I said “EEOC” and things got weird

A reader writes:

I received a dinner invitation from my “big boss,” Niles. The invitation list included my supervisor, a colleague (who is junior to me in both experience and title), and that colleague’s supervisor, who I’d never met before. The colleague, Fergus, while in the same department, supports a different line of business and we have zero overlap in our work. The dinner was to be held at a fancy local restaurant and the subject line of the invitation was “professional development” with no further explanation. Although I thought the location and list of guests was odd given the subject line, I accepted the invitation and figured I would find out more as the event neared.

The next day, my supervisor came into my office and told me that the purpose of the dinner was to announce that the colleague and I would be switching positions. He said that he “didn’t agree with it” and “couldn’t defend it” but that he would be supporting Niles’ decision at dinner despite his (and the other supervisor’s) attempts to thwart the whole idea for the past year. I asked about all my special projects that diversify my work and whether I could keep them. He said no. I asked what type of work the colleague did and was told that it was only one type of work (the least interesting kind). I was not enthusiastic but said I would wait to hear more from Niles at dinner. I was told that I could speak to no one about the switch (including Big Boss) and that it was definitely not a demotion as Niles was very happy with my work.

My supervisor followed up with me a couple days later to see if I “had questions” or felt differently. I asked for more information and he said he had none. I repeated the fact that, given what I knew, I was not excited about the plan but I hoped to get more information at the dinner (again, awkward setting FOR SURE at this point). He asked specifically what my concerns were. And then I said this: “What you have described sounds like a junior male colleague getting experience at my expense. That sounds more like an EEOC complaint than ‘career development’ for me.”

Well, supervisor told Niles about my comment, Niles confronted me, and I explained that, while I would take whatever assignment I was given, I was not excited about the move. I also said that I thought message was horribly handled and that I would expect any conversation about my career would include me. This was a very professional and civil conversation, by the way. In the end, Niles did not switch us, he disinvited me and my supervisor from the dinner, and took out colleague and his supervisor. The whole mess was never spoken of again and everyone seemed content to pretend it never happened.

Fast forward four months later. My supervisor told me that my reaction to the switch “seriously damaged” my relationship with him and Niles. I was told I need to work on more personal relationships with both. Niles has never once indicated that he is interested in personal relationships with any his staff and our professional relationship seems fine (to me). I don’t like or trust my supervisor so I don’t want to foster anything but a 100% professional relationship there. I’d love your advice on how to navigate this mess.

What the hell? Who announces a major job shift at a dinner, without talking to the people impacted first? This isn’t a social occasion; it’s a business meeting. And generally you don’t spring things like this on people in front of a group; you have individual conversations with them about it.

So Niles appears to be a tool.

Now let’s talk about the EEOC comment and their reaction to it. I think you were probably premature in characterizing the situation the way you did. It’s certainly possible that your comment nailed what was going on — but it’s also possible that there were other, non-discriminatory reasons for the proposed switch. (It sounds like we’ll never know for sure since they dropped the whole thing — which could be a sign you were right or could just be a sign that you scared them or that they didn’t feel like dealing with serious opposition.)

But they really messed up in their response. They should have answered directly, by explaining the reasons for the proposed shift and then seriously considering the point you’d made. Instead, they penalized you for raising a bona fide concern about discrimination. That’s a legal problem because federal law says that retaliating against you for raising a good-faith concern about discrimination is illegal — even if the original complaint is found to be unwarranted. (That’s because it would have a chilling effect on discrimination reports otherwise.)

As for what to do now … it really depends on what outcome you want and your sense of how things are now.

If your sense is that people have moved past it and it’s not having any real impact on how you’re treated there (and that it’s not likely to impact future raises, performance assessments, etc.), then you might get the best outcome by writing them off as clueless but forging ahead and just letting this mess of theirs stay in the past.

But if that’s not your sense, then I’d go back to your manager and say this: “I’ve been thinking about your remark that my response to the proposal for Fergus and me to switch jobs damaged my relationship with you and Niles. I’d like to find out more about what you mean. As you know, my concern at the time was that the plan was discriminatory in effect. Whether or not that was the case, federal law is really clear that people can’t be retaliated against for raising good-faith concerns about discrimination. I’m concerned that what you’re describing sounds like I’m being penalized for exactly that, which would be illegal. If you just mean that it made Niles uncomfortable, but that it won’t impact my performance assessments, raises, projects, expectations for my work, or so forth, that’s one thing. But if you mean that it could be any of those things, there’s a legal issue there — so I want to make sure that’s not the case.”

What you’d be doing here is giving your boss and Niles an out — the “oh, I just meant it caused some discomfort, but of course it won’t be a problem for you now that we realize there’s a law about this” out. It’s a way of asserting your legal rights without blowing up the relationship, which is helpful if you do want to continue to stay there.

You of course have the option of being more adversarial, and some people might advise that, but that tends to be best only if you’re already on your way out the door. So it really depends on what outcome you most want.

From what you’ve written, I think chances are decent that although they badly bumbled their handling of this, everyone can move past it — if you want to. And of course, if that turns out not to be the case, you always have the option of escalating at that point.

Read updates to this letter here, here, and here.

{ 433 comments… read them below }

  1. The Cosmic Avenger*

    Maybe it’s because of my personal experience with this issue, but since the OP is getting a lot of information second-hand through her supervisor and she has said that she doesn’t trust him, I wonder if the supervisor is exaggerating at best, or making things up to play people against each other at worst.

    I’m not saying they should assume that that is the case, but IMO they should definitely see if they can get independent verification of anything the supervisor says or has said before acting on it.

    1. AthenaC*

      “since the OP is getting a lot of information second-hand through her supervisor and she has said that she doesn’t trust him, I wonder if the supervisor is exaggerating at best, or making things up to play people against each other at worst.”

      That’s a great point – I completely missed that. For all we know, supervisor told Niles that OP would be thrilled to switch jobs, and OP put a wrench in that by standing up for herself.

      1. Canaloupe*

        I imagine that is the case. To invite OP to the dinner (which seems to be a celebration for Fergus’ ‘professional development’) would imply that they thought OP would be okay and wants to switch to a lesser role. So OP’s invite was either meant to congratulate her as well for her new position or to have her cheerfully hand off her position to Fergus.

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          It’s not always even intentional (although that was the case in my previous job); sometimes people just make assumptions and run with them in their enthusiasm, and then they feel invested in them, and may blame the messenger who contradicts their perception of reality.

        2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Other possibility: if they do it at a fancy dinner out in public, the OP is more pressured to accept the announcement and not “cause a scene” (ie raise uncomfortable concerns).

          1. Zahra*

            Oh boy, the “not cause a scene” setup and silencing tactic. I can tell you that, in my personal life, I’ll tell you not to ambush me and then you won’t get a scene.

          2. Vanesa*

            I think that’s a good point too. And maybe her supervisor really wasn’t in on it and that’s why the told her.

            1. V*

              1. Woah, that’s my name too – I almost never meet other “one S” Vanesas.

              2. Yeah, I really wondered about the supervisor’s role in all this. I’m not so sure Niles is the tool. This reads to me a lot like the supervisor is trying to cover his butt with both the LW and Niles by telling them both what he thinks they want to hear and has instead made things incredible awkward for everyone. I’d want to talk to Niles directly to clear the air.

            1. neverjaunty*

              Yes to all of this. The fact that they were going to spring this on the OP *and* announce it at a dinner makes it damn obvious that they were trying to pressure her into shutting up and taking it.

                1. A Non E. Mouse*

                  Can I just say I’m extremely happy when someone mentions Legally Blonde? There’s just so much to love.

                2. OhNo*

                  I love Legally Blonde, but my first thought was actually from the West Wing.

                  “What makes you think I wouldn’t yell where there are people?!”

                3. Hlyssande*

                  Ohmygosh Elizabeth, it and the sequel are pure gold. A little painful sometimes if you struggle with secondhand embarrassment, but wonderful.

                4. The Strand*

                  Love to hear your feedback on seeing Legally Blonde, Elizabeth West. I considered it a “guilty pleasure” (like the theme song by Hoku) when it came out, but it has only gotten sharper with time. Plus, my husband loves it too.

                  And thank you, OhNo, for channelling CJ Cregg this morning :)

            2. SarahTheEntwife*

              Yes! Except it’s more of a surprise public breakup. With the person they’re dating instead. 0.o

            3. sstabeler*

              the thing is, with surprise public proposals, it should only really be a surprise that you are asking *then*- that is, you have discussed marriage before, and the only actual surprise is the timing of the proposal. (in other words, when your girl/boyfriend figures you will propose at some point, but the actual moment you will ask is a surprise)

          3. Pwyll*

            Yup. Old company did everyone’s individual raise announcements at a crowded bar (would take people aside one by one to discuss), I’m fairly sure because they wanted a situation where no one could push back. Certainly a possibility here as well.

        3. jaxon*

          What is this bizarre workplace where extensive conversations about your position and duties happen by surprise at dinner with other colleagues present? There is a lot of weirdness happening here.

      2. OP*

        Supervisor is a known for drama for sure. I think Niles told him to sell it to me as a positive and he didn’t

          1. Mallory Janis Ian*

            Yeah, how is, “we’re giving junior male colleague all the plum projects and you can have his grunt work” supposed to be presented as positive, unless they think either (1) that OP is an idiot and won’t notice or (2) that they are sooooo clever that OP couldn’t possibly decipher the subtlety of what they’re up to.

        1. SebbyGrrl*

          Thanks for checking in OP.

          On my first couple of reads I didn’t see that manipulation, good call everyone!

          You were set up from every direction.

          F yer Sup. and the bigger boss, I’m sure it felt and feels craptastic but you really called it right.

          Your instincts are excellent! Give yourself some props!

      3. Collarbone High*

        I worked with someone who did this frequently — he’d volunteer his staff members for undesirable assignments, or assure his bosses they could take on substantially more work (they couldn’t) and then when he presented the “good news” and people balked, he’d say oh I agree, it’s so unfair, but this came down from my boss and there’s just nothing I can do.

    2. AnonEMoose*

      I’m wondering about this, too. OP, unless you have compelling reasons to stay, I’d be seriously considering a job change in your shoes. Or at least putting out some feelers to see what might be out there. If that’s not an option, I’d definitely suggest watching your back.

    3. JenVan*

      Yeah, the whole “I was told that I could speak to no one about the switch (including Big Boss) … ” makes it sound like Supervisor either pushed for or, at the very least, encouraged this arrangement and intimated to Big Boss she would be Happy Sally about it. I mean, why would she not be able to speak with the very person making this important change in her career? Makes no sense. Then, Supervisor comes back later, but prior to the “professional development” dinner to follow up. Seems to me like he’s checking up to make sure she won’t make him look like a fool at the dinner. Then later, it’s Supervisor who tells her that she now has poor relationships with everyone, blah blah blah. The only part Niles had in this (from what we can tell) was the one confrontation that apparently went well enough, and he didn’t end up making any switch at all!

      OP says she doesn’t like or trust Supervisor – I wonder if he feels some acrimony toward OP as well and is just trying to push her off his team. He went about it in a really crappy way.

      Sorry OP, hope you get this worked out somehow …

    4. Lindsay J*

      This was my first though.

      Being told that she wasn’t allowed to talk to Niles about the switch being made by him regarding her career advancement set off the alarm bells to begin with. (Along with the “I really disagree IRL, but at the meeting I’m going to pretend to be supportive” from the direct supervisor.)

      Then she did speak to Niles, and it was a civil conversation. And he called off the switch.

      Then later she’s again hearing not from Niles, but from her direct supervisor, that Niles is mad at her.

      I feel like the direct supervisor is heavily involved here, and probably (purposely) miscommunicating things to both Niles and OP.

      Either the switch was the direct supervisor’s idea, or at the very least it seems like he has been indicating to Niles all along that the OP was fine with the idea without ever talking to her about it. And now he’s telling her Niles is mad at her when Niles really isn’t because he’s pissy that he didn’t get his way.

      If I were OP, I would cease any communication with the direct supervisor about Niles and communicate directly with Niles in the future about things like this. If I were her I might even go directly to Niles now and say something like, “Direct boss mentioned that you were upset about the way I handled things when the prospect of me and Fergus switching jobs was brought up. I didn’t get any indication that there was a problem at the time so I was surprised to hear about it now months later. Would it be possible to set up a meeting with you to discuss and debrief about the whole thing?”

      I feel like the OP might hear, “What? I’m not upset,” in response to that and then would know that this is all coming from the direct supervisor. Or if she gets to have the meeting she can talk out the whole thing more calmly from both sides and find out what really happened from both sides of the story.

      1. Gaara*

        Yeah, I like this. Right now the one I don’t trust is the supervisor. It seems worth trying to talk with Niles to see where things actually stand!

      2. ArtsNerd*

        There’s also a possibility that direct communication with Niles will result in more trouble for OP, because Niles thinks supervisor’s job was to make OP happy with the switch, feels like everything should stick to hierarchy, and doesn’t want to deal with it at all. (Had a Big Boss who probably would have had my boss discipline me in this situation.)

        Obviously up to the LW to read her company culture and the personalities involved.

    5. BobcatBrah*

      I agree with this. It seems like OP’s supervisor isn’t pleased with her work (or it could be personality clash, Who knows?), and the idea is to pass it off on somebody else in the company without firing her. It doesn’t sound like a discrimination thing, but now that you brought it up, I’m willing to bet that your job is safe another few months until your supervisor finds a reason to let you go (and if you hadn’t brought it up, your job would have been in jeopardy months ago if you refused the transfer).

      I actually gave a low performer a choice of transfer or termination after sussing out that her commute was draining her, and she picked the transfer. (our location was a daily 2 hour round trip commute for her, and the location she went to was walkable from her apartment, and fairly quickly after the move, she became a much better performer).

  2. AthenaC*

    This is so weird. If the colleague had concerns about the type of experience he is getting, why not reshuffle some responsibilities / projects between you two, and of course involve both of you in that discussion and how best to handle it? Maybe even let the two of you work out together how to share projects, as long as the work gets done on time?

    Really not a great way to manage people.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      We don’t know if that’s the reasoning though. There actually could be legitimate reasons for the proposal — for example, if the OP was struggling with the work and the coworker was strong in those areas. (Of course, a decent manager would ensure they had given the OP feedback about the problems, etc. before moving on to such a drastic change.)

      I’m being totally hypothetical here though; I have no reason to believe this is the case or not.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        The first thing I would have done is pressed for information about their reasoning, but it’s also somewhat suspicious that they didn’t lead with why this would be good for the OP. I know, I’m already looking at it very suspiciously, but really, how basic is it to present a proposal of questionable or mixed value by hard-selling or at least leading with the benefits? Not just at work, but anywhere? Or, if you think it’s necessary for the greater good but a net negative to someone, you lead with an explanation/apology/greater good argument. This was just hanging out there rather oddly as if the OP should just trust her supervisor when it sounds like she has very good reasons not to do so.

