” It sometimes means “giant pain in the a$$.”

      1. the gold digger

        I see you have met my father in law, the retired English professor who is The Smartest Man in the World and whom some might call “eccentric” but the rest of us would call “jerk.”

        1. Artemesia

          I have worked in public ed and in higher ed and for me the winning candidate in the sweepstakes for biggest horses ass is the retired principal. I had an uncle who was I assume a pretty fine principal and the biggest know it all blowhard in any room he was in — and I knew many like him. It is true in Academia that renowned professors who bring in lots of grant money are allowed to run roughshod over other people. There has been some of that in the news lately around sexual harassment in a particularly egregious case at a major university — I can just say that I can remember a number of instances when a vicious abusive person was allowed to stomp all over the careers of grad students or subordinate professors because they brought in the money. (this is of course very true in business as well)

    5. AggrAV8ed Tech

      Good idea. I’ve been stuck in it for 15 years ago and it’s completely drained me of any enthusiasm whatsoever.

    6. Mimmy

      For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to work in a college / university setting (not as faculty though), but now I’m beginning to rethink that!

      1. businesslady

        Hey, now. I work in academia (but am not an academic), and while it’s not all sunshine and roses (you definitely do encounter entitled and/or clueless and/or rude faculty members as well as overly rigid institutional procedures), my work is incredibly rewarding and I have genuine affection for an unusually high number of my coworkers. And I know a lot of my colleagues would say the same thing.

        I’ve been in other positions in higher education that I didn’t enjoy nearly as much, and I’ve seen the worst of what the field has to offer–but if you’re part of a well-run unit, you’ve got the best of both worlds: the warm fuzziness of working for a nonprofit whose mission you believe in and the resources of a large corporation (great benefits, etc.).

        I’m not saying the people with horrible experiences are wrong; I just wanted to jump in and offer a different perspective. I’ve been working in this realm for the better part of a decade and I’d be really bummed to decamp for another field.

        1. jordanjay29

          Thank you for that comment. It is nice to see that there are positive outcomes from academia (and we know there are, they just get smothered by the negatives).

        2. fposte

          Seconded here. And it’s offered me astonishing flexibility as well as a chance to work toward goals I really believe in. There’s certainly some crazy here, but it’s not like the private sector is 24/7 sane either.

        3. BRR

          All of this. I work in higher ed fundraising and I love my job (I’ve been here over a year, can I say dream job?).

        4. Cath in Canada

          +1 from another happy non-faculty person in academia!

          I spent some time in the private sector and learned a lot there – mostly that academia is a much better match for me. I went back as soon as I could. Sure there are quirky personalities and some weird elements to the overall culture, but I have fantastic colleagues (I’m still friends with former colleagues from previous academic departments from up to 13 years ago) and the research we do makes everything worth it. I still get stressed by deadlines, but at least they’re deadlines for things I actually care about.

          My one caveat is that I’ve spent my entire academic career not at universities but at independent research institutes that are affiliated with universities. We still have professors, postdocs, grad students, admins and all the rest, but I think it is a little different from working on campus.

        5. Beebs

          Another vote for an academic environment–or at least not against it! I was in the private sector before academia, and I would never go back unless I really had to. I think whether it’s wonderful or terrible completely depends on the specific situation. The thing about academia is that you’re with many of the same people your entire career–I’ve worked with most of my colleagues for 10-20 years. If they’re great people–it’s wonderful and the downsides of the job are tolerable. If the people are less swell . . . well, 20 years is an eternity.

        6. JournalistWife

          +1000. I agree. I work for academic administration, and while I’ve had some real doozies of bosses in my near decade here, I’ve also connected with some of the most amazing and supportive people I will ever meet. Writing all of academia off because there’s too much risk of encountering a rude faculty member or administrator is, IMO, throwing the baby out with the bath water. We read articles here every single day about horrid bosses/jobs/coworkers/policies that are non-academic institutions. Every university has its own rainbow of different office cultures within it, and you bop around the system until you find somewhere you fit and are appreciated. A good indicator is by looking at the people who work there. How long have they been there? Do they look happy? How long does it take someone in your interview to make a snarky comment about administrative policies? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work in academia and taking the first job that gets your foot in the door, then look around and start testing for upgrades elsewhere in the system. It’s just how it works. And in the end, you can present the sum of your experience working at that college as (x years at Teapot University) even if you’ve jumped from office to office along the way. It’s expected in academic support staff and administration, and it worked out amazingly for me. It can definitely be done. Are there ridiculous cookie cutter mandates that you have to work around sometimes? Yup, sure are. Are there arrogant people somewhere on this campus? You bet. Is that any different than playing roulette with non-academic job hunting? Nope. Except I get to trade in my lunch hours for going to classes nearby and padding my resume with degrees for the price of zero dollars. For me, it’s a worthy benefit.

