my boss trash-talks all my coworkers

A reader writes:

For the most part, I love my job and my coworkers about as much as anyone can. I even enjoy working for my current boss! There is one problem, however: she’s really clique-y and kind of a jerk.

This is really only a problem with certain people. Our company is very small, so most people in it are part of her “inner circle,” myself included, but she’s really petty and mean about people who aren’t. (So I’d like to remain in the circle, thanks.)

Sometimes it’s sort of deserved. “So-and-so is bad at her job and needs to spend more time working and less time making up gossip to spread around the office.” Yeah, definitely true … but also, so-and-so needs to be TOLD that instead of being gossiped about behind closed doors and in IMs by the people whose very job it is to help her be a better employee.

But sometimes, it’s not deserved at all. You know how we all have that one team member who’s kind of a pain to deal with? We’ve got loads of them. Most of us work around their difficulties, hem and haw a little bit to our significant others, and then move on with our lives. But not my boss. Once you do something that displeases her, it becomes fuel for her to attack literally everything about you. I’ve seen her look up people’s social media profiles (in our open office) so she can publicly and loudly ridicule the appearances of employees who quit so long ago that the rest of us don’t know or care about who they are. She’s done the same with contractors. She’s made fun of people’s weight, teeth, noses, autism, age, disabilities, accents, and all sorts of things they have no control over. (She does this while also marketing herself as “woke” and “socially aware.”)

I understand complaining about someone’s attitude or crappy work, even if I may not always agree that your employees should be the witnesses to these complaints. But making fun of people for things that they can’t control is never, ever OK. She’s very insecure about herself, so perhaps she’s attacking other people to try and draw imagined attention away from her own flaws. Regardless, it bothers me.

She also tends to hire people who have similar attitudes. In fact, every person in our department is someone she knew outside of work first. So they tend to join in on her fun. I, on the other hand, am very uncomfortable by these conversations and would like to say something, but I don’t know what.

Any amount of push-back on personal matters has previously caused her to try to make people’s jobs more difficult. She’s denied holiday requests, travel opportunities, or anything else that she can. But this only happens when it becomes personal. It doesn’t happen if there is a disagreement over how a project should be completed, for instance – just if we don’t humor her about her personal opinions about people.

Other than this one thing, we all get along really well and I don’t have any intention of quitting my job any time soon. But is there a way to professionally handle situations like this? Or should I just smile and tune her out while she rants about some random ex-employee’s weird dimples? (Which weren’t weird at all!)

Oooh, your boss is a real jerk.

I know you know this … but do you really know it, at a gut level? It’s an interesting cognitive dissonance to read that you get along well and generally like working for your boss but she’s also a terrible person.

And that’s not a criticism of you! It’s possible to get along with jerk bosses and even mostly enjoy working for them, as long as their jerkiness isn’t centered on you. Jerks can have redeeming qualities! Who knows, maybe she’s awesome at giving you professional feedback and advocating for raises and providing flexibility when you need it. It’s okay to set your own priorities about what you want from a boss, and she can give you things that are important to your professional growth and overall quality of life at work.

But wow, she’s also an awful person. And it’s hard to imagine that someone who likes looking up former employees in order to ridicule their accents or disabilities is someone you can rely on to be a solid professional advocate for you. At some point you’re going to do something that displeases her, or just have a hairstyle she dislikes, and then you’re going to become her target. Maybe that will happen after you’ve left this job but when you’re relying on her for professional references and job leads. Or maybe it will happen while you’re still there, at which point it sounds like your quality of life will plummet. It’s a precarious situation to be in.

And even if she never turns on you, you still can’t trust her, given what you know about her. And that’s a big problem when she’s in charge of your work evaluations, salary reviews, and overall advancement.

None of this means you need to start job searching tomorrow — most people don’t have the luxury of leaving every job where they have a crappy manager — but at a minimum it means you should be careful not to start normalizing her behavior. When you work in a toxic environment, it’s easy to lose track of what is and isn’t normal, what is and isn’t okay, and how not-okay something is … and it can make it harder to recognize when things reach a point you truly shouldn’t tolerate.

Only you can decide if and when you’re at that point. It doesn’t sound like you’re there now, but at some point you will be — and when you start thinking you are, don’t second-guess yourself.

But until that happens, how do you deal with your boss when she unleashes a rude tirade about someone? If she didn’t have a habit of lashing out at people who disagree with her, I’d suggest that you try responding with something positive about the person she’s badmouthing, like “Huh, I like Jane! I’ve always found her really easy to work with.” Or, “I’m surprised to hear that! She’s always been kind to me.” Sometimes that kind of response will nudge the other person into realizing they’re out of line, or will at least make them decide you’re not a satisfactory audience for their rant.

But your boss is punitive! She turns her ire on people who disagree with her on exactly this kind of thing. If she didn’t have power over you, I’d say so be it — let her dislike you. But because she’s shown she’ll start denying time off (!) and otherwise punishing you professionally, you don’t have a lot of options here. I’d love to tell you to push back and stand up for people who don’t deserve her abuse, but it sounds like you’d pay a high professional price for doing that.

Sometimes in a situation like this, you can get away with cultivating a reputation for being so universally kind to everyone that your boss won’t take it personally when you don’t agree with her criticism of others — because she figures you’re just the office Pollyanna who can’t bear to find fault with anyone. But even that sounds risky with her, and it’s probably a strategy you would have needed to have started earlier.

Your only workable strategy may be to tune her out as much as possible and make non-committal noises when called upon to react (followed by quick subject changes). Just don’t let yourself be lulled into thinking you can trust her. It’s not ideal, but that’s probably as good as it gets with a boss like this one.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 197 comments… read them below }

  1. Lance*

    I have to ask, in regards to the boss denying so much to anyone who disagrees with her: would that not be retaliation, that HR (assuming OP’s company has it) might want to know about? Admittedly, I’m not sure if they’d be able to succeed in doing anything about it — this boss sounds like an awful person, when it comes down to it — but I wonder if it may at least be worth flagging.

    1. Secretary*

      I was wondering this too, Alison. Would this be a situation to go over her head if there is someone who manages her?

    2. President Porpoise*

      It sounds like the company is tiny – I wonder if they even have to comply with federal law on discrimination or retaliation issues, let alone have a competent HR department.

      1. ToS*

        Since she mentions disability, ADA has a minimum of 15 employees, many states have further reduction in the minimum number of employees to qualify for disability and employment protections. 70% of disabilities are not initially detectable, which is all the more reason to play (work?) it straight…

        The boss is certainly playing with fire. Something might boomerang back on her and take the whole place down.

        1. President Porpoise*

          I’d love for someone to get her in trouble with a government agency, but OP might not want to do it since it could very well cause her problems with keeping her job (even though retaliation would be illegal in that case). What an enormous jerk.

          1. RUKiddingMe*

            I hope OP gets out and reads Boss the riot act on her way out the door. What a waste of oxygen.

    3. fposte*

      It would have to be a retaliation for a federally protected complaint before retaliation would be illegal. Now some of the boss’s hobby horses could turn this into illegal retaliation–if somebody objects to the accent-mocking or autism-mocking, for instance, that’s something that could be protected from retaliation. But even there it would depend on how small this small company is.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes — this. For retaliation to be illegal, it has to be retaliation for engaging in legally protected behavior like reporting harassment or discrimination.

      2. Lance*

        To be more clear, I’m not speaking so much on the point of illegal retaliation, per se; more so retaliatory behavior that the business itself probably (I’d hope) wouldn’t approve of, that (I assume) would still be in HR’s purview regardless of legality.

        If I’m wrong on that latter point, that’s definitely my mistake; I admittedly don’t have a whole lot of experience in business workings as of yet. Either way, I was mostly wondering if there was any chance someone higher in the hierarchy might want to know about this sort of thing.

        1. fposte*

          I think the reason why “retaliation” is an alert word is because of illegal retaliation, though. The rest of it just falls under favoritism, which generally isn’t something to take to HR unless there’s an egregious component to it.

        2. Emily K*

          After setting aside legal obligations, what’s in HR’s purview really comes down to the company and its values. At one extreme some companies would absolutely want HR to mediate any kind of dispute that is causing employee dissatisfaction. At the other there are companies couldn’t care less about morale and don’t want HR staff wasting time on anything to do with it. And most employers fall somewhere in the middle.

    4. Triplestep*

      Doesn’t matter. This is a small organization, and once you go to HR about a manager like this in a small organization, she’ll make your life miserable while she manages you out. That’s why I never went to HR about my former manager.

      LW, dust off your resume and start looking now. As Alison says, it’s not urgent, but better to start looking now than be looking when you’re desperate to get out of there. My last manager was similar to yours, but with only two staff members, the lack of a willing audience forced her to behave better than she probably would have preferred most of the time.

      I was there for three months when I realized it would not be sustainable, but it took me a year to find something. In that time I went from thinking that she just had a style I didn’t gel with, to “wow, she sucks as a manager”. It was only after I left that I realized “no, she sucks as a human being.”

