everyone is goading me into speaking badly of my hated boss

A reader writes:

I recently gave notice at the nonprofit organization where I have been the development director for almost 5 years. The CEO is an abusive and seriously unstable person whose bizarre rages and outbursts have driven out a lot of employees and even led a few donors to withdraw their support. He has a reputation around town as an awful person who happens to be very good at running this organization, so he gets a pass for his behavior. It’s a uniquely terrible dynamic and it’s the only reason I’m finally leaving a job I otherwise love.

Now that I’ve given notice, my business contacts, our board members, even random other community leaders have been openly talking to me about how horrible the boss is — saying things like “I don’t know how you lasted that long” and “I wouldn’t work at your office for 7 figures” and “you’re leaving because of him, aren’t you?” and so on. Some have shared (shocking) stories with me of their own run-ins with him. I feel extremely uncomfortable with these conversations. My ultra-professional responses are greeted with mocking skepticism; we all know I’m being disingenuous but I would never speak ill of my office or my boss (to say nothing of flamboyantly complaining and telling colorful stories about him) to our own sponsors and board members.

This question has an “easy” answer (just be gracious and professional and keep your mouth shut!) but I am finding it very difficult and sometimes I even feel like I’m being goaded. How do you advise I handle this situation?

You already know the answer: Be gracious and professional and keep your mouth shut.

It’s not that you’re obligated to protect your horrible boss; you don’t owe him that protection. Instead, it’s that speaking badly of him — especially while you’re still employed by him or soon after you leave — will reflect at least a little bit on you. You might think that it won’t, since you’re talking to people who clearly dislike him themselves and who are opening the door for you to speak badly about him. But that’s the funny thing about badmouthing someone: Even when the people you’re talking to are doing it themselves, it still affects your own image.

Wouldn’t you rather be known as the classy person who worked for a jerk and handled herself with discretion and tact than the person who started badmouthing him as soon as she got away?

Furthermore, there’s no need for you to “out” this guy in order to protect others from him or simply to truth-tell, because the truth about him is already known. He has the reputation he deserves. There’s no need for you to set the record straight; it’s already straight. (Obviously, if you’re talking to someone who’s considering working with him, that’s different; in that case you’d have a discreet but honest conversation with them.)

And really, no one can force you to get drawn into a bash fest if you don’t want to. When you encounter skepticism in response to your professional responses, say, “I’m sure you understand you’re putting me in a difficult position” and then change the subject. (You can also add “He’s challenging, but…” in front of that response if you want to.)

One exception to this: your board members. They are this guy’s boss, and they shouldn’t be shielded from what his employees experience. So when you get comments from them, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “If the board ever wants to hear from employees about those problems, I’d be glad to talk with you in that capacity.”

{ 59 comments… read them below }

  1. JLL*

    I feel for you. My last position was a lot like that. As tempting as it is, you’re doing the right thing, because you never know who is watching and listening, and the motives of the complainer are to be questioned too- are they simply looking to blow off steam…or find an ally/fall guy?

    It’s best to stay above the fray.

    1. Mike C.*

      I disagree somewhat. It’s always a personal choice, but if you’re seen as pretending that there was never a problem at all, you can then be seen as out of touch or possibly part of the problem.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        I think there’s always a way to convey the message without saying a word. People can see that there was no love lost by what you don’t say and still appreciate your professionalism.

      2. JLL*

        That might be true, but hey are looking to ki-ki with them- look at how they’re approaching the OP- “I wouldn’t work at your office for 7 figures” and “you’re leaving because of him, aren’t you?”

        They don’t want a real assessment- they want to gossip, and that’s dangerous. So I would still advise to do exactly what they are doing and keep it cute. Like I said, you may not know the motivations of the person doing the commiserating, and you don’t want to find out that a snide aside reached the wrong ear.

