I’m my boss’s favorite — and it sucks

A reader writes:

I’ve had my current position at a small nonprofit for about nine months. My coworker, Liz, and I have the same boss, but she has a slightly higher-level position than me and has reported to our boss a few years more than I have. Neither of us like our boss very much, but our relationships with him are very different. With Liz and our boss, the feelings are mutual: they don’t get along, and most people in the office are aware of it. In my opinion, they are both rather unprofessional in how they handle their dislike of one another. Towards me, however, our boss shows favoritism, which I feel very awkward about. Towards him I am neutral and strictly professional. I have a good relationship with Liz, and am more casual and friendly towards her than I am my boss.

This whole dynamic has resulted in this fairly frequent occurrence: My boss will confide in me about some work topic. It’s information that involves Liz’s job, and many times involves her more than it involves me. Later on, he will bring up the subject in a meeting, and it becomes obvious to me that he hasn’t shared the same background information with Liz, nor does he share it with her during the meeting. Many times Liz picks up on the fact that she hasn’t been told as much as I have, ends up feeling angry and betrayed, and it worsens the toxic relationship they already have. It also sucks for me, because I agree with her that she should have known the information, but I am not sure it’s my place to tell her if my boss chose not to share it with her.

Also, many times my boss has complained about Liz to me. For example, he once said he hadn’t shared the same information with Liz because “She is extremely emotional … I’m not trying to play favorites, but I can trust you to handle things more maturely and reasonably.” I usually just ignore it when he complains about her.

Is my boss justified in his decision to share things with me and not with Liz, even though they involve her? And how should I handle these situations in the future? Do I just have to live with the awkwardness of being the reluctant favorite, or is there a way for me to advocate for more transparency?

It’s possible that it’s reasonable for your boss to bounce things off you in a way he doesn’t do with Liz. If you’re better at your work, better at talking through ideas, or just generally easier to work with, that often does mean you’ll end up in more conversations with your boss. Managers often want to throw ideas around or even just think something through out loud, and some people are better sounding boards for that than others.

Your boss’s explanation that you handle things more maturely and reasonably than Liz could very well be true. Your assessment that she’s not very professional in handling her dislike of your boss, and the fact that the whole office knows that, supports this. (Of course, since the same thing is true of your boss, he doesn’t sound terribly mature or professional either.)

So the fact that he’s talking more with you isn’t inherently a problem. But it is a problem if he’s not giving Liz all the background information that she needs to do her job, particularly if it reaches a point where it’s being discussed in a meeting that she’s part of.

It’s also not cool for your boss to complain to you about Liz. It’s disrespectful to her, and it puts you in an uncomfortable position. Most importantly, though, if he has concerns about Liz’s work, he should be addressing them with her. He’s her manager and he should be actually managing her — not venting to colleagues about her. By complaining to you instead of addressing and resolving the problem, he’s making himself look weak and like he doesn’t know how to do his job.

You can’t make your boss manage differently, but there are things you can do on your end. You said you’re worried that it’s not your place to share information with Liz, but when info is relevant to a colleague’s job and it’s not obviously sensitive in some way, it’s very normal to fill them in. It feels awkward to you because of whatever weirdness your boss has going on with her, but that doesn’t need to become your weirdness. You can proceed the way you would if he were treating her normally — which means being matter-of-fact about saying, “Oh, there’s some highly relevant info that will help with your job.”

So, if he shares info with you that will impact Liz, you can say, “It sounds like we should loop Liz in on this. Should I go ahead and share this with her?” (Say this in a very matter-of-fact tone, as if of course he’ll want her informed, since it’s weird that he doesn’t.) Or you could just skip asking him and go ahead and loop Liz in, on the assumption that of course she should have information that’s relevant to her job. But there might be some utility in spelling out for him that filling in Liz is a logical and necessary next step.

Also, if you’re in a meeting with both of them where it becomes clear Liz hasn’t been privy to some key piece of information, you can say, “Liz, I’m getting the sense you didn’t know about X. Bob, can we fill her in?” That way you’re politely calling out the oversight and asking to remedy it.

And when your boss complains to you about Liz, you can ask him to stop by saying something like, “I feel awkward hearing that kind of thing about a peer!” or “Hmmm, I probably shouldn’t be hearing that since she’s my peer.”

It would also be a kindness to push back on his perception of Liz when you disagree with him. For example, if he complains that she’s very emotional and you haven’t seen any evidence of that, you could say, “Huh, that hasn’t been my experience with her. I’ve always found her to be very reasonable.” Since he seems to respect you, it’s possible that you’ll be able to affect his thinking. (And if not, he might at least rein in how often he complains to you, which would also be a good outcome.)

