my boss is a jerk and refuses to speak to me

A reader writes:

I am a science technician in a secondary school working in the Chemistry and Physics Departments. For the past 2 years, I have had to put up with belittling and rude comments from the Head of Physics on several occasions, often in front of other members of staff and even in front of pupils. Approximately a month ago, I finally decided to stand up for myself and reported the behaviour to senior management.

The Head of Physics was spoken to and rather than decide to improve her attitude, has decided to have no contact with me, effectively refusing me access to the Physics department to perform my job. I pointed out this flawed logic to senior management, that refusing me access to the department only affects the quality of practical lessons provided to the students and the upkeep of the equipment in the department will also suffer, but they seem reluctant to do anything.

As a science technician, my only real opportunity for career progression is by gaining access to the classrooms to demonstrate experiments on occasion to eventually move towards being recognized as a teaching/demonstrating technician. By being refused access to do this, I am effectively having my career progression blocked. Is it legal to refuse to speak to a colleague or block their career progression like this? What should I do?

Ugh, I’m sorry. That sounds absolutely horrible.

To answer your questions … Yes, it’s legal. People often think that when a manager or coworker is an astounding ass like this, it must be illegal because it’s so clearly unfair, but in fact it’s generally legal. If you were being targeted because of your race, religion, ethnicity, or other protected class, then there would be a legal issue, but that doesn’t sound like it’s the case here. In general, the government tends to avoid telling employers how to manage unless there are issues of discrimination or violations of other types of laws.

As for what to do, I’d start actively looking for another job. You can certainly go back and talk to your senior management, as well as HR if you have HR, but I’m not hopeful that it’s going to salvage this situation. You have an incredibly nasty and belittling manager who has shown that she’s not willing to change, even when told to, and you have management that doesn’t seem especially interested in dealing with the problem. That combination usually means that you’re not going to see meaningful change. Even if you get small changes, you’re still going to be working for someone willing to treat you like this — and generally only bad things will come of that.

So it’s time to start looking, unfortunately. Meanwhile, you can trying going back to whoever you’ve been talking to and ask specifically for what you want; for instance, “I need to be have access to the department to perform my job; can you please instruct Jane to ___?” (fill in the blank with the specific actions you need) since they don’t seem to be coming up with solutions on their own. But another job is your best, and probably, only way out of this. I’m sorry.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Jen at ModernHypatia

    One thing that occurs to me is that schools have this weird twilight zone timing thing. You have no way of knowing if she’s already told them she’s retiring at the end of the year, or they’re planning on easing her out at the end of the year, or what.

    But the reality is, replacing someone – especially someone in a Head of Department role – is extremely tricky and disruptive in all sorts of directions (and honestly, pretty entirely hellish for whoever picks it up.) So they have lots of incentive to cope at least through this school year, and not lots of incentive to rock the boat.

    (And one of the realities of schools is that you need to learn how to navigate that, if you eventually want to end up with higher positions. Unfair but true. There are certainly schools that handle it better than yours appears to be, of course, but what you describe isn’t that uncommon, and it’s often not malice or even disinterest – it’s balancing the needs of students and existing administrative work that’s extremely hard to train someone new into against the needs of one person. And the realities of the school year.)

    Things worth doing if you haven’t already done them:
    – Be very clear what things you can’t do without the cooperation of the Head of Physics, what things you could do without her direct interaction (i.e. “If I had access to the labs when she wasn’t around, I could do A, B, and C that I’m not currently able to do.”), and then (assuming the Head of Chemistry is someone totally different) see what more you could be doing over there to balance what you’re not doing in Physics. (or if there are other related programs you could help with – if there’s a robotics team or something like that, for example.)

    Basically, whatever shows that you have the good of the students and the school at heart, even while there’s this messy thing with this one particular person.

    Looking for a different job is also a good move, but in the meantime, you’re going to want references, and schools can be very small and tightly interwoven (i.e. if you want a job at New School, chances are people there know people at your current place. You really want the current place to be saying “Oh, difficulties with Head of Physics, but otherwise really chipped in and was awesome with the kids.” not “Oh, there’s drama.”)

    1. Ariancita

      This is a really spot-on assessment. Nothing more to add, except that LW should read this carefully and take it to heart.

  2. Rob

    This really sucks, and I feel bad for the OP. I’ve been in this type of situation before and the only option is to look elsewhere for work.

    Since this is so common, does anyone know how common these crappy management situations are – where a horrible boss is not dealt with by upper management – and why is this tolerated by upper management?!