      2. neverjaunty*

        There could be other situations where two co-workers had duties switched, but from what the OP said, there’s no reason to believe there was a sound rationale here – at least, none that was communicated in any way to the OP, which would be a massive fail right there even if the intent was perfectly legitimate.

        Frankly, it sounds like BigBoss wanted to promote his golden boy at OP’s expense.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t think we have enough info to know either way. To say that with any confidence, we’d need loads more information about the OP’s performance, the coworker’s performance, the types of duties, and all kinds of other context.

          Regardless, the employer mishandled this. But it’s totally possible that their original reasons weren’t based on sexism.

          1. neverjaunty*

            Sure, it could be all kinds of non-sexism-related stupid. It just doesn’t seem, from the OP’s letter, that *this* is a situation where there were sound business reasons for the company to act as it did.

        2. Norman*

          But LW was clear that she and he colleague are at the same level. She likes her job better, but there wasn’t going to be a promotion for the other guy. For all we know, he was upset about this, too. Maybe he liked his single-task job.

          1. Zahra*

            If I may?

            The invitation list included my supervisor, a colleague (who is junior to me in both experience and title), and that colleague’s supervisor, who I’d never met before.

            So the colleague is not really at the same level. He may be, on an organizational chart, on the same level. However, he is also in a different reporting line and, if you put both side by side, the title and experience make it clear that they are not expected to produce the same kind of work.

  3. TotesMaGoats*

    My advice: Get out as soon as you can.

    Why? If it’s scenario A where they just bumbled what was a non-illegal HR decision then I have to wonder what else they are going to bumble in the future that will cause stress and frustration. Who needs that? If it’s scenario B where they were going to do something illegal then you definitely don’t want to work there.

    1. Lemon Zinger*

      100% this. OP, this business has done no favors for you. They screwed up… big time. And you can tell that your superiors aren’t trustworthy or respectful. Why stay here? Start job-hunting now.

    2. BRR*

      I agree with this. Every likely scenario leads me to thinking the LW should just try and leave if she can. They make poor decisions in general, they make illegal decisions, they don’t communicate well, they’re petty, etc. My gut says that if something was mentioned four months later, things are going to maintain a certain level of weirdness. As I mentioned in another post today, the advice that is going to produce results isn’t the same as how things should be but that advice is you leaving. No matter the reason for the proposed job switch, they’re handling it wrong now.

    3. The Strand*

      Definitely start looking. Because while things could get better, you’ll feel better about yourself in keeping options open.

  4. LBK*

    I’m curious if they more directly pointed to raising the discrimination concern in the conversation than the OP outlined here. From her current description, it sounds like they just didn’t like how she handled it at all – basically, that she expressed any frustration or dissent about the job switch, not necessarily the EEOC comment specifically. That almost seems like more a red flag to me, because while there may not be legal concerns around that, it says more to me about their expectations for the OP: that she should just shut up and take whatever changes they give her with a smile on her face, and that she shouldn’t express completely valid concerns about her career path being abruptly interrupted, whether for discriminatory reasons or not.

    I don’t mean this to dissuade the OP from calling attention to the presence of discrimination but rather to point out that even if the coworker were also female, this would be a terrible move on their part and shushing you up afterward would also be terrible. Illegal or not, bad management is run amok here, and I’d probably be looking for the door. No one here seems to have your best interests in mind (or at least not anyone who has sway, if your supervisor wasn’t able to do anything about this move despite allegedly fighting it for a year).

    1. Neeta*

      Though OP’s case, the job change was handled horribly (i.e. just springing it on her in front of others), I’m rather curious: how do you generally expect job responsibility changes to go down? In my experience, employees rarely get asked to agree to them.

      At my last job, I was “abruptly” pulled out of a project I was doing very well on, and placed on another one that needed urgent senior expertise. I had serious doubts about it, but everyone was assuring me that it was not a demotion, and that my responsibilities were extremely important yada yada yada. So I did my best to view it as such, especially since there was no option of me remaining in my current position. The whole thing was presented as a done deal.

      Like Alison always says, it’s an employer’s right to change their employees’ job descriptions as they see fit, and we (as employees) can then decide whether we still want the job. So I decided to give it a try, but when I found myself utterly miserable after 6 months, I figured I might as well leave.

      Needless to say that everyone was shocked by my decision, and my previous manager truly looked like she was feeling horrible for agreeing to the switch, but as far as I saw, there were no other projects being offered to me in order to stay. I was more or less told that I am taking this decision hastily, and have misunderstood some things that were said to me.

      1. Roscoe*

        That was my thought. Maybe dinner wasn’t the best setting, but I don’t know that you really need to have a “conversation” about it. Its more just telling her that her duties are changing. I mean, I don’t see why she thought she should have the right to protest this. ITs their decision how they manage their team.

        1. LavaLamp*

          I find it telling though that if this were legit, then the OP would’ve gotten the ‘this is your new role’ talk; not ‘this is your new demotion which we have no reason to give you except junior needs Chemical X, but no don’t worry you’re amazing’ And it would’ve gone ahead anyway if it was above board.

          I honestly bristle at the ‘you can never push back’ advice. I’m not a minion. I can say no. The advice should be ‘you can push back, but these consequences might happen, can you deal or is this not your hill to die on?’

          I’m sure you don’t mean to say people shouldn’t push bank on things Rosco, but that comes to close to taking agency away from a competent person for my comfort.

        2. HRChick*

          It’s less about their “right” to protest and more about treating employees like human beings.

          If there is a sudden change in someone’s responsibility, a good manager will explain why, even if it is non-negotiable.

          1. Christopher Tracy*

            If there is a sudden change in someone’s responsibility, a good manager will explain why, even if it is non-negotiable.

            All of this.

        3. LBK*

          I think it’s a matter of respect for a tenured employee. Having a “conversation” doesn’t mean the employee in question actually gets to be involved in the decision making, but rather you present it as “this is what we’re planning to do” and you allow the employee to provide their feedback. It’s not about having the right to “protest” it, it’s about hearing her out because she’s a trusted and respected employee that you have a relationship with.

          That doesn’t mean you have to actually do anything about that feedback, and you might be perfectly okay if the person’s reaction is quitting. But those are consequences that should be considered when making a decision like this; you can’t expect to just unilaterally make changes to someone’s job and have them take it with a smile without saying a word.

          I have a very close relationship with my manager and I would absolutely expect her to tell me something like this in private and allow me time to discuss it with her. That doesn’t mean I expect her to listen to whatever I say or that I expect her to renege on it if I don’t like it, but given the level of trust and transparency we’ve established with each other, it would be extremely unprofessional for her to just say “This is how it is, end of story” without at least hearing me out first.

          1. OhNo*

            I think you hit the nail on the head with your point about allowing the employee to provide feedback. While the OP was solicited for their feelings on the switch (which I would normally consider to be sufficient), the way that request was framed and the way the feedback was handled was also bumbled by their boss.

          2. AnonAnalyst*

            This. I would feel incredibly demoralized if my current manager came in one day and outlined a significant change in my role without even listening to my concerns. I suppose this could vary in other roles or types of work environment where managers just hand down orders, but that’s not the relationship I have with my manager in my current role, nor is it the relationship any of my colleagues have with their managers.

            In my current workplace, approaching a major shift that way would probably come across as abrupt and unacceptable to upper management and that manager would get coaching on effectively communicating with his/her team.

            1. Koko*

              Yes, in my workplace that simply wouldn’t happen. When I’ve been asked to take on or cede significant responsibilities, it always begins with an informal chat with my supervisor at one of our weekly check-ins. Either asking if I have bandwidth to take on the new thing, or telling me they’re thinking about creating a new position which will take over a little bit of my work and a little bit from other roles, and how do I feel about that? I’ve never objected to the latter because it’s never been a core or high-level part of my job they’ve tried to reassign, but I always got the sense that if I had said, “Actually, I really like doing that and would like to keep it,” they would have been open to working around that or compensating me with some other kind of interesting work instead.

              1. potato battery*

                Yes, the bandwidth thing is so important, too. If my manager approached me and said hey, I know you do these three things but we want to add this fourth one, I would want the opportunity to have an honest conversation about what I would realistically be able to produce and how much engagement I could have with each thing compared to before. That should be part of the decision, assuming people care about those four things getting done.

          3. Neeta*

            Oh yes, absolutely. I agree that listening to their concerns should be mandatory.
            I guess I was just confused by your initial phrasing of “that she should just shut up and take whatever changes they give her with a smile on her face“. Because to me, the only other alternative seems to quit.

            1. LBK*

              The alternative is to voice your concerns and see what happens. It may be nothing, and ultimately your choices after that may still come down to sucking it up or quitting, but it’s still an action and a step you can take before you take one of the other two steps. As seen in my example below and in the OP’s example, sometimes voicing your concerns does lead to the change being rescinded (although in the OP’s case there does obviously seem to have been some additional repercussions).

        4. Kyrielle*

          And, if it’s possibly discriminatory, you have a leg to stand on as you push back. If it’s effectively (or directly) a demotion and they’ve given you no reason to think you were doing poorly, you can push back. Yes, they may then tell you to suck it up and leave it up to you to decide what to do next (resign, find another job and then resign, complain via the EEOC, suck it up and stick it out, etc.). They might also terminate you or start treating you weirdly; that’s a risk you take. (Although, legally, it shouldn’t be when possible discrimination is brought up.)

          They can – provided it doesn’t violate the law – decide unilaterally how they are going to place and manage you. And you can decide how you are going to deal with that, including pushing back. Sometimes pushing back is too much of a risk. Sometimes it’s not.And that calculus will depend on the situation but also the person in the situation.

        5. designbot*

          You always have the right to protest how someone is treating you. They just don’t have to listen or change their plans based on that protest, and you should approach it with a degree of care for your relative positions.

        6. Megan Schafer*

          She has the right to voice concerns – over what it means for her, but also what it means for the work they’re doing. Concerns that projects may be interrupted, that she might not be prepared to do the work they’re asking, that a change mid-project could upset clients, whatever. Making it safe to voice concerns is what smart employers do.

      2. LBK*

        My boyfriend is actually going through this right now (they told everyone they were rearranging the team’s responsibilities and basically shifting all the interesting work to another team) and the reaction was so extremely negative across the board that they’re re-evaluating it because they know the alternative is that everyone will just quit.

        So I don’t think it’s so much about being asked rather than being told, but that a good manager will listen to the employee’s response and gauge whether the potential consequences are worth whatever benefits they envision will occur from the change.

        1. Dynamic Beige*

          At $LastJob, we were all scheduled for a meeting in the board room where it was announced that starting soon, Jane, Renelle and Fergus would now be Senior Teapot Makers. When they opened it up for questions or comments, I said that by doing that, they were immediately implying that everyone else was Junior (previously, everyone had just been Teapot Maker), which resulted in a great big resounding “so what?” I then further pointed out that that meant that from now on, all projects would be sent to the Senior people and we now “Junior” people would never get to make another teapot. Which was essentially the way the place was structured anyway with no clear path to advancement (other than sleeping with the right person/people). Jane then said to me “If you don’t like it, you can always leave.” Yes, in the snotty tone you would expect it to be said in. I wasn’t just advocating for myself, about 10 people were now in this position, so I was hoping someone would chime in but I can’t remember anyone backing me up. There was a whole bunch of “but that’s not the way we want it to be” “you’ll still get to make teapots” and other things that I highly suspected was nothing but lip service. One year later, it had happened exactly as I said it would… and then they announced that shortly Jane, Renelle and Wakeen (Fergus had left, no reason was given for Wakeen’s promotion) would be given further responsibilities to manage us Juniors. We would all be split up into teams and assigned to one or the other of them. There wasn’t a Hell, no! loud enough for me. I left before that could happen.

        2. Koko*

          Exactly this! OP should have been involved in a conversation before the decision was final. Even if they were 95% sure they wanted to make the change and were unlikely to change their minds, it’s a bare minimum amount of respect to at least engage with them like their opinion and satisfaction matters, and help them get on board with the idea instead of making it unilaterally above their head and handing it down to them.

        3. Neeta*

          Your boyfriend’s case was “lucky”, in that it’s (generally) much more difficult to fill in for an entire team, rather than 1 single person.

          1. LBK*

            I mean, the team still is only 3 people, so it’s not like it would have been a massive departure (and they presumably wouldn’t have all been able to find jobs at once).

        4. Turtle Candle*

          Yeah. I’m thinking how this would play out at my workplace–right now everyone in my position and related positions has a mix of work that is somehow “bad” (annoying, boring, involves dealing with difficult personalities, or just grunt work) and work that is somehow “good” (interesting, challenging, involves dealing with pleasant people, etc.). Obviously sometimes things skew more heavily one way or another depending on schedules and so on, but the main reason that it’s in the boss’s best interest to talk to us and make sure that changing responsibilities don’t mean that one person gets all the “bad” and another all the “good” is that, frankly, we’d just quit. There’s high enough demand for the skill set that–while technically they could come in tomorrow and rearrange everything to someone’s detriment–they know perfectly well that we’d have other options and would not stay long, and it’s a position where long-term institutional knowledge is pretty important, so losing even a third of us at once would be a fairly serious issue.

          Which strikes me as a pretty functional way for it to work, really. Yes, of course they could come in and say “you’re now responsible for all of [hated task], and we’re giving Joe the new guy all of [coveted task],” but since not all the power rests in their hands it’s actively in their best interests to make it a conversation when reassignment/rebalancing is necessary. And not least because various managers do not necessarily know what makes one task hated and another coveted! (Indeed, I once had someone all thrilled that he could “offer” me more time doing live webinars, because to him, doing a webinar was far more interesting and rewarding than writing a whitepaper, which he would have found incredibly boring and isolating. But I hate doing webinars, and love being able to spend several solitary weeks researching and writing up an in-depth whitepaper. Without some degree of back-and-forth, he might very well have put me on all-webinars-all-the-time and thought he was doing me a favor.)

  5. Mike C.*

    How was this “not a demotion” if the job being switched into was lower ranking and required less experience to perform? I completely understand why the OP stood up to this, they aren’t dealing fairly with you.

    Good for you for sticking your neck out like this, it makes it easier for others in similar situations to do the same. Best of luck to you.

    1. FD*

      I tend to agree in this case.

      If her performance was unsatisfactory for some reason, they should have told her long before that, and been clear that was the reason. I also feel like announcing it at dinner was meant to make it difficult for the LW to object, because it would be a social setting and she’d have to do it in front of the person it benefited.

    2. Mel*

      It’s not necessarily a demotion. What if the switch was temporary and/or was in the plans before the new guy was hired to give junior folks more experience? Its just premature to jump to illegal without exploring the legitimate reasons first.

      1. Kate M*

        But…even if the plan is to give junior people more experience, it’s still a demotion to say that “you are switching jobs with a junior person.” It doesn’t really matter the reasoning behind it – it’s still a demotion.