Ultimately, though, Liz isn’t doing herself any favors by staying in a job where she and her boss openly dislike each other. It’s going to impact the types of projects she’s assigned, the professional development she receives (or more likely, doesn’t receive), future raises, potential advancement, and her reputation. You can try to alleviate her situation with your boss in small ways, but really, the best thing for her would be to get out.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 105 comments… read them below }

  1. Dust Bunny*

    Your boss sucks. Liz may or may not kind of suck. Both you and Liz need to get out of here.

    Frankly, though, if I were Liz, I’d be kind of “emotional”, too. And I wonder if “emotional” is your boss’ spin on “pissy because I’m withholding information from her in a deliberate attempt to undermine and embarrass her”.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      That crazy Liz, she probably also “overreacts” when he gives the requirements for her project to the new hire instead.
      I’m joining the “get out while you’ve got your sanity” bandwagon. I’ve worked for someone who would tell one person on the staff the project requirements and expect we’d all know by telepathy. In some ways the joke was on him when we realized he was doing this regularly and we started sharing new info at lunch & break… he didn’t get to have a hissy fit for two whole months. ;)

    2. Bree*

      Disagree. Liz definitely needs to get out of there. The OP doesn’t necessarily need to jump ship yet. It seems like the boss respects her and admires her work. It’s definitely awkward that he complains to her about a peer, but if redirecting works or if Liz leaves that problem may resolve.

      Being “the favourite” can be advantageous, as long as the OP maintains her own professionalism. And as Allison points out in the answer, she may very well deserve that status because she’s good at her job. There’s no reason to throw that away for Liz’s benefit.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Nah, if this guy is like this with one employee, he can just as well turn on the OP. You can never trust your favored standing with a boss who demonstrates this kind of unprofessional behavior.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          The thing is: Even if the OP is a total rock star . . . the boss is a jerk. The point is not whether or not it’s because of her performance vs. Liz’s: The point is that he’s not handling the situation well. The boss is the problem.

          1. tangerineRose*

            The boss is a jerk and unprofessional. I think the OP should at least consider their options for other jobs.

        2. Bree*

          Sure, but OP has only been in the position nine months. Provided she likes the job otherwise and it offers opportunities to learn and grow, it could make a lot of strategic sense to work to maintain this favoured status until she’s been around for at least another year or two, before making her own exit plan.

        3. juliebulie*

          Exactly. Either OP will remain the favorite but be put in the same situation again with the next new hire, or the boss will favor the new hire and OP will be the new Liz.


        4. JM in England*

          The OP should bear in mind that if the boss badmouths an employee to her, it is quite likely he could be doing the same about her with others…..

        5. Librarian of SHIELD*

          Exactly this. I have an ex-boss who always dumped on one of my coworkers. When that coworker left, we thought that would be the end of it, but no. Turns out this boss just always needed someone to dump on, so when her current dumping ground became unavailable, she picked a new one.

      2. Witchy Human*

        I agree–the landscape could change dramatically if Liz leaves.

        It may be that the boss is just hugely sensitive about feeling disliked/disrespected and that’s what prompted all the immature behavior. If that’s at the root of things then there would be no reason to worry about him picking another target.

      3. Tinuviel*

        Have you seen the movie “The Favorite”? The last scene is of the Favorite stuck rubbing her queen’s gout legs, realizing this is her life now. She has fought and survived to make herself safe, all to now be stuck rubbing some crazy person’s gout legs, hoping the crazy doesn’t turn on her next. I don’t think OP should put herself in that situation, since it’s actually not any more secure than Liz’s.

    3. RC Rascal*

      I have worked for this boss. Given enough time, you will become Liz & Boss will move on to a new person to favorite.

      1. Jamie*

        I’ve worked for this boss, too but with a different outcome.

        In my case he was only comfortable discussing things in numbers and with logic. I am very pragmatic and kept my communication with him to spreadsheets and bullet points and we got along very well. He would avoid conversations about work stuff with others who were more conversational or less data driven.

        Another boss (family business so this was a family member of immediate boss) didn’t want to ever see a number or discuss details until we had a dialogue about the overall concept, feelings of anyone involved, every whimsical path it could take. So with her I’d bring in coffee and sit on her couch and chat about stuff first ages before I asked her to look at facts.

        Some people aren’t able to adapt their communication styles and as bosses that can leave some of their employees out in the cold, even shunned. It totally sucks and it’s bad management, but for some people it’s about personality and not a capricious thing.

        1. Lance*

          I’m curious, then: how would you handle that on an individual/coworker level? Since it sounds like you knew how to stay on the boss’ good sides, were there points where other co-workers weren’t, and you lent a hand? Did the bosses know at all?