      3. M-C*

        I agree with Mike. If people are overtly expressing skepticism, then OP isn’t just being “professional”, she’s outright lying about the situation. Not getting into a long heavy bashfest at every opportunity is professional. Lying when someone asks you point blank whether you’re leaving because of someone is not. It’s very difficult to get rid of an office psychopath when nobody will admit there’s a problem.

        I’d also add that someone who’s driving out good staff isn’t “very good at running this organization”, they’re harmful. And being silent about it is being an accomplice in hurting the organization. This is especially sad at a nonprofit, where presumably there’s some larger goals to be met beyond office politics.

  2. Mike C.*

    This is a difficult situation because the traditional/professional answer (ignore the issue/pretend it doesn’t exist) doesn’t work when everyone already knows the truth.

    So as AaM hints at, you need to acknowledge the truth whenever this issue comes up. It’s a perfectly acceptable decision to not share your crazy stories or assign blame, but if you act like nothing bad happened you’re outright lying to the people you’re speaking with, and they know it.

    So just stick to something along the lines of “While I found the workplace difficult, I’d prefer not to assign blame now that I’ve moved on”. You acknowledge that you live in a reality based world and at the same time establish the fact that spreading stories or badmouthing others is not something you want to partake in.

    As I’m sure you understand, groups of people who suffer under these conditions often relieve stress by exchanging stories and blowing steam. While you don’t have to participate, understand that publicly pretending there was never a problem in the first place makes you look out of touch and why you keep getting pressed for answers.

  3. ChristineH*

    I completely agree with Alison’s advice. Hopefully, as time goes on, those showing skepticism will eventually see that you’re not going to stoop to their level of speaking ill about the CEO. It really says something about our society in general when your professionalism and discretion seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

  4. KayDay*

    From what’s described in the letter, I think the OP’s situation might be a (slight) exception to the rule, but only in some situations and only if any badmouthing comes as a negative reference and not gossip. If this guy is as bad as he sounds, the organization’s mission is being damaged by him. If people are trying to get real business information (as opposed to gossip) they will probably be a little annoyed at a disingenuous response. In addition to Board Members, potential partner organizations, funders, and potential employees deserve to know that this guy is a bad CEO.

    So, yes, be “gracious and professional and keep your mouth shut” in response to a comment like “I wouldn’t work at your office for 7 figures,” but if the question is, “gee, I heard that a lot of the employees are really unhappy with Mr. Chief Evil Officer, is that why you left?” a polite but truthful description is warranted. You can still remain professional and truthfully say that the CEO was unnecessarily rude towards his employees and many employees have cited him as the reason for leaving.

  5. some1*

    Whenever my dad would describe someone as a donkey and a PITA to work with, he would say “These are/those were sure interesting times!” with a knowing smile and/or laugh. I always knew what he meant, and he was still discrete.

    1. Anonymous*

      I always describe people I don’t like as “interesting,” “a character,” and “a lot.” You know exactly what I mean and then we just move on.

        1. Mints*

          This is prefect. Say “Yes” when they gripe, so it feels like you’re agreeing, without saying anything specific. Then say “Yeah he was a character, but I really loved that xyz organization/work/ideal whatever”

      1. Rana*

        My grandfather, a courtly man with a well-deserved reputation for being gracious, would do this. You’d ask him about someone you knew he disapproved of in some way, and he would say gravely “He’s interesting,” and say nothing further. His meaning was very clear.

  6. human*

    This is good advice. I agree. But I also have a question:

    If this guy alienates board members, employees, and donors, in what sense is he good at running the organization?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I would bet fundraising (with the exception of the “few” donors who withdrew their support), which is hugely important to nonprofits, and maybe other stuff too — media, strategy, etc. I’ve come across quite a few of these types in the nonprofit world. (I assume they’re in other sectors too.)

      1. human*

        I guess I can see that. But, my point stands in that I think “not abusing employees” is one of the essential boxes you’ve got to check to say someone is good at their job.

        I mean, if he was super good at fundraising and raised scads of money and just embezzled some off the top but it didn’t really hurt the organization because he raised so much — that would still be unacceptable, right?

