my manager keeps complaining to me about her own boss

A reader writes:

I just got a new job – a job I am SUPER excited about.

My boss, who I share an office with, is great on all accounts so far except she has one major problem that makes me feel very uncomfortable: She complains and talks horribly about her boss as soon as her boss leaves the room from having a meeting or conversation with us – two or three times a week so far. My boss’ complaining will range from saying petty and belittling remarks under her breath (I am the only one there to hear it), or she will vent to me, sometimes for 10 or 15 minutes, about how incompetent her boss is.

Being new (only two weeks), I feel like I should pay attention and be respectful when my boss talks to me. So, thus far I have listened and paid attention during these venting sessions, but I know she wants me to “agree” with her and be on “her team.” Honestly, her boss seems pretty normal and reasonable to me, but either way I don’t want to be on either team – I just want to do my work and not get caught up their problems.

Would it be better at this early stage in the game to say something polite and direct or just let it go and try to fly under the radar for a while, hoping she will get the hint? (For the record, I know it’s totally inappropriate for her to do this at all, but I like this job and need to figure out a way to deal with it.)

Ooooh, that’s a sticky situation. On one hand, you’re new, you want to stay on your manager’s good side, and this is clearly a major sticking point with her. On the other hand, you rightly don’t want to get drawn into this and you definitely don’t want your listening to ever get twisted into her telling someone else that you agree with her.

I think the answer is totally dependent on what your boss is like and what your relationship with her is like. With some managers and some relationships, you could say, “Hey, I feel a little awkward hearing this! Can I be Switzerland?” and it would be fine. With some, you could even say, “Huh. You’ve got context I don’t have, but I didn’t think what she was saying sounded horrible.” And with others, you’d be planting a poison pill in your relationship to even approach saying anything near either of these, especially if you said it while you’re so new.

So until you have a really solid sense of which of those is the case, I’d go with listening politely, staying non-commital, and changing the subject as soon as you can.

And unfortunately, I’d be pretty wary of your boss. At a minimum, she’s showing horrible judgment in saying this stuff to you. But her horrible judgment might go beyond that — extending to her assessment of her boss, and potentially even to the quality of her work (which is sometimes the case when someone hates their reasonable-seeming boss with such vitriol). So keep your eyes open for problems with her beyond this situation.

{ 64 comments… read them below }

  1. Vadigor

    That Switzerland line is very useful: clear yet somewhat disarming. I’ll have to remember it for future use.

  2. Laura

    I can understand needing to vent about your boss. What I cannot understand is why people insist on bending the ear of a new employee with their grievances about others in the office. It puts the new employee in an exceedingly awkward position – they don’t know these people yet, and it’s in their best interests to get along with them.

    My guess is the OP’s boss either views her as an underling and a captive audience, and/or has run out of people to complain to. I’m sure more than one person around that office has told her to pipe down before.

    1. Felicia

      My coworker – slightly above me in the org chart, but not my boss – keeps doing that to me about her boss (who is sort of my boss’ boss. So same sort of situation though I’ve been here 2 months. It is super awkward because he seems fine to me and I can’t reallly contribute to the conversation. Though I wish she’d stop.

    2. Mister Pickle

      I almost missed it, but on second reading of the OP’s text:

      “My boss, who I share an office with…”

      *shudder* That’s what makes this so wretched a situation.

      1. Felicia

        i don’t share an office with my coworker who does this, but its a small company of 4 people…3 of us are together in an open room, and boss has his office.

  3. Colorado

    Good advice on being wary of the boss. How does that quote go, “when you point your finger, there are three pointing back at you”. I find that people who tend to project severe disdain where it seems questionable (in case of boss’s boss not seeming too bad) are doing it because of their own inadequacies or insecurities, in some cases. In other cases, well, some people just suck.

  4. Lizabeth

    Switzerland is a good way to put it. Better than using the ‘clue by four’ right away.

    However, the blunter side of me wants to say “Do you realize how and what you’re saying reflects on you?” and stop listening and responding when she starts to vent.

    1. Kay

      Yeah, unfortunately as the new person, I don’t think OP can afford to be quite that blunt. I totally understand the desire though. I’d have the same one in that position, but I’d bite my tongue.

    2. Lizabeth

      I have to give credit to the bro who I borrowed it from. He actually has one (wooden Louisville Slugger baseball bat) with the words “Clue by Four” on it. And he has a Don’t Panic towel as well…

    3. Adam

      Oh how I wish I could live in a world where people can just be direct with each other all the time. It would save so much time and energy.