      1. Amethystmoon*

        Even in a large organization, it can happen, and even if you yourself don’t directly go to HR, but someone does on your behalf.

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          I was going to say this. I worked at large companies and had two shit managers that the respective HR offices did nothing about for years. The first awful manager, I was able to get HR to finagle me a new position in a new department – that was great, and I enjoyed my job so much more (I still left seven months later). The second manager? When I tried to get out from under her, she went on a mission to try and sabotage my internal moves. Eventually, she ran up against people who didn’t give a damn about who she was, didn’t know her and knew me (and liked me a lot), and they were able to promote me out from under her and into a new division. She was so pissed when that happened that she cried. I loved it.

    5. CmdrShepard4ever*

      While it might be retaliation in layman’s terms, legal retaliation is a very strict definition. Usually for trying to unionize, or advocating for better working conditions w/out a union, filing a complaint of discrimination or engaging in other legally protected activity.

      HR or higher level boss could intervene, but if they would is a different story and depends on the OP’s workplace.

  2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    Wow your boss is a bully. I’d start the job search immediately and find a way to remove myself when she starts berating others. This is a highly toxic environment and it will start to wear on you negatively and you may end up being more negative yourself. Run away, run very far away!

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      About the only thing I can think of that might get through to the powers that be without biting you in the butt is to get another job — and at the exit interview, document her her retaliation & insults.

    2. Engineer Girl*

      I think the biggest problem is that OP starts to normalize these behaviors. That’s one step away from picking them up and adopting them. It’s involuntary. You become like the people you hang out with most. It’s slow, insidious, and almost impossible to detect.
      OP, you really need to get out. This place deserves to collapse under its own weight of dysfunction.

      1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

        Yeah, her last paragraph begins “other than that one thing…”. This is definitely bigger than that one thing.

        1. LD'S Mom*

          That “one thing” is a big, huge, giant “thing”! Getting out is truly in your best interest, the sooner the better.

          1. Fergus*

            Instead of working at a company that is a nest of angry wasps, you have one boss who is by herself a nest of angry wasps, run, run, and did i say run, she’s gonna sting the shit out of you eventually.

          2. Katertot*

            Yeah – aside from the fact that Boss appears to be kind of a terrible person. Mocking people for their disabilities, looks, weight, etc? You can’t be a good boss and hold these attitudes.

          1. boo bot*

            Pretty much. I think there’s something to this, also – the sense that only ONE thing being wrong somehow doesn’t feel like enough to justify being unhappy with the situation… even if the ‘one thing’ cannot possibly be balanced out by, say, a nice musical score and a great concession stand at intermission.

            Someone below mentioned the advice column staple, “My husband is perfect in every way… except it really irritates me that he won’t stop bringing home live possums and letting them run wild around the house. I don’t want to stifle his creative expression, but I’d like one room in the house to be possum-free; how can I explain that I want to close off the bedroom to our furry friends, without sounding unreasonable?”

          1. London Calling*

            Reminds me of the posters on Mumsnet who say that their husband doesn’t lift a finger around the house and the children, keeps them short of money and spends all his time gaming/on his phone/in the pub/texting other women – but, they always say, he’s a great father. No he isn’t if he’s all those things, and neither is your boss a good boss, OP. You are rationalising bad behaviour so as to be able to cope with it and that is not good for you.

      2. RUKiddingMe*


        Not a work thing but many years ago I had a BIL who was kinda weird. Not bad but easy to be mean to.

        One day I realized that Husband and I had picked up the same behaviors of the rest of the family and were being mean to him for no reason st all.

        I talked to Husband about it and we resolved to stop immediately. Not only that but we started calling out other family, in the moment.

        We shone a giant spotlight on their asshole behavior. Of course OP cant do that at work, for now anyway, but she can try to be mindful of how easy it is to slip into that kind of behavior.

    3. Deranged Cubicle Owl*

      Yes, I would update my resume and start looking for a new job at once if I were in her shoes. It isn’t “Hellmouth” territory, so I would be taking my time and look for a decent job that I’d like and that has great benefits, but I would definitely leave it once I found a new job.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*


      It is one thing (and still horrible) to be a cliquey boss with favorites, but the level of effort this boss is going to in order to make derogatory comments about long-departed employees is really galling.

      I would honestly have a hard time continuing to work for someone that was that much of an ass and be concerned that being steeped in that level of toxic would end up coloring my work-worldview. And who knows what she’s saying about OP behind their back?

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        Yeah, I can almost guarantee OP’s boss is shit talking her as well behind her back – people like this always do.

        1. Obelia*

          Yes, definitely. When I was very new to the workforce I had a boss who constantly criticised other people in the department and was always nice as pie to me. One day one of my co-workers said to me meaningfully that I shouldn’t assume there were people the boss didn’t criticise.

  3. SenatorMeathooks*

    That’s really effed up, dude. This toxicity will not end well for you or your career in the long run, because like all human beings, you’re going to make a misstep, and chances are she’s going to take one of those missteps personally. Then you can kiss any reference goodbye.

    This attitude will rub off on you without you even knowing it, also.

    People are crap. They will eventually do this to you too.

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      I agree that kind of toxicity can spread. Also, it can damage your reputation if people starting associating you with your bully boss. Like, “Why does OP continue to work with that terrible boss? Either she can’t find something better, or she agrees with that kind of behavior.” The longer you’re there, the stronger that association gets.

      1. SenatorMeathooks*

        I agree that the association itself can be harmful. I know that it’s not realistic to expect people to find another job because of things like this, but it might not be a bad idea for the OP to put out some very tentative feelers if circumstances permit.

        This is a huge red flag indicating bad management and a crappy culture.

      2. OhNo*

        That is certainly something for the OP to keep in mind as they stay there. Whenever the boss (and any lackeys or sycophants that play along with her) aren’t present, it’s important to do everything you can to counteract that negative association in people’s minds.

        It’s not kosher to badmouth her, of course, but when she’s not present and it won’t get back to her, that would be a good time to break out the, “I’ve always gotten along with Jane, actually, I’m not sure why Boss seems to have such a rough time with her…” kind of script that Alison mentioned.

        1. Zillah*

          Given the dynamic the OP is describing, I’m not convinced that it wouldn’t get back to the boss if she said that to anyone in the office.

      3. Katertot*

        Agreed. Remaining in the clique might protect your status at work, but for people who are outside of the group and are aware of what goes on it’s going to look like you are agreeing with or condoning boss’ behavior to some extent. Also, you’re only the group until you’re not, and then OP is going to become a target just like the rest of these people.

    2. Not Me*

      I agree, and honestly it kinda sounds like the attitude has already rubbed off on the LW. Excusing this kind of behavior in any way is the first step, and sounds like that’s already happening to some extent.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Well, that can also be a survival mechanism. “Surely it can’t be that bad!” when you know deep down it really is that bad. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

        1. P peace*

          The op doesn’t seem to be in denial. But longer term excusing blatant, inappropriate behavior brings those adults that excuse or deny it what’s due them, distance and being closed out of a person’s life. Denial might not only be a river but everyone’s got sh– and they aren’t about to take on “yours” and those you ‘ love.

        2. Not Me*

          I guess I’m just not willing to write off excusing this kind of letter as a survival mechanism. It’s one thing to call it survival that the LW doesn’t speak up to her boss when she makes fun of people with disabilities etc., a lot of us can’t afford to lose our jobs. It’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax to put it in writing and call the boss “kind of” a jerk.

        3. Jasnah*

          It can also be “I was just following orders” and that isn’t really excusable.

          If I was a target of OP’s boss, and OP said nothing while I was bullied and harassed, I wouldn’t have any sympathy for OP. I would say “If OP really carried the values she says she does, she would have demonstrated it and stood up for me, even if her reputation was on the line.” That’s not a real demonstration of integrity, and that could follow her to her next job.

    3. Linzava*

      I’d like to point out that I too had a bully manager and everyone who sat by and watched her is on my, “I’ll never work with them again list.”

      This could bite you later in unexpected ways.

    4. learnedthehardway*

      This is a particularly bad situation, because either a good or a bad reference from this manager can be a problem for the OP. I’ve seen this, when an employee has worked long-term for a company known for its toxic culture, who then tries to move into another company in their or an adjacent industry. EVERYONE knows their employer is toxic, and there is real concern that the candidate will have picked up or even contributed to that toxicity.

      The OP is best advised to get out, but to be careful to not jump out of the frying pan into the fire. ie. carefully vet potential employers to understand their culture, take time to find the right position in the right company. Meanwhile, stay under the radar at their current company – don’t participate in the toxicity, for sure. Be judicious about pushing back against it until you’re on your way out the door, if possible. But if necessary for you to look yourself in the mirror, it’s better to stand up against it and leave, than to be complicit.