        The actual situation is that he’s abusive to employees and they leave, but it (supposedly) doesn’t matter much because the organization can just hire more people. In my mind this is more egregious than the embezzling hypothetical, because those are people he’s treating badly.

        Oh well. Glad the LW is well out of it.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It depends on what your calculations are. Plenty of organizations make the calculation that having their work fully funded (which in the nonprofit sector may result in very real changes in the world) is more important than kicking out an abusive a-hole and losing half their funding. (And sometimes that really is the result when a phenomenal fundraiser at the top of an organization leaves, especially if that person had personal relationships with large donors.)

          It’s absolutely true that having an abusive tyrant on staff will cause you to lose great people (and not be able to hire them in the first place). That’s a real thing, and it’s important. It will impact the type of results you can get. But it doesn’t always impact your results to the same extent that losing half your funding would. So it’s not totally black and white.

          1. K*

            Same dynamic happens with certain rainmaking partners in law firms who are absolutely abusive to associates.

            1. Also K.*

              I was just going to say that. There are many BigLaw partners and attorneys who abuse their underlings (I dated a guy whose boss threw staplers at him) and everyone knows it, but as long as they bring in new, moneyed clients, no one cares – because that is the benchmark for being “good at your job” in that world. Everything else is secondary. It’s very common. Happens in finance too.

              1. M-C*

                Yeah, but it’s rather hard for an organization to see the amount of business lost because potential clients detect the abusiveness and take care to quietly move their business elsewhere..

          2. human*

            I would say it IS pretty black and white that it is wrong to mistreat people. That’s what I was getting at when I said abusing employees trumps misusing money.

            Also I would argue that if someone is bringing in money that stops coming in the instant they leave the organization, maybe they are NOT a great fundraiser, because they are doing their job in a way that leaves their organization vulnerable. Stuff happens — what if they get hit by a bus tomorrow? And if their so-called great fundraising is a reason not to fire them for mistreating employees (or for any other misbehavior), it starts to sound like they are holding the organization hostage.

            If this is how most people in the nonprofit world think… then wow. I mean, you make it sound like they just have no respect for people and their inherent right to not be mistreated.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I can’t tell if you’re willfully misunderstanding what I’m saying, but of course it’s wrong to mistreat people. That doesn’t mean that deciding how to proceed in that situation is always black and white. Again, you might judge that your organization’s ability to, say, shelter homeless people or to pass a ballot initiative that will improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people ultimately trumps the crappiness of having a jerk running the organization.

              And it’s easy to say that the person isn’t a good fundraiser if the money would leave with them, but this is the nature of private funding — many donors have personal relationships with the head of the organizations they’re funding, and in some sense are funding that person’s work, not the organization; if the person leaves, so does the money. Do you want to turn down that funding of important work on principle because you find that distasteful?

              In many movements, there are very few fundraisers with the power to generate 6 or 7-figure checks. If you have one of those, it has an enormous, sometimes revolutionary impact on your organization’s ability to deliver on its mission. That makes the calculus pretty complicated.

              If you really think it’s as simple as “just fire the guy,” I have to think you’ve never run an organization where doing that would dramatically compromise your ability to deliver results and would also result in people losing their jobs (for lack of money to pay them). It’s really not as simple as you’re painting it.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              I think that mind-set happens because of the struggle to stay afloat. I am not saying that money first people second is right-no, no. But I think that is where the seeds get started.

              There are NPOs that are very good to their folks, and employees plan on staying with the company.

          3. Not So NewReader*

            You nailed that one, Alison. I have seen this– a leader who is wildly good at keeping the money flowing. Every other aspect of his/her leadership gets a D- or worse on the report card.
            But the money rolls in and that the one thing that matters.

    2. Green73*

      Hi…I’m the letter writer. (Thanks for answering my letter!) I actually get this question all the time when I have conversations about him, and it’s hard to explain. He has a lot of vision in terms of growth and innovation, and he has been successful at all his major initiatives.

