my bosses hate each other

A reader writes:

I just left my job to start what I thought was my dream job at a much smaller company. I report to Sandy but have an indirect reporting relationship to Michelle, who also reports to Sandy. Sandy and Michelle are both significantly older than and senior to me, and they hate each other.

For Sandy — my actual manager — it manifests in how she directly treats Michelle. In meetings, she talks to Michelle like Michelle is stupid, and questions her constantly. It’s uncomfortable to watch. (It’s worth noting that Sandy is, in general, kind of an asshole. She’s pretty rude and condescending to everyone — but treats Michelle way worse than the rest of us.)

Working for and with Michelle, though, is worse. Because we both report to Sandy, and I’m the next highest-level person on Sandy’s team, Michelle is trying to make me her confidant as she vents about Sandy. She has even called me twice at late at night to complain about her, and then I felt sick and anxious all night. The thing is, she’s not wrong in her complaints about Sandy – Sandy truly can be terrible — but I’m having a hard enough time navigating this weird environment on my own without dwelling on it via 10 p.m. phone calls.

It’s putting me in a terrible position — I don’t want to join in, but I need Michelle’s support on day to day projects. She’s sensitive, and the few times I tried to get out of the conversation, it was clear that it hurt her feelings, and she took it out on me in, for example, the time it took for her to approve some of my requests.

The company has no HR. I’m at a loss for what to do — I moved my entire life to a new city for this job, and it is starting to feel like a giant mistake.

Any advice?

Don’t conclude that the job was a giant mistake yet, at least not before you try a few strategies to see if you can make things more bearable. It’s possible that in the end you’ll conclude that this setup is toxic enough that you want to get out, but it sounds premature to conclude that at this point.

It might help to think of this as three separate issues: (1) Sandy is kind of an asshole, and is particularly rude to your colleague/co-boss, (2) you don’t want to be Michelle’s confidant about her frustrations with Sandy (and you especially don’t want her calling you at home to vent), and (3) Michelle reacts unprofessionally when you try to assert perfectly reasonable boundaries.

I’d argue that No. 3 is causing the biggest problem for you here, and that if you solve that, it’ll also take care of No. 2 … leaving you with a rude boss. That’s no picnic, but it shrinks the problem to a size that might be more manageable.

So, what can you do about Michelle’s hurt feelings when you try to put up boundaries with her?

First, to be clear, Michelle is really in the wrong here. Calling someone she semi-supervises late at night to complain about a mutual boss is not okay to do. It’s extra not okay because you presumably haven’t given her any signs of encouragement, so she’s creating awkwardness for you in order to fulfill her own emotional needs. And it’s very, very not okay for her to bristle when you try to set boundaries, and especially not okay for her to then penalize you at work for it. So there’s a lot of Not Okay going on with Michelle.

Sometimes with people like this, you can get more traction if you make your request for boundaries more about you than about them. People often have an easier time accepting that you’re on a personal kick to stay positive this year, or that you have an especially high need to disconnect from work once you leave in the evening, or anything else that’s about you rather than about their own lack of social and professional boundaries. So one option is to say something like this to Michelle: “I’ve realized that I’ve been getting really stressed out when I talk too much about work stuff, and I’ve resolved to keep a positive mind-set and not vent about frustrations so much, especially after hours. So I’m going to try to stay out of the issues you’re having with Sandy. I hope you understand.”

Or you could try the more straightforward approach: “Michelle, I love working with you, but because Sandy is my boss too, I’m in a really awkward position here. I know the two of you have a tough working relationship, and believe me, I sympathize. But because I work for both of you, I have to find a way to stay out of it as much as I can. I’m sorry I can’t be more of a sounding board, but it’s important to me to try to have good relationships with both of you.”

Also, on a more practical level: Stop answering her late-night calls. If she continues to call you at home, it’s perfectly plausible that you were sleeping or otherwise occupied when her call came in.

Now, will this guarantee that Michelle’s feelings won’t be hurt and that she won’t take it out on you at work? Maybe, maybe not. But you’ll have said something entirely reasonable in an entirely kind way, and if you ignore her weirdness and continue to be cheerful and friendly to her, it’s likely that it’ll pass pretty quickly. If it doesn’t and if it’s impacting your work, that’s a big deal, and at that point you’d need to address it head-on, either with Michelle or possibly even with Sandy … but it’s more likely than not that she’ll pull it together, especially if you make a point of continuing to be warm and friendly. (In fact, in the week after your boundary-setting conversation, you might make a particular point of saying something admiring to her about work she did that you genuinely think is good or asking for advice on something she has expertise in. That’s not to suck up, exactly — well, it’s a little bit to suck up — but it’s more to nudge her back to normalcy with you again.)