  4. Mama Bear*

    I think if it bothers the OP enough to write in, then the OP needs to more strongly consider a different job in the event that the boss turns on them after speaking up. If even something as simple as “I actually like Jane” is too scary to say, then that sounds like a very toxic work environment.

    1. EPLawyer*

      It’s not a matter of IF the boss turns on her, but WHEN. This is a very insecure, petty boss who enjoys mocking others. She is a Mean Woman. It is only a matter of time until OP does something that sets her off. Doesn’t wear the right color on a specific day. Is 5 minutes late on the day she KNOWS the Boss wanted everyone on time. SOMETHING.

      Look now while you still have a chance to weigh your options.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        This is a good point. If you work for Regina George, you know that she’ll turn on you just as soon as you do anything she remotely perceives as crossing her.

      2. Amethystmoon*

        I agree. Leave as soon as possible. Don’t count on her for a reference, find others.

      3. Ro*

        Yep! I have seen it happen. I had a former manager just like this (hr has never done anything to her since she wisely sucked up to them from day one). This person sounds like a bully. And if she’s like my boss, she will require complete and total loyalty. The first time you step out of line and challenge her, you will be on the -outside- of the inner circle.

        I saw this happen to a co-worker who previously had been one of the manager’s friends that she hired. Once she turned on her, this manager made her work life a living hell.

        This person has shown you she’s petty, mean and vindictive. Get out now while she still views you as part of her circle/an extension of herself and will hopefully give you a good reference.

      4. Librarian of SHIELD*

        And even if OP watches every step carefully, a boss who always needs somebody to pick on and is at a loss for candidates will make something up. When I worked for a boss like this, she engineered a crisis I had to solve right before a meeting that ended up making me 5 minutes late. Then she lectured me in front of the entire meeting about the importance of punctuality to a person’s professional reputation and made me apologize to the other people in the meeting for making them wait for me.

        OP, you could do every single thing 100% correctly and still end up in this boss’s crosshairs if that’s where she decides she wants you.

        1. seejay*

          Yep… had a friend like this. She was super nice to you if she was your friend but awful to everyone she didn’t like. Then I had the gumption to talk back to her one day because she attacked another friend of mine… that was the day she turned on me like a rabid badger, and treated me just as badly as she treated everyone else she disliked.

          I shouldn’t have been surprised.

          Abandon all hope of trying to get this person to see the light, she is an awful person and she will turn on you the nanosecond she thinks you’re standing up to her.

      5. HappyRetiree*

        Good jobs were very hard to come by when I graduated. At my first job after college, they hired a number of new staff (including me) to learn a fairly specific kind of writing and work on a large backlog of work . Most of us had excellent academic records in fields that required lots of writing, I was a bit on the outside of the rest of the group since I was not much of a drinker and was juggling grad school and planning my wedding along with the full-time job. Then they hired Zelda, a loud-mouthed woman whose degree was in a field with little writing required and who boasted about barely scraping through college. There had to have been dozens of others better suited for the work.

        Her product was sub-par and she spent a good part of her workday socializing; she seemed to spend her weekends at bars. She was abrasive and got her kicks baiting people. We did not get along but our desks were next to each other for a good long time. Our supervisors and managers seemed oblivious to Zelda’s poor work and the disruption she caused.

        Then Zelda got married. For months prior to the day, there was all sort of wedding talk that usually excluded me. I wasn’t invited (thank goodness) but was perversely looking forward to hearing about the event. Barely a word was ever said about what went on that wedding. Whatever happened must have been truly bad for this crowd not to talk about it at work. (There was a hint that Zelda got very drunk but that’s about all I learned.) When Zelda got back from her honeymoon, the workers who went to the wedding were no longer her buddies and her work didn’t improve. The rest of us got promotions but she was stuck in the entry level job. I left to move to another state.

        There was one thing that we did learn around the time of the wedding. Zelda’s new father-in-law was a senior VP in the other division of the company. It explained why they hired and kept her as no one wanted to cross him.

  5. Ann O'Nemity*

    Sometimes people like this will warm up if they hear that the other person likes them! Maybe Alison’s suggested scripts with the following tweaks would work:

    “Huh, I’m surprised you don’t like Jane! She’s told me how much she enjoys working with you.” Or, “I’m surprised to hear that! She’s always singing your praises.”

    That way, you’re not disagreeing with your boss.

    1. SheLooksFamiliar*

      Even if they don’t warm up, they get A Message. When someone trash-talks their co-workers, I have no problem looking troubled and saying, ‘I’m surprised to hear you say things like that about Trash Talked Person. It doesn’t match any of the nice things s/he says about you…’ And yeah, I let the comment hang out there and move on to a work-related topic.

      Maybe the person won’t stop trash-talking, but they stop doing it in front of me. That means they know exactly what they are doing, and they know it’s sucky.

    2. Ewpp*

      What do you do if Jane knows boss talks trash and is shocked to discover you said she sung high praises of them?

      1. OhNo*

        Well, it shouldn’t be an outright lie, obviously. If for no other reason than you risk the boss replying, “What are you on? Jane has never said anything nice about me in her entire life. We’ve hated each other since grade school!” or something similar.

        But the truth, like most people, can benefit from a gentle stretch now and then. “Boss is a terrible nag about X” can become “Boss is really dedicated to making sure X gets done”, and so on. Nothing egregious, but polite understatement coupled with the right tone can work wonders.

        1. SheLooksFamiliar*

          Agreed, OhNo, that is why I use the phrase ‘said nice things about you’ as stated upthread, and not ‘sings your praises.’ ‘Says nice things’ is vague enough to mean minor compliments – ‘Trash Talker cares about work, maybe a bit too much…’ – to back-handed compliments – ‘Trash Talker doesn’t run over pedestrians in the crosswalk.’

          Regardless, the idea is to, one, put the Trash Talker on notice that you don’t appreciate the trash talking, and two, make them experience the awkwardness they created. Maybe they’ll stop, maybe they won’t, but it’s an appropriate technique.

  6. Justin*

    “I even enjoy working for my current boss! There is one problem, however: she’s really clique-y and kind of a jerk.”

    I don’t particularly understand this couplet in light of how much of a jerk she actually is.

    Get out!

    1. gecko*

      Feels good to be in the inner circle, probably. Trying to say that with as little judgment as possible. It just does. And gossip is fun & funny, and most gossip is harmless, and probably the boss didn’t start off with the autism jokes in front of OP–just tested the waters with more and more out-there jokes & comments until here we are. Plus I’m assuming she’s pretty charismatic.

      1. Lance*

        Basically this. Because the OP is (for now) secure from being a target, they’re not seeing the impact as clearly as they would if they were in the line of fire. Kudos for OP for seeing that this is wrong all the same, but be very careful about participating in any way beyond what you might absolutely need to do to stay out of the firing range (and even then).

      2. Manon*

        Agreed. Some people are just night and day depending on if they like you or not and it can be hard to deliberately take on difficulties (looking for a new job, challenging their bullying) when they’ve been nothing but kind to you.

      3. OP*

        I really couldn’t care less about the inner circle thing. I don’t give a damn about how ugly so-and-so’s baby is, I’m literally here to work. Allison was right on in that being on her good side means she goes to bat for me when it comes to pay and benefits. Frankly, hard to turn that down when you’ve got mouths to feed.

    2. Xantar*

      It reminds me of the umpteen million advice column letters in other places which say something like, “My spouse/partner/SO is the most wonderful, kind, caring, funny, attractive person I have ever met. There’s just one problem…(insert issue that should have been a dealbreaker years ago.”

    3. AnotherAlison*

      This boss is an extreme jerk, so I don’t know if I could overlook that, but I have had bosses who haven’t been the nicest that I liked working for. They may speak poorly of other employees, but are a good manager with the assigning of work, making sure I have resources and training, and back me up with clients and partners. Those are the things I really need. I generally have found the “jerk” boss is just saying what we’re all thinking about a coworker, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for a boss to talk that way about someone who works for her. I once had a super nice boss once who never had my back with clients and partners, and I did not enjoy working for him, even though he was friendly and tolerant of everyone’s quirks.

    4. ToS*

      Yes, this is the plot line for the movie Heathers – and, spoiler, it doesn’t end with the reluctant clique-member having clean hands.

      Know where you can make or influence change, but if it doesn’t easily have your name on it, there is wisdom in leaving it to the higher-ups to manage.

  7. AKchic*

    Your boss isn’t a nice person at all. She’s just currently nice *to you*. There is a huge difference. Right now, you are walking on eggshells to keep yourself on her nice side. Nice is not a personality trait.

    Your boss is a playground bully in adult skin. She never left the 4th grade and has internet access.

    1. VictorianCowgirl*

      The distinction between Nice and Nice To You is excellent and I hope OP sees your comment.

      1. Even Steven*

        Excellent way of putting it, AKChic. And to add the critical suffix: *She’s not a nice person. She’s just currently nice to you. FOR NOW.* Cliques can shift like the wind – today could be the last day of being favored, with no explanation. If I were OP I would nod uncommitally, change the subject & furiously job search.