        7. ZSD

          I’m also very happy working as staff at a university. I enjoy the campus environment, I enjoy working with students, and it doesn’t hurt that each year we get 15 paid vacation days, 12 paid sick days, and 13 paid holidays.
          Of course, I work mostly with students, not faculty. I think that makes a difference.

        8. Emmy

          Another happy higher ed staff member here. How described it is spot on (the good of a nonprofit with a mission you believe in, combined with the resources of a large corporation). And really, aren’t there tough personalities everywhere? AAM has certainly led me to believe that!

        9. Elsajeni

          Completely agreed. I would also point out that, if you judge any field by what you hear about it on AAM, you’ll be scared off of pretty much everything — by definition, people write in to advice columns because they have problems that they need help solving. You’re never likely to see the letter “Hi Alison, I just wanted to let you know that my boss is supportive and reasonable, my coworkers are hard-working and responsive, and my pay and benefits are top-notch” run here; that doesn’t mean no one is in that situation.

          1. Businesslady

            Haha, you’re so right–I bet there are even people out there who love their jobs at call centers, but why would we ever end up hearing about them?

            Also, for what it’s worth, I work extensively with faculty. Some of them have made my life more difficult over the years–as have some of my coworkers–and of course the most egregiously awful ones make for the best stories. But the majority of the people at my institution, faculty or otherwise, fall on a continuum between “unbelievably lovely” and “idiosyncratic yet professional in a completely boringly normal way.”

        10. Academic Counselor

          Thanks business lady! I also wanted to chime in that I’ve been working in higher education administration for my entire career and overall, I think the pros outweigh the cons (granted, I’ve never worked outside of higher ed so my perspective is skewed). Cons: the red tape and bureaucracy can be insane, mobility is limited, you get some frustrating coworkers because it’s basically impossible to get fired (as staff, I mean – I’m not even talking about professors). Pros: the work that I do is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, I have fantastic benefits, work-life balance, and job security, and the vast majority of my coworkers are equally hard working and dedicated to helping students achieve.

        11. So Very Anonymous

          thank you! Academia works for some people, doesn’t for others, just the way corporate works for some people and not for others.

      2. Artemesia

        There are several nice benefits of working in what is somewhat less formal environment. While the pay is sometimes not as good as private businesses, colleges and universities are often quite flexible around illness, personal crises, kid issues and so — I have seen many people carried for much longer with pay or given flexibility that would have probably cost them their job or at least require unpaid leave.

        There are also education benefits. I worked for a prestigious private college that would pay 70% of your children’s college tuition anywhere they went. This is an enormous benefit. Others are not that generous but there is often tuition support for the employee or for their children; some require the studies to be taken at that college but others don’t.

        And there are as we note on AAM many private businesses and other non-profits that treat employees like dirt, so the quirks of academe are probably not on balance worse.

    7. GrumpyBoss

      +1. I was contacted by a recruiter last week for an academia based position. It sounded interesting – for 30 seconds. Than I remembered all these AAM posts and quickly gave a “no thank you”.

    8. Jennifer

      In my experience in academia: you want a job with less contact with other people. When I worked on the tech side, I was very happy. Now that I am stuck on public service…I am not.

    9. Poe

      I work in academia and…well, today I actually slammed my head down on my desk. Only one person in an office of 10 looked up, and they said “if you thought that email made you want to kill yourself, we need to talk about Dr X’s fellowship reporting requirements…” Every day I deal with people paid 10 times my salary who seem to spend most of their time highlighting the things they disagree with in their colleagues’ published work.