    1. fposte

      In the view of the junior employee, extremely frequently. In the view of upper management, hardly ever. (I’m joking somewhat, but not entirely.) The reason? Between people’s general love of the status quo, the fact that senior people are, well, senior and thus may bring more value than the people they screw with, and the fact that upper management often has no desire to poke the bear either (and it may be hard to discipline them anyway due to policy), they think it’s less trouble to keep replacing junior employees.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Bad managers being tolerated by upper management is very common, although this situation is particularly bad. It’s usually tolerated because the higher-level management is inept themselves, although sometimes it’s because they have bigger priorities they need to deal with. (Even then, it’s often indicative of bad management that they can’t deal with both at the same time, but sometimes there are reasons for it that the employee wouldn’t be privy to.)

      1. sai

        Bang on Alice – Also, more often than not, the sr. mgmt just doesnt think we will take the extreme step of quitting- especially if we have been there for long. In my last job, where I was working for 5 years, I was amused when HR told me I should have kept my Sr. Management informed abt the jerk I had for a boss (wherein I had spokenb to them like 2-3 times!) !The fact is you work for the manager and mgmt so it’s always better to move on – unless you can try to work in a different dept, in the same place (which in OPs case wont be possible since she is a specialised expert)

    3. Lana

      What if there is no upper management, and it’s a small company where the boss is also the head of the company? He’s been mean to me for months now and the only way to make it okay is to have as little contact with him as possible. But even when I do have to ask him something or he needs to sign something, he will be rude about it. For people in this situation working for small businesses, is the only solution to find new employment?

  3. Anna D.

    I’m pretty sure the OP is British, from the spelling and terminology used. Does that make any difference? I have family in England and my sense is that some of their employment stuff is quite different.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      If the OP is British, I can’t comment on any of the legalities, as I have no idea of laws on this stuff outside the U.S. — but my answer would probably be the same, aside from that.

    2. fposte

      I wondered that myself but presumed AAM knew the source country. (I think the spelling and the terminology are common to many Commonwealth countries, in fact.) If it’s not the U.S., there may be very different possibilities for recourse, ranging from “considerably more” to “even fewer.”

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I basically assume everyone is writing from the U.S. unless they tell me otherwise — otherwise every answer I write would have to have caveats in it about their location. But I still don’t think I’d change my answer — having a boss who hates you but is forced by legal action to work with you rarely goes well.

        1. Mike C.

          A few nations outside of the United States would consider this sort of behavior workplace bullying, and have regulations against such actions.

        2. GeekChic

          Given that you’ve had a number of letters from outside the U.S. (as well as commenters) it might be wiser to not assume anything about where your questioners are from. What with the internet being an international place and all….

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            The alternative would be a disclaimer in every single post, which I’d rather not do.

            The vast majority of readers, commenters, and letter-writers are indeed from the U.S., but of course sometimes that’s not the case — but I’m comfortable putting the onus on them to tell me that when it might be relevant.

      2. UK HR Bod

        If the OP is British, then s/he should consider raising a formal grievance against her boss for bullying – this behaviour clearly comes under the terms of bullying (tuc.org.uk, gov.uk give clarity). If raising a grievance, you need to consider that it can be an end-game: life doesn’t get miraculously better, and it could get worse, but employer do have a (slightly indirect) legal obligation to protect their employees from bullying, primarily under the health & safety laws as bullying is seen as one of the prime causes of stress. It’s not just based on protected classes, although the cynic in me says since it can cost employers more, then they are more likely to deal with those cases.
        There is also an obligation on employers to provide staff with reasonable and appopriate work – it’s part of the contractual obligations – which whilst it can include the ‘any other duties’ is mainly based on the main job, which in this instance the HoP is preventing the OP from doing.
        Caveat to all that though – as another poster didn’t quite say, schools are odd, and can sometimes think they have a less than direct relationship with employment law!

  4. Another Emily

    Would it help at all to change tacks a bit and focus your effort on getting full access to the lab? You’ve worked there for two years, surely they should be trusting you with your own key (or whatever you need for access) by now.
    You can’t make her boss manage her and you can’t make her not be a collosal ass, but maybe you could at least get the lab access you need to do your job. I mean surely… right? It just seems so basic to me.
    I’m sorry you’re in such a lousy situation.

  5. Leon Chen

    Just want to say hello. I came across on this blog via random search and found it is very helpful.

    My previous boss is a giant ass and I hope I could have read your blog earlier. After 5-year waste of time, I found my current job at the beginning of this year. And the current boss is all right, but she treats us like baby and wants to teach us hand-by-hand for everything – and by the way, I am in a sales position.

    Now I got an offer which I accepted and it starts on Jan. next year. Life is such and you have to keep looking and something better will reach you.

  6. Nonny

    Wow, I could have written this. OP, know you are not alone in this situation & others sympathize!
    I’ve been looking for 8 mo after my situation blew up & my boss is only now speaking to me in non-aggressive fashion, after spending 4 months grunting or silent and the other 4 attempting to pick a fight over every little thing. Now I worry one of the reasons I’m having a hard time finding anything is because Boss is well known in our small field & even though have another manager for this job as a reference I worry that the people I apply to know I work with Boss and call him anyway. Hope that’s not the case with you!