          All in all, this seems like a fairly tenuous situation for the OP even if the boss might not be capricious, but I wonder if there aren’t good ways for them to do something about it while Liz is still there (on the presumption that she’ll be gone sooner or later).

          1. Jamie*

            I was a director at the time with three departments under my umbrella of responsibility so it was pretty common for tptb (owners) to have me or the COO deal with the people outside their preferred favorites.

            It didn’t help as far as their relationships with tptb went, but they weren’t left in the dark about work related information. The COO and I had a pretty good rapport with most people and could code switch, as it were, to different communication styles. Some of our “Liz” people would get super nervous talking to their bosses, so they were actually happy when they could deal with someone with whom they were comfortable.

        2. RC Rascal*

          The reason I don’t think this is a work style issue is that Boss is venting to OP & actively seeking an ally, or possibly flying monkey. As the more tenured employee my hunch is Liz has acquired enough knowledge to disagree with Boss. Boss is pathological enough to see this as a fatal sin. Once OP has more knowledge, she will be the next Liz, especially if Liz moves on or if she formulated different opinions than Boss.

        3. Close Bracket*

          So you had a functional boss and a relationship building boss, and you are flexible enough to use either communication style. That’s a useful skill! I get the distinction, but I’m too autistic to realize when a person is more relationship building also too autistic to do deliberate relationship building with a person I don’t know well.

            1. Observer*

              The difference is that you were far enough into your career that it wasn’t shaping your perceptions of what is normal and your skill set. The OP is fairly new, and is going to learn how to function in a totally toxic environment. That’s going to be a lot harder to unlearn.

      2. Quill*

        Oh yeah! At Job From Hell whoever was new could do no wrong… so when I was new I was perfect and wonderful and when I had been there a year I could do no right.

      3. Ra94*

        I (currently) work for this boss, and when our ‘Liz’ left, I didn’t become the new scapegoat. My boss is objectively bananas a lot of the time, but I’m good at managing her quirks and letting the small stuff go while setting boundaries around things that matter to me.

        Liz was a reasonably good employee, but terrible at emotionally navigating our boss- she’d openly sulk at being asked to stay late but never voice opposition, while I’d matter-of-factly say I couldn’t stay and leave with a smile.

      4. PopJunkie42*

        Was coming here to say that. I worked for a Grade A Narcissist and favorites are always coming and going. It was always a brand-new person who wasn’t wise yet to how terrible of a boss he was. Once they were there for 6 months or so and saw what was happening and began pushing back and questioning things in meetings, they would get booted for the next person. I was the favorite when I started and got put on a ton of great, big projects and had my boss’s ear for everything even though I was in a very general administrative position. As soon as we hired someone new, projects got taken away from me (without anyone even telling me – I would find out in staff meetings!). I was basically ignored, might as well have been invisible. It was sort of fine because he was so terrible and we all saw through him, but it was not a great work environment.

        I ended up leaving, not just because of that but also because I wanted to get back into my chosen field. But he actually was ousted soon after that due to multiple HR complaints against him! One of the only times I have seen the system work for staff in that way. Unfortunately he got another, bigger, cushier job down the street and we have heard he is now running that place into the ground…make sure to check references, everyone.

    4. Joielle*

      YES, this is the vibe I got too. It’s like when a guy has a lot of “crazy” ex-girlfriends, and then you find out the actual problem was that he treated them like crap and they eventually got fed up and stood up for themselves. That Liz, so emotional… when she’s being undermined and cut out of conversations that should include her.

      1. AuroraLight37*

        Yeah, I look at it this way. Anyone can have an awful ex. If all of them are “crazy,” then I start wondering what’s going on with that guy. It’s like people who are always telling you how all their customer service interactions are terrible, and then you go somewhere with them and realize that they’re actually the problem because they’re horrid to anyone in a service capacity.

  2. Alexis Rose*

    My boss constantly tells me about his concerns about my coworkers. Its very uncomfortable, made more uncomfortable by the fact that I know he complains about me sometimes to them! So now I’m in a situation where I never know where I stand with him, which is not great for morale. Its incredibly frustrating and awkward.

    1. Veronica Marshmallows*

      Yup. When I became a manager, I had learned by example that the unspoken rule of being a manager is that you don’t vent to your direct reports about your job, especially about other people. It can be hard to keep your true thoughts in check. But my current manager never got that memo and will pop by to complain about so and so – my peers, their peers, you name it. I never paused to think until this moment that they might be venting about me, too.

    2. mf*

      My boss has told me his concerns (or rather, complaints) about my coworkers too. What he and a lot of managers don’t realize is that when you do this, what you actually doing is teaching your employee that you’re not trustworthy. If your boss will badmouth other people to you, who’s to say he/she is not also saying nasty things about you?