  1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

    OP, Alison’s advice here is really wise. I am worried about your comment that “my trust in my boss is completely blown” – yes, she didn’t handle this really well and it’s not great to be indirect about feedback. I think you’ll be happier, however, if you can take less of a black-and-white (and instead more nuanced) view of this boss (or any boss). There are some things that are total deal breakers (like slapping you across the face, for example), but this should be one of those things that makes you assume she’s a bad boss/person overall – but rather a person with a particular weakness. You don’t have to like it or even be okay with his, but don’t forget to assess the other aspects of her management – that can help you hang in there for a reasonable tenure at your job.

    1. Bwmn

      I agree completely with this.

      I think most posters on AAM could have a field day writing about one (or a few) very terrible boss where they still ended up staying in the job for at least a few years and ultimately the professional experience helped them. My most significant ‘very bad boss’ experience happened where my predecessor and successor received the full brunt of my boss’s difficult nature and did not last in the position for more than 12 months (in my successor’s case only 4 months).

      While I stayed in the job for 3.5 years – my first year in the job my ‘very bad boss’ had a medical issue that kept her out of the office for a large amount of time and I was largely left alone or mentored by another staff member. So by the time she went “very bad boss” on me, I had already been there for a year and at least I wasn’t starting off the position with a lot of uncertainty. My point is that I was largely able to stay in the job for as long as I did because of a blip with the ED’s health and my start date. Not because I was necessarily any more or less brilliant than the employees before/after me.

      This may ultimately be a bad workplace that you’ll want to leave – but looking to leave after 2-3 years vs 4 months is huge when you’re new in your career. And if you just end up not getting the bad end of the stick from a bad boss, it’s not wrong to use that to your advantage.

      1. Julia

        A great book is ” The Lessons of Expeience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job” by Morgan McCall and Michael Lombardo. It’s been a while since I read it, but the idea is that most adverse situations, job wise, make you better. It’s in a case study format. I discovered it when I was working for a terrible boss and reading it made me realize I was learning something, working for him, and also that there would be life after that job.

    2. Polaris

      I got the impression that the OP’s trust issues started with the significant change to her (or his) role shortly after she completed training. Much of the letter and the blog post’s title focused on the situation with the coworker so I think the change to her job duties may have been lost amongst the more recent drama with the coworker. I wonder if the drama with the coworker has the OP concerned that the changes to her job duties were the result of issues with her performance that were never communicated to her by her manager.

  2. fposte

    I’m not clear–was the OP at the meeting where the associate dean dressed down the co-worker? Because it sounds like that’s the case, and in that case that’s a problem in its own right with the associate dean.

    Alison’s response seems to suggest that the OP wasn’t present and was later told about it by the co-worker. Which would make more procedural sense, but then I’m not sure what the boss is IMing apologies about if so.

    1. LBK

      Hmm, I read it the same way as you at first (the OP was present at the meeting with the coworker and AD) but re-reading the letter it’s not actually specified.

      1. OP #1

        I was not present at the meeting, although the office did hear a good portion of it :/.

        I’m assuming the apology was for all the tension leading up to this event but it wasn’t exactly specified and I just left it at that by saying I would like to remain uninvolved unless something was effecting me directly.

        Things have gotten a tad better with the passive aggressive behavior since I sent this. However, micro managing has been increasing quite a bit.

        Thank you for you advice Alison- I think you are right. I am going to see how it goes throughout the academic year and then start keeping my eye on other positions at that time.

        1. jordanjay29

          “I was not present at the meeting, although the office did hear a good portion of it :/. ”

          Yuck. That alone would make me uncomfortable.

          1. MK

            I am not sure the OP actually means what you seem to think they mean, that there was loud voices/yelling. I got the impression the office heard it from the coworker and the boss telling their versions, but I could be wrong.

      2. Sophia

        I also think the OP was not in the meeting, OP was just present during the various times the coworker “undermined” the boss’ authority

        1. OP

          Yes- this exactly. I should also mention that my coworker told me (secondhand, I know) that a major concern of my boss was that these things should be said in front of me and that my coworker was a “bad influence”.

          1. fposte

            On the one hand, that’s weird; on the other hand, I’m raising my eyebrows at your co-worker’s keenness to share all this with you, which suggests that the boss’s concerns may not be coming out of thin air.