    2. Frankie*

      Yeah, and like…that “nice” is really just its own weird form of control. It’s not genuine. She’s demonstrating to you continually that you’ll be rewarded for indulging her and punished for doing anything different. It’s intentional and it’s just as messed up as the obviously negative stuff.

  8. Working Mom Having It All*

    I’ve had a boss like this, thankfully on a short term contract gig. I quickly just tuned her out and learned to insert “uh huh” and “wow, really?” into the correct places in her patter so that it seemed like I was listening. I got out of there as quickly as possible and don’t use that person as a reference. Especially because, throughout a relatively short 4 month gig I caught her rotating her Office Bad Seed BEC routine through a few different coworkers. I’m sure the arrow eventually landed on me, because how could it not?

    1. OP*

      Yep! Smiling and nodding and changing the conversation to what our meeting was supposed to be about have been my go-to moves.

  9. Jerk Store*

    “So-and-so is bad at her job and needs to spend more time working and less time making up gossip to spread around the office.”

    It sounds like the boss could use a dose of her own advice.

    1. Tardigrade*

      Bingo. I would place bets on whether that person is gossipy on her own, or learned it from/assumed it was okay based on boss’s behavior.

    2. Working Mom Having It All*

      I was thinking the same thing! Like… I know you are but what am I?

      1. AKchic*

        To borrow another phrase from that wonderful character… “I’m rubber, you’re glue…”

  10. Akcipitrokulo*

    She is nice to you *at the moment* but more relevantly *that you know of*. You have no idea what she says about you behind your back.

    1. Bostonian*

      Yeah… OP could never use this manager as a reference. The boss obviously has a track record of holding a grudge against former employees, so even if OP leaves on the best of terms, you can’t trust this boss as far as you can throw her.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        And if their industry is small or an everybody-knows-everybody type of field, using this boss as a reference could be a major point against a candidate in a hiring manager’s eyes. “Wait. This is somebody who takes Cruella’s opinion seriously? Now I have doubts about this candidate’s interpersonal skills.”

      1. AKchic*

        May? I would say “is certainly”. Just not in LW’s hearing. Because that’s how this type of bully operates. They talk big game behind others’ backs, but are too scared to do it to your face without a lot of back-up in case something doesn’t go exactly as they’ve rehearsed in the shower. The are small, petty tyrants of their small little hills, trying desperately to make themselves and their hills seem so much bigger than they are.

    2. Kate*

      Exactly this. I’d be willing to bet that Boss has already trash-talked the OP, but OP just hasn’t heard it yet — because her colleagues who may have heard it are trying to stay out of the line of fire too. What a horrible creature this boss is.

  11. Marissa*

    Oof, that’s tough. Honestly I don’t know if you have a good option here. If you try to respond with more empathy for the person being talked about, even if you’re not going against your boss, you may still wind up outside of her inner circle because she’ll think you’re not fun or you don’t play along.

    However, what is her reputation in your industry? If you get a reputation as being a person who laughs with her at former employees, etc., will that follow you out of her office? The easiest option with your boss may do more harm than good long term, I’d be careful not to lose site of the bigger picture when trying to stay in the inner circle.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      So very much this. There are people I have worked with who I would go out of my way to avoid — and someone who likes them will paint themselves with the same brush. I may not hold it against them in the long run, but they’ll have to work hard to get past the initial doubt. (Their resume might make it out of the initial pile, but they WILL be asked about the bullying if I have any say in the interview questions.)

    2. OP*

      That is a good point. It’s a small, but competitive industry. However, there is no movement within it without a good reference. So…something to think about.

  12. Dasein9*

    Well, now we know what happens to the junior high school bully when she grows up. I’m sorry, but your boss is juvenile and unreliable. Bullies thrive on their audience’s attention. Some studies show that when a third party does not make a satisfying audience for a bully, the bullying will stop.

    If you really don’t want to leave, this may be a place to cultivate the skill of keeping a low profile at work. Making yourself seem too boring to be an interesting target sometimes works, and it might protect you from being drafted for audience duty. I don’t think there’s any guarantee that’ll work, though.

    1. Aphrodite*

      Also, if you have any social media lock it/them down immediately from anyone at work or anyone who is connected in any way to anyone at work because I agree with others: it’s only a matter of time until she turns on you.

      1. Autumnheart*

        Or at least put them on a special permissions list where they only see the super generic stuff.

  13. AlexandrinaVictoria*

    Why, WHY do people like this get promoted????
    OP, don’t bet she’s not doing the same thing to you behind your back. Do not trust her with any personal information, opinions, anything. Get away as soon as you can. Been there, done that, and the person in question tried three times to get me fired. Save yourself the stress

    1. Michelle*

      Because they butt-kiss the right people and make sure they are super nice when those people are around. We have a department that has a fairly high turnover rate because of a very similar manager- the in crowd gets what they want and the out crowd has to do the work.

    2. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      Because their boss has, often subconsciously, figured out that they need to stay on Bad Manager’s good side, so they only give them praise and rewards.

    3. One legged stray cat*

      I think people like this are sometimes more likely to be promoted.

      Psychologically speaking, people really like feeling like they are in the “in” group. If you see someone not like several people but they like you, you tend to feel very flattered, as if you are somehow more special than the other people. This is why mean kids in high school got so popular, why brands that label themselves as “exclusive” can charge a fortune for a t-shirt, and why politicians who treat certain groups cruelly get such extreme devotion from the groups he or she endorses. We like to think ourselves as mature adults, but all of us are a little bit of our adolescent selves no matter how old we grow.

    4. Jaybeetee*

      Given OP’s other comment that looking for a new job “isn’t really an option”, I wonder if this is some niche field with few openings, and her boss is the “Brilliant Jerk” variety who has some skillset or another that’s particularly hard to come by.

    5. Oh So Anon*

      I’ve found that the flip-side of managers who are really boundary-crossing like this is that they’ll go to bat so hard for their “inner circle” that members of said inner circle as well as that manager’s boss get fooled into thinking that this person is a highly supportive leader.

      1. Ro*

        It sounds like the OP is in a tough position. I do wonder about OP’s age/stage of career. I am now at the stage where retirement (and if I’m lucky a few more decades of life spent enjoying retirement) seem much closer. When I think about how many more years of life I might have left and the huge amount of wasted years (wasted time, wasted human potential) I spent under a similar manager, I should have quit as soon as I saw the signs. Whatever the trade offs were for staying (well known company, experience), they really weren’t worth it. I was still early enough in my career to rebound, even if I had taken a step down or worked outside of my field, just to get away.

        I know, hindsight is 20/20, but what a waste.

        All of this to say, even if you’re in a niche field, is working for this boss another day truly worth it? OP, you sound like someone with a wonderful head on your shoulders, I think you deserve better.

    6. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      Some people, like my team lead, were in the right place and had more knowledge than the rest, so they got the promotion. Yes, he lacks (badly!) the soft skills necessary to do the job, but at that time he was the only alternative.

    1. Shibbolet*

      This. This and very much this. Flee. Just find another job. It feels ok right now – but I have worked for your boss (not literally yours – but sounds EXACTLY the same). There is no reasoning or being perceived reasonably with someone who is not reasonable. Someone who is over the age of 8 and cannot figure out that you don’t do (any of) this is not someone who can be changed in any way. If you can’t flee (and I could not – she ended up retiring – HOORAY!) then remember it’s just like any other regime: keep quiet and keep swimming. Good luck. It got to the point where I’d bet myself what random thing she would find wrong on any specific day. Sometimes she surprised me.

      1. Shibbolet*

        Didn’t mean to say “just” find another job. But I hope you start looking and land in a job that you not only like, but where the people are good.

  14. Approval is optional*

    Why don’t you intend moving on any time soon LW? If it’s because there are no good options in your field/area/pay level etc then that’s one thing. If it’s because you think this job is good for your career, or you just can’t be bothered job searching, or because you like your coworkers, then I’d think about what impact there might be on your career if employees who leave spread the word about your manager and her clique behave (and you are identified as part of the clique). And if it’s because you like your coworkers and your manager (!) think about what it says about you as a person that you like working for/with someone who makes ‘fun of people’s weight, teeth, noses, autism, age, disabilities, accents..’. (possibly more than one someone, if others in the clique are enthusiastic rather than reluctant participants in the IM exchanges and so on.
    Alison says in her answer that it’s not a criticism of you to say that there is a cognitive dissonance in the fact that you generally like working for someone who is a terrible person, so it seems Alison is a much nicer person than I am.

    1. OP*

      It’s pretty much because I love my actual work and, no, there is not much movement in my field.

    2. OP*

      I’d also like to point out that I was unclear in my letter. The couple of people in her department who she hired because she was friends with them outside of work are like her. The rest of my coworkers are not and are perfectly lovely people who I enjoy working with.