    3. Robbenmel*

      A boss who will complain to you about your coworkers is one who will complain to your coworkers about you. That’s the sister law to the one that goes, “If somebody gossips about/backbites/tears down someone else to me, they will 100% be doing the same thing ABOUT me to someone else.” Good thing to keep in mind.

      1. Alexis Rose*

        Oh and I know that they do because it gets back to me, all my coworkers and I are open enough that we share things, so I know he has concerns. but to my face he is very complimentary. Makes for a very uncomfortable workplace. I also have zero respect for him as a person or a manager, but there is a whole other list of grievances that contributes to that…….

        1. Shelly*

          I find this so hard as a manager (employees sharing). Recently I had to manage someone’s low performance and couldn’t have been more confidential about it and next thing I know, employee has talked to the whole team about it and twisted it so I came across as hard and mean. And I had others in the meeting and they had support staff – there was nothing hard or mean about it! It was actually a very supportive session. I think the keeping quiet mantra needs to go both ways – I used to be the groupee complaining about my manager but now as a manager, I see how fruitless that was. You just end up spreading negativity as you really don’t know the exact conversations between a boss and employee. People naturally will spin it favourably to them (I definitely did this!). It’s one of the hardest struggles I think as a manager – tip toeing around people so they don’t bad mouth you in their group chats with the rest of the team.

  3. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    I was in this position about fifteen years ago, and you’re right, it really sucks. I ended up being a little more direct with my boss, by saying, “For you to complain about M puts me in a very awkward situation. I don’t like being put in the middle; I don’t think it’s necessary.”

    He took the point, but fair warning: once M was moved to a different department, he locked his sights onto another person, and eventually it was me. (We called this his Wheel of Fortune: someone was always at the top, and someone was always at the bottom.) Every new hire was God’s Gift to him, until few years later when, with no warning, it became apparent that they were on his sh!t list. I avoided all of it by leaving when I was only half way down.

    Maybe your boss isn’t like this, but keep an eye on the way he treats everybody. You may have to cope with it yourself at some point — but if you plan for it now, it won’t be quite so devastating when/if it happens.

    1. StaceyIzMe*

      Your point is a really good one, in my view, and illustrative of the fact that pushing back in low-key and group centered ways is a bit safer and sometimes more effective.

    2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      I too had a boss like this. She’d have a “bestie” who was tight and her favorite, and then once they declined to meddle/gossip/do her bidding, they were Against Her and had to be destroyed. In retrospect, she hit a lot of the symptoms of a personality disorder.

      She was in place for a year and in that time she’d caused the turnover of most of the full-time roles at least once, and 30-50 part timers, and led to the place being chronically understaffed for years after. The damage was shocking. It was like a forest fire.

    3. MissDisplaced*

      New hires are always God’s Gift and can do no wrong… until they do.
      I had the Wheel ‘oCrap boss once too. They suck.

  4. nnn*

    This isn’t a whole solution, but, in the moment, you could say things like “That’s more Liz’s area than mine” or “Liz would have far more insight on that than I have!”

    This way, you aren’t telling your boss what to do, you’re just pointing out where the best possible resources for the situation can be found. (And also happen to be advocating for fair treatment for Liz in the process)

    1. AnonAnon*

      “Or you could just skip asking him and go ahead and loop Liz in, on the assumption that of course she should have information that’s relevant to her job.”

      I’ve done things like this and the boss ended up chewing my backside for it. Bosses, especially reactionary types, can see this as an assumption of authority outside your swim lane. Better to go with the first option and ask on the spot if you can share the info with Liz.

      I’m actually struggling with a similar situation now; my lead isn’t passing info to other people, if at all, who need this info to do their jobs. I very discreetly looped in a trusted higher manager, telling her “I think we have issue X but no one seems to be aware of it; can you please talk to Lead and get some clarification?” I then stepped WAY back so management can handle it.

      1. Jadelyn*

        Same – I’d assume the manager will get pissy if OP just loops Liz in on their own recognizance. Which is a wildly toxic dynamic for a team and makes it so much harder to function than it should normally be, but OP should be aware of the potential for that to go badly if they pass information along.

        I’ve got a similar situation as well, and it’s to the point where the manager doing this recently came to me and asked me to take care of a two-part process – let’s say creating a chocolate teapot lid and also a chocolate saucer – on a day when I really didn’t have time for it. I am actually the backup for lids, and I didn’t mind doing that – but I haven’t done saucers in years, and that’s the longer part of the task anyway.

