can I request that I not be alone with my boss?

A reader writes:

I don’t like, respect, or trust my boss. I am currently on FMLA due to my mental illness, which was greatly exacerbated by his behavior and some serious stress at work. I will have to go back in a few weeks and just the thought of going back gives me feelings of panic.

In a nutshell, this man is gaslighting me. He’s left me out of meetings directly related to projects I’ve been assigned to, and when I’ve confronted him about it, he talked down to me and told me that these were merely oversights and that I was taking things too personally. He lies often and when I or anyone else calls him out on his lies, he finds subtle ways to retaliate, such as giving us small perks, only to quickly take them away. He’s taken me off time-sensitive projects so I could help him with his pet projects, then complained that I was having a hard time meeting my deadlines while calling into question my talent and abilities. I’m not the only one he does this to.

Unfortunately, I must stay at this job for a while longer, and I am terrified of how he’s going to treat me when I return, especially since I had to leave during a busy period at work. My boss acts differently towards me when we are around others, as opposed to when it’s just the two of us. I want to ask HR to step in and not allow him to ever speak to me alone. I feel very uncomfortable and vulnerable in those situations and I think not having to deal with him alone would make my being back at work a little bit easier to deal with. Is this an unreasonable request? Is there anything else can I do to make my time at this job tolerable?

I don’t think you can ask to always have a third party in your meetings with your manager, no. I mean, you can ask, but it’s highly likely to be seen as unreasonable and to cause further tension in the relationship. You might not care at this point if there’s further tension since things seem pretty bad already, but asking for something that most people will find unreasonable risks losing you people who might otherwise be allies (such as HR or other coworkers). And you want to have allies here, because those are people who will be able to give you reality checks (whether by confirming that yes, your boss is being ridiculous or that no, in this other case what he’s saying isn’t unreasonable), be a reference for you, or otherwise just generally have your back. If you ask for something that most people will find an over-reach, you risk losing that support.

The reason it’s an over-reach is that your manager needs to be able to have the ability to talk to you freely and spontaneously — to give feedback, to debrief projects, to delegate work, to check in on how work is progressing, and to hash through problems. Requiring a third party to be present for all of that is likely to be a logistical pain — but more importantly, it’s so outside the realm of how manager/employee relationships generally work that requesting it is likely to be seen as an overtly hostile or adversarial move (even though you don’t intend it that way).

Instead, I think your best bet is to accept that he’s going to do all the things you described. He’s going to leave you out of meetings and deny that it’s a big deal, lie and retaliate if called out on it, and scold you for not meeting deadlines after he’s messed with your workload. If you’re expecting this stuff to happen, it might be easier to deal with — in that you at least won’t be having the rug constantly pulled out from under you because you know this is how he operates and you can plan for it. (And for what it’s worth, it’s possible that he’s not doing any of this with particularly ill intent — he could just be a bad manager. That doesn’t make it okay, but it might be helpful to see him as incompetent rather than malicious.)

And of course, make sure you’re actively job searching so you can minimize the amount of time you need to continue the relationship.

{ 236 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    Yeah, I’ve got to agree with Alison on this. Unless he’s abusive or harassing you, it’s not appropriate to request a third party be in the room when you two talk.

    I also concur with the recommendation that you try to view things through the lens of him being a bad manager, vs these things being targeted at you. It can be really easy when a relationship has gone bad to assume that it’s targeted specifically against you, but often it’s more an issue of sheer incompetence than malice.

    I think the best thing you can do right now is try to get another job.

    1. OhNo*

      Well, gaslighting and some of the other things that the LW mentioned may be signs of emotional/psychological abuse, but unfortunately that’s tough to prove even in the best of circumstances. Sadly, in a work environment, I would say unless someone is actively and obviously bullying/harassing you, it’s probably not going to go over well to even ask.

      It might help to keep some kind of journal or something of the interactions with the boss, just as a personal did-that-really-happen, am-i-just-exaggerating self-check. Or if there are any coworkers who are very sympathetic and understanding, you could ask them to hang around unobtrusively when the boss comes to talk – not in any official capacity, but just as a way to get an outside perspective on the interactions. I’m not sure how you would ask them to do that, but others may have suggestions.

      1. Raine*

        OP explicitly said OP is not the only person the manager does this to (referring to a long list of behaviors). It’s possible the OP is being gaslighted in one or more ways. It’s almost a certainty, though, that this is an across the board bad manager.

        1. Anonhippopotamus*

          The fact that the manager does this to other people doesn’t exclude that he is psychological harrassing her and others, she had to go on leave due to deterioration in her mental health for cripes sake. She should be suing.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            There’s no law being broken here that we know of; it’s not illegal for a boss to be a jerk and a horrible person. There’s nothing to sue over.

            1. LV*

              Abuse and harassment are illegal. Whether it’s provable or not is another story; but it is illegal.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                In the U.S., that’s only true in a workplace context if it’s based on race, sex, religion, disability, or another protected characteristic. None of that appears to be in play here.

    2. Anonhippopotamus*

      I don’t normally comment on this site, but it definitely sounds like her boss is psychological abusing and manipulating the LW. Obviously we don’t know the whole story, but my advice to the LW is to document everything, and if you notice a pattern, take it either to HR or the Labour Department (or whatever regulatory body you have in your state – sorry, I’m not American so I don’t know how this works).

      This is the first time I think that Allison has given terrible advice, which is that you’re probably deluded (YOU ARE NOT) and to ignore the problem – which has affected your mental health, and it not going to disappear on it’s own.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Wait, no, I’m not saying the OP is deluded! Good god, which part of my answer is reading that way? (Because I really don’t want it to read like that.)

        Nor am I saying to ignore the problem. But the only solution is to get a new job.

        What the boss is doing is not illegal in the U.S.; there’s nothing to report to the Labor Dept.

      2. Katie the Fed*

        when I refer to abuse and harassment though, I mean physical abuse or threats of physical abuse, or sexual harassment or hostile environment due to being in a protected class. Those are the only circumstances that his behavior crosses a legal line. I’m not saying it’s ok for him to be doing it – it’s not. But she’s not being held there against her will – she can and should leave if she can’t figure out a way to cope with it. That’s the reality of the situation. He’s a jerk and he’s terrible – but she has a choice here.

      3. Pennalynn Lott*

        Where?? How?? Wha–?? How on earth did you come up with “Alison is saying that you’re probably deluded”???

        I got the distinct impression that Alison wasn’t questioning the OP’s take on the situation whatsoever. In fact, she specifically says, “Instead, I think your best bet is to accept that he’s going to do all the things you described.” She is in no way saying the OP is deluded (?!?), she is saying the OP needs to accept the reality that (A) her boss is a jerk and isn’t going to change, and (B) it’s not normal to always request a 3rd party be present with any interation with your manager; therefore the OP needs to make decisions based on that reality.

  2. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I don’t understand the connection between wanting a third party present and the bigger picture.  I get that your boss acts differently when others are around, but being alone vs. not being alone doesn’t change any of the bigger, nastier behaviors that are clearly exacerbating your mental health and work environment.  

    You say that a third party present would make things a “bit easier,” but it sounds like that strategy would be more of a drop in the ocean given everything you’ve stated here.

    I’ve been in an identical situation, but I never thought to ask for this because a) it was unrealistic for the reasons AAM stated and b) I knew my bullying boss would never comply.  After all, people like this aren’t known for responding to external boundaries or limits so why should your request be any different?

    Your best bet is to follow the advice in the last two paragraphs.  If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest reading, “The Bully at Work.”  It explains more than it helps, but those explanations shed a lot of light on how I looked at my ex-boss.  I definitely shrugged off more of her crappy behavior after reading that book.

    1. some1*

      You hit on exactly what was putting me off about the suggestion of having a third party present – 1) it’s not going to solve the actual issue, 2) if your boss wants to mistreat you there are still ways he can do this, and 3) going to make the LW look like the unreasonable one. It’s like demanding all of your significant other’s passwords so they can’t cheat on you

    2. Erin*

      I have to say I get it. It fits into the big picture of her tolerating her work environment for as long as she has to because that would be a huge weight lifted and could probably help with her overall demeanor and attitude at work. Remember, he acts differently when alone with her. That said, Alison’s answer makes complete sense.

      My suggestion: Try to frame some of these situations to use as conversation pieces during a job interview when you’re asked things like, “Tell me about a time when you didn’t agree with your manager” or “What do you look for in a good manager?”

      When I was having a dispute with a coworker at an old job (when I was interviewing to leave) I literally typed up the whole situation and how I resolved it to have in my head to potentially use at a job interview. I reframed it in my head as, This is a good thing, I am learning valuable skills about dealing with people, and I can literally use this as an opportunity to get a better job…

      1. Cassie*

        I’ve been telling my friend to use her position as a training experience in learning to deal with difficult people. Because everywhere you go, you’re going to run into people like that. It’s a relatively new title for her and she doesn’t want to be seen as a job hopper – she’s willing to stick it out for a little while longer (nothing abusive in her workplace, she just doesn’t like the way the management operates).

        It reminds me of a professor who decided to treat her assistant professor years as a post-doc training program, rather than worry (like other assistant professors) about getting tenure. Scientific American has a blog post about the professor (look for “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life”).

        There are things you can change and things that you can’t. My friend can’t change each person on the management team, nor can she change the way they operate. The only thing she can do it change the way she reacts to them.

    3. Ruthie*

      Once I started thinking about what was motivating my office bullies, I felt so much better about my job. I realized, for instance, that their aggressive socializing in the office (which I was not included in) probably came from a place of them needing a social outlet that didn’t exist outside of the workplace. Being left out of a happy hour felt a lot different once I started to feel sorry for them.

  3. Retail HR Guy*

    OP, if you are truly unable to speak with your boss alone due to medical reasons, then you are not ready to be back to work. Working with your boss is going to be considered an essential function of almost any job, and it is not reasonable to have HR sit in on every conversation. I would recommend that you extend your medical leave under FMLA or ADA until you are able to perform all of your essential job duties.

      1. Retail HR Guy*

        Barring undue hardship, ADA leave kicks in at the end of FMLA. And if OP is truly not medically ready to return to work, the financials of the situation really don’t matter. If you can’t communicate with your boss you can’t do your job, no matter what your pocketbook says.

          1. an anon*

            And depending on the individual circumstances, allowing the employee further time off may or may not be a “reasonable accommodation” in this circumstance. Continued unpaid leave CAN be a reasonable accommodation, but it’s not guaranteed by any means.

  4. LQ*

    This sounds like a very difficult situation. One seemingly weird thing I’d recommend is take off your work uniform (whatever clothes they are – and if possible try to not wear them to Not Work life) as soon as you get home. I had a job that was horrible (and gross so that is why I started doing it) and I’d get home and strip down in the entry and put on a robe and toss the clothes in the wash and go take a shower (and for me play an audiobook, but music, whatever). It would totally shift my headspace when I got home and helped a lot. Dwelling on it made it a lot worse but just sort of shuffling it aside and focusing on the rest of my life helped. (This would be much less effective if there was a lot of working from home or extra hours required.)