  15. a1*

    I have learned that the people that talk to you about everyone else, also talk about you to everyone else.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      Yes. When this was the Big Boss (like, three levels up from me) in my Toxic Ex-Job, it was the only way he knew how to talk about people, to boot. Your best hope was being invisible to him.

      This went along with one-strike-and-you’re-out thinking — screw up once, forget about recovering, ever.

      I stayed in that job far too long.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      Yup. A former team lead once made an offhand comment to me about an area for improvement and jokingly compared me to a coworker about whom I’d heard her talk smack before, and, internally, in that moment, it clicked that she’d probably make the same sort of disparaging comments about me to someone else and I need to be on my guard around her.

      Just like people who are rude to waitstaff are not nice people, the boss who is an active asshole to her less favored subjects is not a nice person.

    3. Tyche*

      This is so true.
      It’s happening with a coworker in my workplace: she trash talk everyone behind their backs. But *everyone* knows she’s badmouthing them and we talk openly between us of her badmouthing, an it’s becoming a very twisted and toxic thing.

  16. StaceyIzMe*

    I think that you’re in a “no-win” situation in the short term. You can’t “manage up” to someone who is so vengeful, petty and unprofessional. You CAN and should document all of the instances of her unprofessional conduct and choose the time and place to put that information forward, (ideally after you are safely ensconced at another job or two promotions from now or whatever reasonable buffer you can manage in order to insulate yourself). Your boss seems to be doing a pretty good job of building herself a bulletproof bubble of professional space that is well insulated by “yes-men” (or “yes-women”). The thing about bubbles is that they always collapse, either because they are punctured or because of the simple fact that they land on something that disrupts the surface tension holding the whole structure together. In your shoes, I’d think about this less from a perspective of personalities and tolerance and more from a systems perspective. Eventually, she’s going to run up against a person, circumstance or system that’s going to puncture or collapse her bubble. You’re going to want to be in a different, healthier bubble when that happens. The aspect of the situation within your control is that you have room to plan a move. (The sooner, the better, in my view.)

  17. RC Rascal*

    OP— Beware. I once worked for your boss. Those who are today in the inner circle will one day migrate to the outer circle and become targets. My bully boss actually ran the company into the ground with this behavior. He refused to take the input of those who knew the most due to his petty tirades, and today the organization is failing. Discrimination and general meanness aside, there are performance consequences to this behavior.

    1. TootsNYC*

      especially because our OP doesn’t have a personal history–there’s no long-term loyalty or association here.

      1. Paulina*

        It might also be worth considering whether this boss bullied out some of these ex-employees, then filled the jobs with her buddies. Without the prior connection, the OP may be even more likely to be a future target.

  18. Mellow*

    This kind of thing always begs the question about how such flagrant jerks get to be bosses.

    She seems laughably insecure. If it’s possible, OP, start looking for another job.

    1. Nicki Name*

      Obviously she was nice to her bosses. People like this have a fine instinct for knowing who they can get away with insulting and who they can’t.

      1. Elizabeth*

        Oh yes!!! She has learned this behaviour gets her advanced. She has learned her boss (or previous bosses) approve of this behaviour. And she will go on doing it until it is stopped – but stopping it is a risky path for her subordinates to take.

  19. Phoenix Programmer*

    Your boss sounds like my thankfully ex sucky manager or SM as I call her.

    It turns out SM was hosting private team meetings before the official team meeting to make fun of me and pressure others to make up complaints about me.

    I found out almost a year later from one of my co-workers who called me, crying her eyes out, from the guilt she felt of not standing up for me. She let her fear of not being in the circle cause her to lie about me.

    Do you really want to be like my ex coworker OP? Too afraid of the bully to stand up for what is right and tacitlly condoning her behavior or worse, joining in, because you want to stay included?

    1. OP*

      I don’t want to stay included–she does this in meetings, which I HAVE to attend if I have any chance of doing my job correctly. Lately, I do my best to ignore her comments and just redirect her when she gets off track.

  20. animaniactoo*

    OP, I will not comment much right now, except to say that if you do not engage her – just ducking your head and tuning her out, not participating in the general round of today’s fest – you can end up in an awfully isolated place on your team. You will also need to find your own level with that and figure out how to manage it if you’re going to stay.

    1. TootsNYC*

      also, if you don’t join in, you’ll be more rapidly targeted.

      She’ll see your non-participation as a criticism, much the way people at a party sometimes get upset that other people aren’t drinking alcohol the way they are.

  21. gecko*

    OP, if you have to keep working there, try to maintain two boundaries here.

    One is internal and most important: how you manage your cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance *wants* to resolve. You *do not* want it to resolve in favor of, “Boss is funny, I like working with her. She’s not that mean, those slow employees kinda deserve it, haha. Doesn’t matter anyway.” I think you want it to resolve in favor of, “Boss is cruel to people in front of me and behind their backs. There are other things I like about this job that keep me here, but my boss is not one of them.” I think this boundary is crucial or frankly you risk mirroring her cruelty when you’re at work and not at work; and that’s no way to live and nothing you want to subject others to.

    The second boundary is external. Lock down your social media, keep your work performance on point and your relationships generally good. If you feel like you need to laugh at the jokes your boss makes maybe you can laugh, but please don’t add to it.

    If this feels too serious, I understand. But it sounds like you know how serious it is, you’re uncomfortable with it, but you don’t want it to be that way. Separate “I don’t want it to be this way” from “this is how it is” and sit with those for a little while. What you’ve described is pretty bad.

    1. wittyrepartee*

      Don’t talk about your personal life to anyone at work. Lock down your social media yesterday. Be a blank slate. Do your best to be kind to everyone.

    2. NothingIsLittle*

      I totally agree; OP you seem to be optimistically assuming that you’ll never leave the inner circle. But the way you spoke about your boss, it sounds like it’s not always warranted or foreshadowed when she turns on your coworkers. It sounds like a “when not if” she turns on you situation, and if that will be before you leave. (She speaks terribly of the people who quit! You might be wasting energy on a place destined to give you a terrible reference regardless of your work.) At the very minimum, you really need to prepare an exit strategy (and an emergency fund if you can afford it) for if you get targeted.

      Also, I would strongly urge you to evaluate why you don’t want to leave right now (and as Alison said, there are totally valid reasons that might be, I’m not trying to judge you for that) and balance those reasons against knowing that you’re probably going to start internalizing that sort of petty vindictiveness, even if you continue to recognize what she’s doing as wrong. You seem to make a lot of excuses for this boss, but the bottom line is that she’s a bully and that’s not going to change. If you’re really okay with that and you’re prepared to be turned on, then I wish you luck. But I suspect you’re really not okay with it and that you wanted to be told your boss can change. You need to make peace with the fact that she won’t.

    3. OP*

      This is all really good advice. After writing in, I did step back and look at why I enjoyed working with her. A lot of the reasons (she was good at her job and I was learning a lot from her) have since vanished, due to company restructuring. So my tolerance of the behavior has dissolved and I’ve been doing just as you suggest–locking things down and just staying away from those conversations.

  22. Jellyfish*

    Ooh I worked for a boss like this many years ago. She wasn’t this petty, but she was wildly insecure, talked about everyone behind their backs, and lashed out at anyone who pushed back on some of her unrealistic ideas.

    She was mostly nice to my face (which was not the case for everyone!), but I had to assume she whispered about me to my coworkers as well. She’d talk about peoples’ personal lives, speculate on their relationships, discuss their professional failings, mock their career goals, etc.

    Even the “realistic” comments about people being bad at their jobs often came as a direct result of her mismanagement and poor instructions. Turnover was impossibly high and our branch office was eventually sold to another company entirely because things got so dysfunctional.

    This boss is not a nice person with a bad habit. She’s a jerk.

  23. Robbenmel*

    OMG…I so recognize this behavior. I worked in an organization that had one of THESE people. If she liked you, you were golden. But if you ever got on her “list” for any reason, you were toast. I (totally inadvertently, doing something that was part of my JOB) got on her “list” very early in my tenure at that organization. She was senior to me (second in command) but I was quite fortunate that I did not report directly to her, and in fact my boss was hers as well…I was the EA. He was great and I was protected from most of the crap she tried to throw my way, but that was the only reason I was able to be comfortable there. Without that layer between us, I wouldn’t have stayed for a hot minute.

  24. GiantPanda*

    OP, you need to rethink your intention to stay there. Sooner or later you will end up on your boss’s bad side for whatever reason (dimples?!). Unless you’d still like the job even then you are probably better off job searching. No need to run immediately, but be prepared to leave.

    1. Fergus*

      It’s like living in Florida during hurricane season. You need to have an emergency plan and be ready to vacate the premises because it’s not if it’s when she’s coming for you.

  25. CatCat*

    OP, your time in the inner circle will eventually come to an end. Have a plan for when that happens. I hope this boss is not able to view your social media profiles. If so, get that taken care of in your settings.