        Normally, my coworker Sandy does saucers, but because of how pissy that manager has gotten about cutting Sandy out of things she should normally be included on, I didn’t feel like I could just walk over to Sandy’s office and ask her to whip up a saucer for me while I took care of the lid, even though that’s what I normally would’ve done. So I put aside my own work and just did both parts of the thing myself, which put me behind schedule on the handles I was actually supposed to be making that day.

        And quite frankly, if OP’s team dynamic is at that point…get out. It’s not going to get better unless that manager leaves.

      2. Eukomos*

        I got scolded for that yesterday, for sending information to a person I didn’t even realize was on the enemies list. She was trying to let my boss know that I’d been really helpful, too, which was kind of her. Sigh.

  5. Jane too*

    Withholding information that she needs to do her job is sabotage and setting them up for failure. There are generally HR rules against that sort of thing. Could also be a point of harassment.

      1. Jamie*

        Not to be pedantic, but it’s not about whether or not Liz is in a protected class, but if that’s the reason for the harassment.

        Like all people in that class were treated as less than, etc. Unless that’s what you meant by larger pattern, in which case ignore me.

      2. Holly*

        White men are in protected classes also in the eyes of discrimination law – they have a race (white) and gender (male). It’s about whether they are discriminated against on the *basis* of those classes.

    1. JM in England*

      The employee handbook at OldJob had “Setting someone up to fail” as one of the proscribed behaviours covered under the anti-bullying policy…

  6. Alex*

    It would be interesting to know if OP is male, because this feels very much like a similar gender dynamic that has occurred in my office.

      1. Secretary*

        I was wondering the same thing, thanks for the clarification Alison! If the OP were a man, would your advice change at all due to gender dynamics?

        1. Holly*

          Not Alison obviously, but I actually don’t think it would – it would be in the back of his mind (his being alternate world male OP) that he’s stepping up to help out in the face of potentially discriminatory behavior, which is great, but the way he would help would be how Alison prescribed

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            If the OP was a man then I would think the comment about not telling Liz things because she’s “emotional” could be a lot more problematic.

    1. Person of Interest*

      I am in a similar situation where I feel like my new boss is talking to me about work stuff (not complaining about other people) because we are more alike demographically than she is with anyone else in the office; I’m constantly redirecting her to other people but it’s something I’ve wondered about.

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      My first thought was that OP was male and that was why boss was “more comfortable” with him. Good that it doesn’t seem to be the case, but it also makes me wonder if there is some other commonality the boss is drawn to.

  7. StaceyIzMe*

    I wouldn’t get in the middle of this. (And I know that comes off as a bit selfish and possibly myopic.) But- Liz and your boss have developed this relational dynamic and it’s absolutely not your place to try to shift it. Being neutral when he complains, sharing a polite camaraderie and working well together wherever you are called to do so is sufficient contribution. Since their dislike is toxic, well known and bilateral, your best course of action is to remain neutral, hear your boss out and steer clear. That calculus might change as you gain your footing more. However, anyone who lacks the EQ to mask their dislike of their boss (or their employee) is a tool and possibly an incompetent one. Assume that you’re decision to move into the line of fire will cost you, because it probably will. (Without resolving the matter, as seen by others who run interference with toxic social and professional relationships.) One caveat- if you can push back in a low key way as a group, then sure. That way, you support your colleague and it’s not personal. Just healthy business related interaction.

  8. Jellyfish*

    I’m projecting here, but I say get out as fast as possible. Years before I discovered AAM, I worked for an incredibly toxic boss, and I was unquestionably her favorite.
    She still treated me like dirt, although she didn’t see it that way, but I was much more esteemed dirt than everyone else in our small office. When she would privately bad mouth other coworkers to me under the guise of venting, explaining, whatever, I had to assume she was also complaining about me to them. (Spoiler: she was!)

    She’d say in confidence that she told Jane to do X and Fergus to do Y and they ignored her, or were incompetent, or were having family problems that distracted them. She forgot that we were a tiny office though. Often I was copied on those emails or heard / was part of those original conversations. I knew what she’d asked, and I knew how difficult she was. My coworkers were human and might make occasional mistakes (especially in that terrible environment), but they were all good workers and decent people. To only hear my boss’s side of it, however, we all sucked. She wanted everyone mistrustful of each other and completely dependent on her.

    I wasn’t in a place to push back or defend my coworkers though. I was young, inexperienced, and very much in need of that paycheck. Because she played favorites and I kept my mouth shut, I outlasted her. It wasn’t a good experience though.

    OP, I strongly suspect your boss is a gaslighting jerk. Even if my read is uncharitable, he’s still not good at professional boundaries and this is not a great situation for you. I vote for job hunting.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      > more esteemed dirt
      “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” … what a horrid position you were in.