      Unfortunately, I think this is a “Be careful what you wish for!” sort of fantasy…

  5. AMG

    if you are stuck:
    “really?”
    “huh, I never thought about it like that before”
    (offer helpful suggestion about solving the problem without addressing your boss’ opinion)
    “you sound really frustrated”
    “How can I help you?”
    “wow/oh my gosh/no kidding?”
    ‘Well, let’s get this resolved/delivered/completed then”.

    And be careful. Someone who does this to others will do it to you. You would be surprised at how people like this switch favorites and put their golden child in the dog house, or vice versa. Kepp your head down, your mouth shut, and work hard. good luck–let us know how it goes!

    1. Colorado

      I like the “you sound really frustrated”, maybe expand and say “you should really discuss this with him/her”.

      1. Dasha

        I like “you sound really frustrated” or maybe “that sounds really frustrating for you” as it is somewhat neutral.

    2. Emma the Strange

      “Someone who does this to others will do it to you.”

      This is true in so many situations. For example, if a new boyfriend/girlfriend is always talking smack about their ex(es)? Or an interviewer (or candidate) about their previous employee (or employer)? Run like the wind.

    3. ClaireS

      Not at all helpful in this situation, but when I vent to a friend (who is not a subordinate) she often responds with “so what are you going to do about it.” Sometimes it’s irritating but it’s always a super helpful way to think about it. It gets you out of “I’m just bitching” and into a space where you can problem solve.

      Admittedly, sometimes my answer is “Nothing! I just want to be angry about it” and her response is typically, “we can do that. Let’s have a drink.”

        1. Melly

          Similarly, when I’d be venting to my old boss about a work situation her go-to was “what can I do to be helpful?” I actually love that, and totally use it now for all kinds of situations.

  6. Emma the Strange

    A part of me would be tempted to tell the boss’ boss (the one being complained about) about what’s happening. Of course, that opens so many cans of venomous worms that would rain down on the OP. It’s probably wiser not to.

    1. Preludes

      I really really wouldn’t. The Kat thing a newbie wants is to be branded a snitch and not trusted by her manager, even if the ma lnanger is less than perfect.

  7. some1

    “and you definitely don’t want your listening to ever get twisted into her telling someone else that you agree with her”

    So much this. I’ve seen this happen. I’m not saying it could happen to you, but I don’t see it as outside the realm of possibility considering the lack of judgment your boss has already shown.

    1. AnonyMouse

      Yep, this is a seriously problematic possibility. OP needs to be really careful not to say anything supportive that the boss could theoretically repeat to someone else.

  8. Traveler

    Stay neutral – you may find out there is some merit to what your boss is saying once you’ve been there longer than two weeks (or you may confirm that this is some personal issue between the two). I agree that she should censor herself around you, but in her mind she might think she’s doing you a favor by warning you. It’ll take time to figure this out for yourself.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      The thing that I think makes that less likely is the way the OP described the boss’s behavior:

      “She complains and talks horribly about her boss as soon as her boss leaves the room from having a meeting or conversation with us – two or three times a week so far. My boss’ complaining will range from saying petty and belittling remarks under her breath (I am the only one there to hear it), or she will vent to me, sometimes for 10 or 15 minutes, about how incompetent her boss is.”

      That’s not the behavior of a rational person who’s assessing the situation objectively. At least based on what I’ve seen, people who have that sort of intense vitriol toward their boss and can’t stop talking about it are nearly always the problem themselves, or at least a big part of it. Rational people might rightly hate their boss, but they usually don’t spout toxicity to this extent.

      1. Colette

        Agreed – even if there is a legitimate issue with the boss’s boss, this really isn’t the way an objective person would handle that or warn an employee. An objective person would say “Sam has a ridiculous hatred of Comic Sans, so make sure you don’t use it” or “Chris goes on a tirade if anyone takes the last cup of coffee without making a new pot” or whatever – i.e. suggestions for how to navigate the situation, not bad-mouthing.

      2. Traveler

        I agree that its likely. But I’ve had at least one experience where the bitter people were right, the boss eventually revealed herself to be the “toxic nut” (thanks LBK!) that she was very good at masking early on, and while the bitterness wasn’t helping the situation by any means (and could possibly be seen as contributing, though I’m biased), I was very glad I had stayed neutral early on, and waited to see how things went for myself.

        1. Scarlett

          Yes, I’ve experienced the case where the complainers are right as well. Everyone complained about this particular executive, Jerry including my boss. I was her assistant and she would vent to me about him from time to time. I never minded, even though I didn’t find anything wrong with him. Every so often I would cover for Jerry’s assistant, and every time someone passed by they would ask me if he was being a jerk that day. And I was always confused because he was never anything but perfectly lovely with me. But then I witnessed one of his temper tantrums down the hall one day and understood where people were coming from. I have no ill feelings toward him, either way. And I had no problem lending a neutral ear to my boss when she felt slighted by him, or needed to grieve some other annoyance. I find that being positive and easy to work with are an effective antidote.