    1. Lance*

      That’s honestly a pretty good point: definitely preemptively block the boss, if you haven’t done so already. It may or may not serve as future ammo, but better that than more personal complaints and snooping.

    2. goducks*

      Yes, this is the first thing I thought. It’s working for the OP right now, because she’s currently in the inner circle. But with bullies like this boss, inner circle status is always precarious, and can change in the blink of an eye.

      1. RC Rascal*

        At my workplace, the most devoted member of bully boss’s inner circle was subject to the most vicious of firings. He never saw it coming— was so loyal he didn’t understand boss was dangerous. The rest of us, who had been excommunicated and targeted, were much more cautious how we conducted ourselves around the bully. We survived long enough to exit on our own terms.

  26. Neosmom*

    There are articles out there about how employees don’t leave bad jobs … they leave bad bosses. If you can, OP, get out. You do not need this bully skewing your perception of a normal work environment.

  27. CommanderBanana*

    Wow. I worked with a woman like that who would do stuff like mock former employees’ weight to members. She was just a cruel bitch. Unfortunately she never really faced any consequences at that organization for her behavior, but she’s a pretty miserable person, so I guess it cuts both ways.

  28. JSPA*

    I can think of one possible alternative. There are a variety of self-help books on the market that deal in manifesting or visualizing a certain reality, to make it happen. And others that tell you to always say “yes,” or always be positive, and then find a way to do…whatever it is that you’ve promised to do, or claimed to be competent at.

    Now, for the most part, these irk me to the core. They can even be dangerous. (Note to the contractor who said “yes” to being a plumber when he wasn’t, quite: I’m about to replace my water heater again because of you.)

    But (unless you think the boss would penalize you for following the fad), some people use “I’m following this personal interaction guide” as a graceful way to sidestep any and all negativity at work. (Because that way, you’re not disagreeing; you’re manifesting a different–better–reality by pretending it’s so.) Lay it on thick: it’s dropped your blood pressure! You met the best dog-walker, as a direct result! Whatever.

    You run the risk that the boss buys in for real, which has its own issues.

    1. wittyrepartee*

      *snicker* That’s glorious. Also- then when she gossips about how foolish you are for caring about The Secret or whatever, it won’t be a criticism about something true.

  29. Random Thought*

    I’ve worked for this boss. I haven’t read Allison’s response yet, but getoutgetoutgetout. If it is happening to you, it will eventually happen ABOUT you (if it’s not already). And I can’t imagine that a person behaving this way doesn’t have other fatal flaws in their management style/approach to work.

  30. Elizabeth West*

    I know you like your job, OP, but I just can’t even imagine staying in such a horrifyingly bad environment. Unless your job market is severely limited or you’re in a niche field and need this experience, I’d start looking around to see what else is out there. You deserve better than this.

    I am not a lawyer, but sooner or later, her bad-mouthing is going to blow back on this company in a big way, if she keeps making fun of people’s disabilities. I see that she’s doing it to people who don’t actually work there anymore, which tells me she KNOWS it’s problematic and she probably thinks that she can’t be called out on it. But you don’t have to be the target in a hostile work environment for it to be actionable. She’s really putting the company at risk of an EEOC complaint. Also, if she’s doing it in an open office, you risk clients, vendors, visitors, etc. overhearing. Not good.

    I’m with those who said lock down your social media so she can’t access it, at all. I’d disconnect or not connect with coworkers; Facebook’s wonky sharing settings mean she could potentially see your posts through someone else. Even if you’re not there anymore, I doubt you want her creeping on your feed just to make fun of you. God only knows what she’d do with it.

    And please remember that this is not normal behavior for a good manager. She is not a good manager. She sucks and is not going to change.

    1. Sara without an H*

      Good advice. You need to do a complete review of all your social media — it’s not enough to lockout Loathsome Boss, you’re going to need to exclude your co-workers as well. Somehow I doubt that any of them are trustworthy.

    2. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

      And if Boss is sending this kind of malicious gossip through IM–be aware of how you respond, at all but especially in writing! If there does end up being a (very warranted!!!!) formal complaint about her behavior, think about how your own behavior and how it might look.

  31. voyager1*

    Sorry LW but nobody deserves any of that your boss is dishing. You are starting to normalize her behavior.

    1. OP*

      I realized I was doing that because when I brought it up with other people, they acted like it wasn’t a big deal. So I just thought it was something everyone dealt with. I have since figured out this is not the case.

  32. Ella*

    Obviously the ability to leave a job is a privilege not everyone can afford, but man. I don’t think my soul would survive having to bite my tongue in the face of someone mocking a person over their autism or appearance or what have you.

  33. Nicki Name*

    Think of your boss as a natural disaster that hasn’t happened to you yet. Someday it will. Be prepared.

  34. Anonya*

    I work with this person. He is not my boss, thank goodness, but he alone has run off so many smart, talented people who finally had enough of his abuse. (Because that’s what it is, and eventually you *will* fall out of the protected inner circle.) Do not normalize this; do not kid yourself that her strong points outweigh “this one thing.” You’re managing OK for now, but seriously — make an exit plan to get out.

  35. TootsNYC*

    I handle these things by being relentlessly positive. “Oh, I really think the dimples are cute! Everybody’s allowed to have individual features like this–and hers are so sweet!”

    And yes, you’ll be the target eventually.

  36. Kendra*

    “Jerks can have redeeming qualities!”

    This is so true, and is part of why this type of situation (or, not-so-coincidentally, some abusive personal relationships) can be so very hard to recognize and/or get out of. A boss I had once would say and do absolutely terrible things to people (I work in a public library, and she would do things like follow homeless people around the library, spraying Lysol as she went, because they smelled bad to her. She also disliked children to a degree I’ve never encountered in another librarian, and was probably an alcoholic; at the very least, I know she was intoxicated at work more than once, and would drunk dial me and other staff on the weekends). At the same time, she was very encouraging to me about continuing my education, got the library thousands of dollars in grants, and she once picked me up at my house and drove me to the hospital when I was extremely anemic and needed a blood transfusion (something both my own mother and sister refused to do; they thought I should be fine to drive myself, despite being barely able to stand without fainting). Nobody is completely good, or completely terrible, and you really do have to look at the whole person, not just the good or bad parts.

    “…at a minimum it means you should be careful not to start normalizing her behavior. When you work in a toxic environment, it’s easy to lose track of what is and isn’t normal, what is and isn’t okay, and how not-okay something is … and it can make it harder to recognize when things reach a point you truly shouldn’t tolerate.”

    This +100000. It can take years to re-normalize yourself to appropriate office behavior after working in an environment like this, and it’s very easy to fall back into those negative patterns and attitudes without realizing it. To me, this is actually the most compelling reason to start job-hunting now; you may have years to go before she finally turns on you (and make no mistake, she WILL turn on you eventually), but during those years, you’ll have internalized a lot of things you really don’t want to have floating around in your brain. There’s nothing quite as depressing as that moment 4-5 years down the road when you catch yourself saying something she might have said, and you have to pull yourself up short and reexamine all of your work relationships for any toxicity that could be coming from you. That is…not a pleasant conversation to have with yourself (necessary, yes, but extremely uncomfortable all the same).

    1. TootsNYC*

      and the biggest problem w/ the work environment is that it IS the entire environment, for the OP.

      Maybe your boss was the only toxic one, and everybody else was a reasonable human being–that’s easier to coexist with.

      But when the entire office is being toxic? That’s hard to tune out or compartmentalize.

  37. Kat*

    Oh wow this all sounds so familiar. I worked in a company with a person very similar to this. She was not my boss, but our work overlapped frequently – especially in the last couple of years I was with the company. I mostly flew under the radar and thankfully avoided the brunt of her abuse, but she made it abundantly clear that she could and would turn on anyone at any moment for any reason (or no reason at all) so it was an environment of constant fear. It wasn’t until much later that I realized just how much rationalization, compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance I had to have in order to survive professionally – and how much it really warped my sense of normal. Its been 4 years since I left for better things and I still have flare-ups of workplace anxiety that I know are a direct result of these experiences. It must be so much worse for those directly in her line of fire. So yes, get out if you can and be very very careful in the meantime.

    On the bright side, things blew up rather dramatically and publicly for my workplace bully (and her boss, who enabled and encouraged her behavior) about a year ago and it was extremely satisfying. Both to see someone get what they had coming (sort of – there was at least one golden parachute, but at least they had some consequences finally), and to hear stories from so many former colleagues – many of whom thought they were alone in their experiences. It was very healing.

  38. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    Thank goodness I am not in this toxic an environment …

    If you plan to stay here, for whatever reason, then here’s a great time to build your extinguishing muscles. Short, emotionless responses that go nowhere and can flatten out the toxic with a big ol’ wet blanket.

    “Oh? She has X disability? It seems that she handles it well.” or “Oh? I find Fergus helpful when I need help on the TPS reports. He sure seems on task when I’m talking to him.”