    1. The Strand*

      This is a great idea. Changing from work clothes is the 2nd thing I do after greeting my pets and spouse at the front door.

      Sometimes I say something to myself, when I take off my badge in my car. (I always leave it in my car, too, so that I’m always “off duty” in my own home.) Along the lines of, “OK, the badge is off. Now I’m on my time.” I don’t know if saying something would help make that shift in your mind.

      1. Athena C*

        I do that, too! The minute I’m in my car, the badge is off. It helps so much when I’m shopping or something.

    2. Loose Seal*

      Love this. And if OP can start mentally separating while on the commute home, they may can arrive at home at least partially refreshed and free to focus on home life.

    3. Elizabeth West*

      + a million

      I had to do this after Exjob went downhill. I couldn’t stand the stress anymore and it drove me into counselling. My supervisor recommended someone she had gone to for the same reason!

      The most helpful thing was learning to stop thinking about work when I wasn’t at work. Stop talking about it, don’t think about it, don’t wear the clothes I wear at work, keep everything separate. I still do that. I was then and am now hourly, not exempt, and not on call, so it’s easy to shut it off when I leave the actual building.

      And another thing I did was use the drive home (a longer one now) as my transition time. I would go, “By the time I get to Walmart at the absolute furthest (farthest?), I will be going forward and not back.”

      1. LQ*

        I’m so glad other people agree, sometimes I say this and people think it is silly. But the get home and change into home clothes? I swear I almost never think about work at home.
        (This is absolutely harder if your job is a 24/7 kind of job, but if you are hourly? Cannot recommend enough.)

        1. Snork Maiden*

          This also works (for me) as a going-to-sleep tactic. “Ok, the pyjamas are on, we’re not going to think about work or tomorrow or anything stressful because there’s nothing you can do about it right now.” I believe the phrase is “Cast off your cares when you cast off your clothes”, although…that could be interpreted a number of ways.

    4. hayling*

      I know a guy who wears a fun graphic tee under his button-down. As soon as he leaves the building at the end of the day, he takes off the button-down, so he has the mental change from “at work” to “not at work.” Not practical for everyone, but a good strategy.

      1. Chinook*

        “I know a guy who wears a fun graphic tee under his button-down. ”

        Hayling, you don’t happen to know a Clark Kent, do you?

  5. AndersonDarling*

    I worked for That Guy. I also dreaded being alone with him. In my case, I had diagnosed PTSD caused by my aggressive/abusive boss. HR didn’t step in when I asked for help and I eventually walked off the job.
    The best things that worked for me were making allies with other abused co-workers, and focusing on my work. Is it possible to report to someone else in your hierarchy? Report to your manager’s boss, or to another manager in your department?
    I always tout this advice-> if your manager is being really awful, you can walk away. Excuse yourself, suggest you continue the conversation at a later time, and leave the room. It’s empowering!

    1. Case of the Mondays*

      If it is documented caused by the boss you may be able to get worker’s comp too which will cover a portion of your lost wages until you can get back to work. But “mental mental” cases are really hard to prove. (Mental injury caused by mental action.)

      1. AndersonDarling*

        I was able to win unemployment because the workplace was the cause of the illness. I got a whole $58 before I found a new job, but it was worth the battle. And I eventually got an employment attorney who was able successfully fight for me. But the whole situation caused a lot of damage that took a few years at a good workplace with great managers to undo the bad perspective.

        1. Jill*

          This was where my head kind of went. Of course, it’s none of our business the details of OP’s mental health issues, but I wondered how much the boss knows (You have disclose more details if it’s an FMLA leave) and is purposely acting this way just to mess with OP’s head. I mean, it’s demented, but bullying comes in all forms….I can see someone playing head games with someone in a vulnerable position, just for their own twisted sense of fun.

  6. Observer*

    In addition to Allison’s advice, document your head off. It will make it harder for him to gaslight you, help you get a better reality check, and provide some defense if other people get pulled in.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      I don’t really understand this. Documenting makes sense if you’re going to pursue a legal case, but it doesn’t sound like the boss is doing anything illegal here. He’s being a jerk, yes. But that’s not illegal. And presenting him with documentation saying “but you said on April 22 that you would do X, and now you’re saying Y” isn’t going to make anything better with him. He’ll just say he changed his mind, or whatever.

      1. Loose Seal*

        I think it’s meant to be an aid for the OP’s memory not for an HR intervention later. However, I would be afraid that writing it all down will give the crappy boss’s actions and words more weight than they might have otherwise. Sometimes, just being able to mentally say “whatever” and let it go when the boss is nit-picking can be more helpful than flipping through copious notes trying to find where you wrote down what was originally said.

        1. NYC Weez*

          I dealt with a boss that was bullying and gaslighting me, and I tried to log all of his malicious digs to me. The problem was that he always worded his insults in a way where the words themselves were innocuous but the tone was dripping with venom. I looked back over the log and realized that if I tried to share it with HR, I would look like I was the one with a problem.

          Luckily for me, this jerk was disliked by some key stakeholders, so he was removed from people management. I still have to interact with him and he’s still an ass, but he has no power over me. But I was close to leaving the job bc of him before that happened.

      2. Miss Betty*

        It helps you remind yourself that you’re not crazy, you’re not imagining things, you’re not delusional, you’re not making stuff up. When you have a boss like this, it can make you doubt your own mind and question your own eyes and ears. There might not be any legal recourse because, as you say, being an abusive, bully manager is legal, but it really, really helps with your own self-confidence and mental health. The OP isn’t just describing a “bad manager,” she’s describing an abusive bully. Gaslighting is abusive and it’s particularly nasty and insidious. I’ve had a manager like this. I hope I never have one again. Absolutely write things down. (My bully manager lied to my face about, of all things, how I wore my hair. There was nothing I could do about it, but at least I could look through my notebook and reassure myself that she was a lying, manipulative bully and I had no need to doubt my own mind. And how pathetic is it that I had to keep track of what I wore and how I wore my hair each day! But those were two issues – among too many too count – that she lied about, and not just about me. Those were two of the smallest, actually.)

      3. OhNo*

        I don’t know if the intention is the same, but documenting is something that I’ve seen suggested for victims of emotional/psychological abuse as a way to get and keep perspective on some of the more subtle things that happen. It’s less to have something that will stand up in court, and more to have something to refer back to for yourself, when you find yourself wondering, “Boss said I expressed excitement about this terrible project when he first brought it up and that I volunteered for it. I don’t think I did, but he just kept saying it, and now I’m not sure.”

        If you were documenting, you could answer that easily by saying to yourself, “Okay, let me check my notes and see how I actually felt about it at the time.”

          1. Anonymousse*

            Yes, this. Although I’ve had some terrible work environments, the situation that this reminds me of most is during my two divorces. When I divorced my first, emotionally abusive husband, I would make notes of every awful thing he said or did, including transcribing obscene, nasty voicemail messages (and also saving them to a tape, this was a while ago). It helped me stop trying to mentally hang onto all that awful stuff for fear I’d forget some important “evidence.” Once I wrote it down, I could forget it. I also felt comforted that if I had to go to court, I did have a record of it all, and I was sure he wouldn’t. I never had to present any of that, but I felt more empowered anyway and it was worth the effort.

            And later I married a lovely man who turned out to be very mentally ill (out of the frying pan and into the fire), and I kept extensive journals because my life was so stressful and I needed to vent someplace private. Many was the time that he would forget an entire conversation or deny that we’d agreed on something or otherwise challenged my perception of reality, and it was extremely reassuring to look at my journal and know that yes indeed, we talked and wept for an hour about Painful Topic X yesterday at his insistence, even if he says he has no memory of it today. (That was an actual thing that happened…life was so chaotic with him.) Those journal entries, which I made in password-protected Word files, were priceless during a terrible time.

            I highly recommend documenting for all these reasons and wish the OP the best.

            1. Anon For This Comment*

              This is my life now. My partner has ADHD and has a very selective memory. I used to keep a journal just so I could go back and say, “Actually, that *did* happen. You were wearing X, sitting in Y position on the couch. I said Z and you replied with D.” Most of the time he’d say, “Ohhhh, yeah, I remember that,” but in a tone of voice that suggested I was a harpy for having ever questioned his recollection of events in the first place.

              Then I gave up on the journal because it was Too Damned Much Work and now I pretty much just say, “Yep. Uh-huh. Whatever,” because that’s so much easier and tends to end up with the same results anyway.

              1. MarinaZ*

                If my partner felt the need to document my everyday actions, I would be gone so fast.

                1. hbc*

                  If you had a bad memory and denied events occurred just because you couldn’t remember them, you’d be lucky that your partner had stuck around long enough for you to leave.

                2. Katie F*

                  I don’t know, in this situation I think my response would be to seek therapy or a doctor’s assistance at getting a clearly unmanaged disorder under control.

                  My husband has ADD that is moderate to severe depending on his stress level, and there are things I just let go, but there are Big Important Things that I simply can’t let go. And if my husband was replying by simply not remembering Big Important Conversations (agreeing to, say, pick up our toddler from daycare but then forgetting to do so) then I would definitely start keeping notes to help jog his memory. And I know if it got to that point that he would agree to see a doctor, because at that point he’s not functional.

              2. NoFightLeft*

                I’m sorry, Anon For This, it sounds like your partner is being deeply unkind. ADHD and a crappy memory is one thing (I have that, BOY do I ever), insisting on playing the “pretend I didn’t hurt you or say That Mean/Dumb Thing because “I don’t remember that” and go back to playing happy families again, and if you bring it up, you’re the bad guy victimizing meeee” game is quite another. If it’s minor stuff like him forgetting to get groceries or pick up dry cleaning, I could understand his defensiveness, but he maybe should be looking at if this is part of a larger pattern and if it is, maybe looking to change it if he wants to be a good partner for you. If it’s him saying unkind/untrue things, or switching tacks on you and pretending he never said X, he said Y, when you clearly remember him saying X…that’s not ADHD, that’s an abuser’s trick.

                A boss doing that in the workplace is unacceptable, but at least you can get away from a bad boss, even if only when you clock out. A partnership should be a refuge and a rock to you, not a high court trial with you as the defendant every time he wants to pretend he’s the good guy and you’re the mean harpy.
                A recovering I Don’t Remember Saying That partner who trusts the partner with the better memory not to be cruel or lie to her, and who’s learned to take responsibility for her words and actions even if she doesn’t remember them that clearly. [/end Captain Awkward thread comment]

      4. Kyrielle*

        The one advantage I can see is “it will make it harder for him to gaslight you”. I wouldn’t email it, but I might make notes of it in a journal.

        Not to show anyone else. Not to use against him. But to revisit when he’s just said he never said X and go “nope, he did, I wrote it down…okay. Whatever’s going on here, it’s not *my mind* that is the issue.”

      5. LQ*

        I did this for a relationship once and 95% of it was, wait did I say that? No I’m sure that’s not how it happened. Did that happen? I think…I don’t know…Being able to go back and check really helped me to realize that this thing happened, it wasn’t an exaggeration, or a misunderstanding, or my fault. If I’d been able to I would have been able to show them to a trusted friend and say, “is this normal?” because a big part of gaslighting is that the goal is to make you not trust your own judgement. It has been years and I’m still constantly questioning my own judgement. Having documentation that is for your own brain only can be a great thing for people who are experiencing this.