      2. AnonEMoose*

        But if either of those was the case, why not just tell the OP that up front? The way they handled this pretty much screams “we’re trying to get away with something, and are trying to manipulate you into not objecting.”

        1. Christopher Tracy*

          Yup. They could have, and should have, had this conversation with her in private before any decisions were made so she could voice any concerns she had. They didn’t do that because they didn’t want to hear what she had to say.

      3. Mike C.*

        Well, no legitimate reasons were brought up and suggesting that there might be something illegal going on doesn’t mean that no other legal or reasonable options can no longer be considered.

        When something walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s not unreasonable to say, “hey, it appears that I’m looking at a duck”.

          1. sunny-dee*

            I think “clueless” is a given in this case.

            My guess is that it was less sexism against the OP and more preference for Fergus, but it’s a bad move for a lot of reasons.

          2. AnonEMoose*

            They’re not mutually exclusive…and there’s always the possibility that there’s a side order of “manipulative” in there, too.

            1. Koko*


              The whole point of protecting even unfounded claims of discrimination from retaliation is that given the choice between the two worst-case scenarios of “wrongly suggesting discrimination is happening” and “not speaking up and enduring actual discrimination” the former is preferable to the latter. As you said, if it looks like a duck – managers aren’t delicate flowers who need to be protected from any suggestion that they might be engaging in discrimination.

              This is totally the “I feel bad when you accuse me of doing something wrong, and you making me feel bad with your accusation is just as bad as the bad thing you are accusing me of” trope.

          3. Tuxedo Cat*

            Clueless is the minimum. Who would want to sit through a dinner where you were demoted, even if it’s temporary? Especially with person who’s replacing you? Even if the letter writer is terrible at her job, that’s a really crappy thing to do to someone.

      4. Whats In A Name*

        I agree with Mike C. & FD here. They are DEFINITELY not dealing fairly with her in this situation.

        It might or might not be a demotion, but even a temporary switch shouldn’t be a “professional development” dinner with no constructive conversations leading up to the announcement – just her supervisor saying “I don’t agree but will support”.

      5. Shannon*

        Then why not have the OP and the coworker work together to get the junior person more experience?

    3. Connie-Lynne*

      Probably the comp wasn’t immediately affected? Although of course it would be long-term affected.

      1. CMT*

        Yeah, if they weren’t going to cut her pay and/or change her title, maybe they didn’t think they’d have to call it a demotion.

  6. voyager1*

    You have no idea why they wanted to switch you and your colleague, but the fact that colleague went to dinner and you didn’t to me is that clue in that you really blew it here. I would not bring this up again with them. At best they will do the out thing that AAM mentions, but honestly your rep there is now one of “if I don’t get my way I am gonna sue you for discrimination.” AAM is right, they aren’t going to wrong you, but you won’t move up or anything.

    1. WIncredulous*

      Or it’s a clue OP was spot on and the male colleague is getting favorable treatment at her expense, and is being retaliated against for asserting her EEOC rights.

      1. LavaLamp*

        Yeah, a demotion for no reason other than ‘we want coworker’ to have your experience isn’t cool. There are a million ways to get coworker experience in X without demoting the employee who does X.

        1. VivaL*

          If this were the case, why wouldn’t Niles have explained that to her when he spoke with her? It would have diffused her complaint and given clarity to the situation. He didnt. He called off the entire thing – why not continue with cross training if it was a totally innocent thing?

          1. AnonAnalyst*

            But…is it possible that Niles didn’t understand the details of the OP’s job and the coworker’s job and thought they were somewhat interchangeable until he had the conversation with OP? Depending on how far removed Niles is from the OP’s day to day work, he might not have a clear picture of what she does, and it certainly sounds like her supervisor isn’t doing anything to set the record straight (despite his statements to the contrary).

            Supervisor strikes me as kind of a yes-man from the letter, so I could see this playing out with him just going along with Niles’ plan and not sharing any of OP’s concerns until the EEOC comment.

            Or they could have been doing exactly what the OP suspected. I can see it playing out either way, frankly.

            1. AnonAnalyst*

              Sorry, forgot to add – he absolutely should have said something to that effect when they were discussing the move, but it does not sound like communication is one of this management team’s strong suits. However, I could see him suddenly calling it off if he realized that it wasn’t an appropriate cross-training set up.

      2. Vanesa*

        I have a question and maybe I missed something, but how do we know the OP is female?

        I was thinking the EEOC was brought up due to age.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          And then I said this: “What you have described sounds like a junior male colleague getting experience at my expense. That sounds more like an EEOC complaint than ‘career development’ for me.”

          The wording here implies that what differentiates the colleague from the OP is his maleness.

      3. AFRC*

        Exactly! OP was willing to go to the dinner, but was disinvited when she called them out on what was going on. As others have said, if there was a legit concern about her work, it appears that she had absolutely no idea about it (no feedback or coaching from her manager). So, she’s going with the assumption that Niles just decided one day that he wanted to switch them with no real explanation. And in a public space, which, as people have mentioned, is a terrible way to talk about a difficult topic.

      4. Lanon*

        In that case, she is even more screwed. You know what unethical employers like least? Those who know & stand up for their rights.

        In that case, employers still have 10000 tools at their disposal to make their employee’s lives a living hell, completly legally.

    2. Mike C.*

      I completely disagree with this assessment. People should not be afraid to assert their right to be free of unfair discrimination and their concerns must be taken seriously.

      1. Mel*

        That’s true but its also usually not best to assert it until youve at least given them a chance to explain the business reason first.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          I think that their insistence that they can’t explain it but the OP also can’t ask anyone else about it means that they’ve had their chance and declined to take it.

            1. NW Mossy*

              And Niles didn’t either, even though he and the LW subsequently had a conversation about it after the LW’s supervisor based along her concerns.

              1. Temperance*

                I bet that the manager gave Niles the impression that she was just fine with it, which is why he banned her from discussing.

            2. Lindsay J*

              But she was told she wasn’t allowed to talk about it with anyone other than the direct supervisor, including Niles.

      2. Retail HR Guy*

        Absolutely… in a well-run company with ethical and professional people. But that’s the ideal situation. In the ugly world of less-than-ideal employers, one has to understand that threatening your employer can often end in your career hitting a wall, and that subtle retaliation is very hard to prove or rectify.

        1. Mike C.*

          The OP hasn’t been fired yet and she kept her current position, so I think things are far away from the “darkest timeline”, so to speak.

          1. Lanon*

            Realisticly speaking, she will probably still be canned at the earliest next convenience, and will probably still get a complete garbage reference or be blackballed. The one thing unethical employers hate more then anything is people asserting their rights.

        2. Koko*

          I think it’s a stretch to call any mention at all of labor laws a “threat.” She said, “What you have described sounds like a junior male colleague getting experience at my expense. That sounds more like an EEOC complaint than ‘career development’ for me.”

          That is a pretty great example of nonviolent communication to raise a difficult issue. She didn’t declare, “You are doing X to me! I’m going to sue you!” She said, “To me, it sounds like X is going on.” And then waited to hear their response, giving them an opportunity to provide another perspective or explanation.

          I realize there are some truly horrible bosses out there that we read about here a lot, but they’re not such a majority of bosses that people should be afraid of speaking up when they feel they’re being treated unfairly because the boss might have thin skin, interpret your concern as a “threat,” and/or retaliate against you in subtle nefarious ways.

        3. Stranger than fiction*

          Thats what I’m thinking. Even though these two bosses handled this all poorly, they most likely feel threatened now, unfortunately. Although it’s totally their fault for not being transparent and making Op feel she was backed into a corner. I’m sure they were never expecting that and they may have even done this before to more complacent employees and not gotten any pushback.

    3. Amber Rose*

      A dinner is not a clue to anything. It’s probably just that since the job switch wasn’t happening, there was no meaning in OP being present.

      1. Joseph*

        Except…that then points back to the original issue of why you’re having a public dinner to announce a job-switch and demoting a current employee.

        1. Amber Rose*

          Ok, slight amendment: dinner is clue to management being pretty incompetent in this situation.

          1. OhNo*

            I can’t agree hard enough with that evaluation.

            OP, your managers are bad communicators, likely incompetent, and apparently pretty worried about an EEOC complaint (if their response is anything to go by). It’s not a good combo.

      2. ceiswyn*

        But if the job switch wasn’t happening, there was no meaning in the other colleague being present either…

        1. Amber Rose*

          I dunno, he’s junior and may not have been with the company long. Networking is still professional development.

          Ideally OP would be there for that too but I can think of a few reasons why she wasn’t.

        2. Koko*

          Unless they went with a Plan B for his professional development, or perhaps the role-switching was only one component of his professional development and the other components still went forward.

        3. Lindsay J*

          I’m assuming he was told prior to this that he would be taking OPs position (just like OP was told she would be switching to his position) so maybe this time was used to break it to him that the switch wasn’t going to happen, and possibly discuss other avenues for his career development.

    4. Charlotte Collins*

      But it sounds to me like they were planning to demote her anyway. (No matter how you slice it, removing responsibilities and projects without the employee asking for it is a demotion, even if the pay is the same.)

      I’d be mortified if I were taken to dinner to be told that my role was changing to a less desirable one, and, by the way, here’s the junior colleague who gets your role now.

      These people are bad managers, whether they were trying to discriminate or not, and the OP should start looking for a new job. Especially if she doesn’t trust her own manager.

      1. Bob Barker*

        Yeah, this is the nut here: what on earth did they think they were doing, inviting someone to a nice dinner to break news which is even the slightest bit ambiguous in its positivity? Bad news is always best in private, and if they didn’t know they were breaking bad news, then they have a serious reality problem on their hands

        The manager’s a problem, but the problem goes way up beyond the manager. “Oh, by the way, in future you’ll have to do your job while hanging upside down by your toes. Have an oyster?” Niles, please.

    5. LBK*

      If “not getting your way” means “not being demoted with zero explanation” then I’d be perfectly happy having that reputation. Of all the hills out there, this seems like one worth dying on.

    6. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Wait, no. If someone has a bona fide concern about discrimination, this advice would be incredibly silencing to them. That’s not right.

      I have no idea whether the OP’s original suspicion was correct or not, and so I’m not sure if the way she handled it was wise, but I don’t think this is the conclusion to draw.

      1. voyager1*

        But that is the whole point, you don’t know nor does the OP. Everyone is jumping on the discrimination bandwagon, but frankly there isn’t enough evidence to say that. Everyone is filling in the blanks with the worst possible situation.

        But I am standing by what I wrote earlier. They won’t do anything to her, but they won’t promote her either.

        1. Zahra*

          Which, in and of itself, is a form of retaliation.

          Also, cancelling the dinner with OP, but not the junior level guy and his supervisor? Doesn’t look good either.

          Basically, so far, the whole thing has been handled very very badly by the business and their reaction is not painting the management as clueless people. It’s rather painting them in a very anti-EEO manner.

        2. The Cosmic Avenger*

          Not promoting her when a man or a person who did not mention an EEOC complaint would be promoted would be discrimination.

          1. I'm Not Phyllis*

            Only if that were a factor in their decision – which there’s no way to know for sure. The whole thing was mishandled.

            1. Kimberlee, Esq*

              There’s typically no way to know for sure, unless the manager says something like “I am a sexist.” Which is not a thing that happens. Defaulting to not saying something is defaulting to an often sexist or racist status quo. It doesn’t mean that saying something is always the right move, but not saying something rarely results in less sexism or racism.

        3. Mike C.*

          Simply bringing it up as possibility in light of no other business reason to demote the OP is not “jumping on the discrimination bandwagon”. If the other coworker needed experience, there are a million ways for the OP to give them that experience without a full demotion. If the OP sucked at her job, there are a million ways to let her know, coach her and so on.

          No explanation was ever given, and for some strange reason the switch never happened, so any business case for it looks incredibly weak to non-existent. If there was a strong, non-discriminatory reason for the switch it would have gone through and it would have served as a trivial defense for the employer.

          In your view, what evidence should the OP have before she can even mention the possibility of discrimination?

          1. Mel*

            it’s too late to do it now, but Op should have done what she was going to do- go to the dinner and if he didn’t explain the decision ask Miles afterwards to help her understand the reasoning for the reassignment to lower level duties.

            1. Mike C.*

              Why? Outside of getting a nice dinner at the expense of the employer it seems like you risk trying to close the barn doors after the horses have left.

              1. Mel*

                Well because once Miles tells you the rationale all you have to do is prove that it was BS to have a discrimination claim. If you don’t get the rationale he’ll have the opportunity to have a lawyer help him craft a “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason.”.

            2. HRChick*

              the thing to consider as well is that the employee did plan on going to the dinner and getting an explanation. Once she said that, from what she knew so far, this sounded more like discrimination than anything, her boss and the other boss are the ones that shut down and further conversation about the change.

        4. AFRC*

          But she has no other reason to think it’s anything else. So they have some explaining to do. She said she doesn’t like her manager, and we also don’t have all the details. Maybe she has more details that she didn’t share.

        5. Jennifer M.*

          And if they don’t promote her anymore because they don’t like that she raised what she thought might potentially be an EEOC concern, that is illegal retaliation and they are in the wrong.

          1. Vanesa*

            I completely agree that it’s wrong, unethical and illegal, but wouldn’t that be very hard to prove?

              1. Vanesa*

                I can see it for example if another person was promoted over her, but for example she mentioned the male colleague is junior to her so if he is promoted he would be at her level. I guess I could also see it if they promote people with her title in different departments

              2. Mel*

                if they have any experience with discrimination claims they might know as long as they promote someone else who looks more qualified on paper she’ll have a hard time proving failure to promote is retaliatory.

              3. Turtle Candle*

                One of the things that perpetually astonishes me is how often employers get themselves in trouble by volunteering things like that. Similarly, I have a friend who was outright told that she wasn’t getting a promotion because she was a young woman and was just going to get pregnant and bail on them eventually anyway; had they just failed to promote her, it would have been a lot harder for her to make a complaint, but they dropped it right in her lap.

                I mean, in a larger sense it’s a good thing, because it means that the difficult task of proving that you’re being discriminated against is eased. But it baffles me. Arrogance? Ignorance of the law? Being unable to resist making the “haha, take that!” comment in the moment?

              1. Vanesa*

                That sucks! And I don’ mean to say that this is right, but I had a family friend who is a manager at a hotel tell me that if you don’t like someone or want to fire someone there are plenty of legal ways to do it. Everyone makes mistakes and if you want to get rid of someone you can do it easily and legally.

                1. TL -*

                  You can just fire people in most of the USA. You can literally just say, there’s no reason for this but you’re fired.

                  As long as you’re not firing them for being a member of a protected class, you’re usually okay.

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  @TL, in theory, yes, but in practice if the person then sues, having no reason makes it hard to defend against allegations of discrimination. Which is why in general employers try to have actual reasons.