        2. Mister Pickle

          Yeah, the problem with “toxic nut” is that it can be contagious.

          This is such a sucky situation. The only thing I can think to add is: OP, don’t go out drinking with your boss, and avoid after-work social activities with them. It’s difficult enough to stay “Ireland” (they’re neutral too! :) at work; it’s *really* hard in social, let-down-your-hair situations.

          I’ve “experienced” this kind of thing where someone is griping about the boss, but to them, it’s just harmless blowing off of steam. But if you join in – suddenly it’s perceived as “OP doesn’t like so-and-so”. *sigh* there are people out there in the world who are like booby-traps.

          I wish OP the very best of luck with this. On the bright side, at least you were smart enough to recognize this as a problem.

          One last thought: is there any way you can justify moving out of the office space you share with her?

        3. Marcy

          I was in this exact situation as well and it is only because the complainers complained (to each other) that we all found out it we were all experiencing the same thing. Prior to venting to each other, we all thought we were alone and were the only ones being targeted for the bad (and illegal) behavior. No one had dared come forward to HR because we each didn’t have enough for them to do anything with. All of our stuff together did the trick and he was sent home never to return. Had we all decided to keep quiet and be neutral, we would all still be dealing with that behavior.

    2. Colette

      Even if there are issues with the boss’s boss, it’s to the OP’s advantage to stay out of this, if she can find a way to do so. (Not just stay neutral, because that can be read as agreement.) It’s a rare job where animosity towards someone above you on the org chart will help you.

      1. Traveler

        Right – which is why alienating her immediate boss, will probably also not help. To me – Alison’s advice of staying non-committal and changing the subject when possible is staying neutral. OP won’t be able to do this forever, but I’d use it as a stall tactic until I really understood the politics behind what was going on.

  9. Ted

    Ugh. Wait and watch. Do not imply the top boss is OKAY in your book. Just nod and say that must be difficult.

    Perhaps top boss is a dog or not. Regardless you report directly to her not top boss. You aren’t there as a psychologist or mediator- so just do your job. I know nothing bothers me more than when someone invalidates my feelings, so my advice is to stay sympathetic but not quotable.

  10. Kai

    When I’m in these situations, I tend to kind of play dumb and neutral. Still polite and listening, but not reacting to the drama in the way the other person is craving. That’s the key here, I think, especially for the sake of staying on good terms with your boss until you know more about how best to respond to her. She’s looking for someone to gossip and complain with, so the best response is a boring, disarming one.

  11. Not Swiss Miss

    OP, I’ve been in your exact shoes. My former boss complained about everything (her job, my job, the company)–during my interview! I should have heeded my internal warning bells, but I needed the job. Once I started, it was even worse. It’s not that her opinions were wrong, necessarily, but the way she was so contemptuous of her boss and the work itself was so unprofessional. She wanted me to join in on her whining, and I found it draining and demoralizing to try to stay neutral. Just because she was burnt out didn’t mean that the rest of us shared her views. I had to leave after a year.
    Sorry, OP, I don’t have any advice for you. You are wise to see her behavior for what it is and to try to distance yourself from it. You have my condolences.

  12. Jessie

    Our team (through granted a team of 5, not 2), recently all read the book called the No Complaining Rule. It really opened up the dialogue on the team about how to get out of the complaining habit.

    1. BadPlanning

      Looking up that book. I’ve been trying to lay off some of my work complaining and griping — it really feeds on itself! Both personally and in the group.

  13. BadPlanning

    Would it be possible for the OP to conveniently need to go the bathroom or get a drink of water just about the time the Upper Boss leaves the room? It might “train” the Boss out of immediately complaining to the OP.

    Not sure if that works out in reality — I’m thinking of something like:

    Upper Boss: Okay, so you’ll get that report to me by Monday.
    Boss: Okay
    Upper Boss turns to leave the office
    OP “happens” to shake her nearly empty water bottle: “Time for a refill”
    OP walks out of the office too.

    If the Boss will also just start randomly complaining about the Upper Boss, then the above probably isn’t that helpful.

    1. T

      I was just thinking the same thing. OP, even if you can’t do this every time (because that might be too obvious), you could at least reduce the amount of time you have to listen to the complaints. I don’t think you’d lose any productivity, assuming you can’t get any real work done during complaining time anyway, and at least you would feel a lot less tense.

      As some of the commenters have suggested, you can’t tell at this point how your manager will respond if you try to be more assertive, but I wonder if there is some way feel that out. For instance, if you say, “that sounds really stressful. Have you tried talking to her about it,” you would probably get a good idea from your boss’s reaction. If she reacts negatively or always makes the same complaints, that’s probably a good indication that the problem is all your boss and not her boss and that you should keep well out of it.