        (I also think there is value in recognizing the many ways the brain and memory actually functions and that has been helpful, but to set a lot of that aside, and to see that the other person might have the super human ability to actually twist their memory so it DID happen the way they say in their memory. They can be wrong and having the documentation to back that up can be helpful, but they can also be absolutely, completely convinced even in the face of documentation. It is only for you.)

        1. LQ*

          *When I say having the documentation to back you up here I don’t mean share it, I mean know that you aren’t loosing your mind and that it really did happen that way. I’m also going to say from personal experience? There is zero benefit and a WHOLE LOT of pain to gain from sharing this with someone who is an abuser. Don’t do it. This is just for you.

      6. Observer*

        If the supervisor wants to penalize her or HR wants to put her on a PIP, documentation becomes very important.

        EG HR puts “attend meetings” or “respond in a timely fashion to issues on your projects” At that point, if the OP says “but I was not told about the meeting or problem” it’s her word against the manager. On the other hand, if she has a sheaf of emails “reminding” him to make sure she gets meeting invites, and asking him why she wasn’t invited to meeting x, y and z (where problem a, b and c were discussed) HR will generally have to take a step back.

        Of course, if the organization is dysfunctional enough, it won’t matter. But, if there is any sort of process, then it will help. Also, if she winds up losing her job, and she wants to collect unemployment, this kind of documentation will make impossible to argue that she was fired for cause. Yes, you can legally fire someone for any reason outside of protected class or activity, but in such cases a person is eligible for unemployment.

        1. Troutwaxer*

          Keep in mind that you can have your cake and eat it too by emailing your boss after each interaction. “Hi Boss, I just wanted to follow up to our conversation earlier today. As per your instructions I will make helping Bill finish the Pretty Pink Teapot project my first priority, with my second priority being the Annual Teapot Handle Technology Report. When I can’t work on those projects for some reason, I’ll work on the Self-Steeping Teapot. If those priorties change, please let me know.”

          It keeps a record for you, a record for H.R., and lets your boss know that you’ve got a paper-trail on him, and it doesn’t seem like you’re tracking him in a hostile fashion.

          1. NYC Weez*

            My gaslighting boss said to me “You’re too busy. I don’t want you wasting time sending out notes” when I tried to suggest that it might be helpful if I sent back a summary of our convos. He never allowed anything in writing and would only respond verbally to me. It was just one of the many ways he made it near impossible to prove his shortcomings. Thankfully my next boss saw right through him, and recognized that he was a bully.

            1. L N*

              The OP doesn’t need to ask permission to do this, though. Just do it. If he ignores them, that’s fine. You still have a record that you TRIED to confirm things in writing. If he responds verbally changing things, then document that in a summary too. If he insists you stop to the point of threatening retaliation, then he will have to find a way to convince HR that this is not reasonable behavior, which would basically require him claiming that you’ve never had communication issues, deadline problems, or confusions of any kind – that you just started emailing him out of the blue with this stuff. Otherwise it’s a very normal, even helpful thing to do.

              Gsslighters are very good at making you think they’ll successfully win any conflict that a third party is brought into. While he is in a position of power, he is still bound to the same standards of reasonable behavior as the rest of us. If OP was considering asking HR not to allow him to meet with her alone, it doesn’t sound like they are in his pocket. If they can be trusted to be objective in this situation, documentation is a great way for the OP to demonstrate what is going on. Just my two cents.

          2. Troutwaxer*

            Sorry, I neglected to add one important thing. Print out the emails you send and anything your boss sends you in reply (or anything else that seems germane) and save them at home in case you need them for unemployment or a lawyer.

          3. L N*

            I agree with this – and ask the others to do it too. This is totally reasonable behavior, and it will take some serious twisting to make EVERYONE he is gaslighting look bad for doing this. No reasonable HR rep will believe him if he claims a bunch of his employees spontaneously started emailing him fake documentation of conversations that never happened.

      7. Anonhippopotamus*

        Psychological harassment is illegal, at least in [my country which isn’t ‘merica] – look it up.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But it’s not illegal in the U.S., and the OP is American (based on her mention of FMLA). I’d love to know what country you’re in though, because I find the difference in laws like this really interesting!

              1. Katie the Fed*

                well, I’m not. But also not a canadian lawyer :) Or cameroonian. Or Cambodian.

            1. Talvi*

              It looks like it’s just Quebec that has any actual legislation on this in Canada, though :(

    2. azvlr*

      I came here to say the same thing. I understand not wanting to agonize over things as Katie the Fed and Loose Seal mentioned, but documenting can be a great sanity check. I would send an email saying something like “This is my understanding of my assignment. I want to confirm this is what I am supposed to be working on.”

  7. Ell like L*

    I’ve been in a situation with a horrible, verbally abusive and retaliatory boss. Like you, I couldn’t leave right away either. I think you should do the following things

    1) As some others suggested, write everything down. It’s cathartic in the moment, can provide a reality check later, and provide documentation if you ever need it.

    2) Try your hardest to see all these things as funny. Don’t laugh in his face, obviously, but if you can view some of this as “wow this guy is a super incompetent manager. It’s hilarious how awful he is, this is going to make a great story in ten years” then I think it’ll be easier to handle. When my old boss would scream at me, I would try to think “lol I can’t believe a grown up is raising his voice at another grown up” and it really did help.

    1. CeeCee*

      My current boss isn’t typically malicious, but he’s never managed people before and it shows. (He was a sole proprietor for 15+ years.) He’s completely clueless, to the point of incredibly frustrating, and doesn’t always deal with situations well. He’s very condescending and rude and he raises his voice a lot, although over time I’ve realized that (while still not okay) it’s because he has become frustrated with the whatever situation he’s not sure how to handle and isn’t handling his own emotions well.

      And this tactic is the one I use. I certainly don’t say anything to his face, but I say to myself (and usually my SO in the evenings) “Oh my goodness, look at this ridiculousness that’s going on today.”

    2. Alli525*

      Absolutely agreed on both points. Building on #1 – OP, this might not help to improve your boss’ behavior, but I’d like to suggest getting as much as possible from your conversations with him documented in an email. Like, maybe this is just a daily recap email that you can start doing under the pretense of making sure you stay on top of things and accountable to him, but you should get granular – “We discussed moving me off of Task X to assist you with Job Z;” “Met with Coworker C to get notes on the Task X meeting from Monday” … you get the idea. It shows your workflow as well as creates a paper trail in case you ever need it someday.

      1. Alli525*

        PS: NOTHING will improve your boss’ behavior, probably, and hopefully he can’t get much worse, so this is a CYA measure.

  8. IT_Guy*

    I’ve worked for people like this. You are not alone!

    The best solution is to document, document, document. Get everything in email so there can be doubt as to what is said. Another thing you can do is to repeat back in an email what he says in person, so that it is written down, however doing this will get tedious and may tick off your boss.

    1. LabTech*

      When I was in a similar situation, written instructions proved ineffective. My former boss refused to look at the email he sent which had instructions contrary to what he was claiming he told me. When he wrote the instructions by hand and I pointed to the line explicitly telling me to do what he was claimed I shouldn’t have done, he questioned whether or not it was his handwriting.

      It might give you more peace of mind by showing just how ridiculous your boss is, but that’s not much help when it doesn’t modify their abusive behavior.

      1. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

        Oh my goodness – I had a similar boss. I sent an email asking for clarification on a due date and attached four different emails (written by him) each with different due dates for this report he wanted on a regular basis. I came into his office as he was reading them. It was like his brain froze, spazzed like a computer with too many programs running. Then he exploded in anger and called me lazy and “easily confused”, and made no reference to the conflicting due dates, nor confirmed which date he wanted the stupid reports on. However, it was the turning point where I realized that man was the problem. Not me.

    2. John*

      I don’t really see where you go with documenting it. It’s going to be a tough case to make. Energy is best focused on getting out of there.

      1. Observer*

        That’s really true. But in the interim, there are four considerations:

        1. It’s harder to gaslight someone who has their own record of what happened. This is really, really important, since the the whole issue is already affecting the OPs mental health.

        2. Dealing with HR. Documentation may (or may not – depends on how dysfunctional the place is) make it easier to get some help with the situation or provide some protection from other adverse actions by the company.

        3. If the OP gets fired or has to quit over this, this kind of documentation can be very useful. It’s not illegal to make someone so miserable that they quit. But, if it’s bad enough it’s considered “constructive dismissal” and makes the person eligible for unemployment benefits.

        4. References. Others who see what is going on but can’t help on this job will at least understand that she’s not the problem her boss makes her out to be, and are therefore more likely to speak positively about her in reference checks.

        1. AK*

          Re #3: IANAL, but a part of my job for a few years involved reading and documenting unemployment cases in my state. Many cases were decided in favor of the employer because the employee had no proof as to what was going on, and employers tend to seem more credible when it comes down to “he said, she said.” Cases involving “constructive discharge” (i.e.”The place was so awful, any reasonable person would have quit!”) are especially hard. Documenting everything could be helpful if you are involved in a contested unemployment claim, especially if you manage to catch the employer lying. Judges really don’t seem to like that.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Just because I don’t want people to inadvertently think “awful manager” = “constructive dismissal — it has to be pretty bad to be considered constructive dismissal, and also pretty black and white, like not giving you any time off or constant and severe verbal abuse. I wouldn’t expect the behaviors the OP has described to qualify.

          1. LQ*

            (Yeah, in some states* this person wouldn’t qualify for unemployment benefits if they quit based on what they said here, it may be different based on specifics, but this would be a denial in at least one state I can think of.)

          2. Katie the Fed*

            Yeah. I feel like I’m also being really contrary on this thread but what OP describes doesn’t seem so severe to meet the test of her having no choice but to leave. It sounds like the behavior of a bad boss. And I know that’s easy to say because I’m not living it, but I’ve worked for plenty of jerks who made me feel like I was losing my mind, and it’s terrible. But I don’t think this meets the standard of abusive behavior.

            1. fposte*

              Yeah, I think so too. I also think it’s not something most decent HR departments are going to spend time solving; it’s really not their remit to make sure the manager made consistent statements.

            2. LabTech*

              I don’t think this meets the standard of abusive behavior.

              That’s not your call to make.

          3. Observer*

            Base on what I have seen, in New York, it could very well work. So, as usual, your mileage may vary.

  9. KimberlyR*

    I think having a lot of stuff between you in writing (emails, work IM, whatever you can use) can help make you feel a little secure. If you are told in email to stop working on Project X and do Project Y instead, then you get reamed for not meeting Project X’s deadline, you have documentation to show why. You can even bring it up in a confused way: “Oh Wakeen, I’m sorry. I have this email from you telling me to focus on Project Y and not Project X.” Even if you don’t get the original information in writing (like your boss calls you into his office or stops by your desk to verbally tell you to work on Project Y instead of X), you can use email. You can email and say “Wakeen, per our earlier conversation, I’m shelving my work on Project X-this is where I am at the moment-and starting to work on Project Y.” He can still deny deny deny but you have proof. And if a performance review or something comes up that states that you haven’t met project deadlines or have not done whatever work satisfactorily, you will have your written communications to back you up.