      He doesn’t literally alienate and blow up at everybody under the sun; but it’s not something that’s just hidden among the staff. Enough of our partners know that it’s not something we can pretend away. We have enough of a profile that the income we have lost directly due to his behavior is more than made up for by other support. The “public” at large doesn’t really know what’s going on, although they may have a tingling spidey sense that he’s kind of a jerk.

      He also gets a bit of a pass for being a “genius”, since aren’t those folks rocky to work with but worth it in the end? (laugh/snort)

  7. Josh S*

    “You know, Boss has plenty of detractors, and not everyone works well with him, but he does a great job of running Organization. I think people lose track of all the good he does.”

    Reframe and refocus on the positive.

        1. EJ*

          This has served me well in the past – I would rephrase it though, to put the positive at the beginning of the sentence.

          i.e. “You know, he does a great job of running Organization, but Boss has plenty of detractors, and the environment wasn’t a fit for me.”

          This way it doesn’t sound like you’re defending his poor habits. You’re acknowledging the issue and moving on without getting nasty.

          1. KayDay*

            ““You know, he does a great job of running Organization, but Boss has plenty of detractors, and the environment wasn’t a fit for me.”

            This way it doesn’t sound like you’re defending his poor habits. You’re acknowledging the issue and moving on without getting nasty.

            This is great.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              I like this, too.
              As an earlier poster, said to stand there and not acknowledge there might be a problem, only makes OP look foolish, not in touch with what is going on.
              This is a case of the boss’ rep being widely known and widely discussed.
              I would simply say “Yep, your probably right. Hey, did you see that game last night?”
              Hit it- and change the topic.

              OP, take the thought that “everyone is goading me” and transplant it with a more useful thought. Tell yourself “Yep. People are sympathetic to what I experienced.” OR “People think I have something on the ball, and they are encouraging me to move away from toxic boss.”

              That is probably closer to reality. The idea that everyone is goading you, is not serving you well.
              I had a bad boss and similar type commentary. I landed on the idea “Well the job served me well for the time- in my own personal life I accomplished A, B and C. I feel really good about that.”

          2. Laura2*

            I like this, because it’s a neutral “no comment” type comment that lets people know why you’re leaving but doesn’t bash your boss. It also lets the other person know you’re not into gossiping about sticky work subjects without making it seem like that makes you better than them.

            There are also downsides to focusing on positive things and not acknowledging some negative aspects. If some of the people making these comments, however unnecessary or not tactful, actually have some knowledge or experience with the boss’s behavior, it’s going to look bad if you defend him too much or suggest that “people” have lost track of the good stuff he does.

      1. Josh S*

        No, he’s not obligated. But he’s trying to avoid badmouthing the guy, which is admirable. And saying something positive is easier than staying silent in the midst of being ‘goaded’ into saying something at all. “If you can’t say something nice…”

        And you’ll note, the only positive comment I made about Boss in this statement is, “he does a great job of running Organization” which seems to be the case. Everything else is a statement about somebody else–those who work with him, his detractors, people in general–it’s not defending him, but simply reframing the comments back toward the people making them.

  8. Wilton Businessman*

    The professional will not bad-mouth their ex-boss. Regardless of how much of a jerk he was, you took your future into your own hands and moved on.

    Personally I’d decline to speak to the board if they ever asked me, unless I knew they were really going to do something about it. In this case, they obviously have enough confidence in the person or are afraid to make a change. At that point, it makes no sense to stir the pot, it just makes you look bad.

    1. Mike C.*

      So when someone is asking you if they should be brought on to a project you want to succeed you wouldn’t say anything to remain “professional”?

  9. VSG*

    I, too, have a similar situation, except instead of one person, it’s the entire organization. And the company’s reputation is well-known, so when people ask me about it, responding otherwise would be a flat-out lie. I often use the, “It’s an interesting place to work,” line with a knowing smile that generally allows me quickly change the subject and prevents actual bad mouthing. Sometimes I go with, “It’s always providing learning experiences.”