    2. AnonyMouse

      This is a good suggestion. It definitely wouldn’t resolve the situation completely, but it’s worth a shot since this situation is so tricky.

    3. hildi

      I like this idea. You could feel your boss out at least to see how badly she wants to keep venting. The conversation might die before it ever got started and she’ll find someone else to spew to. Or she’ll follow you and then you might have a better feel for how deeply entrenched you are as a bystander.

      Plus, I bet if you thought hard enough, you could come up with a handful of plausible reasons to stand up and exit an impending conversation. Water refill, pick up something from the printer; make a copy; bathroom break; mailroom delivery; forgot something in your car; need to visit with coworker, etc. If you cycle through several of those it might not look quite as obvious as T says below.

      1. OhNo

        The only problem I see with this is that OP might start getting the reputation for being forgetful. Especially if many of their excuses are along the lines of “Oh, I just remembered, I need to _____!”

        So, OP, if you use this approach, make sure you have a lot of possible options on hand that aren’t something you “forgot” to do. Refilling a water bottle, bathroom break, pen ran out of ink, need some more paper for notes, need a tissue, have to take medication (or aspirin, or need to eat because of low blood sugar) – all of these are options that seem legit and won’t make you look absentminded.

        And definitely make sure you don’t so it every time. It might be annoying to sit through, but if you disappear immediately after every meeting with the big boss, your manager is guaranteed to notice eventually.

        1. Rose

          The suggestion was to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. Those aren’t really signs of forgetfulness.

          1. OhNo

            To quote hildi’s suggestions: “pick up something from the printer; make a copy… mailroom delivery; forgot something in your car; need to visit with coworker, etc”

            Those all sound like forgetfulness to me.

            1. amaranth16

              “Forgot something in your car” is the only thing that sounds like forgetfulness to me. The other things all sound like things I routinely have to do throughout my day. The boss’s complaining shouldn’t be subverting the employee’s regular duties.

      2. FX-ensis

        I’d say it reflects badly on the manager.

        Also, all conflicts have different sides. Who says her side is the most or definitively accurate one? I reckon it’s not good form for a manager to complain about his or her superior to a subordinate.

  14. Henrietta Gondorf

    Relationships (personal and professional) can survive a lot of things, but not contempt. If your boss is already at this point, it seems like the situation is likely to improve.

  15. AnonyMouse

    Wow, this is a seriously problematic situation! I think you (OP) do have to worry about the possibility that your polite reactions could be interpreted as agreement and repeated to someone else, even if you don’t mean it that way. If you think it’s at all feasible given your relationship with your boss, maybe you could try saying something like “It seems like you and Skyler have a really frustrating relationship. I totally understand wanting to talk about it, but I have a thing about trying to stay out of other people’s conflicts at work. It’s nothing personal, just in the past, I’ve found it tended to make things more complicated.” If your boss is at all reasonable, hopefully hearing you express polite discomfort like that will snap her back to reality. But unfortunately, if she’s acting like this she might well not be reasonable…in which case, you probably can’t pull this off.

  16. A Jane

    Try to stay away from the drama as much as possible. I realized I stopped being as effective at my job once I started to be involved with the office politics. And once I was bogged down with the drama, I knew it was a sign that I should have started job searching awhile ago

  17. Sunny

    Ugh! My supervisor does this all the time with other people in the office, even going so far as to forward emails from them to tell me how awful they are. The thing is, I agree with the other people and showing these to me makes her look immature and disrespectful.

  18. Callie30

    I’ve had this happen in my workplace – One of my co-workers would complain about our boss. This co-worker is technically above me in rank, but I’ve been here for over 6 years.

    I told my boss what was going on and she said to nip it in the bud, right away. Even silence indicates to them that you agree, even if that’s not what you’re thinking. So, for those above that say to stay polite and silent – I don’t think that’s a good idea! You may inadvertently signal to the complainer that you agree with them, even if you don’t.

    I like Alison’s Switzerland response – it’s perfect, professional, and tactful.

  19. FX-ensis

    hehe…

    I find this comical since I’ve had the same thing….

    I worked very closely with a manager like this. He and our department’s top manager didn’t get on, and practically every day in our regular briefings, he would say “xyz is a dope”, “xyz cannot make decisions properly”, “xyz cannot talk much in meetings”, “xyz doesn’t even know his own staff”, etc.

    I think it shows a bad and frankly unprofessional manager. venting is fine, but not badmouthing a superior to a subordinate.

    I’d just take time to nod, hear him or her out, and think in my mind at the same time say “idiot…you’re a grown person, learn some social skills!”

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