So. Now we hopefully have you in a situation where Michelle is no longer venting to you, but where you’re still having to watch Sandy condescending to Michelle. And that sucks — it’s not pleasant to work in an environment where people are talked down to and otherwise poorly treated. However, if there’s a silver lining to Sandy being kind of a jerk in general, it might be that everyone there presumably knows that’s her way, and takes what she says with a hefty dose of eye-rolling.

At that point, it really comes down to what your tolerance for that kind of behavior is. Different people have different tolerances for that. Some people are great at working with difficult bosses like Sandy and have cracked the code for getting along with them; others will forever be miserable in that setup. But I think you’ll have more clarity and be better able to figure out what you can and can’t live with if you get yourself un-stuck from the middle of Michelle and Sandy’s relationship.

You might also lean on your other co-workers for some insight. Do you have a co-worker who seems levelheaded and whose opinion you respect? If so, it could be worth taking that person to lunch and seeing what they can tell you about what’s going on there. You might learn that things are coming to a head with Sandy and Michelle because of some specific event, or that they’ve been like this for years, or that Sandy talks like a jerk but is also a really good mentor in some areas, or that Sandy plans to retire in a year and everyone is waiting it out, or that there are no redeeming qualities to the situation and everyone is trying desperately to leave. Who knows what you’ll hear — but whatever it is, it will give you more data to factor in as you think about what you want to do.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Bonky*

    Oh dear. Much earlier on in my career (in my second job), I had a manager who was a lot like Michelle, and I remember being at a total loss as to how to handle it. Any one-to-ones we had turned into long sessions about how poorly she was being treated by her own boss, to the point where I really wasn’t getting any personal management at all. (She used to cry in these sessions about how awful her treatment was. I was a very awkward 20-something, and she was in her 50s; I simply didn’t know what to do with myself in them.) I wish AAM had been around then.

    FWIW, OP, the advice AAM gives is great. It’s awfully hard to follow when there’s a particular power dynamic at play, though; I really hope you’re able to work through this and follow the script. Good luck!

    1. Newby*

      I also had a supervisor who would vent at me about people both in her personal life and that we worked with. I tried to deal with it with vague non-committing answers, but she took it for sympathy and it got worse. Eventually, I started to respond with either constructive feedback about how she could try to change something “That does sound tough. Have you tried X, Y or Z?” or by framing things as positively as I could “She probably didn’t mean it that way. I thought she meant X.” When she stopped being able to just vent she stopped complaining to me.

      1. Karo*

        I’ve started doing this with a vent-y colleague and it’s helped my mindset (because I have the same complaints, I just don’t want to listen to them), and helped her stop complaining to me. It’s basically perfect.

      2. Candi*

        I developed a personal policy I use of “you get to complain twice, then either do something constructive about it or shut up”. I also taught it to my kids.

        It’s really amazing how, when someone just wants to complain, suggesting to them “you could try and fix it this way” shuts them down. They don’t want to build or rebuild, just fuss.

        The hard part about dealing with people making complaints, at first, is figuring out if they’re people who need someone to just listen and have appropriate boundaries to know when to stop, or if they’re the type to pull some level of boundary bleeding. The first is iffy, depending on the situation and relationship, the second is just plain annoying and uncomfortable.

    2. zora*

      Alison’s advice is great (as usual). Work on setting some boundaries, and try to gather more information about the situation. Worst case scenario: if you end up deciding you have to leave, you will have more practice setting up boundaries with difficult coworkers, which will come in handy in the future. And you will have more information about the situation and can make the hard decision to start looking for another position in your new city while you are still employed. When in crappy positions, I’ve found trying to spin things to the positive has really helped me feel better about myself and my own situation. But definitely take care of yourself first!

  2. Accounting Manager*

    I was in a very, very similar situation in a previous job — right down to the one manager calling me in the evenings to vent for an hour+ about the other manager, who was also kind of an asshole. It was stressing me out majorly. The entire job & office environment was pretty toxic, though, and I did not enjoy working there. I ended up leaving after slightly longer than a year of working there.