          2. Mel*

            That’s true, but it’s incredibly difficult to prove that was the real reason if you don’t hear them out first. Companies will go to the ends of the earth to find a “legitimate reason”. And it’s much easier to come up with a legitimate reason when they have a lawyers help doing so. You have a much better chance of winning a discrimination claim and discrediting their reasoning when they give you the unedited version.

            1. Vanesa*

              Yes, so this reminds me of OITNB where something happens (I won’t say what because I don’t want to ruin it for everyone), but the corporation has these two lawyers/analysts working on what they will tell the media to make it “legitimate” and they are doing all kinds of research and spend what looks like days trying to figure out a way so it won’t look like the company is to blame.

        6. neverjaunty*

          Ah, so your real issue here is you’re one of those folks who thinks it’s wrong to think “it could be discrimination” unless there is 100%, flat-out irrefutable proof that it is, like a supervisor saying “we are demoting you because you’re female”.

          1. voyager1*

            never jaunty,
            I think she should have waited with her claim comment till after the dinner, she would have had more answers at that point. Then if she had any missgivings afterwards then talked to the two supervisors and brought up how she felt she was being demoted.

            I think by not doing that she has blown her relationship with these folks. While they will not fire her they aren’t going to do anything or promote her either.

            1. Kyrielle*

              Except that after the dinner, her junior colleague would definitely have heard about this, have been publicly told he had it, etc. Walking it back would be much harder. Which is probably what they were going for, and giving them that ground would be a mistake.

              1. voyager1*

                I don’t think what junior employee knows or doesn’t know is really relevant. If the OP were to pursue a claim against the employee that junior employee may have give deposition anyway. Her making the claim the next day wouldn’t real matter. IMHO.

                1. Kyrielle*

                  No, but it *could* change or damage her working relationship with the junior employee. If he’s already been told in private, the two are probably close to equivalent, but even so – having the celebration dinner before having his promotion yanked would make that more uncomfortable. (I suspect that was their goal, so that OP would go along with it.)

              2. Kimberlee, Esq*

                Yeah, the dinner was going to be the public announcement of the change in personnel. OP’s primary concern wasn’t proving that there was sexism happening, it was in not getting this demotion. Given that that was the goal, waiting until after the dinner probably would have been a mistake.

            2. neverjaunty*

              You have it backwards. They blew their relationship with her by springing a demotion on her in the way that they did, and continuing to be dysfunctional before and after their attempt to demote her. And they weren’t going to “do anything or promote her either” – did you not catch that they actually tried to demote her before she even mentioned the EEOC?

              There’s no reason to believe she would have had more answers after the dinner, either, and she would also have been in a worse position. “Why didn’t you say something before, instead of waiting until we had this nice celebration?”

              1. voyager1*

                never jaunty,
                I think you are missing a major point, I am not saying the situation isn’t what you outlined, what I am saying is with information the OP has and the letter we have from her, it is far from a slam dunk. Too many unknowns.

                Secondly, I don’t see anything wrong with her going to the dinner, it wouldn’t have hurt her at all in discrimination case. An email the after the dinner with the language she has in her letter would still have been fine.

                1. neverjaunty*

                  You keep changing what you’re talking about, so I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

                2. Elsajeni*

                  But the OP’s desired outcome here is to not have her position changed in the first place — “They went ahead with the position change, but at least I’m likely to win the discrimination case” is a distant second. Going to the dinner might not have hurt her chances in the discrimination case, but I think there’s a strong chance that it would have hurt her chances of getting them to cancel the position change — they’d be presenting it as a fait accompli, the colleague who would benefit from it would be right there, and they’d be in public, all elements that would make it awkward or uncomfortable for the OP to object in the moment and awkward or politically difficult for Niles to walk back the change.

            3. Kelly L.*

              I think it’s a lot easier to walk back a decision before it’s been publicly and formally announced…possibly even in front of people from outside the company.

            4. Rey*

              Waiting to fight the switch after it has already been made would have put OP in a much weaker position. If she’d done that, she would have been protesting a decision that had not only already been made, but also publicly announced and possibly even put into effect. This is an uphill battle that, given the information we have about Niles and her supervisor, I strongly doubt she could have won. By bringing up her concerns before anything official had actually happened, she gave herself the best possible chance to keep the job she had, instead of getting stuck with one that she didn’t want and wasn’t hired to do.

    7. Snarkus Aurelius*

      The reason why she didn’t know is because they didn’t tell her. If they had been transparent from the start, the OP’s mind may not have gone there.

      What else is she supposed to think, especially when no one was unhappy with her work?

      1. Newby*

        Not only did they not tell her their reasoning, they seemed very resistant to explaining. She was actually told that she could not talk to anyone including the boss about it. That seems like a very strange thing to do and left her with no options to find out the reasoning in a non-confrontational way. She did not bring up the EEOC issue until she was specifically asked about her concerns. It sounds like she was in a no-win situation.

        1. Temperance*

          It sounds like they were trying to back her into a corner to me. Banning her from discussing what was obviously a demotion, giving her no information about why she was being demoted … setting up a “professional development” dinner where a younger male was going to be given her job …. yeah, I can’t see anything but nefarious actions here. I guess it’s totally possible that this was above board, but … well, it stinks.

        2. RVA Cat*

          This. Everything about this smells like the Old Boy Network in action, they are just self-aware enough to know they are doing something wrong and so they’re trying to be sneaky.

          1. RVA Cat*

            Also, anyone else thinking that discrimination/OBN may be how Niles the Tool and the OP’s supervisor got their promotions despite being tools and bad managers?

            1. Temperance*

              Yep. That’s how the OBN works – men promote other men because some dude helped them out way back when.

              1. neverjaunty*

                That’s not fair. OBN dudes also promote other dudes because they went to the same alma mater or are in a fantasy football league together.

                1. Whats In A Name*

                  Do you watch The League? Some guy just got a sweet deal becuase his lawyer gave opposing council a sweet trade in fantasy fb.

                2. RVA Cat*

                  I remember the cringe-worthy moments from freshman orientation at college where an upperclassman boasted “I can get a job I’m not even qualified for because of my fraternity!” Said fraternity was also on suspension “because they say we raped a girl.”

                  ….and that’s when 18-year-old baby-feminist me decided to never, ever go to a frat party, and also that the OBN sucks (and so does rape culture).

                3. neverjaunty*

                  Ugh, those dudes. I remember law school classmates who would argue against affirmative action because “meritocracy” one minute, and the next would brag about how they got a sweet summer internship because their dad was golf buddies with a judge or managing partner. Like… are you even hearing yourself?

                4. The Strand*

                  Well, yeah, doesn’t merit mean that you’re better than other people – whether the better is, I don’t know… better performance, or better access to money?

                  And to be fair, the biggest idiot I met in school was a wealthy girl who got jobs she was in no way qualified for, because her mommy had connections. Hopefully there was someone there to sharpen her pencils for her at her top media job, because I don’t think she could do it without hurting herself. OBN is not just for boys.

    8. AFRC*

      But if they ARE discriminating, she has an obligation to advocate for herself. Dismissing people who report legitimate discrimination is how bad managers/companies get away with it. The OP seems to have a very good handle on what’s going on, and that this was completely out of the blue to her. Her manager and Niles should have more clearly talked to her about what was going on. If this truly isn’t discrimination, they should be prepared to have a really thorough conversation about the reasons for their decision (and explain why they never mentioned the idea in the entire year prior to this). Instead, they chose a setting that many people use to break up with someone so they don’t get publicly upset. That doesn’t sound like good management to me.

    9. AFRC*

      The fact that Niles disinvited her and her manager (instead of actually explaining what was going on) is not okay. It doesn’t even sound like he had very good reasons for moving her, or he would have been able to make the decision and tell her those reasons. Because he changed his mind and didn’t switch them, then there must not have been a compelling reason for moving them in the first place, other than a misguided management decision from Niles.

    10. Tomato Frog*

      My first reaction is the opposite — that citing the EEOC got her a much better outcome than she would’ve had otherwise.

      1. Rocky*

        Great point. Yes, the OP is still in the “office of evil bees,” but she held onto her current job responsibilities, which puts her in a better position to get out, which I think she should. If she’d been a good girl and kept her mouth shut, she would have been demoted, which could have complicated her job search.

    11. The Strand*

      I disagree. In fact, I disagree with the title of the post (sorry Alison), “I said EEOC and made it weird”.

      I think these people made it weird. A formal dinner to discuss a junior and senior colleague (who happen to be male and female respectively) switching jobs? Which sounded like some kind of ambush?

      She just put it out there. And good on her for it.

      I wouldn’t give two toots about my reputation with those people after their odd behavior; that’s a sign to update my resume and start looking. Or as Tuxedo Cat said: even if she had performance problems, you don’t treat your reports like this.

  7. WIncredulous*

    OP, if you go Allison’s route on the potential retaliation, please, put it in an email and document!!!

  8. JMegan*

    The only thing I would disagree with here is the headline. OP didn’t make it weird by bringing up EEOC – Niles and the supervisor made it plenty weird all by themselves before the OP even got involved. The only thing OP did was bring the weirdness out into the open.

    This all sounds a bit of a mess. And unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a way out of it that doesn’t involve OP leaving the company. She can’t un-know what she now knows about Niles and the supervisor, and I think it would be difficult to trust them again – especially since she didn’t have a high level of trust in them in the first place. The best possible outcome here is not that the weirdness goes away, it’s that the weirdness is swept back under the rug where it was comfortably hiding before. Which…is not a very good outcome, if the OP has other options. Good luck!

    1. Sara M*

      I agree, the headline’s wrong. Should be “..and things got weird” or something. I wouldn’t normally comment like that, but this reflects Alison’s oft-stated advice about how it’s the other person who has already made it uncomfortable.

    2. Mike C.*

      The only thing I would disagree with here is the headline.

      On further reflection, I think this is a good point.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        Yeah, that struck me too. I’d go with something more like “I said ‘EEOC’ and it got weird.”

    3. NW Mossy*

      Yeah, I wouldn’t be terribly motivated to trust or respect a management chain that acts like I’m a bystander to my own career and they can just move me around like I’m a printer/scanner/copier.

  9. NW Mossy*

    I’d like to nominate Niles the Tool as a potential candidate for Worst Boss 2016, or at least Most Clueless About How To Manage.

    1. SystemsLady*

      Not even close this year unfortunately, as weird and confrontational as this thing is. What a year.

      And as others have pointed out, the more I read the more I get the impression OP’s supervisor is the *real* tool here.

    2. KTMGee*

      I’d like to co-nominate the OP’s nameless supervisor here as well; we don’t know what Niles has actually said, but man did the supervisor botch things here.

    3. The Strand*

      Perhaps we can nominate him, just so OP can anonymously forward him the contest when it’s released (from the security of her new job).

  10. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    I was told I need to work on more personal relationships with both.

    This seems like such a weird thing to say. I mean, okay, the EEOC comment was probably not what they were expecting to hear, but having to work on a “more personal relationship” as a result??? That’s… bizarre. To be told you need to work on rebuilding trust, maybe, or on your attitude in the workplace, sure, but… I’m not sure how a more personal relationship would fix the fact that you pushed a bit too hard when they told you that you were summarily getting your job changed for the worse but declined to give you any solid information about it.

    Basically, I feel like this is a “office of evil bees” situation. At best, what you’ve got is people who are high-handed, cagey, and authoritarian; at worst, people who are sulking because you wouldn’t sit down and let yourself be screwed over.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      I was told that I could speak to no one about the switch (including Big Boss) and that it was definitely not a demotion as Niles was very happy with my work.

      I also find this part weird and kind of suspect. Obviously you don’t want to chat it around the office, but when you’ve just been told your manager is making a really weird and sketchy decision in managing you, being told explicitly not to speak to his boss about it just makes the whole thing seem even sketchier.

      1. NW Mossy*

        And if we take the supervisor at face value, it was all Niles’s idea and neither the LW’s supervisor or Fergus’s supervisor wanted this to happen. But somehow the LW should not talk to Niles about it? That’s all kinds of bizarre.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          I missed that Niles actually was the big boss!! That makes it even worse. “This was his idea but don’t mention it to him”???

        2. Connie-Lynne*

          I think it’s possible the Supervisor is up to something, speaking out of both sides of his mouth, telling OP one thing and Niles another.

          OP should speak to Niles.

          1. Katie F*

            Yep. This 100% read to me as the OP’s boss told Niles OP was ALL GUNG-HO about this job switch (without asking her or even speaking to her) and then is pissed that OP had the gall to not go along with the charade that she didn’t know was happening.

            I’m going to bet the only “personal relationship” that was damaged here was teh OP’s with her boss, and only then because of the boss being a grade-A jerk.

            Niles was probably baffled by the whole thing.

            1. BeautifulVoid*

              I’m leaning toward this interpretation. Maybe I’m stupidly optimistic, but if OP’s supervisor is the Main Tool and Big Boss Niles is just a Clueless Tool, OP can still salvage some sort of career at this company (maybe by switching teams in a legitimately lateral move and not this demotion?). Unfortunately, I don’t think she’s going to get very far with her current supervisor.

        3. Lindsay J*

          Yup. You would think that if both her supervisor and Fergus’s supervisor had been advocating against this for a year, that they would be happy for OP to go in and validate the fact that she doesn’t like it and that it’s a shitty idea. I don’t see why it would benefit them for her to not discuss things with Niles if everything is on the up-and-up.

          And when she did talk to the big boss, he didn’t fire her, and did reverse the decision. So it doesn’t seem like it was a “Niles won’t be questioned on this, and will fire you if you so much as breath a word about this to him so this is for your own good,” thing either.

      2. Damn It Hardison!*

        Or that it was actually her supervisor’s idea but instead of owning it, he’s putting it on the Big Boss.

        1. Cyberspace Dreamer*

          Love the Leverage shout out!! We need a “team” like leverage to weed out these crazy bosses, but alas, that would probably create more chaos in the real world.

    2. JMegan*

      At best, what you’ve got is people who are high-handed, cagey, and authoritarian; at worst, people who are sulking because you wouldn’t sit down and let yourself be screwed over.

      +1000000 to this.

        1. Kelly L.*

          I think Captain Awkward originated it, yeah. It’s usually the House of Evil Bees over there, since it’s usually about someone’s parents or partner.

        2. JMegan*

          I’m not sure if you meant to nest your comment here, but yes, that is the correct source for the House (Office, etc) of Evil Bees. It’s an incredibly useful analogy, isn’t it! :)

    3. Apparatchic*

      This is actually the biggest red flag to me of all, and I absolutely agree with the “office of evil bees” assessment. This sounds to me less like “You reacted poorly to a business decision that we were making for the good of the company” and more like “You made us feel like we were doing something wrong, which we were, and we don’t like you now”. I’d be looking for an escape route.

    4. the.kat*

      If I’m reading this correctly, Niles and the Supervisor are the sort of people who “aren’t sexist.” They have reframed the situation in their minds so that there’s a perfectly good reason to want OP out of their position and the young male colleague in it. So, when OP says EEOC, they are faced with the shock and horror that they (who are “not sexist”) had their best intentions misread. OP must not know them very well or trust them. In their minds, it’s a shame that the OP didn’t understand their good intentions and now the young male colleague isn’t going to get the opportunity he deserves. If only OP’s personal relationship with them were better. If OP trusted that the bosses had their best future in mind, all of this unpleasantness would be resolved.