            1. Adonday Veeah

              I’m sharing the same concerns as fposte. Something led up to this, and your supervisor had the associate dean in the meeting with your co-worker, which would reduce the possibility (in my mind, anyway) that this was totally unwarranted.

              I may be biased because I’m in HR and have thus seen lots and lots of stuff, but whenever I hear an employee’s version of a meeting with their supervisor, I always take it with a grain of salt, because I’m often on the other side of the equation and I KNOW what actually goes on.

              Rule 1 when a co-worker complains about the boss — assume you’re not getting the entire picture.

              1. April

                Rule 2, when a boss complains about a subordinate – assume you’re not getting the entire picture. It works both ways. There are managers who lie to and about employees, making the employee look bad if they try to speak up about legitimate concerns or gaslighting and trying to confuse them or make them feel insecure either simply because of a bullying personality or to cover their tracks because of unethical or unjust things they are doing. There are managers like this out there. You never know when you could be dealing with one. If you have Rule 1 without Rule 2, and always take employees’ stories with several grains of salt but accept their managers’ accounts without question you could be aiding and abetting some real egregious nastiness on the part of your manager.

                1. Cassie

                  Absoutely ! I would have said “wait, let’s get everyone together so I can hear everyone’s version of the incidents all at once!” Kidding aside, I’ve learned to always take everything I hear with a grain of salt. People can’t be 100% objective when retelling a story – they might omit something that they think it irrelevant but is actually crucial.

          2. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

            I would have replied, “thanks for the head’s up, but I’m not easily swayed, and I feel comfortable with you as my manager”

          3. Artemesia

            Ah that is much more complicated then. I would be watchful but also accept any complaints of the other worker with a huge grain of salt. Perhaps the manager doesn’t give feedback as well as she should — and one strategy if for the OP to solicit that feedback i.e. manage upward. I would not assume the co-worker didn’t fully deserve the reprimand.

    2. NoPantsFridays

      FWIW, that’s the impression I got — that the OP was present at the meeting. If that’s the case, while the OP is still not directly involved, it’s not second-hand either.

    3. themmases

      That was how I read it too. I’ve been in meetings where one of my coworkers was scolded in front of me (my program director was basically saying something horrible to all of us, but the pretext was something my coworker said and it had the strongest implications for her), and it’s awful. No one knew what to say, and my supervisor who was in the room came back to apologize to us later. The person this was the most directed at quit.

      If I were at a meeting where one of my coworkers were being confronted this way– and not because I complained, but maybe even then– I would be pretty upset and definitely uncomfortable. It would certainly make me wonder when and why it would be my turn. If the OP was invited to this meeting where the director and the dean were just reprimanding the coworker, I’d feel that I had a personal complaint in being brought into it in addition to feeling bad for my colleague.

      1. Dmented Kitty

        This is TL;DR but I have been publicly humiliated by manager at ExJob.

        We had an onshore program where home company (non-US) sends out people to host countries (in this case US) as part of a project. The current project sent out a guy who stayed in the US for several years to do onshore support for a while and it was about time he went home, and another to take his place. I was one of the first picks. Naive as I was, I really didn’t feel like going out by myself in a country where I know no one, and staying there for at least a year. I made my anxiety known to my then manager and told her maybe I’m not the person for that. She said, “You’ll be fine — I believe you could do it, that’s why I picked you.” With that encouragement I gathered up my guts and grabbed this opportunity.

        I got thrown in the midst of assisting a really big software upgrade (which was a mess, BTW), as well as supporting the current version of the software. All by myself. I have an offshore team, but their time zone is right at the opposite side of the world, but the brunt of the work happens during US business hours, but my team lead (who reports to my manager) didn’t really think it was necessary to have anyone work night shifts, while I worked overtime each day, and can’t even get out most weekends because no one offshore prefers to rotate with me (who does, but I NEEDED support). I literally had to carry my work laptop everywhere if ever I ventured outside on weekends so I could be constantly on-call.