    1. Katie

      If we follow the plot lines closely, it would be “try and make out with the principal” and then be put on leave.

  7. James

    OP Here:

    Wow guys, overwhelmed at the response I’ve gotten here. Thanks for taking the time to reply so I feel its only decent that I reply back and thank you all.

    To clarify a few things:

    Yes I’m British.
    And yes I’m sort of thinking along the same lines as “UK HR Bod” mentioned with workplace bullying.

    Not sure if I want to go to the “end-game” of that though. As for looking for another job – well I actually like my job bar the bitch of a HoP. I have worked in other schools and the kids here are a dream to work with. Its also a difficult time to be looking for a job at the moment. Couple this with the fact that the HoP is approaching retirement it makes me wonder if its just worth grinning and bearing it for a while. Some of you already touched on this as a reason why senior management seem to want to maintain the status quo…

    Jen – It’s like you know me!! Yes I’ve already redirected my efforts to expanding my workload within the Chemistry Department and getting much more involved in assisting the final year students with their Chemistry practical work. I am also heavily involved in STEM related activities within the school particulary the robotics club which I more or less run for the First Lego League. (STEM is basically activities that are run within schools by a government funded body in the UK to promote Science, Technology and Engineering careers to kids). Again, Jen it’s like you know me!!

    Once again guys – thanks so much for your messages of support and its reassuring to know that I’m not alone

  8. Not So NewReader

    OP, I think it is a good idea to have a ear out looking for the next opportunity. That is just a good habit, no matter what the setting.

    As Alison points out, once you take bad boss out of the picture you get to the core problem which is spineless management. Something I think about when I have a bad boss, management allows the situation to persist. The problem is not the boss it is something greater. (The bad boss is a symptom.)

    Should you decide to stick with the job waiting for the bad boss to retire, I suggest journaling. I have found it very empowering to have a written record of my work experiences at home. I limit myself to writing about the worst one or two stories. (Or else I might not ever stop writing!) I write down the date, time and location of the occurrence. I make a note if this is an observed pattern of behavior- a repeat occurrence.

    I have only done this twice in my life. I have never used the journal in a formal complaint, although I could have. I cannot put into words how it helped me cope with the job and the day-to- day issues. It freed up my thinking and in turn, freed me up to rise above the situation.

    In short OP, it looks like you basically like the job and would prefer to stay there. Keep gathering up coping tools to help yourself along.
    Remember your boss has NO adult coping tools, that is why she is using responses similar to a five year old child.

    1. khilde

      NSNR – seriously, I love your comments. What part of the country do you live in? Can we get together for coffee? Can you be my mentor? :) lol

  9. Theba

    With all due respect to the OP, the boss may be a jerk, but handling people is (jerk or not) is a big part of everyone’s job. There are deal breakers of course, people I find too toxic to work for, but I keep that knowledge to myself and act accordingly (i.e., leave the position). I think all you are accomplishing here is developing a reputation as someone who can’t handle people and is high maintenance for management. That would be a tragedy if you are truly good at your job. Stop focusing on what should be and start figuring out what she needs – support, deference, compliments? or If she’s a bully, you need to develop some strategies to deal with that (see kickbully.com) that get you out of the line of fire without expecting her to change.

  10. caretakerray

    OP:
    Unfortunally another job is your best option. While there will be something uncomfortable or irrating in every job, your carreer is being held back here.

  11. Yuu

    I kind of agree with Theba. If you felt insulted by your boss, did you first have a sit down meeting with boss and tell her your concerns? Maybe she didn’t realize you were taking it that way.

    By jumping that step, you went over her head and she got a bad reputation for something that she may not have even known was an issue. People tend to react badly when surprised like this, and if she has a bad disposition to begin with, its doubly so.

    Sometimes it is difficult to take a step back when you are in a stressful situation, but I think it always a good idea to try to view it from the other person’s eyes.

    Personally, I would try to humbly mend the fence and see if you could restart that work relationship. Whether you stay or move on, the more you can do to diffuse the situation, the better you and your reputation will be.

  12. AMG

    Perhaps it’s my own perception, but doesn’t it seem like these kinds of stories are increasing in volume and nastiness? My theory is that the bad economy is making all these jerks believe (perhaps correctly) that they can behave however they choose because of the limited options in finding new employment.

  13. Rachel B

    I sympathize with OP. Last December, my direct manager refused to speak to me. She canceled all of our routine meetings and would not answer my phone calls. She did this so that I could be “caught” failing to meet her expectations and assignments.

    I agree with AAM: start looking for another job immediately. Performance issues should be dealt with directly, and if your manager is unable or unwilling to do so, you should find another position where professionalism (and room for advancement) is the norm.

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