      TL/DR: The bosses don’t want to think they’re sexist. OP must not know them. They’d never make a sexist decision.

      1. Rocky*

        Yep, I admit I’m totally speculating, but I’m getting a strong vibe that Niles and Supervisor are too clueless to understand that they’re doing something that appears discriminatory (and might be), and are reacting by doing more things that appear discriminatory (and might be). With a possible complication that Supervisor is passing bad information to both Niles and OP about each other, for his own reasons.

      2. OhNo*

        That sounds… disturbingly plausible. Re-reading the letter with that possibility in mind, I can 100% see that being a possible root cause of the whole mess.

        Yikes. I hope OP finds a new, better job with decent management ASAP, because hanging around this workplace doesn’t sound like much fun.

    5. AnonMurphy*

      The ‘more personal relationship’ was the biggest thing that pushed me over to suspecting it could have been a gender discrimination thing. Fortunately I’ve never gotten this message, but in my (albeit limited) experience , I don’t it very likely a male colleague of mine would get this kind of feedback (I’m a lady).

      1. Friday Brain All Week Long*

        This did it for me too, as my mind immediately jumped to some sort of “Corporate Bros on the Golf Course” mindset, where even if there is no golf course to be had, it’s a type of sexism where the only people who “get” the culture are the type who look like junior versions of the men in charge because that’s who the men in charge are most comfortable hanging out with.

    6. AFRC*

      YES!! Totally agree with you – I got a very “why can’t you just be a nice girl” vibe from that. She’s (understandably) not interested in having a personal relationship with these jerks.

      1. plain_jane*

        Not just that, but it’s totally code for the subsequent reason why she can’t be promoted is that she doesn’t have the visibility and relationships with senior team members like newguy does (he’s gone out to dinner with them and connected on a personal level etc.).

        Can’t the OP see it’s her own fault? etc.


    7. Lana Kane*

      “Work on mor epersonal relationships with both” is code for “do as you are told from now on.”

    8. Tuxedo Cat*

      If they really wanted her to have a more personal relationship, they would’ve kept the dinner without the promotion/demotion angle.

    9. nonegiven*

      They wanted to demote her, then didn’t and they don’t trust her? …to go quietly without a lawsuit if they fuck her over? Sounds like the kind of trust she needs at this job.

  11. Catalin*

    Can we talk about the 4 MONTHS LATER circle back to “You need to work on your personal relationships with (supervisor) and Niles”? This would make me massively uncomfortable on several fronts, especially assuming the LW is a woman and it sounds like S and Niles are both male. Ick. Seriously, ick.
    The way I’m reading it, S seems pedantic and childish — like he wasn’t happy about the (legit) pushback from LW and now he’s pouting FOUR MONTHS LATER. I mean, the earth traveled a third of its orbit and he’s still sulking? If this is all about a power trip for S, “work on your personal relationship” sounds like code for sucking up to S (or something even less savory).

    Per the other comments, Niles does come off as a little clueless on managing but there’s a definite chance LW is getting bad information from S.

    1. WIncredulous*

      Seems like the start of a vague “trail” of “insubordination” or some such nonsense to me, as a worst case scenario for OP.

      1. SystemsLady*

        This happened to a client I considered a respected colleague of mine :(.

        She came in to a management role, a manager was hired a few levels above her.

        1) He didn’t like her, was generally a jerk and tried to delete her role
        2) He worked up to eventually firing her manager (who liked her and more importantly respected her great work)
        3) He made sure to replace him with a manager with whom she was guaranteed to butt heads (I swear he intentionally selected somebody with an inverted design methodology and a firey temper on purpose)
        4) She was gone as soon as she did something verifiably insubordinate (which took MUCH longer than they wanted, they wanted to get her on poor quality of work and by all accounts she was completely, 100% aceing her project – not at all normal in our field with how much she was doing and the amount of resources she had!).

        Happyish ending, though: they were a large company and their legal department had apparently held up the firing for two months. She got a huge severance package as was likely suggested by legal, plus she ended up at a much more prestigious job. She’d been looking to quit at the close of the project anyway.

    2. AFRC*

      Just wanted to say I love this comment. I am anxiously awaiting the OP’s update (please update us OP, and good luck!) because I was extremely icked out as well.

  12. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Scenarios like this are why I rant on and on about transparency in the workplace.  If people in positions of power aren’t as transparent as possible, the affected workers will fill in the blanks on their own with whatever they suspect is going on.  That’s where terms like “EEOC” and “discrimination” enter the conversation.

    When I say transparency, I mean proactive transparency from day one — every decision and benefit is thoroughly explained and applied to everyone equally.  This should especially be the case when, all things equal, certain historically privileged groups get promotions, pay, benefits, etc. over others who do not resemble that demographic.

    To be sure, I’m not saying that means discrimination isn’t possible.  It most certainly is.  But if management sincerely believes they are making a legitimate decision here, then they need to own it and be as crystal clear as possible, especially as it can dramatically affect employees’ livelihoods.  When employers get cagey and give vague answers to legitimate questions, I’m never surprised in the reactions they get from workers.  (Hint: we’re not stupid!)

    What your bosses did, OP, was done under cover of darkness with no answers to legitimate questions and was to be executed during…a dinner?  Then they have the audacity to tell you that switching your position to a junior level -wasn’t- a demotion when that’s the very definition of the word?  No wonder your mind went there, OP.  Mine would have too!

    Perhaps you were a bit premature in saying “EEOC,” but given the results, I’m beginning to wonder if that’s exactly what was at play here.  After all, if Niles was truly happy with your work, as he said, then there needs to be more substantive justification for the switch for you and your junior colleague.  If that existed, you would have seen it.

    1. Jeanne*

      That’s the strangest part of the whole story. They’re completely changing her job and her department. But she does not deserve an explanation of any sort. Her questions aren’t answered and she’s not allowed to talk to the decision maker. Do they have the right? Yes. Is it ethical? No! Transparency means discussing a move like this with her and actually answering her questions. It means that the general reason for such a large change is okay to be told to everyone. As you said, we’re not stupid. We know when you’re hiding things.

  13. Episkey*

    I’m so sorry for the awkwardness and messiness that you are feeling, OP, but I just wanted to say I think your initial reaction to this little switcheroo plan was so badass! I don’t know if I would have had the guts to say that so you are an inspiration!

    1. moss*

      I agree! It’s nice to hear someone saying “I was not a pushover and things got weird.” Just as an inspiration. I don’t think I would have had the presence of mind to say something like OP did.

    2. Lana Kane*

      Agree completely. You stopped it cold. And yeah, things got weird….because your bosses made it weird in the first place.

      It might mean that moving on might be the best plan for you – but you may have prevented this from happening to someone else in the future.

  14. addlady*

    What? This is bizarre! How many situations occur where people are demoted without serious concerns being raised? Is this young man a relative of someone? Were there serious concerns, and people are too passive-aggressive to raise them (except for, of course, the illegal ones)?

    So many questions, but none of the answers I can think of are good.

  15. DCompliance*

    Your supervisor’s behavior is concerning to me.

    This is the telephone game at it’s worst!

    Supervisor to OP: Well, Niles said…
    Supervisor to Niles: Well, OP said…
    Supervisor to OP: Well, based on what I told Niles you said…

    I would start to job hunt.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      I’d go talk to Niles.
      Niles, I’m concerned about our relationship. S has stated that you’re upset with me and I’d like to fix that..
      Have honest discussion.

      Evil people like to be gatekeepers of information so they can manipulate. Remove S to find out the truth. S will be upset that OP went to Niles. Let him.

      1. Lana Kane*


        I’m really giving Supervisor the side-eye here. How convenient for him that he gets to be the bearer of all news.

      2. Crazy Canuuck*

        I agree with the above, I would skip the middleman and talk directly to Niles. Just be prepared to discover that Niles might actually be a jerk, which would mean that you should probably polish up your resume.

        I’m also joining the group cheering for the OP. Sadly, I think her call was probably on the money and not at all premature, and I love how she pushed back. So much awesome in this letter.

      3. AnonAnalyst*

        Yeah, I really wonder if this is all the supervisor’s doing. I also wonder if the supervisor had brought up any of the OP’s concerns with Niles before the EEOC comment.

        I can totally see someone like this just ignoring someone’s concerns as soon as they walked away from the conversation, but if someone cited an EEOC concern, I would think most people would be uneasy enough about that to bring it to a manager.

        If I were Niles and the first (and only) concern I had gotten from the OP was that the decision might be the basis for an EEOC complaint, I’d probably be surprised and could see myself remarking on that to the supervisor who then exaggerated it to “Niles hates you!” in the OP’s review.

        I would go talk to Niles directly to see what’s up. And also, probably job hunting unless there’s another position the OP can move to in her current company because it sounds like continuing to work under this supervisor might cause continuing issues for the OP. I am really wondering if the supervisor even did anything to fight this move, despite swearing up and down that he did.

        1. Marisol*

          I wondered the same thing, if the Supervisor really fought the battle he says he did. Especially if he had tried for several months to “thwart” the move, and then claimed he had no more information to share on said move. Either you fought against it, and in the process learned a lot of details, or you didn’t really fight it.

      4. Marisol*

        And also, I’d want to ask what was meant by a “more personal relationship.” “Supervisor tells me I needed to have a more personal relationship with both of you, and I wanted to find out what that looked like to you…” Niles might be aghast to hear that Supervisor said something like that.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Exactly. If Supervisor gets mad that OP went to Niles, OP can say, “Hey, you told me I should work on those personal relationships. So I was working on it.”

          Probably not, but tempting.

      5. Tuxedo Cat*

        “Evil people like to be gatekeepers of information so they can manipulate.” My office manager is like that. Talking to her has screwed over many a person while simultaneously getting the office manager several promotions.

      6. themmases*

        This is so true.

        At a previous job I had a change like this sprung on me– not a demotion but a sudden increase in oversight to an extreme level that most people would see as a vote of no confidence if not just punitive. Yet I was good at my job and had been operating with autonomy for years. Like with the OP, changes that were objectively negative for me were presented as neutral or about the department.

        My boss responded to any concerns by saying the Big Boss, someone I rarely interacted with and wouldn’t have felt confident going straight to, had ordered it all. Pretty strange since the whole reason I didn’t know Big Boss was that he took too little interest in my division to plausibly want to do any of this. It didn’t take long to confirm that the entire thing was really my own boss’s idea (I was good friends with her assistant). She was even spreading rumors about me to justify these changes that looked as extreme to everyone else as they did to me.

        I left and she’s sweet as pie to me now when we meet. Just truly a strange, Machiavellian person.

  16. K-VonSchmidt*

    By the title, I thought this was going to be about someone “pronouncing” EEOC, like (ee-awk) or something…cuz that would be weird!

    1. addlady*

      My money was on her singling out a disabled coworker in a busybody way, like “I hope you realize that Wakeen is wearing sneakers because he’s disabled!! Better make sure he doesn’t participate in the potato sake race at the picnic!

  17. Lalitah*

    All this sounds like Niles wanted to give Fergus OP’s job without her whining about it because either he favors Fergus or Fergus is the child of a friend – all political crap if you ask me. And it galls me that managers don’t seem to get that even if you don’t like a person and you favor another, it’s not a reason to be unfair to an employee who’s been doing their job. Heck, you’re not even supposed to be unfair to a jerk. It’s called ethics.

    1. Trout 'Waver*

      If that was the case, I would expect the supervisor to be a bit more accommodating or push back. I think a more likely scenario is that the OP’s supervisor and Fergus were planning it. Some sort of political (or worse, romantic) bullshit.

      I agree with everyone saying to talk to Niles directly to get a feel for what the supervisor was telling him.

  18. KimberlyR*

    Nobody’s behavior is ok here (except maybe OP’s) but the supervisor seems like the worst offender to me, based on this letter. Is there any way the OP can go talk to Niles about it? The passing of messages through the supervisor isn’t working and OP doesn’t trust him anyway, so why believe what he says? I think its worth bringing to Niles and asking what he thinks/feels the situation is now, and if supervisor was right in his assessment of how OP is viewed at her workplace or not (not in those words, of course.) Supervisor may be lying or completely off-base on all of this 4 months later hoopla.

  19. Whats In A Name*

    There are so many things wrong with this but basically telling someone to get ahead/repair damage done by a legitimate concern they have to foster personal relationships with the boss is just creepy to me.

    OP, I have no advice other than to say start job searching and in the meantime try to be cordial & professional in a way you are comfortable with. Did you have a good weekend might be enough to keep things civil until you can find something new.

    Curious, in all of this, how Fergus feels? Was he told about the switch prior to the dinner and is he treating you with any type of hostility? Did they add duties to his position? Did they fully retract his offer (if it was even out there?)

    I am so curious about how he is handling all this as well.

  20. Temperance*

    LW, I’m totally cheering you on here in my office. It’s so awesome that you stood up for yourself in this scenario. I have a feeling that you were exactly right on about their motives. Especially because, frankly, it sounds like you’re being punished for being a woman who dared to stick up for herself in the workplace. I highly, highly doubt that a man would be told that he needs to improve his personal relationships.

    My thoughts are that your supervisor made this arrangement and told Niles and the others that you were just fine with it, which is why he was so adamant that you not speak to anyone (especially his superiors, or Niles), so that way, when the news was sprung on you that you were being demoted at this dinner, it would be too late to back out of the arrangement.

    1. Former Usher*

      I’m a man and my supervisor at my old job did tell me to improve my personal relationships with my co-workers. Did he mean the co-workers who would never reply to emails? Or the co-workers who wouldn’t return a simple “good morning” when passing in the halls? Or maybe he meant the co-workers who took over the small break room at lunch time to the exclusion of anyone outside their group?

      Rant over. I think my point is that being told to improve your personal relationships can be a sign of workplace dysfunction and management failure, not necessarily related to gender.

      1. Temperance*

        That’s fair. I think that it overwhelmingly has sexist overtones when you’re basically telling women not to assert themselves in a way that men are often praised for, but there are other uses and implications as well.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Men do get told to improve their personal relationships all the time.

      It’s true that women get more feedback on this than men do, and that it’s often given in a very gendered way, but it’s not true that men don’t get it at all.

      1. Leatherwings*

        Yep. I had to have a serious talk with one of my male employees about this once. He was hostile, couldn’t take feedback, etc. One of my pieces of feedback for him was that he needed to be more careful about building and maintaining relationships with people rather than getting pissed all the time off the cuff (which is a lot like what happened in OPs situation, if in tone only rather than content).

      2. Temperance*

        This is absolutely right. I was more thinking of this situation and others like it, where women are punished for doing things that men are praised for (like asserting themselves).