        I sucked it up, and my work days were crazy but my US coworkers were very thoughtful and encouraging. One time one of the project leads asked me how I’m holding up with the upgrade, and I told them it was “somewhat overwhelming, but I’m managing it just fine”. I thought it was a pretty harmless reply. Everyone gets overwhelmed sometimes, right? I wasn’t breaking down or anything, and I delivered stuff on time as much as my schedule allows. I kept up with the pace.

        The team commended my outstanding work to my manager, but they did ask if someone can take night shift so they can help my work load during US daytime hours, so it wouldn’t be so “overwhelming” for my part. They have at least six people offshore, and I’m the only one onshore — and I’ve been doing the work of at least three people during my day. It would have made more sense to have more people coming in during MY business hours.

        Coincidentally, around this time I also got my performance bonus and salary raise, and I sent a note to my manager and thanked her for my high ratings that warranted my raise. Her response was a curt, “You’re welcome, but let’s talk later.” Uh-oh. That didn’t sound good.

        That night we had “that call”. Boy — did my manager dwell on the word “overwhelmed”. Manager went on a rant about why I should not have mentioned “overwhelmed” to the US folks, and that it now sounded like offshore is not being supportive of me. I apologized and said I didn’t mean for it to sound like it did (and I frankly didn’t think the US folks really intended the same, either), but she wouldn’t have it.

        And get this — she had my team lead listening in the conference call. Who never even said anything, not even a peep to advocate me or to defuse the situation. I just know he’s there because manager introduced him right before she started ranting.

        Add to that — IT WAS ALL OVER A SPEAKER PHONE. She did not even bother to get a private conference room, and just used her speaker phone in the open office area.

        She went on and on scolding me for making them look bad. I tuned out most of it at that point since she wouldn’t hear any more explanation from me, but one thing she said hurt me the most:

        “I expected more from you.”

        I never broke down because of my workload, but it was that call that emotionally drained me. The day after I was on the verge of tears as I went about my work. What brightened up my day was my onshore manager (who caught wind of what happened), who stopped by my desk and told me that I was doing a great job and if I need anyone to talk to, I can reach out to him. Those were the nicest things I’ve heard after my ordeal and I thanked him (resisting the unprofessional urge to give him a hug and bawl myself out lol).

        Needless to say, I’ve chalked the ordeal up to miscommunication, but I’ve lost all trust and respect for my offshore manager from that day on. I kept things professional, but I never, ever wanted anything to do with her even after I’ve left the company.

          1. Dmented Kitty

            Haha, I occassionally get flagged by Facebook that “You may know… (manager)” due to mutual connections with former coworkers who are still my FB friends.

            She has two kids now, from what I could see in her profile pic. But that’s about what I know — I don’t know if she is still with the company, and never dared touch her FB profile, much less tried to add her. My ex-coworkers loved her though — I can never understand that, since I was pretty sure some of them were present and definitely overheard the Call. Maybe she’s been better, or maybe it’s just politics — who knows?

    4. Artemesia

      I totally read this as the OP present while the other employee was dressed down but I also read it that her ‘boss’ was not the Associate Dean but a third person.

      1. fposte

        Yes, I think they’re pretty clearly two different people, which makes the correcting scene of the co-worker a little baroque–why did the director need to go up the chain to the associate dean just to give feedback to an employee?

  3. LBK

    From a self-preservation perspective, I’d just make sure you’re continuing to get feedback from your boss and bringing up anything where you sense there may be a concern proactively. I agree it sounds like she might be someone who says everything’s fine until she feels like she has a “case” against you that she can report, and then you suddenly find out about a laundry list of issues you’d rather have heard about on the spot. Assuming she doesn’t have a phenomenal poker face, you can always hit her up first and say “Hey, maybe I’m off base here but I sensed that you didn’t agree how I approached that question in the meeting – did you have a concern? I’d love to hear about it now so I can make sure I don’t make the same mistake next time.”

    1. puddin

      Another self-preservation tip – notice WHAT her triggers are. Really how she reacts could be less important to your happiness than what she reacts to. Now you know that xyz language or tone is considered ‘insubordination’ so take note of the language, tone, topic, and also note that authority seems to be a hot button.

      If your boss is otherwise awesome (enough) and the job fulfilling can you alter how you act to meet her need for authority? Or any other hot button issues?