    1. KimberlyR*

      And he may very well get mad or annoyed at you for doing this, but just tell him you prefer to have important details in email so you can keep a list of daily tasks or whatever. I wouldn’t do this with a good boss but for someone who is going to lie and gaslight you, who cares if he gets mad? He’s already doing what he can to sabotage you. At least you’re covering yourself as much as you can.

    2. Graciosa*

      You really don’t have proof unless the boss emails the OP.

      We had a question not that long ago about someone trying to document everything when the boss wanted to have conversations, and my conclusion is pretty much the same. It is very believable that the boss didn’t read the “summary” email sent by the OP, and the OP sending it does not constitute an agreement from the boss.

      If it makes the OP feel better – and unlike in the other scenario, the boss has not told her to stop – I’m not opposed to it, but I don’t want to create a false expectation that it will serve as solid and incontrovertible proof that the OP was right or protect her in any dispute with her boss. It won’t.

      1. KimberlyR*

        Sorry, I don’t think I was clear enough. When the boss answers the email, that counts as the documentation. Yes, boss could just not answer and that wouldn’t necessarily cover the OP’s butt if a question comes up, but if boss responds in any way, that documentation counts.

        1. Jessica*

          Microsoft Outlook let’s you use read receipts. Would that count as documentation? Although, can’t you opt out of sending one back?

          1. Natalie*

            Yes, you can opt out of sending the read receipt. I, for one, refuse to ever send them back on principal.

            1. E*

              In my experience with Outlook, even if the recipient declines to send a read receipt, I receive a response that they declined. So the sender may know that you opened the email and just declined to send the read receipt.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Right, that’s the thing. This isn’t going to be adjudicated in a court of law. The boss probably is going to have the final say on what he meant and how he assesses the OP’s work. The only exception to this is usually if a manager above him (typically not HR) develops concerns about the way he’s managing and decides to delve into it, but that’s a fairly rare occurrence.

            1. L N*

              But if it comes to the point of him threatening retaliation and HR gets involved, she has SOMETHING. Better than nothing. He could say “I never got any of those emails,” sure, but I’m having a hard time picturing a good HR department just accepting that explanation without question. ESPECIALLY if multiple people he is gaslighting start following this protocol.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Except that most HR departments aren’t that interventionist (nor should they be). This isn’t the kind of thing that’s likely to spur a whole investigation; they’re going to defer to the manager to handle it in most cases.

          2. KimberlyR*

            It counts for OP’s sanity and peace of mind. When you’re gaslighted, you can end up doubting your own version/memory of the events as they happened.

            Ultimately, the best thing for OP is to get a new job with a better boss. But it sounds like that isn’t an option, or isn’t an option right now. So OP needs to survive the current job with the current boss for whatever time period, until he/she can get a new job.

      2. hbc*

        Yeah, but HR is going to be giving some side-eye if the answer is “I never read the emails from my direct reports” or “I read them and they’re wrong and I didn’t bother correcting them.”

        1. fposte*

          I don’t think HR is likely to get that granular about it, though. They generally don’t weigh evidence around a performance review or interpersonal dynamics unless there’s a legal issue involved, and it’d be pretty unusual for them to dive into an email exchange to prove who did or who didn’t read something about project assignment.

          1. L N*

            We’re talking big picture here, though. If the boss tries to discipline the OP she now has a record of making a good faith effort to clarify tasks and priorities in writing. I don’t know that this helps her build a case, but if the ultimate fear is “he will try to discipline or fire me if I push back against his gaslighting,” it is something that creates a different narrative. Gsslighters typically make you feel like they’re the only ones who control the story as its seen by others – but that doesn’t have to be the case.

    3. The Strand*

      The other benefit is that you are subtly putting him on notice that you are collecting specific data about what he asks for, what he expects from you, etc.

      I would even BCC your personal email.

  10. Random Lurker*

    I had a boss like this. The stress was unreal. My therapist at the time gave me a really good exercise that helped me deal with it.

    I got myself a moleskine notebook and kept it at home. When I got home every night, I would right the dumbest, most ridiculous thing he did in there (all time winner: he got in an argument that Alaska wasn’t a state and threatened to write up my peer for including Alaska on a presentation that featured a map of the US). It was very cathartic to write these things down. However, to counteract the negativity, I would fill out a page in the back of the notebook with something I learned from him. Sometimes they were negative (I learned not to be a jerk today…), but it forced me to look at him with a different lens. I wasn’t going to be able to leave my job. I wasn’t going to ever have a great relationship with him. But it made me look for things he did that were successful. I wouldn’t say it made me respect him, but it made me respect his position in the organization a whole lot more. And that made sticking around a little more tolerable.

    By the time my pages from the front of the journal met the pages in the back, he no longer had any effect on me. I stayed in that job for another year after that, and left for a great opportunity. Much better than escaping a bad opportunity!

    1. Random Lurker*

      Excuse my typos… new phone… I appreciate the irony of calling my boss dumb and using right instead of write :D

    2. Ihmmy*

      at Toxic Job, my coworkers made a bingo card with all of the ridiculous things our boss would say, and we’d see who completed their card first.

      1. Amadeo*

        I could have used this idea at job-bef0re-last. It would have gone along with all of the times my boss stood behind me and told me I was doing it wrong, followed by me snapping at him, asking him if he wanted to do it himself.

    3. Case of the Mondays*

      I had a toxic boss and I’m 5 years out from it and I realize now that I still learned a lot about my profession from him. Every time I see myself doing something he advised me to do I get a bit angry but then I think . . . well, at least something good came from that jerk.

    4. Rebecca in Dallas*

      I love the journal idea! I am in a pretty good situation now, but definitely could have used that at my old job.

      LOL at the Alaska example… that’s bad.

    5. Ama*

      Alaska wasn’t a state? I have so many questions …. (Did he think it was 1958? What did he think *was* the 50th state? Did he have opinions about Hawaii?)

      1. Random Lurker*

        He also thought Singapore was in Japan. Geography was not his strong suit.

        1. Fact & Fiction*

          God invented Google ;) for a reason, dumb boss guy…apparently he didn’t get that memo. Probably filed it with his updated US map.

  11. Argh!*

    Under ADA law, your doctor can work with HR to come up with “reasonable” accommodation. The key is that it has to be reasonable. Finding you a position with a different manager could be an accommodation, but if they feel that you might have the same problem or you don’t have transferable skills, then the “reasonable” bar could be too high for that accommodation.

    1. AD*

      Based on what OP wrote, this isn’t something remotely connected with ADA unfortunately. It’s just having a bad boss.

      1. OhNo*

        Actually, it might be connected with the ADA. Depends on if the OP has a documented condition, and what it might be. Some mental illnesses are covered under the ADA, but I never can remember which ones…

        1. AD*

          That doesn’t really have anything to do with a boss who is 1) bad at communicating or 2) bad at managing. Either way, there’s no “accommodation” for that.

          1. Argh!*

            That would be for the doctor & HR to determine. A PTSD diagnosis could make a change of office a reasonable request.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Details are everything in situations like this, but in general I would be surprised to see a change of manager considered a required accommodation in the situation the OP has described.

      2. Retail HR Guy*

        OP referred to mental illness and panic attacks. It’s covered.

        Heck, under the new ADA as amended pretty much everything counts as a disability. The EEOC instructs employers nowadays to just skip the “Is this a qualifying disability?” step and go straight to discussions on reasonable accommodations.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I feel like I’m being very contrary on this thread, but it’s not a certainty that it’s covered and it’s definitely not true that everything counts; it would depend on the specifics of the condition. With the exception of HIV, the ADA doesn’t list specific conditions that it covers (or doesn’t cover). Instead, it covers “physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities,​ such as seeing, hearing, speaking, walking or breathing.”

          Whether or not you’re covered will depend on your specific symptoms; some people with panic attacks might meet the bar laid out by the law, and others might not.

          1. Retail HR Guy*

            Well, we know that it is a mental impairment that is limiting OP’s life activity of working, and it is lasting at least several weeks and likely longer. It would be a foolish employer who doesn’t consider the ADA in handling OP’s situation.

            You are correct, strictly speaking, that not everything is covered. Stubbing one’s toe does not (yet) rise to the level of being a qualifying disability under the law. However, it’s very rarely worth going to court to get a jury to determine whether or not something is a qualifying disability. Now with the ADAAA in place the state labor departments and the EEOC are instructed to proceed on the assumption that the claimant has a disability, and it will be up to the employer to raise the “but is that really a disability?” defense later on in court if the employer wants to (costing the employer tons of lawyer fees even if they win). Which basically means that everyone is “de facto” disabled. Employment law attorneys increasingly are advising clients to just forget about bothering with determining who is disabled and who isn’t, and instead just accommodate anyone with any medical condition.

            So, I still love ya Allison… but I stand by it that the ADA applies here.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I agree that it’s smart for many reasons to default to trying to accommodate medical conditions without worrying about whether the ADA requires it, but there are still PLENTY of things the ADA doesn’t cover and which are highly unlikely to ever go to a trial.

              We 100% don’t have the info to know if the OP would be entitled to accommodations under the law. (Any lawyers here, want to back me up on this?) That doesn’t mean her employer shouldn’t try to anyway — but we also don’t have enough facts to say either way. For example, if someone’s mental illness is exacerbated by getting critical feedback from a tough boss, that’s a very different situation than someone whose condition is exacerbated by not being allowed enough breaks during the day. (Not saying that’s the case with the OP. Just saying we don’t know details.)

              1. AD*

                I think Alison is right, and just because the OP mentioned having to take FMLA doesn’t necessarily make the leap to assuming “he/she has a documented mental health issue” a logical or helpful one in this situation, where it may not pertain.

                1. Retail HR Guy*

                  The OP says right off the bat that “I am currently on FMLA due to my mental illness”. Please explain how taking OP at his/her word on this is being illogical or leaping to assumptions.

                2. Retail HR Guy*

                  @Alison: Maybe I’m very confused, but I’m reading AD as now saying that we don’t know that a mental health issue exists at all. Aren’t we supposed to be taking OP’s word around here?

                3. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Oh, I see. I think AD is saying that you can take FMLA for mental health without necessarily having a documented mental health condition in the way it would need be one for ADA, which is true.

    2. fposte*

      Even under ADA, finding another manager is a pretty substantial accommodation, and courts have found it to be unreasonable.

      1. Murphy*

        Yeah, you could explore an internal transfer, but there’d likely have to be some other compelling reason for them to go along with that (your skills are a good fit for what Team X needs, for example). It’s an option, but a tough one to implement.

      2. Argh!*

        If OP is an admin, the skillset would be transferrable. If OP is a specialist it would be more difficult. Moving to another department is indeed a possible accommodation, depending on the specific organization & the employee’s skills.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That’s about reassignment to a different position, though, which is different from the accommodation being a new manager, specifically.