      3. BRR*

        I’m a male and got this feedback from a woman. Not that this means it’s not slewed gender wise just wanted to be a statistic.

      4. Rocky*

        Yep, my husband was told, “Do what you can to patch up your relationship with Difficult Partner, he’s not going to change and you have to get along with him,” and a previous BF was told early in his career that he had to be more collegial and less condescending and reactive. Which is all somewhat constructive, at least. Neither of them were ever told to smile more or do others’ emotional labor, though. Which is the only “improve personal relationships” feedback I’ve ever gotten.

        1. Temperance*

          This is such a huge distinction. I’m used to hearing it as super-gendered and frankly useless, so thanks for the reminder!

    3. Mazzy*

      My office fired a guy about a month ago for having a bad attitude and not getting along with other people, not because of the quality of his work. Just saying, this sounds like the type of thing people would agree with, but when you dig into it, you realize its not as true as it looks. Guys get called out for this all of the time.

  21. J.B.*

    I’m agreeing with the side eyes at the immediate supervisor – the OP made the EEOC comment to her direct supervisor, yes? I’ve certainly let my direct supervisor see an eye roll about decisions from on high. I give a heavy sigh and then get on with my work. For OPs supervisor to say “you know, I’ve never seen it in that light, let me go back and point out to Niles” would be one thing, for him to pass on the complaint specifically the way she said it is throwing her under the bus in a situation he should have expected to be questionable. Because the whole thing, dinner on is SO WEIRD.

    1. Roscoe*

      I don’t know that its throwing her under the bus though. She basically accused them of something illegal. I think he needed to pass on the comment specifically how she said it in order for them to know what they were dealing with. If she is bringing it up, she may be lawyering up. And doing that, the company needs to know what she is thinking.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, at that point the manager really does need to relay exactly what was said, for the reasons Roscoe says.

        But they should simultaneously be (a) considering the complaint in a genuine way and (b) explaining their thinking, not just shutting down the conversation, which of course ends up reading as guilt.

        1. I'm Not Phyllis*

          This 100%. This whole thing is really suspect to me. First, having a fancy dinner to announce major career decisions (that were made on OP’s behalf) was a poor decision. If OP felt she was being discriminated against, she had every right to bring that up. But then the whole thing was dropped? That’s so odd. Even if it’s not an admission of guilt, how does OP trust her supervisor and “big boss” again after that? If I was OP, without a proper investigation and conclusion, I wouldn’t know what to think. Nothing is on HR’s record (I’m assuming) regarding her EEOC comment, so if she’s ever looked over for promotions or raises … what? I’m not an expert in this kind of thing, but this entire situation seems so poorly managed by her supervisor and “big boss.” If an employee accused me of discrimination, I’d bring in HR myself, not try to sweep it under the rug. And on top of it all she’s supposed to want to develop personal relationships with these two?

        2. J.B.*

          I’m just of the view that the immediate statement was just that – an immediate statement. Go back to the manager and say “there might be an issue here” but going through all the details is a little much for me for the context. Especially since the manager mentioned arguing against the change. He already said he disagreed with the decision, reporting on the OP feels like holding her to a higher standard than he held himself to.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            If an employee mentions possible issues of discrimination, a manager has an obligation to report it, and it’s really normal that that conversation would include a discussion of exactly what she said.

    2. Former Usher*

      The dinner does sound weird. I’m envisioning monkey brains served in a private dining room. With OP not playing along, it turns out that they ordered too much food.

  22. BRR*

    I think the EEOC comment was really uncalled for at this point. Now before I get jumped on, this very well could be the case and the supervisor and Niles REALLY messed this up. Like handled this in one of the worst ways possible. But it sounds like the LW wasn’t given any reasons for the switch and should have tried to get more information before suggesting they were acting illegally. I feel like there could be so many reasons for this switch, one of which is sexist-based, but also many others.

    1. Temperance*

      How was she supposed to get more information? Her supervisor refused to provide it and barred her from discussing with others. As far as I am concerned, she did her due diligence.

      1. BRR*

        I’m being influenced by my own experience very heavily on this one as I am holding information about some role changing that is going to happen soon that my supervisor gave me from her boss and was told not to share it with anyone (including the grand boss because she doesn’t want anybody to know). I was given this information out of trust from my supervisor. I know it will be released eventually. My thought is the lw could have asked Niles about this once it’s “public” and see what is going on. I understand this could be considered “too late” to bring it up but I just thing there are more steps before mentioning discrimination.

        1. Kyrielle*

          But the LW, after asking for more information and *not* getting it, said she intended to wait until the meeting (where it would be made public) to hear Niles’s reasoning from him.


          Her supervisor then *pushed her as to what her concerns were*, when she had already discuss the demotion-like aspect, loss of projects, etc. She now had to say ‘oh, nothing’ or something else damning, or actually say this.

          Is it a risk? Yep, of course it is, because workplaces contain jerks, including but not limited to sexist jerks. But at some point the LW had to say *something*. This was, honestly, probably a better something to say than most, at that point

        2. nerfmobile*

          Well, in the cases where my manager has had confidential discussions with me about upcoming role changes (mine or others), I’ve been free to have follow-on conversations with them about what exactly the role changes would mean for me or others I have interests in. They don’t share info and then shut down conversations about it, which is why the letter writer’s situation sounds sketchy.

    2. Mike C.*

      She asked and not only received nothing but was told that other avenues were closed (don’t talk to anyone else about this). If there were legal reasons for this, they could have been brought up in a very trivial manner.

      At what point can someone suggest that there might be a discrimination issue?

    3. KTMGee*

      To be fair, she only made the EEOC comment after 2 conversations during which the boss was not forthcoming with any details and told her she couldn’t speak about this to anyone. She tried to get information multiple times (both conversations) and only said the EEOC piece when her boss asked her specifically what her concerns were.

    4. Zahra*

      Yes, but how was she supposed to get more information? She was forbidden to talk about it to anyone and her own supervisor did not provide her with more information when she asked for some.

      I was told that I could speak to no one about the switch (including Big Boss) and that it was definitely not a demotion as Niles was very happy with my work.


      My supervisor followed up with me a couple days later to see if I “had questions” or felt differently. I asked for more information and he said he had none.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think that’s an unreasonable position to take on the letter. It really is totally possible that this isn’t rooted in discrimination, and I think commenters who are assuming that it absolutely is are doing so without sufficient basis.

      That said, the OP didn’t leap straight to mentioning the EEOC. She asked for reasons for the switch in the first conversation, received none, and said she’d wait for the dinner for more info. Then, the manager followed up with her a few days later, and the OP repeated that she’d wait for the dinner for more info. At that point the manager asked her to be specific about her concerns, and only then did she say “it sounds more like an EEOC complaint than career development.” So I can see where she was coming from — she’d agreed to wait, she’d agreed to wait again, and then only raised it in response to the manager’s pushing about what her concern was.

      1. AFT123*

        I agree with this whole comment. This is a tricky situation because I’d venture to guess that in many (most?) cases of sexual discrimination, the perpetrators don’t literally think to themselves “I’d rather have a man than a woman in this position.” They are likely not even aware of their own biases, or fully understanding their own tendencies to build a weak case against a woman to justify getting them out of a position when they wouldn’t have done the same to a male in the exact same scenario. The only way someone being potentially discriminated against in a case like this is to look at all angles and try and prod for a rational explanation, but when none is offered, it’s on her to bring up the fact that “Hey, this sort of looks like discrimination.”

        Could it be 100 other things that she isn’t privy to? Sure. But she is limited to what information she is being exposed to and is left to form her own conclusions. If the employer wants to avoid conclusions like this, then it’s their responsibility to be more transparent. If they can’t be more transparent because it’s a political thing or something, that is a whole ‘nother can of worms, but they need to be aware of what the consequences and perception are.

        1. NW Mossy*

          That’s a good point. One of the things the OP really got right here is putting her employer on notice that she’s aware of her rights and paying attention to behavior that appears to violate those rights, particularly when no alternative explanation is forthcoming. We can debate the specific word choice of how that was done all day long, but she did succeed in using her knowledge to back them down off a horribly executed decision.

      2. voyager1*

        But the supervisor could have asked the second time to see if he could get specific questions answered for her from the higher up supervisor… I am not convinced the immediate supervisor is a villain here.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Then the supervisor could have said “Let me see if I can get those specific questions answered for you.”

          I don’t understand this rush to blame the OP for bad behavior by her bosses, regardless of whether they were motivated by sexism, favoritism, or mind-control rays from Dimension X.

        2. Temperance*

          He refused to give her any information, even with multiple requests, and effectively blocked her from going to the source. It’s a red flag to me that he wouldn’t allow her to discuss with others.

          I don’t see that she did a single thing wrong.

      3. BRR*

        It’s definitely a good point about her not starting with the EEOC. The LW handled the announcement very well and for some reason her supervisor kept pressing. But so often on here we point out that correlation does not equal causation, and again I’m definitely not saying it’s not sexism, but it seems like everybody is picking out one of many likely scenarios with what we’ve been told.

        1. Temperance*

          Part of me is wondering if he was trying to test the waters with her, to see whether she was just going to accept this demotion without comment.

  23. Roscoe*

    Ok, I’ll be honest here, that wasn’t a good way to handle it. I don’t think the first assumption that should be made is discrimination, which is illegal here. As a black person, I’m not going to just go and accuse my boss of racism and discrimination because someone got a promotion over me. I may ask, in a professional way, what the reason was. But I’m not going to say, “It sounds like you gave this to Mike because he is white”. Coming at someone in an accusatory way like that isn’t a good way to endear yourself to people. I don’t want to say keep your mouth shut in these situations, but at least get some facts to back up an accusation like this. Just basing it on what you have witnessed isn’t really enough, especially when its a one off case and not a pattern

    1. Zahra*

      She DID ask for more information and said EEOC only when no information and no venue to get more information were available to her.

    2. Leatherwings*

      Well it seems like OP did ask for a reason, and her supervisor repeatedly said he didn’t have any more information.

      I also don’t think that was necessarily the best way to handle it, but I don’t think it’s a ridiculous leap to make either. I also don’t like the assertion that someone needs to “find some facts.”
      One of the things about sex or race-based discrimination (or any discrimination based on a protected class) isn’t always explicit, that’s what makes it so insidious. So better sussing out of the situation would have been good, but let’s not pretend like they would ever admit it or show it if it was discrimination.

        1. Leatherwings*

          Totally agree. Hence why I said I don’t think this was exactly the right move. But I don’t think OP should be criticized for it over and over again precisely because it was a fairly logical conclusion to make.

    3. Katie F*

      I think it’s more that she asked for more information twice and was not only denied, but told she couldn’t ask anyone else for information or even let them know what was happening either. That’s a definitely suspicious move. Maybe using teh words “EEOC” wasn’t the right move, but letting them know that this is A. highly irregular and B. really, REALLY doesn’t look good wasn’t the wrong thing to do.

    4. SystemsLady*

      It wasn’t not getting a promotion a junior level person got – it was that OP was to be demoted so a junior level person could do her job instead (and well, she could just do the junior level stuff he did). And she was getting zero details about why this was to happen. Even *after* she brought up EEOC.

      Normally I’d agree, but the more I read the details the more OP’s decision to point out it seemed fishy makes sense to me. Maybe she could’ve worded it differently to avoid saying EEOC or discrimination specifically, but clearly it worked.

    5. Brett*

      An EEOC complaint really only requires disparate impact with no business justification, not intentional discrimination. Often times these impacts stem from other processes which are discriminatory, even if the decision itself is not (e.g. if big boss always promotes people who were in the same sorority as her over anyone else regardless of other qualifications, that turns into disparate impact based on gender even though it is legal for sororities to limit their membership to women and legal to use social and professional affiliations to make a business decision).

      So while people might hear from the OP’s comment, “It sounds like you gave this to Fergus because he is a man”, what the OP said really means, “you are demoting a senior woman just to benefit a junior man and will not give any business justification for it.”
      The key is that last part. This action has a clear impact along gender lines with no business justification provided. Maybe there really was a business justification, but refusing to reveal any part of that justification to the OP made it “sound like an EEOC complaint”.

    6. Anon Always*

      But, have you ever received a demotion to help facilitate a co-workers promotion?

      This isn’t a case of Fergus being promoted. It’s a case of Fergus basically getting promoted at the LW’s expense. And it was handled exceptionally badly by the LW’s supervisor and Niles.

      The LW was assured by her supervisor that Niles (and I’m assuming her supervisor) were happy with her work. The LW’s supervisor could not provide any reason why the switch would be occurring. When asked about the special projects that the LW was working on, she was told that she wouldn’t get to keep them. To me that says demotion, while Fergus gets a promotion.

      Given the information presented, I can definitely understand why the LW thought that EEOC might be applicable. This isn’t a case of both her and Fergus competing for the same job and Fergus getting the promotion. It’s a case of Fergus being handed the LW’s job without any sort of explanation. And I suspect that there was no explanation, because either the LW’s supervisor has issues with her performance, but is too much of a gutless wonder to address is appropriately (although nothing in the letter leads me to believe that is the case) there wasn’t a professional reason for the switch and it was occurring because Niles likes Fergus and wants to see him excel.

    7. Government Worker*

      I wonder if OP has noticed gender-based discrimination in this company before, even just in subtle ways that didn’t occur to her to put in her letter. I agree that jumping to mentioning the EEOC seems aggressive in a company where there’s been no reason to expect gender bias, but in the specific context of the OP’s workplace it might be pretty reasonable. Especially if it’s an old-boys-club sort of place – managers in that culture seem especially prone to identifying young men who remind them of themselves and treating them as rising stars from day one, in my experience.

    8. LBK*

      I may ask, in a professional way, what the reason was.

      She did ask multiple times and no explanation was given, and then she was pressed for more information about her discomfort before the meeting where further explanation was allegedly going to be given. They forced her to give up her reasoning without being willing to provide theirs.

      If the supervisor had told her about the demotion and her immediate reaction had been “you’re being sexist,” I’d agree with you that it would feel like a leap to potentially unwarranted conclusions, at least with the amount of context provided. But there was ample opportunity for a better justification to be provided and it wasn’t. I think at that point anyone’s mind would start running wild trying to come up with potential explanations, which could include discrimination.

    9. neverjaunty*

      Nothing in your comment has anything at all do to with what the OP actually said. Please get that knee checked.

      1. Roscoe*

        Are you going to reply anything of substance or just thinly veiled comments? You seem to be just doing that all over this thread

        1. neverjaunty*

          That was extremely meta, Roscoe.

          But again: you’re arguing “well I wouldn’t do X” when X is completely unlike what the OP did here. She didn’t rush in to complain about sexism on hearing that a junior colleague got a promotion over her. She was told that she would be demoted and that her younger, male colleague would be promoted into her job. She asked for explanations multiple times and got none, and was in fact told not to seek more information.