    What I did in the meantime is I stopped answering my cell after work and when I get the vent-y texts, I responded in a non-committal way. Luckily, the venting manager didn’t really have much interaction with the role I did, so I didn’t have to rely on her to get things done on my end.

    You have my sympathies, it definitely sucks.

    1. MicheleNYC*

      If you have an Iphone you can set it to DND (Do Not Disturb) at night. I have mine set for 10pm-7am. The only people that the phone allows to contact between the 10pm – 7am are the ones on my favorites list. Everyone else goes to voicemail and their texts don’t pop up until the next day. If you are not comfortable setting everyone to DND you can also just do it to Michelle every night when you leave work.

  3. TheBeetsMotel*

    This is a sucky situation. It sounds like you’ll just need to be “out” or otherwise unavailable whenever Michelle calls; clearly she doesn’t have any sense of boundaries and will continue thinking you’re being rude if you try to wrap up these late-night bitch-fests.

    With any luck, if you refuse to answer her calls, the absurdity of the following scenario will be enough to shame her into stopping:

    “I called you last night and you didn’t answer. Why not?”

    “I was busy last night. When did you call?”

    “At…um… 10pm.”

    Possibly when she has to acknowledge, out-loud, that she’s calling a report at 10 FREAKING O’CLOCK AT NIGHT that that is Not Normal and Not Okay. Heck, in my job, something fully work-related can wait till the morning rather than you calling me at 10! Anyway, I can only hope… but I get the feeling Michelle and Sandy are probably very similar people who get on each other’s nerves and have just as out-of-whack a sense of normal behavior as each other. So maybe subtle shaming won’t help.

    Unfortunately, at small companies with no HR, nonsense like this tends to continue unaddressed. Alison’s advice is excellent, and in addition, make yourself as unavailable for phone calls as possible.

    1. zora*

      I have actually been in bed by 10pm lately. It would be totally believable to say “Oh, I’ve been trying to get to bed earlier, so I’ve been turning my phone off at 9pm. Sorry I missed you.”

  4. Alex*

    Personally, I would offer to help Michelle clean up her resume. She is not happy with her job and it looks like her boss is not happy with her either. She should start looking immediatly

  5. regina phalange*

    I used to be Michelle, and nothing that I did to deal with Sandy worked, and I am pretty sure Sandy is the reason I was fired from that job.

    1. A Noni Moose*

      I’ve been Michelle, too. She is desperate. I feel for her. Yes, she should start looking.

  6. AnotherAnony*

    Ugh…. this is horrible. I was in a situation where “Sandy” and “Michelle” both hated me. “Sandy” hated me because she wanted to pick who she worked with and well, it wasn’t me. TPTB chose me and Sandy sure took it out on me. “Michelle” hated me because she was deeply insecure- she would compete with me both professionally and personally. It was really sad and pathetic. They were both threatened because I had the degree in order to move up to the top position, so I could have potentially been their boss one day and they did not want that. At all.

    It got really bad because while they hated me, they got everyone else in the office to hate me (lies, gossip, etc.) and I was essentially bullied out of the job.

    Nothing I did or say could change anything- it was like junior high. Some people never grow up, especially in a toxic environment. You just have to move on to the next job.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Take a look at this, OP.
      You are very wise, OP, to back away from as much of this as you can. When two people are fighting with each other sometimes they draw a third person in. That third person can get absolutely creamed. It’s like the third person is their punching bag.

      Paralleling what Alison said, you can say things that appeal to them on the basic human level. “I have to be able to work with everyone and work well with them. I need my job.” If you want to you can add, “I have a household dependent on me plus I am helping an aging parent/aunt/whatever.” Add a reason that would make sense to most people, it would cause them to nod and say, “Yeah, that would concern me, too.”

      One time I said to the lower ranking boss, “I hope you understand. I work for BOTH of you. I have to just focus on doing a good job. I have no choices here.”

  7. Marcy Marketer*

    I came into my current job in the LW’s position, though the “Michelle” in my situation was not my indirect supervisor. The same dynamic was in the job I was leaving, so I was extra disappointed to end up in the same situation in my new job.