          1. Argh!*

            A different position would usually mean a new manager. Wouldn’t it be in the best interests of the organization for HR to find another place for OP to be? Even if not a requirement, if OP asked for a transfer, with a history of needing time off for mental health reasons, that could be the best option.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              It really depends on details we don’t have. If she’s a really valued employee whose talents would fit another role, then sure. But when that’s not the case, most organizations aren’t going to be jumping to do that sort of transfer, in part because they don’t want to signal to employees that changing managers when you don’t like yours/don’t get along with yours is an option (and it really often doesn’t make sense to have that be an option). Plus, they may worry she’ll encounter the same problem with another manager. It’s not necessarily fair, but that may be part of their thinking.

              Really, if the problem is bad enough that they’re going to think they should move her to another boss, they’d already be taking action with the boss — and they’re not, which makes me think that they either disagree with the OP’s assessment of the situation (either entirely, or just “it’s not that bad”) or aren’t terribly concerned about the situation. It’s possible that they’re frustrated with the OP for not making it work, rather than with the manager — and if that’s the case, they’re really not going to be inclined to move her.

              Plus, in lots of organizations and lots of roles, moving just wouldn’t be practical, even if they were willing to do it in theory. If you’ve got an organization of 50 people, there may not be a vacancy to move her into or another manager willing to get in the middle of this.

              1. Katie the Fed*

                Yes, this. The only time I’ve seen people transferred because of issues with their boss is in cases of hostile environment (of the EEO variety) or sexual harassment, while an investigation was ongoing.

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Also, to clarify my comment above where I wrote “That’s about reassignment to a different position, though, which is different from the accommodation being a new manager, specifically” —

              What I mean is that the kind of accommodation they’re talking about in the link you posted is where, for example, Jane can no longer lift 50 pounds due to a medical condition, so she’s moved to a less physically demanding role. It’s not about Jane and the boss not getting along.

            3. Retail HR Guy*

              It would be a horrible precedent to set and a horrible message to send to employees. Don’t like your boss? Just get us a doctor’s note and we’ll get you a new one!

  12. BadWolf*

    I’ve had a boss like this as well. In lieu of having a third party conversation, I would suggest you document everything. Don’t just keep a private log of your conversations; if you take that to HR to prove he is being unreasonable, it’s going to be a he said/she said thing and HR is likely going to side with your boss. My suggestion would be to recap every conversation in an email trail sent to him. Something like,

    “Dear Boss: Per our conversation earlier today, we agreed that I would take a step back from project Y to focus on Z. The first deliverable for Z will be on (date), meaning that I won’t resume work on Y until (day after date).”

    This way, if he comes after you for not working on Y, you can come back to your email trail and point out that you were supposed to be working on Z.

    Seriously, document every conversation, every promise, every instruction. Send him an email after every “missed” meeting with a request that he include you on the next one. CC his assistant if he has someone managing his calendar. That way, you can establish with HR that there is a pattern of him excluding you.

    1. Natalie*

      But what is the step once you’ve proved it? In most organizations HR doesn’t have a lot of power over managers, and I can’t imagine them ordering him to behave better is going to have much of an effect. You just bring a lot of adversarial feeling (or a lot more, as the case may be) for no benefit.

      Documenting might be helpful for oneself, to have a reality check and a reminder, but unless you plan on suing I don’t see how it’s going to change this boss’s behavior. Better to get out as soon as possible.

      1. Murphy*

        Not to mention that you really haven’t “proved” anything. You’ve given your version of the story/event/direction in an email. A bad boss like this will simply say that he doesn’t agree with what you wrote (if he even reads it). I agree it’s helpful for your own piece of mind, but it’s not really proof of anything.

        1. esra*

          Not that it helps in every case, but CYA emails are more about putting it out there than anything else. If someone disagrees with you a month down the line, either they’re admitting they’re contradicting themselves, or they’re admitting they’re neglecting their email and not giving direction.

          CYA isn’t about fixing everything, it’s just about being prepared if the need comes up.

          1. Katie the Fed*

            But…if he’s a jerk, he doesn’t care if he’s wrong. And CYA emails like that come across really antagonistic and legalistic and send a clear message that something is up. I think it’s ok to confirm that you had the right dates and deadlines, but documenting everything and putting everything in writing – I really don’t get it. It’s not Law and Order – it’s an office. And in an office it doesn’t really matter if you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were right and the boss was wrong.

            1. esra*

              Dates, details and deadlines are what I think of when I think of a CYA email.

              Again, not going to help in every case, because it is just an office. But if you’re being gaslit, or if it spills into meetings with others, then yea, I’m going to stand by my point that it’s handy to have an email to refer to.

              1. Troutwaxer*

                Just as important, the CYA emails are a signal to the boss that you’ve got the inclination and basic skillset to fight back, at least a little. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

            2. Troutwaxer*

              I don’ t think it needs to be presented as a “CYA” email. It can also be presented positively with a script like “I realize we’ve had trouble communicating in the past, so this is me taking responsibility for my half of the communication, and making sure we don’t have more problems like that time when _________________.”

              Then the OP can cut and paste the instructions into her TODO list and look very organized.

            3. Katie F*

              We often send similar e-mails to each other at my workplace, because we’re all insanely busy and it’s just about the only way the team can maintain knowledge of each other’s projects and deadlines. I’ve never seen it as antagonistic.

      2. BadWolf*

        I agree OP’s best option is to get out, and fast. But it takes time to find a new job. In the meantime, having backup can help if there’s a bad performance review, a performance improvement plan, or in the worst case, if he attempts to fire the OP. Perhaps the OP can work out a deal with HR for a good reference or even unpaid leave so she/he can job search while still being technically employed.

  13. WhiteBear*

    If your state allows it, you can also use your phone or another concealed device to record your interactions with your boss so that you do have evidence of his gaslighting and general assholishness.

    1. NJ Anon*

      This happened at Old job. Harassee recorded Harasser and took it to the board of directors. Harasser got fired.

    2. Violet Fox*

      I’m assuming that the OP is in the US.. You have to be really careful with recording conversations because in some states in the US, you need two party consent to record, or the company/manager could turn around and get the OP in legal trouble for recording in retaliation.

      For outside the US, for your own sake, check the local laws on this!

      1. TootsNYC*

        And even without legal issues, you might have company restrictions or company reactions.

  14. Conundrum*

    I think this is rather difficult in that you are asking a person (the LW) to ignore their gut instinct for self-protection in order to be seen as professional. If the LW feels unsafe around the boss, perhaps FML can be extended. Not sure why return to the situation is required but I’d start documenting in emails constantly. Maybe hit record on your smart phone every time you are near him; you could even make a point to say “I’m recording this”. And try to always have someone around whenever possible.
    Verbal abuse is as damaging as physical abuse; moreso in that too many don’t believe the victim.

    1. fposte*

      Recording your boss, whether secretly or openly, is again going to make the OP look like the problem. It’s tough to be asked to ignore your defensive impulses, it’s true, but she’s said she has to stay at this job for a while, and something like that risks getting her fired.

      1. Christopher Tracy*

        Yeah, I would be almost certain that recording this particular boss would lead to firing. OP should definitely not do this if she wants to keep her job.

        1. NJ Anon*

          It worked at my old job. Ceo was harassing direct reports. Direct recorded it, went to the board of directors and the Ceo got fired.

    2. Kyrielle*

      I am going to guess from the “have to go back” part of this that the FMLA will hit 12 weeks at that point – the OP could stay on leave (and if there’s disability coverage, perhaps get long-term disability), but their job would no longer be protected for their return.

    3. Katie the Fed*

      OP doesn’t have to ignore her instinct for self-protection. She can walk away and leave her job. Her manager right now is not doing anything illegal. Yes, he’s being terrible but he is legally allowed to be a jerk. And she is legally allowed to leave. She’s not in physical danger – if she was that’s a very different issue and one she would need to seek protection from. But barring him doing anything illegal or dangerous – she’s risking her job if she requests a third party be present, or tells him she’s recording conversations, etc.

    4. Katie the Fed*

      Also, having a third party in the room isn’t going to protect her from gas lighting anymore than being on her own.

    1. Ell like L*

      Well that’s profoundly unhelpful and highly dismissive. No reason for that.

    2. Murphy*

      I’m hoping you’re being rudely sarcastic, but this is in no way helpful. People don’t have perfect options in their lives and “quite or get over it” is neither an either or nor a black and white decision.

      Please don’t belittle the experience of the OP just to be snarky. It’s not cool.

      1. MarinaZ*

        Except that no coping exercises are going to result in an outcome that the OP will consider favorable. Quitting makes the most sense–no company is going to assign a monitor for the OP’s conversations with Boss.

    3. Jeanne*

      Are you the boss of the OP? You sound like you approve of the boss’s management techniques.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        I’m not Park Irene, and the comment was harsh, but…it’s sort of true. It’s actually sort of what Alison said as well, except she was much more thoughtful about it. In a lot of work situations, it really comes down to that. You can’t change the fact that you work for jerks, except to find a non-jerk to work for. In MOST cases you’re not going to change your boss’s or coworker’s behavior. You can usually only change yourself – either by accepting it or finding something else. It sucks, but it’s reality.

        1. Jadelyn*

          Okay, but the way you say something DOES matter every bit as much as the content of the message, and it is beyond disingenuous to pretend otherwise, especially with a situation like this where stress has literally damaged the person’s mental health. As Alison demonstrated, it’s entirely possible to say what essentially boils down to “your only options are to get out or cope” without being a snide, smug, dismissive asshat about it.

          I don’t remember the comic’s name, but there was a guy I saw a clip from about speaking up that has always stayed with me. When you want to open your mouth about someone else’s life or circumstances, ask yourself three things:
          1. Does this need to be said?
          2. Does this need to be said *by me*?
          3. Does this need to be said by me *right now*?

          So I’m genuinely at a loss as to why anyone would defend the deliberate choice to be brusque and harsh almost to the point of attack against a person who’s already in a vulnerable place, when the choice to either be nice or shut up also exists.

        2. Jeanne*

          I don’t believe coping and surviving are the same as get over it. OP is looking to survive for long enough to get a new job. Quit or get over it are not the only option. Don’t quit until you find a job. Get over it implies it won’t matter. The abuse matters and will affect her. The question is more how to handle an abusive boss. I think we need more workers to stand up and say emotional abuse is not acceptable rather than saying get over it. In a decent company there would be a whole other option where the boss would be told to behave.

      1. esra*

        Hmm, I see that you’re sick, stressed and poor. Have you tried just being not sick, stressed and poor?

      1. Loose Seal*

        It was harsh but it’s probably the OP’s only options since getting a third-party to sit in isn’t likely to be feasible.

        “Get over it” can be accomplished in lots of ways from therapy to daily after work happy hour with friends. But to stay in that job, the OP is gong to have to figure out how “get over it” looks for them.

  15. Brett*

    Is this unreasonableness partly contingent on this being the OP’s boss? Could it be reasonable for a co-worker or other superior?

    I cannot recall where this happened with a boss and their direct employee, but I did run into several situations while working education and public safety where employees could not be left alone with certain other employees or certain superiors who were not direct managers (but still in chain of command).