    Then disengage any eye contact and move on to another subject or activity.

    (I’ve almost trained my boss to quit it on his “oh, ugh, it’s Monday/Work is such a drag” nonsense by doing this. I feel like I have a super power.)

  39. Deadly Nightshades*

    I just called a friend/colleague in my office and asked her if she or one of our other colleagues had written this letter. It wasn’t someone from my office, though, because we’ve all been working for our Jerk Boss (JB) for longer and are now on to the next phase of this situation.

    For OP or anyone else in a similar situation: get out now. Although we also get along on a superficial level, seeing and hearing coworkers disparaged, belittled, and mocked on a regular basis is incredibly draining in itself. Even if you are never the target of your JB (and I 99.99% guarantee that you will be), just being in that toxic of an environment will wear you down. It will eat away at you. You will feel upset, sad, and powerless to do anything about it. You will bring that mood home with you because it’s hard to shake off a crappy feeling. My partner routinely complains that I am grouchy and moody or shut down at home, and it’s directly caused by spending 8+ hours a day bracing myself for a personal attack.

    When my JB does not get the desired result from putting someone down herself, JB creates situations that turn people against one another. (This is phase two.) Usually this is done by talking about two people to one another, fueling (reasonable, professional, work-related) disagreements into full-blown interpersonal conflicts. JB will also do similar things in meetings, creating situations where we end up ganging up on one another. Sometimes JB plays the rescuer, jumping in to “save” the person being attacked, sometimes JB joins in the attack. It’s unpredictable and disconcerting and upsetting. We don’t feel we can trust what JB tells us because JB says one thing privately, another in a meeting, and a third thing if a similar situation comes up again. (To clarify, disagreements truly begin as professional disagreements, i.e. whether and how to apply the Chocolate Teapots design criteria and plan to White Chocolate Teapots.)

    My boss is the CEO. Our Board of Directors is very hands-off and hears about situations filtered through JB anyway. (They recently recommended that a colleague be terminated for something she had no direct control over but were told was her responsibility/fault. She narrowly avoided it, but she knows she has a target on her back and no way to correct the narrative.) I know for a fact that 50% of our upper management is actively looking for other jobs and/or have identified a date that they will quit, new job or not. Some of these people have worked at this company for decades and expected to retire here. That is the 50% of upper management that I am close enough with (allied with? sometimes it feels like Survivor) to be able to openly talk about the situation, I would not be surprised if others are also trying to leave. JBs actions and moods have only gotten progressively worse and more brazen over the years because there are no consequences. There is no way to address either specific incidents or the overall pattern without being subjected to even more abuse.

    So, yes, OP, get out as soon as you can. And while you’re there, try to build work friends/allies that you can bounce things off of. We’ve avoided a lot of the conflicts that JB has tried to create by going to one another and saying, basically, ‘I heard you were upset about X, what’s going on?’ 95% of the time, no one is mad or two people have been told things which are slightly different from the actual truth to try to foment a conflict.

    GET OUT.

    1. Tabby Baltimore*

      I know we’re not supposed to diagnose, so all I’ll say is that your JB sounds like she could be an example straight from the book The Sociopath Next Door. And you have my deepest sympathies.

  40. Observer*

    “Other than this one thing, we all get along really well”

    Well, this “one thing” is so big that it’s hard to see how you can say that you actually get along really well. This is not some annoying quirk or even less than optimal management strategy. This is fundamentally disgusting behavior that may also actually be illegal, depending on the specific things she makes fun of and who gets retaliated against.

    I’m not saying you need to leave your job immediately. But you really do need to realize that there is a basic flaw in this person and your relationship with her.

    1. Not Me*

      “This is fundamentally disgusting behavior”

      I just thought this bears repeating so the LW (and anyone who acts this way) can read it twice.

  41. YoungTen*

    Listen to Allison! There is not a lot you can do but the idea of changing the subject and making non-comment sounds to acknowledge that she said something may be best. But I truly think you should be looking for job soon. Because its not just her but she deliberately hires people like herself. You obviously are not like her so I’m thinking you have a really good qualifications. Have an exit plan of maybe 6 months to a year. Then, when its time to leave, try to focus on reasons that have nothing to do with her. Maybe the commute is too long, or whatever. Maybe she wont turn on you. Who knows. Best of Luck to you.

  42. Sara without an H*

    She also tends to hire people who have similar attitudes. In fact, every person in our department is someone she knew outside of work first.

    OP, I hope all the commenters upstream have convinced you that this is not a viable situation for you long term. I am only going to add that, given that most of your colleagues appear to be Loathsome Boss’s creatures, you need to be extremely careful in your interactions with them. At some point, one of the lower-ranking minions is going to trash you to Loathsome Boss in an effort to improve her own standing. What will you do then?

    So take Alison’s advice, update your resume and LinkedIn profile, work your network, and try to line up some references other than Loathsome Boss. And lock down your social media ASAP.

  43. Oh So Anon*

    With a manager like this, you have to be constantly wary that they may find something in your personal life that they would use to deny holiday requests, travel opportunities, or other work-related things. You can keep the entirety of your non-work life on lockdown, but yuor boss has shown that she’s not above crossing some really questionable boundaries to find things that she can disapprove of.

    When you work for someone like this, your career is only as healthy as the extent to which your boss approves of who you are as a person and your personal life. Do you feel comfortable continuing to walk that tightrope? This can go wrong very, very quickly. Heck, I once worked for someone like this who took my lack of openness about my personal life as a sign that I had “personal issues” and subsequently started getting weird about my PTO requests because “I don’t have family to spend time with”. Yup. It can really mess you and your career up long-term to work for someone who makes it clear that they need to cosign your life choices/circumstances for you to be a good employee.

    Keep in mind that this is a different situation than having a manager who devotes too much of their attention to star employees and is neglectful if not outright crappy to weaker employees. That’s mostly about professional rather than personal judgement.

  44. RUKiddingMe*

    First: BOSS “…needs to spend more time working and less time making up gossip to spread around the office.”

    Second: Get out of there!

  45. austriak*

    You need to look for a new job. Anything you say is going to result retaliation and this person is awful enough that higher ups know what is going on. If they are not taking action, they are not going to because you say something.

  46. Heidi*

    I feel like part of my soul died when OP said, “This is really only a problem with certain people.” Not to be dramatic, but the KKK only has a problem with certain people too. The minimizing of the problem is kind of a problem in itself here. However, OP also has no standing to push back or correct the boss’s behavior, and that’s a bad place to be if OP does not want to engage in that type of behavior or share that reputation. There are some people who are able to distinguish themselves as someone who can manage a jerk, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

  47. Tinybutfierce*

    To quote Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

    Your boss has shown you that she’s incredibly cruel, petty, and ableist. She will openly, unabashedly ridicule people publicly. And she’s filling your company with her friends who behave just like her.

    Do you really want to be in a company full of petty “adults” who enjoy cutting down others (whether to their face or not) and behaving like playground bullies? And I certainly understand wanting to stay in her good graces so her ire won’t be turned on you, but are you okay with the assumptions people will make ( and I can assure you, already have made) about you seemingly being on her team? Because that is 100% signaling to your peers that you’re cut from the same cloth and deserve the same level of trust/respect/etc. that she does (which is none).

    I know you say you have no desire to leave, but I have a hard time imagining a scenario where leaving wouldn’t be more beneficial to you on most levels. There are plenty of bosses out there who don’t rule their employees via mean girl tactics, who won’t damage your reputation by association in the process.

  48. I edit everything*

    A few other people have mentioned this, usually at the end of their posts, but I’m going to say it again:

    Lock down your social media *right now*. Quietly unfriend, if you’ve friended, colleagues and make everything private. If anyone says anything, just say, “Oh, I’ve decided to keep my work and personal lives separate.” But with any luck, no one will notice. When you do leave, and Boss goes looking, there’s nothing for her to find.

    Do not feed the troll.

  49. Jaybeetee*

    I had a past boss like this as well – not as severe as yours, but on the other hand, could and did fire people. And I’ll echo what others have said that most likely, you’ll be in this woman’s crosshairs sooner or later. With my ex-boss, I was never in the “Inner Circle”, but I was a blandly/quietly agreeable, generally stayed out of her way, and did my job reasonably well, which meant I avoided her ire… for awhile. She did zoom in on me eventually. I was never fired and eventually left for another job, but that was probably in no small part due to luck and circumstance as opposed to me doing anything much different from anyone else.

    OP, you’re never going to be able to really relax in this job as long as she’s your boss. Even if she never turns on you, it’s something you’ll always have to worry about, and in the meantime, being around that kind of person is exhausting. If you can even manage a transfer to a different team or department, that would probably be for the best. But I really do think you ought to at least start thinking about job-hunting. You don’t want to wait until you’re desperate to get out of there.