      1. Jellyfish*

        Things started off okay – I think that’s why this letter is hitting so many red flags for me. My initial thoughts were similar to the OP’s. There was fault on both sides, my coworkers weren’t as professional as they should have been, maybe it was a mistake when a coworker wasn’t given information they needed, etc. The full depths of my boss’ vindictiveness and lies didn’t surface until later.

    2. Suzwhat*

      It sounds like we could have worked for the same person. I was young and inexperienced. I was flattered at first when my boss would talk about other team members to me. “She trusts me” was my thinking. How wrong I was.

  9. CR*

    I was Liz in a very similar situation. The boss ended up firing me, completely out of the blue and for no good reason. Good times.

    1. Groove Bat*

      I was Liz too. Only in my case, it was my direct report who was the favorite and it just utterly sucked.

      Unlike Liz, I didn’t *not* get along with my boss. He just liked my DR better and clearly had her on a path. I am sure he saw me as overly emotional in my dealings with him, but a large part of that was because of his toxic favoritism that always left me feeling off balance and paranoid.

      I would absolutely not recommend that OP take it on herself to loop Liz in. My DR tried that and it only made things worse. It came off as her being smug, and to this day I’m not 100% convinced that that wasn’t the case. Knowing that the two of them would get together and make decisions about areas of my department that I should have been part of was demoralizing and infuriating. I’d remind him to include me, he’d apologize, and the following week it would happen all over again.

      1. Groove Bat*

        Oh, and PS: I thought the situation had resolved itself when I got re-org’d beneath a different manager. But then my boss got a big promotion (ending up over my new boss), and his first act post ascension was to give DR a huge promotion. Now she’s above me on the org chart, but thank God I don’t roll up to her.

  10. Just stoppin' by to chat*

    If I was the OP, I would be VERY cautious with this manager. This sounds like someone that can just as easily turn on the OP, and are not very professional in their role as a manager. I would be keeping an eye out for other opportunities. Not necessarily make a move since it’s only been 9 months in this job, but to be aware that a manager that talks about employees to each other in a negative way cannot always be trusted. As me how I know this :) I really like Allison’s script, however, as I was reading it, I was envisioning the manager starting to get defensive, and maybe starting to turn on the OP. The manage comes across as insecure or something like that, and would not respond well to the OP changing their current dynamic. Or maybe I’m just viewing this through my own experience with a skip level who acted this way.

    1. AuroraLight37*

      Yeah, this sounds like a case of, “If they’ll do it with you, they’ll do it to you.” Time to start looking for other opportunities.

  11. Rich*

    I don’t have great advice, but I’ve been there and sympathize. I spent almost 2 years as a first-level manager at a large non-profit in a situation where there was constant bi-directional tension and frequent toxicity between my boss (Esmerelda) and my peers (the Crew), the other first-level managers who were her direct reports. I managed to have a mostly positive and productive relationship with Esmerelda.

    It was similarly exhausting.

    The best I was able to do was spend a lot of time, one-on-one, telling Esmerelda “This sounds like something Crewmember should hear. Have you talked with her?” and telling the Crewmembers “It sounds like Esmerelda really just wants X — have you clarified that? X sounds rough, so maybe you should suggest Y with X as a stretch goal”.
    And, telling everyone “Maybe you should talk to our HR person about that”.

    We had actual formal HR mediated sessions as a management team (the Crew + Esmerelda) to try to teach the team how to communicate and agree on goals, processes, and consequences. It helped, but not enough. Ultimately, Esmerelda fired one of the Crewmembers, and was herself fired, all at roughly the same time.

    That HR involvement was important, though, because some of the issues came from each side of the conflict, but sr. management only really interfaced with Esmerelda. Getting the HR ‘mediator’ in there was important to make sure there was a disinterested party representing the good of the company, rather than trying to ‘win’ the conflict between the individual participants (who, in good faith, thought they were representing the interests of the company, but were probably too close to it).

    If you don’t have an HR department with the kind of people who actually help plan and drive the business (and a small org likely won’t), do you have access to somebody who is often turned to as a coach or mediator that might be able to step in? Like a managerial grandparent? Both your boss and Liz have to know the situation is messed up. Bringing in an outside coach, not to “resolve the dispute” but to help negotiate processes, boundaries, and understanding — and including you since your boss puts you in the middle — might help a bit.

  12. Samwise*

    I don’t think Bob respects the OP. I think Bob is playing Liz and OP off on each other. Why, I don’t know. But Bob doesn’t respect either of them, that’s for sure.

    1. Witchy Human*

      Could you elaborate? I get the impression that the boss likes OP just fine (for now–this is certainly an inherently unstable situation) and just handles both like and dislike very immaturely.