      1. OhNo

        Definitely, this. If you have some idea what her triggers are, then you can avoid them as much as possible, or at least prepare for the fallout when you know you have to hit them. It can also help you plan your approach for certain issues, if you need to.

        Is it annoying? Absolutely. And ideally, you wouldn’t have to walk on eggshells around your boss just because they’re touchy on certain issues. But when it comes down to it, bosses are just human. You just need to figure out how to get along with them as best you can, the same way you do every other human being.

    2. gr8 candidate

      …and document, document, document (using your own smartphone calendar, laptop, etc – you do not want this to be found on the server!). You may not need it, but if you do, you’ll be glad you have it.

        1. fposte

          My question too. This isn’t a legal case in the building, and there’s no rule to say she can’t say you’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine, and then pivot out of the blue to you’re treading on thin ice. What’s likeliest to prevent that is communication, not documentation.

  4. Adam

    As Alison said, the tension arose between your co-worker and your boss, and I’m guessing that while your boss didn’t exactly handle it well there may have been even more than what you were privy too.

    I would take this as a sign that your safest bet is to continue being an awesome staff member and be extra mindful of your P’s and Q’s. From what I read it sounds like if you don’t give your boss a reason to be on your case you’ll be fine. And I don’t think you need to be on pins and needles either. A mistake will happen here or there, but the impression I got from the letter is that your coworker may have a bad habit of saying possibly disrespectful things to her managers which is whole other category.

  5. brightstar

    I have two questions: was the OP present at the meeting or did OP learn about this through the co-worker’s “venting”? What did your boss apologize to you via IM about? Just the tension in the office or something more specific?

    If you learned about the meeting through your co-worker, you’re being put in a bad position. If it were me, I would take steps to stop hearing further venting. If all this is coming from the co-worker, it’s a skewed view and it’s likely there is more going on than you know about.

  6. Big10Professor

    Academic politics can be mystifying. Do you know anything about how the coworker was hired? I would almost put money on it that your boss wanted to hire someone else, had to hire this person, and is now making the case for why she is the wrong choice.

  7. AnotherHRPro

    As you have been happy with your boss and your job until this incident, I would recommend assuming that your boss just handled this badly and it is an anomaly until you have more information. We all have bad days and occasionally handle thing poorly. Even bosses (maybe even especially bosses). My advice, in addition to what AAM wrote, is to work closely with your manager and make sure that you give her every chance to provide you with feedback directly. If you continue to see bad behavior, then you have more information to determine if this is an environment you want to work in. Until then, focus on your job and on keeping a good relationship with your boss.

  8. super anon

    This exact same situation happened to me, also in academia! The list of things said that were considered problematic but not addressed at the time, the meeting with an uninvolved third party. I chalked it up to unexperienced management (the boss who did this to me was brand new in her role and it was her first management position ever) and bad judgement. I really didn’t think this would happen elsewhere in the professional world!

    1. Adam

      Now I’m starting to wonder: in these academia cases are managers “conducting research” on their staff to build a case to present for review before addressing any issues? Writing a research paper may be a valued art form but management does not to need to be that complicated…or academic…

      1. fposte

        You mean actual academic research? No, you’d never be able to do it that way–it’s a huge breach of human subjects guidelines. They may be documenting for employment purposes, of course, same as anybody in any field does.

        1. Adam

          I meant more in jest than anything. I actually worked on research study in my undergrad stint so I know full well the permissions required, hence the quotes around “research”.

          But on a more serious note it does make me wonder if these academic managers are more inclined to sit back and “observe” rather than actually address any issues point-blank since “wait-and-see” seems to be par for the course in many academic disciplines.

          1. fposte

            I don’t think scholarship is all that related to much academic management, though, since most staff aren’t scholars anyway. There’s a ripple effect, but a lot of it is just plain bureaucracy and localization with a few spousal hires and non-profit mission obsession thrown in.

    2. some1

      I had a former boss in a govt job who was also a supervising people as an Office Manager for the first time. She was promoted from another dept. One of her reports was a close friend of many years. One day the friend told our boss about an issue that she had with our IT person (whom the boss did not supervise, but still my boss was *a* sup and the IT person was not) that had happened in the distant past, like months or years ago. Our boss took it upon herself to the call the IT person into her office where she and her friend ambushed her with this issue that the IT person didn’t even remember, and my boss wanted to mediate it like it just happened.