    When I was coaching it was mandated that coaches never be alone with an individual student or parent. Some districts mandated that no two employees be left alone at off site activities.

    1. Ell like L*

      I think this would only be appropriate in a case where someone has made an allegation of sexual assault, harassment, or other violence. Otherwise, it’s bound to fail and create even more tension.

      It makes more sense in an education setting though – what you’re talking about is not quite the same situation.

  16. Dubby*

    Yes, document and be ridiculously clear about what he’s asking you to do. You can even create a ticketing-like system with some free tools online, or just in a word file. I like ticketing systems for when I worked with people who would regularly change their minds and memories about projects and tasks. By having ‘comments’ in a ticket, that logs the date of the change and acknowledgment that you received it and whatever work you did. I find that it also helps ease my work anxiety because I can look at the ticket for relevant info rather than scouring my email.

    When requested to work on a pet project: “How should I prioritize this over project X and Y, which are due soon?” or “I can do that but it will mean adding another four days before X can be finalized.”
    When you are missed on a meeting: keep records of when this was happening. Maybe ask “Should I ask Lucy to double check that I’m on these meetings related to my projects? A second set of eyes can be helpful in these cases.” or “Would you like me to set up the project meetings?”

    So when he says “I need this done in two weeks” you go into your tickets and tell him “Okay, I’m putting in a note that you want this done on July 12.” This is all about the paper trail. After workload meetings, send an email to confirm changes and action items:

    “Here are the action items that I heard from you:
    * X is to be done before end of day tomorrow
    * Y is on hold until Z is done
    * after X is done I should take a look into pet project
    * others…

    Let me know if these dates and priorities look okay to you.” and make this a habit.

    After doing this for a few projects you may find that he can no longer lie about what he did or did not tell you, or you may uncover some communication problems where he needs to be clearer and more direct about priorities and work loads and expectations. Particularly if he’s managing a large team and can’t keep all the balls in the air straight, then acts like a jerk when course corrected. Try to not leave any workload redirection or project request end without a specific date/time being agreed on. Chat with your therapist about doing some role play practice with clarification requests like, “When you say ASAP, can you expand? This is not a quick task.” and “Can you give me a specific date when you need to review a draft?” or whatever would make sense for your projects.

    I’ve worked with people who were the compulsive lier type to gain points by promising ridiculous delivery dates and throwing their subs under the bus when things were eventually uncovered, but I’ve also worked with people who were just terrible communicators, had short project attention spans, and would honestly not remember that they shifted your entire project schedule the day before to something else (and then handles it like a jerk after the fact). Asking him to ‘sign off’ on regular workload timelines and updates will make him accountable under both conditions.

      1. Jess*

        I have used Freshdesk before as a personal ticketing system. It is free for up to 3 “agents” working the tickets.

      2. Dubby*

        There are a bunch out there. I’ve used Producteev as a free one, but there’s also Trello and a bunch of other competitors.

        In a larger tech ecosystem at work, there’s also Jira. Excellent way of wrangling tasks with many employees. Particularly if tasks require a lot of back and forth conversation. The threads can be stored there rather than digging through emails.

        1. AP*

          Seconding Jira for larger projects. We just completed a massive site migration and Jira was a boss throughout. During our post-migration analysis meeting, it was one of the few tools we all agreed worked well.

  17. Natalie*

    OP, do you have psychologist or some other mental health professional that’s helping you manage your condition? If so I would definitely talk to them about this so you can get advice tailored to your particular symptoms and challenges.

    1. Jeanne*

      I hope OP has a therapist and regular meetings. It’s the best way to survive a bullying boss you can’t escape.

    2. Patrick*

      If OP is on FMLA for mental health issues I would assume that’s a given, I don’t see how they could get leave approved without one.

      1. Retail HR Guy*

        The list of professional health care providers that can sign off on FMLA is very broad, and the only restriction the FMLA has regarding who can approve what is for chiropractors (they can only approve time off related to manual manipulation of spine to correct subluxation shown to exist by x-ray). So OP’s FMLA could have been approved by a general practitioner or even a Christian scientist practitioner.

  18. Heather*

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with this OP. I’ve had abusive bosses too and know how easy it is for people to assume you’re overreacting. You’re not. Crazy people have a way of making you feel crazy, which is a big red flag that it’s time to go. I agree with Alison – don’t ask for a third-party. It’ll only make you an even bigger target. But until you get another job lined up (1) DOCUMENT EVERYTHING and (2) make a “Getaway Folder” on your computer (I recommend dropbox because it automatically syncs to your other devices). Save copies of your work, screen shots of abusive emails, notes on dates/times of bad behavior, etc. That way, if something should happen and you lose access to company property, you have a mountain of evidence that can help you with unemployment applications or a lawsuit if it goes that far. Pretty much be ready to go at a moments notice – it’ll help you feel more in control too.

    My Getaway Folder helped me get unemployment benefits from my first job out of college after I quit with zero notice because my boss, her colleague, and the CEO (yes, that’s right) bullied me for 7 months. It felt good to be validated when I got a letter in the mail saying I was subjected to harassment, intimidation, and racial discrimination. See…not crazy. Good luck OP!

    1. Troutwaxer*

      Technically speaking I would not necessarily recommend connecting Dropbox to your work computer. Someone from your IT Dept might be able to get into your work computer and overwrite your Dropbox account. Or maybe you can download your Dropbox into your home computer every night.

      It might be far better to use a USB memory stick or email stuff to yourself. Also note that your job will probably have rules about what you can connect your computer to. Dropbox (or anything else I’ve mentioned) may be against the rules and provide an excuse to fire you, so make sure you read the workplace rules with regard to computers.

      That being said, some variation on this which allows you to access your documentation after being fired/laid-off, etc., is a very good idea.

  19. Need cheering up*

    I’m talking from experience: nothing is going to change his behaviour unless someone in authority (such as his boss or HR) addresses it. His boss likely knows his style, but in case you have good reason to think this is not the case you should start bringing his attention to it. Rather than ‘reporting’ your boss, you need to start getting his boss involved when is appropriate and wait for things to evolve. The boss will either turn a blind eye (stop wasting your energy there and then) or start addressing the incompetence.

    Otherwise you need to either never return to this place or develop a coping strategy, such as working from home 1-2 days a week, schedule business travel more often if applicable, follow up with email on verbal agreement if important and include at least one other person in emails. The latter two are mainly to help you not lose your face in front of those who are not familiar with your boss’ style. This way you won’t have to worry that people may think YOU are the problem, which relieves some of the stress.

    There is no way out of this. Think long and hard whether you really have to stay in this job for another certain period of time. The consequences could be you won’t be fit for your next job. Starting a new job costs energy and commitment, and the current one is sucking those out of you. Do a reality check and see if you could be the person you want to be if you started a new job tomorrow. What I mean is that the current situation likely undermines your confidence etc. and this will take time to heal. You risk starting off on the wrong foot in your next job because your mental health is not good due to the current situation.

  20. Jeanne*

    You are not alone. Many of us have had completely unreasonable bullies for bosses. You know he won’t change. My personal strategy (other than constant counseling) is to make sure my conscience is alright. Stick up for yourself when you feel it’s appropriate, walk away when you can. Sometimes when he rants you can say nothing and go back to work. Other times you can say fine, I’ll do X but I won’t get Y done. He’ll still tell you that you should have finished both but you know you were right. I also used wording like disappointed or confused. “I’m confused that you are upset that I focused on Project X after you told me to focus on it. Did we have a miscommunication?” (You have to say it with a straight face.) To HR: “I know bullying is not illegal but I am disappointed that the company is willing to support it.” If he does performance review crap, sign as to receipt only and refuse to discuss it. Try very hard to just be there regular hours and go home. If he wants overtime, tell him you have comittments. No other details. Finally, make sure you get enough sleep. It’s very important. Use meds if necessary. I am very sorry and hope you find a job soon.

    1. Not Me*

      I wouldn’t call my boss a malicious bully, but he has done some things lately that made me feel like he was gaslighting me. I now believe that he is just massively incompetent. I’m pretty much doing as Jeanne suggests; trying to keep my head down, not make waves, not be emotionally upset about work (it’s tough, but with medication I’m managing). And most importantly, I’m working my network and starting to put out feelers. Because a person can only take so much incompetent management.

  21. anon 4 now*

    First, OP, I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. I don’t have any advice that’s better than what’s already been detailed by others, but I hope things get better for you and it sucks that you’ve been put into such a stressful situation on top of your health issues.

    OP or otherwise, would anyone be willing to share their experience using FMLA for mental health reasons? I’m in treatment but not responding well, and I am starting to become very afraid that my job is going to be too much for me soon. I’ve been looking into the option of taking FMLA to recover a bit, even just for a short time (maybe 10 days including weekends). For those who have done this: how did your work respond to the request? Was it difficult to get the medical proof needed from your doctors? How long was the leave, and did you feel that the time off was beneficial? Did you make any specific plans for self-improvement/healing during the leave, or did you use it mostly as a time to rest and recover?

    I understand this is a sensitive subject, so I’m not really expecting any responses, but if anyone feels comfortable talking about this on anon — well, it’s good to know there are others out there in a similar situation.

    1. Belle*

      We have had a couple of employees now take FMLA for mental health reasons (written from the employer side).

      In each case, they completed our normal process to document the need (their treating doctor filled it out and how long they needed to be off, just like any other serious health condition). In both of these cases, the employees were also going through regular therapy sessions to help and were continuing these while out (I am not sure what else they did since we don’t ask any person out on FMLA how they handle their personal time, but they mentioned their therapy sessions helped).

      Once their doctor certified they should return, we then worked with them to set their date and get their access back up. But in our view we didn’t treat mental health any differently than other serious health conditions.

    2. DMC*

      In every company I’ve worked for except one, a ten day FMLA leave would’ve been fine. Your employer doesn’t have to know the reason and, in fact, they are not entitled to know the reason. You just ask for the forms, have your doctor fill it out, and submit the certification in a timely manner. Make sure to follow your company’s process, but 10 days is pretty reasonable. If anyone asks about what medical condition you are dealing with (which the should NOT, but the reality is some people seem clueless and do ask), you can just remain vague. Say something like, “Oh, nothing life-threatening, don’t worry…” Most people will get the hint then.

  22. Chickaletta*

    Although OP’s manager doesn’t sound like a very good person, I don’t find his behavior to be that out of the ordinary. I’ve had similar bosses to him as far as being left out of meetings, being told to do one thing and then being scolded for not doing the other, etc. It’s definitely frustrating and it’s the type of thing that makes you pour a drink as soon as you get home, but overall it’s manageable. It’s also something that most people expect you to manage by making changes yourself. Once you start requesting other people to change (like making a third person witness every interaction with your manager), it starts to look unreasonable and usually doesn’t work.

    The trick is this:

    1) Compartmentalize: don’t let your boss’s behavior seep into other areas of your life or affect how you feel about yourself. He and his behavior has nothing to do with you; their behavior doesn’t define you.

    2) Find ways to bring joy into your life. Spend time with people you like. Take time to enjoy a hobby or personal project. Plan a vacation and look forward to it. Watch the sun rise every morning. Eat well. Excercise. Enjoy that glass of wine at the end of the day because dammit you earned it! Chewbacca Mom your life.