  24. Chriama*

    I’m giving some serious side-eye to the supervisor here. OP is told that there’s a meeting coming up where she’s going to be demoted, the whole idea was Niles’ but she’s not allowed to speak to him about it ahead of time. And then the supervisor comes back 2 days later to ‘check in’ on her but has no new information about the whole situation? OP, I think you erred in not speaking to Niles directly. I know your supervisor told you not to, but this business of secondhand information made the whole issue so much more complicated. We have no way of knowing what Niles actually meant or what your supervisor actually conveyed to him. But basically it sounds like supervisor is untrustworthy and incompetent (the checking in to see if you were ok with it while still not being able to provide more information makes no sense to me. I think there was some ulterior motive here but I don’t know what) and Niles has been pretty much silent on things/content to take supervisor’s word for everything. For all we know there was supposed to be some sort of professional development activity that included cross-training with the junior employee with a path to management in the future, and now Niles thinks you’re not interested. The whole thing is so bizarre. I’m a blunt person and the made-up intrigue just gives me a headache.

    1. Katie F*

      I think the “checking in” was an “information gatekeeper” move – Supervisor was trying to be sure that OP hadn’t gone to anyone else for info, that he’s the only one she had spoken to, she hadn’t talked to Niles, etc. It read to me as a guilty-conscience move from someone who A. knows that the OP is not happy with this, and B. is trying to make sure she doesn’t speak to anyone else.

      1. Chriama*

        Yeah, I can definitely see that. Especially when he asked if OP had any more questions but then when she asked for more information he said he didn’t have any. What was the point of asking then?!

        1. Katie F*

          Exactly. He was trying to get ahead of her – if she’d asked specific questions he could bullshit some answers, then backpedal later if he had to. Just asking for “more information” left him the out to just shrug, but that way he knows that she hasn’t spoken either to Fergus OR Niles, clearly she doesn’t have any information he hadn’t given her.

    2. Nea*

      “The whole idea was Niles’ but she’s not allowed to speak to him about it.”

      Hands up everybody who would have left skidmarks on their way to Niles’ office as soon as the first conversation was over. That isn’t just a red flag, it’s a red flag pride parade with several marching bands.

      1. Chriama*

        That was the biggest red flag for me. Telling the OP that this major thing is happening but there’s no information about it and she’s not allowed to talk to the person who made the decision is insane. And the supervisor running back and forth between the OP and Niles makes me raise an eyebrow. Quite frankly, if the OP wants to bring this thing up again then I think she should do it directly with Niles and not with her supervisor. Lead with something like, ‘supervisor recently mentioned that you had serious concerns about how that situation went down’ and then ask whatever questions or get whatever clarification you want. If you don’t have any questions, you can just say something like ‘I wanted to check with you personally and also assure you that I’m interested in future professional development opportunities as long as I’m included in the conversation from the beginning.” I just think the supervisor is bit of a sh*t-stirrer and I wouldn’t want him playing telephone between me and Niles.

        1. Troutwaxer*

          And also make clear that the OP is interested in helping other employees develop professionally, perhaps by sharing her duties (in a non-demoting, non-creepy fashion) or teaching others to do some of the jobs she does.

      2. neverjaunty*

        And then people would be criticizing the OP for going over her supervisor’s head, chiding her for not waiting for her supervisor to give her more information, etc etc.

        1. Chriama*

          People like commenters or people she works with? I think things were weird enough that it’s possible any reaction other than silently agreeing to whatever they said would be interpreted badly. But maybe it wouldn’t have, and the situation is convoluted enough that I think getting more information directly instead of secondhand at least wouldn’t hurt.

  25. Seal*

    It strikes me that the reason Niles was planning to announce this switch over dinner at a fancy restaurant is he may have thought that the OP would be reluctant to make a scene in a public place. In other words, he knew damned well that what he was trying to do was ethically questionable at best and was expecting push back. What a jerk.

  26. HR Expat*

    I read into this a little differently… I think Niles is the dbag here and has decided that he doesn’t like OP for whatever reason and wants to demote her. But supervisor and Fergus’ supervisor are doing what I’ve seen a lot of managers do- trying to protect her from that knowledge. It’s a terrible way to manage, but I feel like they’re trying to protect her from Niles’ (presumably) false opinions by not telling her any reasons why she’s being demoted and telling her not to talk to Niles about it. When it backfired, they have to come up with another BS issue (i.e. that she needs to develop personal relationships) as a reason why there are concerns. And it causes a whole lot of other problems, as we’ve seen, which could have been solved if they’d been honest with her in the first place. But I could totally be misreading this.

    1. Anon Always*

      That sort of scenario wouldn’t surprise me at all. But, it’s equally ridiculous that someone would be demoted because someone higher up in the organization doesn’t like an employee. If an employee isn’t performing appropriately that is one thing, but it’s another because someone else just doesn’t care for you.

      And the whole idea about working on personal relationships may be the LW’s supervisors way of telling her that the Niles doesn’t care for her. However, if that is the case then I’d encourage her to look else where. I’ve been in too many jobs and witnessed when someone higher up the food chain doesn’t care for an employee to see how they almost never get ahead.

      1. HR Expat*

        Oh, I completely agree that it’s equally ridiculous, shady, poor management and just about anything bad you can say about it.

        Unfortunately, I’ve worked in too many companies where the solution to performance management is “make their work lives miserable so that they’ll quit.” One division president I worked with told a group of senior leaders that he prefers to do this because then he doesn’t have to pay severance (as per our corporate policy). I got the hell out of dodge really quickly in that role and reported it anonymously to the Integrity line before I left.

  27. kms1025*

    Niles is at least guilty of an ill-conceived plan in making this “announcement”. But, the person who is much more suspect is the Supervisor. What, exactly, is this go-between saying to each? Niles and OP need to have a very respectful but frank conversation. This “whisper down the lane” nonsense is only going to hurt OP, not Niles. And possibly Supervisor, but to a lesser degree.

  28. Serin*

    Something very similar to this happened to me early in my career — my boss decided to promote a junior guy into my position, even though I was still in it.

    In my case, I have evidence that it was utter cluelessness. They offered me a different position, which was superior in being full-time rather than part-time but inferior in every possible other way. I talked to the person who would be my new manager and was unable to get him to tell me the hours or give me a job description beyond “Well, we’ll divide up the work, and whatever I don’t want to do, I’ll give to you.”

    I went back to my old manager and said, “If I said no to this, could I stay in my old job?” She gave me a very puzzled no. “OK, then, good luck to you; this is my last day.”

    It’s the only time I ever quit a job without having another one lined up, and I was terrified, but fortunately an offer I had been hoping for came in the following Monday.

    But I genuinely think that my manager thought she had come up with a perfect win/win solution, in which I got to work full-time and this guy she liked got to get some broader experience. It’s just too bad she didn’t TALK to me beforehand.

  29. Jesmlet*

    I’m going to guess that accusing them again of doing something illegal (retaliating because of her accusation of discrimination) is probably a horrible move here. Additionally, while LW might have information that would make her feel this could be discrimination, without knowing the history I think it’s difficult to assume that’s what this was. It could’ve easily been something like, we think you are perfectly competent but we want to invest more in colleague because his goals are more in line with the direction of the company. The flip side of that is it could’ve been, we want to invest more in colleague because you’re reaching an age where you might be thinking about getting preggers, and that’s when it becomes a problem.

    I think LW jumped the gun a bit, but the reaction would make me want to get out of dodge. There’s no way of knowing the real motivation but these don’t seem like good people to work around.

    1. Chriama*

      But she isn’t accusing them of doing it. And while people may feel threatened by her words, their behaviour was clueless and incompetent *at best*. Basically the only thing I agree with is that saying “this seems like an EEOC complaint” was kind of aggressive given she hadn’t even heard the entire situation from the decision-maker yet. But again, the supervisor was the one who escalated that by going to Niles with it. I do think taking Alison’s script to the supervisor is more likely to cause trouble than resolve things, but again that’s because I don’t trust the supervisor. His role in this entire situation has been to pass along information using subtle messaging and unclear statements, and I believe he’s misrepresented a lot of things which has exaggerated the conflict.

    2. Mike C.*

      Would you explain what you believe the OP would have needed to see or experience before you believe that mentioning EEOC would be appropriate?

  30. Emac*

    I generally agree with those saying the supervisor is giving both sides different information, except for two things. If that were true, wouldn’t Niles have brought that up when he confronted the OP about the EEOC comment? If supervisor had been saying to Niles all along that OP was on board with the switch, it seems like that would have been part of that conversation:

    Niles: I don’t understand your EEOC complaint comment, two days ago you were all for this switch!
    OP: ???? … no, I wasn’t.

    Another thing that bothered me is why the supervisor kept pushing her to ask questions/discuss how she felt about it/list her concerns. If he had no more information, why do that? If it weren’t for the supervisor’s complaint months later that the OP had damaged relationships with him and Niles, I might have thought the supervisor was pushing for a response like the OP gave. Supposedly, the supervisor didn’t want the switch to happen, but had no say, and this made the switch stop. If the supervisor knew the OP is the type of person to stand up for herself, could he have been baiting/leading her? Though that doesn’t explain the comment months later.

    1. Vanesa*

      Maybe the supervisor came up with a different story to tell Niles?

      But still it wouldn’t make sense and I think Niles should have talked to the OP at some point. Does it make sense for the OP to have a discussion with both Niles/her supervisor?

  31. animaniactoo*

    LW, I suspect that you might actually have been lucky to be a female in this situation.

    Why? Because if you postulate that this was actually a demotion (as described), for the purpose of getting Fergus more experience, then it would have been happening whether you were a male or female. Scummy, unethical, crappy move. But if you were a male, you would have had no legal recourse against it happening. Which would mean that they weren’t actually being sexist by making this move – but they were absolutely being bad employers. You just happened to draw them up short by making them realize that you had a legal weapon to prevent them from doing it.

    However, if you haven’t done so, there may be some value in talking to Niles about the role switch again – I read through carefully twice to check this, and I think that you may have jumped to a conclusion. One kind of work was all that Fergus did in that role – it may be that you were going to be asked to do some different things with the role, with more responsibility and authority. It sounds like when Niles confronted you, he could have been unaware that your objection to the assignment was entirely limited to believing that you were being asked to perform it as Fergus did. He may have simply thought you didn’t want the new version of the role – and thought it weird on your side to be mentioning an EEOC complaint and decided that there was something funky going on with you that he wants no part of and it’s just better to scrap the whole thing and let it go.

    1. neverjaunty*

      But if you were a male, you would have had no legal recourse against it happening.

      You’re saying that because the OP was male, she could have brought a frivolous claim that it was sexism?

      1. animaniactoo*

        Not that it would have been frivolous – because the proposed setup as she understood it would have been deeply unfair whether she was male or female. Because this kind of stuff has happened to women for decades *for being women*, etc., there is reasonable cause to believe that it would be based on sexism and therefore there’s nothing frivolous about the claim had she brought it.

        But only that this may have been a rarer situation in which favoritism due to sexism did not enter into it, merely favoritism of a particular employee. However, because that favoritism was so blatantly detrimental to the person in her position, they realized they couldn’t defend it when she mentioned a perfectly reasonable understanding of what was happening from her perspective which had legal implications for them.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Well, either it was sexism, in which case she isn’t “lucky to be female”, because being female is the whole reason there was a problem; or it isn’t sexism, in which case the “legal implications” you mention would be a lawsuit falsely claiming that the decision was not merely unfair but was actually sexist.

          1. animaniactoo*

            I think that you’re misunderstanding me – if it has every appearance of sexism, then the lawsuit is based on that appearance. However, in rarer circumstances, something has the appearance of something from every angle viewed, but is not actually that thing. So while the lawsuit might be wrong, it would be unintentional rather than a purposely false claim.

            I do not want to indicate in any way that I think the OP here is frivolous or purposely filing a false claim or seeing things with victim goggles or anything that comes close to any of that. Simply that she may in this rare instance have been an unintentional beneficiary of a history of sexism in the workplace. I am also not trying to indicate that women usually get this benefit now, or anything remotely close to that either. I strongly believe that is not the case.

  32. Chris*

    This is all just madness. The OP’s mentioning of EEOC was, IMHO, entirely apropos at the time, given that she had TWO conversations on the issue where no one provided any information whatsoever. Demoting someone without cause, and claiming it wasn’t demotion, is strange enough. But to do it at a dinner is just bizarre, and the fact that as soon as “EEOC” were mentioned it magically went away seem to indicate that she more or less hit the nail on the head. Now, it’s possible that the junior colleague is their golden boy and they were simply thinking about advancing him, rather than holding back the OP per se, but it still works out to the same thing in the end.

    The fact that it’s been months and there’s been no other talk of her demotion sees to cement it. Though, why the hell would her supervisor bring it up again??

    OP, honestly, GTFO as soon as possible. You deserve a better working environment, and I would not be surprised to know that they were planning another run at you in a different way.

  33. CBH*

    Just based on the facts we received…. I think the Supervisor had some kind of benefit resulting in the switching of OP and coworker’s jobs. Maybe a promised promotion or a promise to handpick his own team. Why would he be sulking 4 months later? Why bring this up now? If you want to train your employees, mentor them at that point in time, not four months later. I do believe there was some kind of discriminatory action here. To me it sounds like Niles was shocked that he was outsmarted and is reacting by retreating back. OP regardless if these assessments are right or not, I feel that you are in for a hostile work environment. I’d start job hunting…. regardless of the situation, do you really want to work for a company that would try to sidestep an employee?

    1. Leatherwings*

      OP regardless if these assessments are right or not, I feel that you are in for a hostile work environment

      Well that’s not quite right. You have to be careful with the term “hostile work environment” because that actually refers to legal discrimination based on a protected class. We know that OP might be experiencing that, but it’s also entirely possible she may not be at all, and that’s not something we can assess based on this letter.

      1. CBH*

        Leatherwings I stand corrected – I should have said uncomfortable, strained or tense work environment instead of hostile.

        However per OP’s update below it seems as though she handled herself very well.

  34. Rocky*

    Does anyone else really wish we could know what would have happened if the dinner actually went down as planned?

  35. OP*

    Hello, OP here! Thank you for all the response and advice. I truly appreciate it. To add some more info:
    1. In the two years I have been with the company, I have never received a formal performance review. My supervisor doesn’t do them and Niles doesn’t require him to (even though other supervisors do). However, both told me they were pleased with my substantive work and that I received positive feedback from internal co-workers. I recently was nominated for a Employee Recognition Award based on my responsiveness and competency.

    2. When I pressed both Niles and supervisor for the reasons why this switch would be good for my career, they both said simply that I would gain wider exposure across the enterprise and would encounter new contracting terms (Fergus is 100% involved in contracting, I do about 40% contracting). When I offered to pick up overflow contracting which would both expose me to the issues and the people cited as the reasons for the swap, my suggestion was met with vague rumblings along the lines of “it wouldn’t be the same”. I also offered to share some of my special projects/more diverse work with Fergus so we both could experience each other’s worlds without a full swap. That suggestion was wholly ignored.