    I actually ended up liking Michelle very much, which made the whole thing harder, but I tried the “I’m trying to be positive” several times to great effect. In handling Sandy, it was clear that Sandy really liked and respected me, so I tried to spread around my cache so to speak by complimenting Michelle’s work in Sandy’s hearing, jumping in before Sandy could respond to an idea Michelle had to say it was great, etc. If they got into an argument while I was there, I would listen to both sides and then try, “What I’m hearing Michelle say is X, and what I’m hearing Sandy say is Y. What does everyone think of Z?” And just generally trying to redirect things in a more positive/solution-focused direction. The dynamic only ended when Michelle left for another job, and actually Michelle and I are still really good friends. Ironically even though I really like Michelle, I’m much happier now that she’s not here, because with the aggressive dynamic gone, the office is a lot less fraught with drama.

    1. Snork Maiden*

      This is very good advice. (And it must have been exhausting for you at the time, to manage both of their feelings!)

      1. Marcy Marketer*

        Yeah there were days when I did better than others, and days when I thought about writing to Alison for help. But this site helped me A LOT with professional language. When things were moving into a heated/non-professional space, I used AAM language to try to bring it to a more work friendly tone and actually got a reputation for being “super professional” because of it! Luckily also both Sandy and Michelle were great at hint taking and were pretty easily redirected. I don’t think they WANTED that kind of dynamic but didn’t know how to break from it.

  8. shep*

    I had a boss who was very nice to me personally (albeit with boundary issues like calling me late at night), but would throw utter tantrums in the office. I’m glad I was never on the receiving end, but I was SO glad when I got out of there.

  9. Marisol*

    I question how much the OP will really lose by setting a boundary with Michelle. Let’s say Michelle gets her feelings hurt and retaliates in some way. Is the resulting inconvenience from her retaliation worse than the inconvenience of getting calls from her at 10 pm? And is there no recourse if she does retaliate–couldn’t the OP go to Sandy and ask for help if Michelle is slow to approve her requests? And lastly, it sounds mean to say this, but if Sandy hates Michelle, then Michelle is somewhat expendable politically. So you can afford to choose Sandy over Michelle.

    Something else to consider: the OP doesn’t know how potentially dangerous participating in a bitch session could be. Rather than try to curry favor with Michelle, I’d make sure to keep my nose clean and NOT go along with any trash-talking. It sounds like Michelle lacks character and is indiscreet, and you never know what she might leak to the boss or to anyone else, either about what the OP actually says, or what Michelle THINKS she said because she failed to speak up and disagree with what was said. There might be more at stake here than just approval delays; the OP isn’t just going along with random gossip; she’s going along with gossip about the *boss,* and this particular boss is an asshole, so who knows what she might do. This situation sets off a red alert in my mind–*danger! Danger! Gossip about the boss ahead!* I wouldn’t touch it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to burn a bridge with Michelle to protect the relationship with Sandy.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Valid points.
      It could be that OP decides she has nothing to lose and everything to gain by setting boundaries with Michele. If Michelle retaliates, OP could have decided by then that the job is over anyway. Or Sandy could fire Michelle. Or Sandy could storm off in a huff and never be seen again. Hard to know what could happen.

      Probably OP could go to Sandy if there is a problem with approvals, but OP’s first course of action should be to appeal to Michelle’s good sense. “Hey, Mich, I’m still waiting on the approval for the Smith project. It really doesn’t benefit either one of us is that approval is delayed, it only hurts the both of us.” If Michelle answers with something that has an ounce of sincerity to it, then OP can give her the benefit of the doubt and wait to see what happens with the approval.

      I am a fan of coming in on the most quiet, lowest level I can think of. Many times you can coax people into doing what they need to do by just pointing out it’s in their best interests.

      Rather than worrying about burning bridges, OP, try to think in terms of what is fair for the company or what is fair for both parties. Keep the goal of fairness at the front of your thinking.

      1. Marisol*

        Definitely, you wouldn’t want to go nuclear on Sandy without going through the normal stages of diplomacy–first you ask nicely, then a little firmer/more direct…the bridge burning would be at the final stage, as a last resort when all other attempts to get resolution failed. It would be a mistake to start off with the intention of burning a bridge. I was skipping ahead to the worst-case-scenario in order to identify what’s at stake. I agree with starting quiet and low-level, and trying to coax rather than strong-arm. Regarding fairness…I don’t know about fair. I would try to be ethical, definitely. No lying, no sabotage, nothing black hat whatsoever. Nothing that you couldn’t admit to having done or that would make you feel ashamed. But I personally don’t include the idea of “fair” in my calculus because business, like life, is sometimes not fair. Fair to me is a bit beside the point. But I think we probably are more in agreement than not–could be just a difference in word choice.