  50. jiminy_cricket*

    This is not “one thing.” This is a series of behaviors and attitudes that apparently she is enacting on a frequent basis, enough that you have myriad examples. As you know, there’s nothing woke about talking sh*t about people’s cognitive differences or bodies. I would start looking for another job and do the things you know to do to keep yourself safe at this one. But the thing is, with someone like that you never know when their ire is going to fall down upon you — and she might not make it easy when you find something different. Sending you luck.

  51. BigSigh*

    I had a boss like this about 5 years ago. At the time, it was SO easy just to let it go. We got along great and I was one of the clique. I definitely let some bad behavior on her part go because I got away with other things that people she didn’t like couldn’t get away with. But man, once I quit, I just kept remembering more and more instances that were terrible boss behavior. Her positives didn’t make up for the severe lack of managing skill/behavior. I’m glad I moved on and you will be too.

  52. Winry Rockbell*

    This is so Mean Girls that I’m having high school flashbacks.
    I hope you’re able to transition out of this job before it blows up in your face, OP. Best of luck.

  53. swusposp*

    I worked at a startup where the CEO was this person. From time to time he’d bring in completely unqualified people because “he could spot talent, the diamond in the rough”. Those folks could do no wrong, for awhile, and many became absolutely insufferable. But, eventually, they’d screw up in a way that angered the CEO and that’d be that. He turned on everyone eventually, so the best way to survive was to fly under his radar.

  54. Frankie*

    So the thing about this “nice” is that it’s not really genuine niceness. You feel protected but that’s part of the control she’s keeping over this entire office.

    And even that is honestly probably a sham. The people I have known who do this do it to eeeeeeeeveryone with very few exceptions.

    And honestly, being in the “inner circle” is kind of more dangerous. This person creates conflict wherever she goes. She will eventually find her way into a conflict with you, because that’s what she does.

  55. LGC*

    So…honestly, I think the LW’s best bet is to keep a low profile and not engage – and even that sounds risky to a degree. Part of what Hell Boss (was her previous position in property m

    1. LGC*

      I really dislike the mobile site. That sent WAY too early.

      Anyway. Part of what Hell Boss is doing is trying to get an audience for her behavior – she’s team building through toxicity, as some people have noted. I’m just curious – does she just spout off and people laugh? Does she force people to engage?

      I’d also pass it off as just a thing you’re doing for yourself – you looked at a website and decided to talk less about others.

      Finally – yes, I’m aware that I’m endorsing that the LW avoid confrontation here, where in an ideal world she should be able to make her boss feel as awkward about her terrible behavior as she deserves to feel. But since the risk of retaliation is so high, and I have doubts that the company is able to rein the boss in (It’s a very small office), I feel like the smackdown would just end in heartache for the LW.

      Actually, one more thing – I’m getting the feeling that this boss marches people out when they give their two weeks. So I know LW isn’t planning on leaving, but if she changes her mind (which I think she should – it’s not a matter of IF Hell Boss turns on her, it’s WHEN), she should keep that in mind.

  56. Anon for This*

    I feel like this is a close description of my boss. She doesn’t really do it to people she’s worked with in the past, but if you tell her she needs to follow policy and not just do whatever she wants, she gets really petty about it. Also, less about appearance and more about job performance complaints. Or she gives you more work than a person could actually manage to do in a normal work schedule, although this might just be her inability to consider how much time tasks take. I barely manage to toe the line sometimes and I have to work really hard at it. Thankfully, today is her last day!

  57. Impy*

    You need to find another job. It’s nice that you’re in the ‘inner circle’ right now but you won’t always be. That’s how bullies work.

    And if the price of not being bullied yourself is sitting there while she *mocks people with disabilities*, then it’s too high. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.

  58. Luna*

    I’d be so tempted to send her daily emails with gifs of Frozen that sing “LET IT GO! LET IT GO!!” on a high volume.

    Get away from her. Find another job, and when you hand in your resignation, go ahead and let loose. “Your attitude towards others is disgusting. Mocking people for things they cannot help; be glad other people have higher standards, and aren’t talking behind your back about your insecurities. Grow. Up.”

  59. burningupasun*

    This sounds eerily like my former boss… who, ironically, was the HR manager of the company I worked at. Imagine that. Yikes.

  60. Argh!*

    My first week on the job, my boss said something derogatory about my supervisee’s work as a heads-up. Prior to this job, I’d been a supervisor for 13 years in three positions, so I pretty much ignored it and just started with a clean slate with my supervisee. Naturally, my boss was right, and I’ve been dealing with issues ever since.

    I twigged to my boss’s tendency to single out a person and be judgmental, which was an “uh-oh” for me. Turns out I was right, and she has turned on me, which has hurt my salary and my ability to retire directly.

    Secondly, it was a red flag because she had legitimate complaints which had never been addressed properly, including during the 18 months she ran my division before my hire! So I blame her directly for my supervisory issue — I should not have inherited an underperformer who (rightfully) believes they can get away with anything and never experience meaningful discipline or get fired. (I have tried mightily, and they are uncoachable, blasé, and my supervisor won’t back me up with progressive discipline. Instead, she gives me a low rating as a supervisor myself, which translates to less $$$)

    This is to say…. a passive-aggressive person is going to be a bad manager, and LW should find an escape route ASAP! LW needs a better role model in life if not in management, and LW’s own contributions will be stunted by the passive-aggressive boss. Trust me on this. Been there, still there!

  61. Linyarri*

    Is there a name for the phenomena of a toxic environment causing your “normal” to skew?
    I’ve taken to calling it moral drift, but was wondering if there is a technical term for it. If not, any ideas?

    1. OP*

      What about my letter makes you think I think it’s normal? If I thought it was, I wouldn’t have written in. Though, as I pointed out to someone else, when I brought it up with other people they acted like it was no big deal and didn’t understand why I was complaining about it. That did create some confusion for me. But literally the reason I wrote in is because I don’t think she should be behaving this way, but I can’t think of what to do about it since my field is very niche and saying anything to her would be career suicide.

  62. OP*

    I couldn’t keep up with all the comments, so I decided to write an update that I hope clears some things up.

    1. Since she hasn’t actively discriminated against disabled employees (as far as anyone knows), I don’t think she’d be in any trouble as far as ADA is concerned. Or maybe I just don’t understand how the ADA works.

    2. Our HR used to be a single part-time person whose only job was basically on-boarding new employees. I’m not certain if I could have brought it up with her and I don’t think I would have been comfortable doing so, anyway, considering how small the company is.

    She is also VERY close to her manager and I have discovered he’s worse than she is.

    3. I realized after rereading my letter that I was unclear about my coworkers. There are people within her department who she hired because she was friends with them outside of work. THEY are like her. Fortunately, companies are normally made up of multiple departments. In my company, those other departments are filled with lovely people who I enjoy working with very much.

    4. There were some questions about how I could enjoy working for this boss. Let me clarify that, as well. I do not enjoy socializing with this boss. I enjoy working with her because she is good at her job and I am learning a lot from her.

    5. Yes, I realize she’d probably talking about me or will eventually. Gossipers get bored easily. As long as it’s not something that is work-related, I really don’t care if she does. I was bullied constantly as a kid, so I know my faults and am well aware that other people know them, too. I’ve learned to deal with it.

    As far as what she says about other people: If it’s personal, I’ve started tuning it out because it’s not my business. If it’s work-related, I’ve started playing a manager, basically. I do my best to try and gently remind them of proper procedures, etc. In one extreme case, I outright told someone that Boss was saying X about her because she called me crying because Boss was being mean to her and she didn’t know why. Essentially, if it’s something that could affect their careers, I’ve stopping keeping it to myself and just started sort of “mentoring” people. The company is small enough that this doesn’t raise alarm bells (training each other under fire is common) and, as employees improve, Boss has been having to reach for things to gossip about, which is somewhat amusing.

    6. I’m not certain which part of my letter made it seem like I enjoyed being in her inner circle, outside of not having opportunities revoked (and…who wouldn’t like that?). The reason I wrote in was because it was making me uncomfortable and I didn’t know what to do without wrecking my career. I am in a very niche field and can’t really afford to lose this job without getting a few more years under my belt. If I liked being part of these conversations, I wouldn’t have written the letter.

    7. I tried Allison’s suggestion of just being nice about people and giving them the benefit of the doubt when they screwed up (I actually thought of this a few months before the letter was released, so score!). Her response was, “You’re a nicer person than I am.” So that opened the door for me to actually try to be nicer about people in front of her and it helped smooth over SOME awkward encounters for a while.

    8. Even though I used present tense for much of this update, it should be past. This boss is no longer my boss due to some company changes that I can’t discuss, so I haven’t had to deal with her or this behavior in a while. It’s been refreshing to not have to work so closely with her. The changes also mean that, while her job and pay is the same, she is not as high up as she once was. So she has very little power and more people (with whom she has no personal ties) who are holding her accountable. This means she seems to be watching what she says more often. So it would appear the issue fixed itself for now.

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