      1. nonymous*

        It sounds like Bob wants OP to validate his poor opinion of Liz, even though she is in a set-up-to-fail environment. I agree, this is incredibly immature – Bob is expecting OP to act in the role of a friend instead of subordinate. As a manager though, what does he get out of OP thinking poorly of Liz? Shouldn’t he want them to work together well? OP is participating in the withholding of info from a coworker because of Bob’s attitude towards Liz.

  13. animaniactoo*

    The next time he says something about her being emotional: “Hmmm. The only times I’ve seen Liz being emotional are when she’s been sideswiped by being expected to discuss things that she hasn’t been given the background information on. I hear that you think she doesn’t handle stuff well, but I think not filling her in on stuff like that may be part of the issue.” Say it once, then leave it alone.

    After that, just go ahead and fill her in yourself in future. Decline his attempts to vent to you about her using Alison’s suggestions.

  14. mf*

    Is anyone else bothered by Bob (a man, most likely) is calling his female employee “emotional”? It could very well be that Liz is too emotional at work, but it’s still not a good look for Bob to use this kind of language. At best, he’s seriously lacking in self-awareness.

    1. Quill*

      Yes, it’s a problem.

      Reminds me more immediately of my own experience, being descriminated against for my mental health status, as well.

  15. in the file room*

    Dear lord, I could have written this, except that my boss is female and my coworker’s response (and a solid part of why they don’t get on, I’m sure) is to complain incessantly about everything. Get out, OP – I’m trying too. It’s not worth trying to manage both of their feelings all the time.

  16. Another name*

    I was in your shoes once and it didn’t end well for me. I didn’t advocate for “Liz” or even try to understand her point of view. Even though I kept my head down and stayed professional, everyone in the office knew I was the “favorite”. When my boss got a new director who had previously worked with and liked “Liz” and her work style, my boss got pushed out. I ended up leaving after I was denied a promotion I was in line for and realized it was because the situation left a stain on my reputation.

    Don’t be like me.

    1. Important Moi*

      In light of your story, could you elaborate on how others knew you were the “favorite” – an example of what your boss did; an example of what you did?

      When and how did you come the realization that your boss was being pushed out? What was your relationship with the new director?

      With regards to your reputation, did no one (your peers) say anything to you at all while the stain was developing? Or did keeping your head down isolate you?

      I think folks could learn from more details about your experience at the Teapot Company.

  17. Autumnheart*

    Like others have mentioned, I worry about whether this is a case of a personality conflict, where Liz and Boss just have diametrically opposing styles and it makes them butt heads, or if it’s a case of “Boss needs a golden child and a scapegoat,” where one colleague can’t do anything wrong, and another can’t do anything right.

    If it’s the former, then Liz should get out for the reasons Allison said–it’s just going to cause ongoing conflict, limit opportunity, and do nothing favorable for Liz’s career. If you don’t have the support of your manager when you’re trying to advance, you got nuthin’ and that’s no good.

    But if it’s the latter, then both Liz and OP should get out, because where Liz is now (and everything about the former scenario applies), OP will be eventually. If you know the torpedos are in the water, you don’t need to stick around until they’re close enough to cause damage. It might not be as critical for OP right now, but it would be a very good idea to keep an eye on the situation, manage the political dynamic with the boss to stay on his good side, and keep looking for another opportunity.

  18. President Porpoise*

    I’ve been the favorite, and it bites. If you are unlucky, your coworkers expect you to advocate for them above and beyond what’s appropriate to do (“Bob wants more complex work assignments, and also wants you to be more verbally appreciative, and while we’re at it, a raise”), or they resent you. Sometimes, your coworkers recognize what’s happening and also find it irritating but at least don’t blame you. But either way, you get way too much info on what your boss thinks of your coworkers which becomes uncomfortable really fast.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      I was once a “favorite,” or what my coworker perceived as me being a “favorite.” I found out from someone that she often made comments like, “Oh, aren’t we dipped in gold!?” in response to someone telling I was on an interview (company was shutting down so we were all job hunting). Or that I was getting special treatment by being able to work from home (my boss and position allowed for it, her boss was an asshole and her position really couldn’t be done from home).

  19. Dontplayfavorites*

    I don’t think the OP is really this boss’s favorite. I think he’s playing up that relationship to “punish” Liz and make her feel excluded. If Liz left, I bet he’d drop the act with the OP a heartbeat. He sounds petty and immature. No wonder Liz doesn’t like him.