  10. Insert name here*

    OP, when Michelle does this, my advice is to be neutral and just give vague responses. In my previous toxic job, they would talk about people as if they didn’t like them, but then tell the person what you said about them! It was horrible.

    1. Snork Maiden*

      Yep, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from getting older and being in toxic environments, is that people will do unto you as they have done unto others. Sandy or Michelle can turn on you just as quick as they’ve turned on each other. In some cases I’ve seen it bring Sandy and Michelle together, having a “common enemy”.

    2. Whats In A Name*

      I think this can work – but can also backfire. At super-toxic old job I got pulled in to a Michell v. Sandy because my vague non-committal answers were seen as agreement and they were trying to research an incident. Michelle threw my name in the hopper as someone who also felt Sandy was an issue.

      I’ve since reverted to avoidance when I can or “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I haven’t had that same experience.” It’s HARD but it works and shuts down the conversation and the venting has eventually ceased.

  11. Thefuture*

    Sounds like my last job! VP of marketing was a horrible bully. Director of Mktg would cry because of the bullying all the time. VP would use Director’s peer to compare and judge her against… pitting them against each other. They hated each other so much and i was stuck in the middle. Felt like i was i an abusive household with mom and dad yelling all the time. It was terrible…. i left!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, this type of bickering doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Many times there is something going on with upper management that set the stage for it. I am glad you are out of there.

  12. ToxicWaste*

    This situation makes me really nervous because there are too many unknown variables here. What if Sandy treats all the “Michelles” like this and if the OP ever moves up, Sandy will treat her this way as well? What if Sandy and Michelle decide to join forces one day and start going after the OP?

    If it were me, I would continue to set boundaries with Michelle, but also start looking for another job or networking with others in the industry to see if they know of any openings. Or see if you can move departments and get away from this drama. It’s enough being physically tired after a long week- you don’t need to be emotionally drained as well.

    1. Biff*

      I’ve worked in a place where a scapeoat was required in all situations. It was because the “Sandy” in the situation was covering up massive deficiencies. I think OP needs to polish up their resume and call their old Boss and see if they can return. This can’t go well.

  13. OhBehave*

    I’m so sorry you have to deal with this childish behavior. The last thing you need is for Michelle to tell Sandy that you agree completely with everything she’s saying. She REALLY wants you to agree with her so she has someone in her corner. This will not end well for you at all.

    Stop answering calls from her! If she asks you why you didn’t answer, just tell her that you shut off your phone once you get home from work in order to completely end your work day. Everyone needs that time of disconnect. If it will freak you out to see her on caller ID, turn your phone off completely. Hopefully after a few days, your sleep will become normal again. If she continues to pester you and try to draw you into her conflict, let her know that you are uncomfortable hearing about these things because you answer to Sandy and you want to do your best at work.

  14. PersistentCat*

    Any advice of dealing with aggressive and unprofessional people like Sandy? My Sandy is not my supervisor, but I’m at a small company where the owner gives a lot of weight & panders to Sandy’s demeaning & unreasonable demands.

    1. Marisol*

      It’s hard to advise without having more details. I bet if you ask this question and give more background information on Friday (or is it Saturday?) when there’s an open thread, you’ll get a lot of good responses.

  15. Suz*

    Not to defend Sandy’s behavior, but I suspect she treats Michelle worse than the rest of the staff because she’s seen her treat other staff the same way she’s treating OP.

  16. ReluctantBizOwner*

    Ooh, boy. Do not get drawn in the middle of this, especially as the new person. You don’t have any goodwill or capital to bail you out. Be helpful and professional to both Sandy and Michelle. Build relationships with others. You need a reputation for being great at your job, helpful to others, and positive. And don’t answer when Michelle calls you at home.

  17. rageismycaffeine*

    Like many others above, I had a “Sandy” in my working past.

    Her name, though, actually was Sandy. That being the case, I’m having a heck of a time convincing myself this letter is not actually about her. :)

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