  23. Former Retail Manager*

    If you are okay with potentially being fired and can make it on unemployment until you find something else, have you considered returning to work and having a frank, closed door conversation with him in which you say “Look, I know we haven’t gotten along and things haven’t been great before my leave, but I’d really like to put that all behind us and make this work. What would that look like for you? Would you like me to communicate differently, do things differently, work faster, wear red on Wednesdays, etc.?” I have personally had managers like your current manager and I’ve had very blunt, closed door conversations with them. My own phrasing was different than my suggestion because it matched my personality and the work environment, but maybe this would be a start. Managers who engage in this type of behavior seem to respond to blunt and to the point communication, perhaps because they’re shocked to have been called on the carpet. Also, if he gives you things he wants you to do, I’d say “great, I’ll make every effort but here’s what I need to see from you as well.”

    I’ve personally told managers who tried to tell me that “they didn’t have an issue with me” to “cut the crap….their actions made it obvious that that wasn’t the case and I was only hoping to come to work, do my job, and go home, the same as them and that there was no need for us to make each others lives miserable.” I realize this isn’t everyone’s style and not everyone would be comfortable doing this.

    If this is not an option for you, or it’s just not your personality to be confrontational in this way, then I’d suggest you find something else ASAP. And for what it’s worth, I’m so sorry that you’re going through this. Best of luck in your decision making process.

  24. Jessie*

    Being able to work with and for difficult people is a really good skill to have and other employers will appreciate that. While the ideal solution to having an unfair, manipulative boss would be “get a new boss” that’s rarely a simple thing. Although it’s difficult, try distancing yourself emotionally from the situation and look at it in a very calculating way. I once had a manager who overreacted to everything. If I did something small that she liked she treated me like I walked on water. If someone told her that they needed something from me that I hadn’t provided she would explode at me, refuse to listen to reason, and conclude that I was the worst employee and I was basically failing at life. After several very emotional months stressing about that environment I started looking at it a little more coldly and discovered one particular way to deal with her: she loved the idea of being a mentor (even though she wasn’t a particularly good one.) So anytime she started getting worked up about something I would say something along the lines of: “I’m not sure how this is supposed to work. What do you think I should do to fix this?” It was stupid and a little manipulative but it worked really really well. But it’s hard to see those “ways to deal” when you’re too emotionally involved.

    1. Kiki*

      Exactly. I know it is super hard, and at this point it is probably better for OP’s mental health to prioritize finding new employment, but learning how to “train” people you work with — which mainly involves controlling your own reactions — is simply brilliant. I had a tough manager once. She wanted to treat me like a naughty daughter. I gave her smiles and full eye contact when she behaved more appropriately. Nothing negative, ever, just positive reinforcement for improved behavior. Eventually, her behavior improved. I know this sounds really cold and calculating, and yeah I guess it is, but honestly it was more about training myself than it was my boss. Later I used it on my husband. He’s not as trainable as some others. lol

    2. Katie the Fed*

      This is really, really good advice. Developing the skills to cope with difficult people will serve you well. I used to be terrible at it, to be completely honest. It took a few hard knocks and realizing that nobody was coming to rescue me to realize that I had to learn to deal. (BTW, my parents are of the “that boss’s behavior must be illegal!” variety and that probably didn’t do me any favors in early adulthood.)

    3. Chickaletta*

      This is all fabulous advice and something I’m still learning! I don’t see it as being manipulative, it’s about responding to the situation in a way that creates a positive outcome for everyone.

  25. The IT Manager*

    can I request that I not be alone with my boss?

    No. If he is so bad that your request is reasonable then he should have been fired long ago. Since he is still employed as a manager no less then his boss’s don’t believe he’s the problem and your request makes you look like the unreasonable one . i.e. “LW is afraid to be alone with Boss but Boss is a great employee.”

    Best of luck to finding a new job before you have to go back to this one because staying in your current one is not a good option,

  26. Kapikui*

    You need to speak to a lawyer now. Gaslighting is illegal most places, and is a form of mental and emotional abuse. You may need to get evidence, but if you boss is indeed gaslighting you and you can prove it, it isn’t a just a fireable offense, in most places, it is jailable. Of course you have to be able to prove it. This also opens the company up for a massive lawsuit. If they knew he was a problem and did nothing, it could be particularly bad.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, I can’t speak to other countries, but it’s very much not illegal in the U.S. I’m curious what countries you’re thinking of.

      1. Kapikui*

        When it happened to me, I was advised by my attorney that there was civil and criminal action possible against my employer. IF I could prove it. Since I had no hard proof, little could be done. And since that particular supervisor, his manager, and his department, as well as the HR rep all all perjured themselves on the stand in my dismissal hearing and, got away with it it would have very difficult to prove.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      Emotional abuse, gaslighting, and mental abuse are not illegal in the US (or any other country that I can find). Unless the boss is threatening physical harm, or subjecting the OP to a hostile environment due to a protected class, there is no basis for a criminal or civil complaint.

      Lying and being a jerk are 100% legal.

      1. Sarahnova*

        I believe legislation has been very recently introduced in the UK to make emotional abuse illegal. However, it is aimed at controlling and emotionally abusive partners and domestic abuse, not workplace abuse. I will post a link describing the law in a follow-up comment.

        Worker protections are tighter here generally, but although a case could potentially be made for constructive dismissal on this basis, it would be difficult and drawn-out to prove, and getting a new job and moving on would be the strategy I’d advise were it a friend in this situation*.

        *I Am Also Now A Llama, so I stand open to correction.

  27. Plain_Jane*

    Bullying and harassment can be illegal, depending on where the OP is.

    For instance, where I live (BC, Canada), bullying and harassment is something that is potentially a workers’ compensation claim. Provisions of this legislation include sabotaging another person’s work and behaviour that one would reasonably expect to cause the other person to feel humiliated or degraded.

    Deccions of the employer (i.e. workload, performance management) are not covered by workers’ comp; however, purposely leaving someone out of a meeting pertinent to their job strikes me as possible sabotage.

      1. Plain_Jane*

        Gotcha. Was not sure whether or not this type of thing was on a state-by-state basis like some other laws I’ve come across.

  28. Anonymousse*

    Another exercise that might help the OP is making a control/can’t control list. I did this with my ex (during the divorce I mentioned above). On one side of the page: things I can’t control. This was things like “can’t make him be nice to me,” “can’t make him be nice to our kid,” “can’t make him take responsibility for our break up,” etc. I was really shocked at what a relief it was to see this list in front of me. I was far more able then to turn to the other half of the page and write “things I CAN control,” and to come up with some decent ideas of things I could do to make my life better. In this case, the OP can write “can’t control Bad Boss’s behavior,” etc. and on the other side, perhaps, “can document,” “can do one small thing each day towards getting a new job,” “can meet with one coworker per week for lunch and support,” etc. It became MUCH easier for me to focus on the things in my control this way, during a period when I was out of my mind with anxiety and frustration. I hope that helps the OP a little.

  29. HardwoodFloors*

    There has been a bill in the Massachusetts state legislature multiple times (3 times that I know of) that would make workplace bullying illegal. Although this has not passed more support by legislators occurs each time it is in committee. Other states have considered passing these laws. I worked many years for a bully. The boss would bully someone for a year or so (everything, absolutely everything that the person being bullied did was wrong) and then one day poof! another person would be the target for the next year. I got out of there after I was the victim of that cycle for three times. The bully still works there and currently two people are taking turns being bullied.

  30. Boo*

    Bit late to this one so apologies if this has been said or superseded by additional info:

    In my last job I had a manager very like yours. She told me I had a shitty memory and looked like I didn’t care, and that a coworker said I was hard to deal with but couldn’t give any specific examples, etc then in our next meeting told me I was bright and should have more confidence, all while I could see (I was her PA) that she had a draft email ready to go putting me on a PIP.

    It was hugely stressful coming straight after losing my dad and almost losing my mum and being sexually assaulted (all of which she knew about) anyway I dealt with it by taking an “attack” stance. I stepped up our regular meetings to check in with her more often about absolutely everything I was doing, took notes, followed up with emails which I saved, and wrote myself a performance plan to try and address some of the issues she raised. It was all bull, but it made it look like I cared and left me with enough evidence to keep her off my back until we both left. It was a very, very long few months but I managed it.

    A lot of your problems sound communication based (whether intentional or not) so I’d suggest you use some of the same tactics – more time is needed with your sucky manager, not less. Not the answer you wanted I’m sorry, but it will work until you can get yourself out. Good luck!

  31. LN*

    OP, I’m sending you all the positive thoughts and strength in the world. This kind of situation is very, very difficult. Here, in my experience, is what you need to do.

    – Emotionally divorce yourself from your boss’s opinion of you.
    You know it’s not reasonable. You now it’s based on his fairy la-la-land narrative that has no bearing on reality. While this would typically be a Very Bad Thing to do in any normal job, this isn’t a normal situation. He’s created an abnormal environment where the only way to function is by doing abnormal things. You sound like you have a decent support system, at least enough to have sought out help for your mental health issues and learn about how gas lighting works. Make sure to keep that going as much as possible. You need to be surrounded by people who exist in THIS reality as much as possible, because your boss doesn’t.

    – Be practical and realistic about his options for retaliation.
    Your job has an HR department, so I’m assuming he cannot fire you, transfer you, put you on PIP, etc without their involvement on some level. Yes, he can yell at you and make you feel like crap. He can try to drive you crazy. You know he’s going to do that. Put a protective bubble around yourself and evaluate his words and actions from a distance. He can try to threaten and intimidate you, but his concrete actions are still limited by the bounds of reality. You are doing everything you can to perform this job to the best of your abilities, and he cannot change that reality – no matter how much he bloviates.

    – Build your own narrative, both for your sanity, and to protect yourself.
    A few other people have mentioned this, and I encourage you to do it. Start a paper trail. Email him short summaries of conversations. Some have said it won’t matter, but it’s not because you are trying to “build a case” to take him down, or anything like that. It’s because it will empower you to have a record of your own narrative. That’s all. If you at least make a good-faith attempt to confirm everything with him in writing, you limit his ability to retaliate against you in concrete ways. This will help you emotionally divorce yourself from his negativity around you and your performance, circling back to my first point. Once you can PROVE you are really doing everything you can possibly do, you can start to let go of that fear. It’s difficult, and it will require persistence and bravery. But remember: you are doing something totally sane and reasonable, and HE is the one making an issue out of it. If you can talk to the other people he’s gas lighting and have them do something similar, it’s even better. There is strength in numbers here, and you’re not doing anything wrong. In fact, a normal boss who was having communication and deadline issues with a employee would be happy to see them taking this initiative. Creating your own narrative gives you strength. You’re entitled to it.

    If you haven’t already, read up on the “gray rock” method of dealing with narcissists. I am NOT trying to diagnose your boss, but this is a proven way of shielding yourself against gas lighting types when you cannot otherwise avoid them. You sound pretty firmly grounded in reality right now, which is very impressive – you have already done a lot of the hard work. Right now, it’s just a matter of applying the things you already know. Good luck – I’m rooting for you.