  9. amp2140

    If you liked your boss, talk to her. My boss mishandles my coworker all the time. He sends these group emails not to single him out, then individually tells everyone else that it wasn’t about them. Small successes (still below the bare minimum for the position) are celebrates as if he’s a strong member of the team. My boss and I have a pretty open relationship, so I’ve said to him that I’d really appreciate it if he never managed me that way. I know I can be too X, Y, and Z, and I don’t have a problem being told to tone something back. I told him I’d really feel hurt if I was ever formally reprimanded or fired over something that could have been dealt with in a brief, uncomfortable (for him) discussion on how he’d like me to handle the situation.

    1. LawPancake

      Ugh, I used to have a boss like that too, she would call meetings to address an issue and then separately tell everyone besides the person it was aimed at that is was aimed at that one person. It was a huge waste of everyone else’s time and absolutely crushed moral.

      1. Pennalynn Lott

        At the job I had years ago that landed me in the hospital with heart arrhythmia and night sweats (and still gives me nightmares), the managers loved to do this. They would call the whole team into a meeting to chew us out for X behavior, and when I’d question my manager afterward (I had three different managers over the course of two years and each one of them did this) they’d say, “Don’t step in front of a bullet that’s not aimed at you.” WTF? Well if it’s not about me, why the hell did you pull me away from my work to chew me out for it?

        Yeah, wasting an hour of 30 people’s time just to deliver a message to one person is a VERY bad way to manage.

        1. Maggie

          I don’t know what the system is like in the US but when I was at school in the UK the teachers would often keep the whole class in detention for something done by one child. Sounds like your managers had the same mentality.

  10. Natalie

    OP, is there someone else in your life who can be a professional mentor, in an informal context? I’m just thinking someone reasonable who can help you reality check any future instances that you’re unsure about.

    Speaking entirely out of my own experience – I had a bad boss in my first professional job. Her bad-ness was enough of a slow burn that by the time I realized she was not a reliable source of professional standards, it was very hard to get all of her warped thinking out of my head. I’m still working on it, actually.

    Without any other professional experience as a benchmark, I think a first bad boss is riskier than a second or third.

    1. Artemesia

      Good advice. My first boss was wonderful. My second boss was nuts. (he eventually killed himself so genuinely disturbed — and we weren’t surprised and actually been worried about such a possibility) If I had worked with the second guy first, it would have scarred me for life — it was very adversarial and sneaky and undermining. I wasn’t that confident and secure when I started and if I had had this guy gnawing on me I would have really had problems.

  11. Persephone Mulberry

    We also don’t know what the past history is between the boss and the coworker. This meeting could be part of an ongoing issue with the coworkers performance and/or attitude. Could be that the director was following other oft-repeated advice that can be found right here on AAM – that sometimes you need to bring THE PATTERN of an employee’s actions to their attention and not just the individual instances. Not to mention, it would have been more awkward for all involved if the coworker had been chastised for “undermining authority” in front of the OP. That’s really a conversation that I would expect to happen behind closed doors in any case.

  12. Blue Dog

    I think it is extremely important to concentrate on your own career path and to stay out of it when it comes to others. This was an extremely difficult thing for me to do when I was new to the work force (MANY years ago). I don’t think it is an advantage to being seen as a “man of the people,” particularly when you might not have all the facts about what is going on (which is often the case).

  13. Kyrielle

    It’s also possible the boss had conversations with the coworker, not in the moment but in private later (so not in front of the OP) prior to escalating it. (And equally possible this didn’t happen, of course.)

    Or (depending on the politics of this particular institution) that the boss has issues with how this coworker was hired or placed that make her feel her authority to manage is undermined, and therefore escalated before she might otherwise have done so.

    I’d give her the benefit of the doubt, and maybe deal with the worry about feedback by just asking for it and saying you want to make sure to correct any issues ASAP.

  14. Polaris

    “Even though I had hesitations about the associate dean from my interview with her, I liked my boss and was fairly happy in my role until about six weeks ago, when they told me that a significant part of the job I had just learned would be transferred to a new hire.”