    My question is this: I’ve worked here a year and while I initially thought I could weather the crazy, I’m beginning to consider looking elsewhere. How does one explain such a quick job hop without delving into the dysfunction? And what do you say when you get asked in an interview?

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Not sure I’d say that after one only one year. It sounds a little entitled to me if you are moving on because you didn’t get a promotion in one year.

        1. fposte*

          That’s a good point; also, if you’d still like the job you’re applying for if it didn’t have much advancement potential, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. So strike mine–use one of KayDay’s.

        2. the gold digger*

          I don’t know about that. I just started a new job and now that I’m in it, I realize that there is really nowhere for me to go from my current position. There are more advanced positions, but the few higher-ups here (it’s a small organization) seem to be pretty entrenched.

            1. AnotherAlison*

              Some of the people you would hypothetically interview with might think that you should have recognized that limitation before taking the position.

              Organizations change, so after ~3 years saying you thought there would be room for advancement, but you realize that there actually isn’t after seeing how things have developed, makes sense. Saying it after a year just looks like you didn’t do your research, unless something major happened that explains the change (like me – I took an internal transfer and someone was hired in over me after 2 months).

              I’m in a bigger organization, but I still caution people who think there is no room for advancement not to jump to that conclusion without talking to your boss & their boss. I thought that c-blocked job was hopeless 2 years ago & it looks better than ever with all kinds of advancement opportunties now and that boss is still here — just not over me.

    1. KayDay*

      “I’ve realized that the job was not the best fit for my career goals.” or
      “I am looking for new challenges.” or
      “I am looking for an opportunity with more growth potential.” or
      “I am looking for a position that emphasizes X instead of Y.”

    2. Laura2*

      I think there are plenty of valid reasons why people leave a job after a year. You can make it about the new position “I wanted to do something more challenging/that uses my skills more/I’ve discovered that X kind of work interests me” or the new company “I am really interested in the way you guys do X” rather than about the old company.

      My guess is that most interviewers don’t care very much about a little bit of job hopping as long as it’s not something you do all the time, or unless you’re hopping not just between companies but between professions, companies, industries, etc. on a regular basis.

    3. KellyK*

      Depending on the specifics of the dysfunction, it can be possible to hint at it without badmouthing the organization or the people.

    4. PuppyKat*

      Replying to VSG:
      I found myself in the same situation last year after being in a new job for only four months. When I decided that I couldn’t stick it out and began another job search, I included a brief explanation in my cover letter. Something along the lines that X Organization (then-current job) unfortunately wasn’t the right fit for me, so I was looking for an organization/position that was a better fit for my skill set and experience.

      Of course, I think it also helped that I had worked several years at the job I had held prior to X Organization. So employers could see right away that I wasn’t a job-hopper.

      I found a different job almost immediately—one that is definitely a better fit—and have been with the new organization for just over a year. During the interviews for my current job, I was proactive about the fact that I was leaving a position after only a matter of months. I addressed it both during the phone interview and the in-person interview—bringing it up while answering the first question (which, if I remember correctly, was something along the lines of “Tell us about yourself”).

      In speaking about my then-current job, I only spoke about X Organization not being a good fit, that I wanted to make better use of my skill set, that I wanted to be with an organization that was committed to a higher level of customer service, etc. There wasn’t any need to specifically bring up the dysfunction of X. I work in a small industry; the interviewers “got it.”

      Good luck in your job search!

  10. sab*

    I have a friend who was a personal assistant for a Famous Person that didn’t last too long because Famous Person and family members overly involved in FP’s career more or less abused my friend to a breaking point that led to her quitting. A lot of this bad behavior is well-known in the industry, but after she quit, my friend kept her mouth shut about her former boss’ behavior. She obviously could’ve taken it all it to the tabs, etc, but she didn’t. Now she has the same job for a different Famous Person, and one of the things that cemented FP2 hiring her was that my friend didn’t gab about FP1’s bad behavior. It demonstrated to FP2 that she was a professional. Slightly different than the OP’s experience, but I think the point still stands: if you open your mouth, you are only hurting yourself.