  32. Anon3*

    As someone who was accused of being a bully, I have to push back and ask that people be very careful about using this term. In my case I was the lead and the trainer for the department and this employee flat out refused to follow written processes and take direction. Whenever I corrected her work, she went into attack mode and ran to our supervisor, saying I was picking on her. She was trying to deflect the truth about herself, which was she was headstrong and refused to listen and not able or willing to grasp the concepts of the job. Eventually, the supervisor saw where the real problem was.

  33. Em Bargo*

    I’m the letter writer. I am overwhelmed (in a good way) by the responses to my question. I’ll try to address some of the comments here.

    I realize that my wanting to be accompanied when I have to deal with my boss came from an emotional place as I felt desperate to protect myself mentally. Allison’s response helped me understand, logically, why it is not possible and while it isn’t what I wanted to hear, it can see why it makes sense.

    I do have a documented mental illness and my psychiatrist signed off on my FMLA. When I return to work, I will have a couple of weeks of FMLA left. Because I have a spouse and children, I wanted to be sure to have a little time left this year in case of an emergency with them or me. Plus, we can’t afford for me to take much more unpaid leave.

    I wish I could quit my job, but I can’t because I am under an employment contract (which is common in my industry). I am not quite half way through a three year contract and if I were to quit, I would owe the company several thousand dollars, per my contract.

    On the upside, my company has a good insurance plan and I don’t want to risk losing my insurance by quitting. That could cause an interruption in my treatment and would be detrimental to my mental health.

    As for work, I’m in a small department and there is just one manager, so I’m stuck there. Many of you have made suggestions that I think will help me when I go back to work. I am working with my therapist on exercises I can do when I return to work and find myself emotionally overwhelmed. I was heartened to see that reframing situations at work have been helpful to some of you, because that is one of the things I’ve been working on with my therapist.

    I like the idea of documenting everything, if only for my own satisfaction. As for emailing him, I will do that as well, just for my own use, because he has a history of “not seeing” emails that we send. I keep every email I send to him just for this reason.

    I thank all of you for your responses, even the contrary ones. I am hurting emotionally and mentally. I know it’s going to be a huge struggle, but I want to be able to leave this job when my contract is up, knowing that I did the best I could.

  34. leslie knope*

    i’m honestly thunderstruck by this post, because i had no idea gaslighting and emotional abuse are not illegal and would not hold up as a complaint against your boss. although in hindsight, that doesn’t really surprise me. it’s unfortunate that people can get away with being horrible and not have to deal with the consequences and people like the OP are stuck trying to make the best of a terrible situation.

  35. Ex Resume Reviewer*

    This hits close to home since I just got out of a bullying situation at work. Luckily it wasn’t to the point I had to take FMLA leave, but things were getting pretty dire.

    Having a third-party present really doesn’t solve any problems and is probably logistically very difficult. In my experience, these types of jerks are very skilled at catching you when no one is around or available to assist, replying to emails in person so there’s no paper trail, etc. Even if the abuser were to bully LW in front of others, at best they may violate some of the employers’ policies. Simply being excluded and sabotaged at work doesn’t violate the law, so there’s no recourse unless company HR can point to a policy or you can tie it to being part of a protected class.

    And even then your results may vary, as HR is not on your side, but the company’s side.

    LW the only way to protect yourself is to get out of there. I threw out some applications on a whim and never expected to hear anything, but I was hired away to a much better place not two weeks later, not a day after hiding under my winter jacket on my therapist’s couch in tears from what those jerks had done to me. Please don’t give up hope, and continue to seek the treatments you need. Things can get better. I hope whatever situation is keeping you from leaving this job immediately is resolved positively for you soon.

  36. Clinical Social Worker*

    I’ve been there LW. When I was gaslighted and abused at work I was informed by my boss that the psychiatrist refused to speak to me without a third party present. I was allowed to be at daily check-in meetings but if I needed to communicate anything about a mutual patient I was only able to do so in writing or if another staff member was able to serve as a witness.

    It didn’t help much since those folks were not really allies able to do a reality check (the kind you need when your perception is being manipulated). Writing things down did help. I’m so sorry you’re in this position. I hope you can find a better, more normal job.

    I’m working a great job right now and I can say that I’m still working out some of my trauma related to that work. But it’s so much better. Good luck to you LW.

  37. yuubou*

    It’s hard to really say from a brief description, but I would read up on psychopath/sociopaths. The charming manipulation sounds like one. If its getting to you your best bet is to get a new job or position that is not under this boss. In the mean time, I would definitely CYA whenever your boss does things to impact your work product. Like when he pulls you on a side project, send an email after and document it while adding an innocent reason for sending it. Like”I’m working on XYZ for you and think it will be done by DATE, so wanted to let you know. However, I think this will push back ABC to Thursday. Let me know if you need me to reprioritize.”

    Also, I wouldn’t do formal complaints, since that can raise tension and make you seem like a threat. But I would go out of your way to cultivate your relationships with other people in power or HR. Just so if your boss goes on the attack and tries to throw you under the bus, those people will know who you are and are more likely to think, “That doesn’t sound like OP.”

  38. Cubicles Create Entrepreneurs*

    To the reader:
    Will your doctor sign off on the extension of your FMLA into Short Term Disability? I recently had a similar situation occur, one in which my anxiety and stress caused my body to go into Stress-Induced Immune Dysfunction which caused an extremely long bout of influenza which then followed with constant high fevers, extreme neck and back pain, consistent migraines, and sporadic hypertension… Keep in mind, I’m in my 20s and have been extremely athletic for most of my life, I should not have high blood pressure.
    Point being, given how stressed you are about returning, it’s very likely that your mental illness will only become worse and lead to more severe issues. I would look into going on STD if you have that ability, and if your doctor will sign off on it. Use that time to unwind and find a new job.

  39. jaym*

    I was working in a VERY similar situation; I was transferred to a new school and the principal was an intolerable buffoon. Rude, used vulgar language, immediately threw anyone under the bus to cover their own shortcomings. Needless to say, I began having extreme panic attacks and could not function on the job. I took FMLA to see doctors, go to therapy, and learn to manage my anxiety. Administration tried to send me to an independent psychologist, who determined I was “fit” to return to work after a few questions and an interview that lasted less than an hour. Bottom line- after 14 years of loyal service and hard work, I was told to return to work or I would no longer be paid (even though I had the accrued sick time and as a teacher, I had already worked the days I was being paid for). I resigned. Now I am fortunate to be married and we had two incomes, so my spouse and I were able to make it work and I feel well enough to job hunt again. That took eight months. My health and ability to take care of my family (I’m a parent) was compromised and I was not willing to deal with that. If a job is literally making someone crazy, it’s time to go (if you are able).

  40. Ron Pickinpaugh*

    Maybe you should respect and treat your employees better? She didn’t owe you anything.

  41. Katie*

    “He’s left me out of meetings directly related to projects I’ve been assigned to, and when I’ve confronted him about it, he talked down to me and told me that these were merely oversights and that I was taking things too personally.”

    I don’t know how your office is structured, but at my work I can see other people’s calendars. If this is the case, just show up at those project meetings unannounced, he won’t be able to tell you to leave without publicly looking like a jerk and ruining his plans to secretly be a jerk. Otherwise if you can’t see his calendar, keep your eyes and ears open and find out when these meetings are. Also, don’t confront him about stuff like that. It’s not worth your time or your mental health, you already know how it’s going to go down. If you do say anything about it, you should send him an email for tracking purposes, but don’t make it confrontational. Be overly friendly and ridiculously deferential in asking him to make sure you are on the invite for the next meeting. That way he can’t say you’re taking it personally.

    “He lies often and when I or anyone else calls him out on his lies, he finds subtle ways to retaliate, such as giving us small perks, only to quickly take them away.”

    Depends what he’s lying about, but you can always send “follow up” emails after you have a conversation or meeting. “X and Y and Z talked, we decided that A and B would happen, that X and Y are responsible for getting A and B done by such and such date, and these are the next steps, blah blah.” This way he’ll know that there is a record of the stuff that’s going on, you can say it’s just to “make sure everyone’s on the same page”, but you won’t necessarily have to call him out on anything specific. If he offers you some kind of perk, just kindly decline said perk, or if you can’t decline, do not under any circumstances USE the perk. That way it’s no big deal when he pulls the rug out from under you.

    “He’s taken me off time-sensitive projects so I could help him with his pet projects, then complained that I was having a hard time meeting my deadlines while calling into question my talent and abilities. I’m not the only one he does this to.”

    In this situation again you could use a follow up email. “You requested me to do X project in such and such amount of time. I have 10 hours per week to dedicate to X project.” Or, “In order to finish X project by such and such date, I will have to reduce my working hours on Y project by such and such amount.” And then thank him for giving you this wonderful pet project which is sooooo great for your learning and career development.

    As far as him calling your talents and abilities into question, I know it’s hard but the guy is obviously terrible and his opinion should be worthless to you. Focus on developing yourself and your skills which will come in handy when you find a job that actually appreciates your abilities. Which I hope is very soon. Start updating your resume!

  42. Pseudo Anonymous*

    Is there a union? Every union contract (postal worker, teacher, white collar state employee) I or my friends have been covered by allowed the employee to have another bargaining unit member present when interacting with the boss.

  43. Playing The Long Game...*

    In my situation, I had three authority figures to contend with; a co worker, supervisor, (who was related to the supervisor), and the manager, all of whom did a very nice line in gaslighting me, trying to say I wasn’t working hard enough, that others were faster than me (understandable, considering the ‘others’ didn’t get persistently interrupted, as I was!) and I put up with all sorts of abuse from them. The company had no HR department, just the owner, and any attempts at documenting my version of events was shot down by the manager, while, he and his cohorts were going Hell for leather creating a paper trail on me, castigating me for minor things while other staff members were regularly getting away with infractions that, under some circumstances, warranted disciplinary procedures. I ended up being railroaded out of my job because of all the gaslighting, and I genuinely thought I was going mad! It was only when I recently heard from a relative who knows my previous boss, before I worked for this outfit, who said I’d been a very good worker, and that I ‘rarely made mistakes’, that I’d been set up. Further evidence later emerged which confirmed my suspicions. These gaslighters are dangerous individuals, and such unethical behaviour in adulthood clearly hints at some equally unethical methods applied in childhood that got them their own way. I knew I was a hard worker, but got burnt out trying to please them…but, newsflash, you are on a hiding to nothing, you’ll mentally exhaust yourself, and they’ll never be satisfied no matter what you do. As a poster on another website stated, ‘distance from danger.’ Get out as soon as you can! I know the basic rule is not to quit before you have something lined up, but I looked for over a YEAR before their clear manipulation of the facts, and sabotaging my work, pushed me out. Every waking minute, of every hour, of every day you are in their presence will eat away at your soul and your sanity, not to mention your confidence and sense of self. Ask yourself…are they really worth it…?

  44. Gigi*

    I hope this OP did leave. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse, as is the giving of perks and the retracting them. Plus on top of that his behaviour has damaged the OP’s mental health. That sort of behaviour is deliberate.

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