    OP, how much of your job is changing? Was it the part of the job you enjoyed or the reason you applied?

    1. OP

      About 75% of my job duties will be given to the new hire we will get soon. It is not the reason I applied but I enjoyed this work and will be sad to see it go so soon.

      1. Polaris

        Wow! That’s more than I would have expected. I can see why it’s troubling. If you weren’t brand new to the workforce, I’d tell you to consider whether or not you want that job. My best advice is to look at other positions that you might like to have in a few years and see what skills you need to develop and experience you need to have to be a strong candidate and look for opportunities in your current job to build those skills and get that experience. It helped me to know I was working towards something better when I was working in a less than ideal position. Good luck!

  15. AnotherAlison

    Up above, the OP had replied the following:
    I think you are right. I am going to see how it goes throughout the academic year and then start keeping my eye on other positions at that time.

    I wanted to add that the drama between your boss & coworker should be fairly low on the list of reasons why you would want to look for a new job 6 months from now. Why did you take the job? What are you getting out of it, professionally? What other benefits do you have?

    If you could find another administrative position with the same institution, that makes sense to me, or if this was just a j-o-b and has nothing to do with your career path, I agree, find a new position. But, if you are working somewhere you really wanted to work, give it time to see how things change and take time to see what other opportunities might naturally arise. Coworkers leave. Deans leave. Or the flip side, you start a great new job with a fantastic boss and that boss leaves during your first few months there.

    Six months seems like a long time when you are starting out at your first full-time job, but at my stage (15 years), I can do six YEARS of something standing on my head.

  16. Cadie

    Ugh, I totally agree with Alison but have to note I was in that position at my first job as well and it was pretty stressful. I had to watch like a hawk for any “cues” that my boss might be secretly upset with me. The only reason I figured out it was happening in the first place was at some point she made a very odd, pointed SIGH in response to something I told her. I had to ask several times before she finally told me what the issue was (and it wasn’t even a big/sensitive issue!) and made sure to react neutrally/well in hopes it would encourage her to just TELL me next time (instead of sighing and hoping I noticed…?). It doesn’t feel great to be an adult in the workplace feeling like I’m reading my high school friend’s emotional cues, but I got through it and learned a lot regardless.

  17. Jake

    I struggled with knowing when enough was enough with my first job out of college. About 2 years in I started looking, and a couple months later I was gone.

    What finally made me take the plunge was when a Big Boss had a heart to heart with me and included the statement that all construction contractors have dishonest and abusive employees, and it is one of the things you have to learn to manage if you want to work in construction. My response was “If that is the case, I need a new industry because that is F—ed up.” About a week after making that statement I realized that if I was truly that miserable, I needed to move on to another company in the industry to see if he was right or not. After 11 months at job #2, I’m finding that he was not correct.

    So, I guess my point is, it took me reaching the point of saying that I was willing to make a career change if the whole industry is this bad before I actually left the company because as somebody just out of school I did have a really hard time gauging what was normal.

  18. Amanda

    As someone who has worked with some super passive aggressive co-workers/bosses in the past I urge you to document all conversations with this boss. By document I mean have a notebook where you note time, date and who was witness to your conversations. I was actually told this by a former boss — write everything down she said. I am passing on this valuable information to you my friend. Email to confirm assignments, conversations etc. And if you are wondering if this is overkill, these are the exact procedures managers follow when building a file for termination. They will email you to confirm verbal conversations, write down incident reports and the like. If they can do it so can you. It sounds to me like your boss is building her file on the new co-worker and will be a stickler for documenting disciplinary interactions. This is actually good for you to know because you can go in knowing how any conflict with you would be handled. Use it to your advantage.

    On a side note — I think it was actually professional of your boss not to reprimand your co-worker in your presence or to even show outright hostility. A true professional should: reprimand in private and if there are no results reprimand with a suitable HR witness (the AD in this instance). Her apology — while awkward — was her attempt at re-establishing professional behavior since the office overheard the conversation.

  19. soitgoes

    This is one of those situations where work doesn’t jive with the real world. In my real life, I’m a major proponent of judging people by how they treat others, even if they haven’t done anything bad to me. But at work you kind of have to suck it up and act like you don’t notice these types of unfairness :/

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