  11. Mike C.*

    Maybe it’s my line of work, but I don’t see what is so admirable about never saying a negative thing about someone. I’m not speaking of idle gossip, but there are plenty of times where my job is to evaluate performance and if I were to hide the deficiencies of others out of a fear of “not appearing professional”, I would be out of a job.

    1. fposte*

      I haven’t seen anybody say that you should never say anything bad, though; heaven knows there have been plenty of AAM posts about telling unpleasant truths, too, especially about performance. People are just agreeing it’s a good thing to avoid in this situation.

    2. KellyK*

      I think evaluating performance is very different than chit-chatting about your ex-job. If the OP were talking to someone who needs accurate information to make their own decisions (like, if one of their friends wants to apply for the job they just left, or if the board had asked for feedback), most people’s advice would be very different.

  12. Just Saying*

    I’d say you are facing asymmetrical probabilities here. Given the exisiting information about your boss, there is a very low probability that what you say will improve anything. Yet, there is a high probability that on the other side your image as a professional will be tarnished.

    1. Steve G*

      I have to disagree – all of the emphasis here is on professionalism and keeping your appearance. We’ve seen the take-the-higher road mentality alot in the comments to almost every question in this blog.

      However, there are other considerations at work and in life. At a trade meeting I go to once/month someone kept asking me about my equivalent in another market. The 3rd meeting I asked him why he kept asking about this 3rd party and he made a negative comment about that person, looking embaressed as he did so. I totally agreed with his comment and told him it was true, and we’ve been corresponding on other issues via email since.

      Some people just use that 2 seconds of gossip to not only build rapport, but also to check if they are off-the-wall with their analysis of a 3rd party. Maybe they feel bad for not being able to deal with the mutual colleague and want to make sure it isnt they who are cuasing the issue.

      Further, it can be irritating dealing with someone who is always taking the “higher road” via never divulging anything negative. How can I work with you on problems if we can never talk openly about who is screwing up and not pulling their weight, and how that is causing or exacerbating issues? Are we to pretend all of our associates are stellar and that all issues stem elsewhere?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Most people aren’t advocating never speaking negatively about someone; there are of course situations where you need to, such as the ones you described, when you need to speak candidly in order to solve problems with people you work with (or in the example I gave at the end of my response, about offering to speak with the board). However, that’s different than talking negatively about someone simply to gossip, which is what it sounds like the OP is running into.

  13. Maire*

    It seems to me that some people get to act whatever way they want: completely irrational, rude and whatever else, without any consequences. The rest of us just have up put up with it and not say anything and if we do anything even slightly out of line have to deal with the consequences. The world seems like a very unfair, exploitative place sometimes.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I tend to think there’s consequences, although you may not see them. There’s consequences in their personal relationships, and sometimes eventually in their professional relationships too. And one very real thing for these people is that they end up with no “safety net”; if they stumble and others feel they have cover to attack, they often will, since the person has no bank of good will built up to cover them in times like that.

      1. Maire*

        Yeah, I suppose that’s true. And I don’t think that people who act that way are remotely secure or happy in themselves. It just doesn’t seem much consolation at the time.

    2. JessB*

      “The world seems like a very unfair, exploitative place sometimes.”

      Yeah, it does, but I’d agree with Alison that there’s still consequences. I know someone who, whenever he got a new job, would resign by going into the boss’s office and giving him or her a serve, telling everything that was wrong with them and with the company. This was typical of his behaviour and his thinking – he was always right, and no-one else knew what they were doing. When he eventually lost their job unexpectedly, he realised there was nowhere in his industry to turn. No-one he had worked with wanted him back, or would give him references. He ended up leaving the industry. It’s a sad tale, but one that has stuck with me as a lesson in what-not-to-do.

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