    3. I followed up with my supervisor on the claim that my relationships were “damaged” due to my reaction. I told him that I have had several conversations with Niles regarding business issues along with some “small talk” and that all seemed well. I conceded that things were strained with supervisor and suggested more communication to strength the relationship. He countered with “You need to be more vulnerable at work”. Let me tell you right now that no part of my job requires me to be vulnerable. If anything, I need to be tough, decisive and rational to do this job. I pushed back via email (paper trail!) asking that my supervisor give me examples of other employees who had been asked to be more vulnerable and what they did to accomplish that. He called back (no paper trail!) and backed WAY off that comment. I think what he meant was “I need you to be more submissive and deferential”. :(

    4. Fergus is a good employee and does good, solid work. I am also a good employee and do good work. I also have 10+ more years of more diverse experience. He is still building his experience in many of those areas. Although they denied it, a swap of the two of us would not help me develop any new skills. Given this (and the vulnerable comment from above), I call sexism. Also, I am over 40 so there is some concern of ageism as well.

    5. I agree that my EEOC comment was premature. I was incredibly frustrated by the way the whole thing went down and used it in an inflammatory way to try to get to the bottom of the reasoning behind the switch. It did get their attention, that is for sure.

    6. I am searching but am in an industry and market where movement is tight. Also, I am at the stage of my career that mobility is limited unless I am ready to pick up to a new market. My family isn’t excited about that at all. So, I’m keeping my eyes open but also need to work through this in the meantime.

    Again, thanks for all the insight and a bit of validation for my response. I certainly didn’t handle it perfectly but I do feel like I was up front about my perspective on my career needs. For that, I am proud of myself.

    1. Whats In A Name*

      Oh, OP. More vulnerable at work? That is the worst advice ever.

      Sounds like your EEOC claims might have some backing after all. I am so sorry you are in this situation.

      I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot this week to people!

    2. Anon Always*

      Thank you for posting!

      The comment about being vulnerable was ridiculous. And I just can’t get past the fact that they were going to take people to a fancy restaurant to discuss professional development opportunities and then drop on you that you were essentially being demoted.

      There are plenty of ways to professional development opportunities for good employees, none them require moving them into a position at the expense of other good employees.

    3. JMegan*

      I pushed back via email (paper trail!) asking that my supervisor give me examples of other employees who had been asked to be more vulnerable and what they did to accomplish that.

      OP, I really admire the way you’ve handled this. Niles and his buddy sound like the biggest of all the tools, and I think it’s great that you’re pushing back when you can.

      1. BeautifulVoid*

        This. I’m appalled at this whole situation, and most of your update makes me cringe even more, but I wanted to applaud when I got to this part. You handled it perfectly.

    4. AnonAnalyst*

      “Be more vulnerable at work” is not advice I can ever imagine giving to someone else in the workplace. Under any circumstances, ever. Just…what?

      I love that you pushed back and asked for examples of what you can do!

      Good luck to you. It sounds like a tough place to work, given that your supervisor is a complete tool. I hope something else opens up near you!

    5. AnonEMoose*

      “More VULNERABLE”???!!! What the WHAT???

      I wish you luck in your job search, OP; I’d want out of there asap.

    6. animaniactoo*

      Okayyyyyyyyy. Thank you very much for the additional info, I can see that it is really clear that they *did* expect you to do the job exactly as Fergus is doing it. I can’t think of a single instance in which a guy would be asked to be “more vulnerable” at work. Less defensive/aggressive maybe, but never more vulnerable. Good for you for standing up for yourself, and I wouldn’t worry so much about “not handling it perfectly”. It sounds like you handled it pretty damn well for the info you’ve been given.

    7. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      Thanks for the update OP!

      Have you spoken to Niles directly about any of this? Do you have any interaction with Fergus?

      1. OP*

        I have not spoken directly to Niles about this since the whole thing went down. I think I need to but am trying to figure the best way to do it. He tends to punt all managing to the supervisors so the last thing I want to have happen is the whole conversation occurring again with supervisor.

        Fergus is and I are not close so he hasn’t said a thing and I haven’t approached him. Supervisor mentioned that Fergus was ready to switch and I believe that. His work was about to get much more interesting.

    8. Aurion*

      Vulnerable. What the actual shit.

      Your earlier EEOC comment may or may not have been premature, but with this kind of context it sure sounds right on the money. Your boss sucks hardcore, OP.

    9. Rusty Shackelford*

      Oh, I get it. You’re an actress, right? And you’re playing a character who’s supposed to be vulnerable, and you’re not exactly hitting that? Because I can think of literally NO other reason why anyone would be told to be more vulnerable at work.

      Well, no legit reason, anyway,.

    10. LBK*

      Oh, ick. Not only is “be more vulnerable” a weird bit of advice for the workplace, I don’t see how it has anything to do with what happened here. If anything, you were *too* vulnerable, giving them more insight into your personal feelings about the situation than maybe they would’ve liked. Perhaps he means being vulnerable by opening yourself up to being screwed by willingly being demoted? If so, definitely don’t be more vulnerable.

      1. Temperance*

        What I’m thinking he means is “act like I think a woman should act, which means you should be extremely deferential to everything that I say, never question me, and don’t ever, ever assert yourself”.

    11. Chriama*

      Hey OP! It sounds like you’re in a tough situation and doing your best to navigate it, so kudos. It’s pretty clear than your employers don’t seem to have your best interests at heart, or at least have some expectations that they’re not willing to clearly state for you. I would say that when I read some of your behaviours they came across as aggressive*, but I get the impression that you’ve kind of been fighting for a long time. In the meantime, I would caution you to protect yourself. Get as much performance-related feedback in writing as you can. Save thank you emails, and if people show a lot of appreciation ask them if they wouldn’t mind letting your boss know. I wouldn’t necessarily take your supervisor’s word for anything going forward, and I also wouldn’t discuss your relationship with Niles with your supervisor. If he says he has concerns, say “thanks for letting me know. I’ll make sure to follow up with Niles.” Don’t report anything back to him. Based on your update I was right, he is a sh*t-stirrer — don’t give him anything to work with. Niles doesn’t sound like such a peach either, but at least he’s willing to let sleeping dogs lie.

      1. Chriama*

        *Example of aggressive behaviour was asking for examples of other employees who had been told to be more vulnerable. Asking for clear examples of behaviour is enough to point out the absurdity of the statement but is less of a thinly veiled threat than ‘are you really telling a woman that her job performance is dependent on being vulnerable?’ Because it sounds like Niles likes Fergus and wants to help him grow and your supervisor wants you to shut up and stop rocking the boat, I feel like mentioning the potential sexism is a last resort thing (and I do believe it doesn’t need to be deliberate to be sexism and that what’s happening here *is* sexism). You brought it up once, but if it’s always coming up that’s going to tank the relationship a lot faster than if you just play clueless, ask questions in perceived good faith, and get them to dig their own holes. But again, you sound as if you’ve been fighting for a long time. I don’t know if it’s your industry or just this position, but it sucks when you have a whole other job of protecting your career and managing your reputation on top of just doing your actual job.

        1. Aisling*

          I find this comment a little strange. I don’t find her behavior “aggressive” at all. She asked for specific behaviors that people who had been asked to be more “vulnerable” had done. What she didn’t do, and I applaud her for, was to meekly say “ok”, or nothing at all, which is what her supervisor wanted, I believe. She asked the question using her supervisor’s words, and that made him see the absurdity. If she had not done so, I don’t think the supervisor would have realized what he had done. That’s not “agressive”, that’s how a professional should handle things.

    12. Temperance*

      VULNERABLE?! That’s such a gross, sexist thing to say. I’m surprised he didn’t tell you to smile, too.

      1. Pineapple Incident*

        Seriously- vulnerable in this context is certainly a surrogate for “be more womanly and just take this crap we’re handing you with a smile.” This is certainly the Office of Evil Bees.

        Bravo for you standing up for yourself and getting a paper trail involved on it. Definitely a habit to continue as long as you work in this place. I wish you luck with putting it back together or working out a better situation.

    13. Mike C.*

      You weren’t premature about the EEOC comment at all, there’s no need to apologize for standing up for yourself.

    14. NW Mossy*

      “More vulnerable at work” sounds like someone saw Brene Brown’s TED talk and completely misapplied the lessons. Vulnerability can be a good tool for relationship-building and for level-setting appropriately – a positive example would be the recent letter about how to say you don’t know something. Admitting lack of knowledge makes many people feel vulnerable, but it can be OK to do so if you handle it right.

      That said, vulnerability is something that should be initiated by the person being vulnerable and generally only happens in an environment of trust. Neither applies in this case, so thumbs down, OP’s supervisor.

      1. voyager1*

        Two major red flags:
        1 “Vulnerable”
        2 No performance reviews.

        Is Neil the owner and is this a small business?

        Personally I would get out now. Glad for the update.

        1. OP*

          Neil is not the owner but is an exec. The company is publicly traded, 2B annual revenue with 10k+ employees. But I totally understand why you asked if this was a mom & pop shop. This behavior certainly would make you think that.

    15. Serafina*

      I refuse to believe the phrase “more vulnerable” doesn’t have a gender context to it. It’s like the feedback that a female employee is “emasculating” the male employees – supervisor wants you to be a proper swooning fragile girl who yesses everything he and/or Niles say and definitely doesn’t suggests there is anything inappropriate about what they do. There’s less doubt than ever that this was an EEOC situation, so you certainly weren’t premature!

    16. Socal Tech*

      Vulnerable at work.

      Sounds like that EEOC comment hit the nail on the head. That’s a pretty sexist thing to say.

    17. Kyrielle*

      To quote Alison, “Good lord.” Indeed. I wish you very VERY well with #6. I can understand your family not being excited about moving – but you may not have much choice, either. I doubt they’re going to play fairly here or give you many opportunities to advance. :(

    18. designbot*

      #2 really makes me think that the swapping of employees was the point rather than anything substantive to be gained by either of you, since you made some very viable suggestions on how to achieve the cross-training and additional exposure without a full swap and your supervisor acted like you’d missed the point. Maybe you had, and the point was for him to not have to work with you any longer.

      1. misspiggy*

        Yes. And maybe he doesn’t want to work with you any longer because you’re good at your job, call him out on his inconsistencies and make him feel insecure. I’ve seen that play out a number of times with female subordinates and male bosses who don’t like to be around confident women, and it can get nasty.

  36. neverjaunty*

    You should be proud of yourself, OP! Also, to hell with these bozos.

    One small suggestion – even when somebody calls you so there’s no paper trail, you can create your own. E-mail the boss back (bcc yourself) and memoralize the conversation. “Fergus, thanks for calling me today to clear up the issue about my needing to be more vulnerable at work. I appreciate your clarifying that what you meant was not [what he actually said] but [what he later backpedaled into claiming he meant], and I’ll be making extra efforts to do that going forward.”

    1. stevenz*

      Yes, document. But I wouldn’t be as obsequious as that suggested language. This is a situation when it’s professional to professional, not lackey to superior.

  37. crazy8s*

    My initial response was completely changed when I read the OP’s follow up. there is something very strange going on at this company, and it might just be discrimination based on sex and age. Taking you out to dinner to discuss this job change is really weird and inappropriate.

    Others have already said this, but it bears repeating-don’t throw the EEOC sword down early in a conversation. That was a mistake. in most organizations, it sets off a set of responses/behaviors that are mostly intended to protect the organization from litigation, not necessarily to resolve any problems and improve your work situation. It’s unfortunate, but true. I would make EEO my first move if my safety were at risk, but would otherwise give an employer a chance to make things right before I played the EEO card. ( it also strengthens your EEO case if you show that you gave the employer an opportunity to remedy the situation and they didn’t).

  38. stevenz*

    More evidence for my theory that you have to fail some test to become a manager.

    But to Alison’s suggestion. My reaction to it is that it’s a teeny bit aggressive. “Reminding” a manager that they may have done something illegal is pretty in-your-face, and you will be expected to back it up if pressed. (They usually know what’s legal and what isn’t.) Referring to legalities is a step beyond asking for more explanation or background. There would have been a softer way to express your concern: “Ya know, that took me by surprise. I woulda thought there was some EEOC thing about doing that, but maybe not. I’ll have to look that up.” So I wouldn’t start with Alison’s suggestion, but, heck, that whole situation is so bizarre that they probably aren’t able to think straight about anything.

  39. Snorks*

    Can we look at it the other way?
    I am about to be promoted at work but someone else already at that level has all the interesting work and refuses to share that work. In fact, the one time it was bought up (although it was handled very badly by her boss and the boss’s boss) she said that this could look like an Equal Opportunity legal case and the whole thing was dropped. Therefore, I can’t get the experience necessary to really do my job properly.

    1. Snorks*

      This is why I should read to the end before I comment. I did not see OP’s update which cancels out most of what I have written here.

  40. Clytemnestra Stein*


    There have been a lot of mixed opinions in the comments about whether or not OP did the right thing bringing up EEOC, which led me to a follow-up question I wanted to ask: If OP had not done this and everything “went forward,” what would be the best plan in that scenario? Would it be better to bring up the EEOC then? I

  41. Anxa*

    I’ve been a little torn about whether to post this in the personal or professional thread, but I think ultimately I’m most concerned about the work aspect of this.

    My boyfriend and I probably moving to an area with a high COL and I don’t have a job lined up. We would like to have our own place as we’re in our 30s and have a pet that hasn’t lived with other pets and have gotten used to it. But mostly, I just don’t think many people want to live with a couple. All of the listings I see have “no couples” and I can totally see why.

    But now we have a lead on an opening in a house where some of his future coworkers live. He’s not thrilled about the idea of living with coworkers, but I can also sense that he thinks I’m too negative on the idea. Since I’m going to be unemployed, I think it’s even more important to feel comfortable at home. But the cost savings are substantial which would give me more time to be choosier in my job search. Sometimes I think he’s out of touch by thinking this isn’t that weird because he’s been in grad school so long, but on the other hand these other coworkers are in his field and I’m the one that doesn’t know what’s normal in their field and culture.

    1) Has anyone here moved in with coworkers and have it go well? What was the situation like?

    2) Does anyone have any insight on how to screen for potential conflicts with this living arrangement?

    3) I don’t think these sharing arrangements are that uncommon in this line of work (there’s a lot of traveling to areas that tend to be quite expensive and there’s a lot of room sharing at conferences and for work travel and even research). At the risk of blowing my cover, it’s in ecological research. So do you think if we do turn down this room after seeing it that it could also cause some negativity? Am I the uptight girlfriend that is going to make it look like I didn’t like them? Or that I was too fussy?

    Ordinarily I’d say “run for the hills!”, but I’m so tempted to live in a house with affordable rent and am getting sick of constantly fighting mold and roaches and I’m pretty sure we can’t afford an apartment without them on our own.

  42. Anxa*

    Oh my goodness I have no idea how I ended up here I was sure I was in the open thread. Oh dear. Ignore!

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