  20. Orange You Glad*

    I’m sort of in this position. My boss gets very frustrated with my other coworker (I’m slightly above her in responsibility/experience/etc but not her superior) and spends a good portion of the week complaining about her to me. I try to call him out when his complaints aren’t legitimate (she needs more training/instructions weren’t communicated clearly/she’s overwhelmed with other work/etc) but it’s annoying to hear so often. I like my coworker but she definitely has a different working style that my boss doesn’t always recognize. I’ve started pushing back at Boss to take action if something she’s doing bothers him so much. Instead of complaining to me he should be retraining or setting clear expectations with her.
    I’m in a weird position because he’s always comparing her to me (which isn’t fair to either of us) and I often get rewarded for good work with things like leaving early or an extra vacation day that she doesn’t get. I know I earned these perks but it’s still awkward when there is only 2 of us who could benefit from my Boss’ generosity and only I do.

  21. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    I realize that we don’t really know the OP’s gender, but if the OP is female, I’d be concerned that the she is being groomed by Bob for future sexual harassment. First, he sets the coworkers against each other so that neither one will be likely to support the other against him. Then he favors the OP to put her in a position of “owing” him while also really making a show of punishing Liz, so that OP knows what’s coming if she ever gets on his bad side — after all, Liz is “emotional” and he can “trust” the OP to be more “mature” and “reasonable.” Barf. If the OP ever makes a complaint or pushes back she’ll just be “emotional.”

    1. Miranda Priestly's Assistant*

      While I’m sure this does happen in places…it’s a bit of a stretch based on the information in the letter. I didn’t get the sense that the boss was sexually interested in the OP. I also want to emphasize that the OP can be female and her male boss can still respect her on an intellectual level.

      Although if we are going to suppose things…I WAS wondering if the OP was in fact male, and this was some classic sexism.

  22. Wing Leader*

    I honestly think Alison was too lenient on the boss in this one. The boss is being a total jerk. Even though Liz may not be acting like an angel, the boss is the one who should be setting the standard of behavior here. He’s acting like a gossipy, petulant child and putting OP in the middle. I think OP and Liz should leave and find new jobs.

    1. Jamie*

      I think if the boss wrote in Alison would address how badly he’s handling this. But she was giving advice to the OP, who can’t change her boss. She wasn’t giving a pass, she was just focused on what would help the OP and practical advice is a lot more helpful than just slamming her boss as terrible.

    2. Miranda Priestly's Assistant*

      Yeah the boss is a giant jerk. I understand that the boss may like to bounce ideas off the employees they consider more intelligent/competent, but not sharing ANY info with Liz about matters that pertain to HER role??? Hell no, that’s not okay. He’s setting her up to fail to further enforce his perceptions of her. And he’s being a gossip – not cool.

  23. Sleepless*

    I was the boss’s favorite once. Our Liz could have done some things differently, but her biggest crime was calling the boss on his bullshit, which absolutely did not fly at this company. She left on bad terms. I left a few years later on good terms, and we still speak warmly to each other at conferences and he has nothing but good things to say about me…but it took me years to understand just what a terrible boss he was. I should have left much sooner.

  24. Miranda Priestly's Assistant*

    I like to think that I behave professionally and competently, but I’m in a Liz-type sitatuon. I’m sure people wonder why I’m still here. Trust me – I’m trying to get hired elsewhere but it is slow going.

    1. Miranda Priestly's Assistant*

      Actually, on this note, want to make an AAM request – I’m not sure if Alison already wrote an article on this (I’ve been living on this site for a while and don’t recall one)…but I would be very interested in an article on “What to do when you’re NOT the boss’s favorite/What to do if your boss hates you”. I know that there are some related articles on this, and one about “signs your manager doesn’t like you”, but if there was a list of tips on this I would love to read it.

      1. Phoenix Programmer*

        It’s late so you may not see this but here goes. Tios for surviving a boss that hates you from personal experience:
        1. CYA. Save instructions, double check due dates, make copies of critical workbooks in odd folders in case they “get accidently” deleted.
        2. Build up your relationships with others on your team (if possible in bullying situations not always)
        3. Build up relationships with outside team members. Got a report you write for the J team? Well spend some time expanding/improving that. Chat up your assigned accountant. Become known as friendly team player by everyone so your bosses complaints against you fall flat.
        4. Find a neutral, trustworthy mentor/buddy to help you reality check. Some of the worst parts of an abusive boss or bullying situation is the gaslighting.
        5. Self love at home. Whatever you need. I did meditation/essential oils/friend building.
        6. Ignore, ignore, ignore. If your manager sends a snarky email to the entire team, ignore it. If she calls out your “bad” work ignore it. Most of the time it’s a goading technique to make you defend yourself but if you don’t rise you look more professional.
        7. Focus on the facts but don’t sweat everyone knowing the truth.
        8. Take breaks. Walk around the building. Take your full lunch away. Frequent the bathroom.
        9. Have a leave work ritual. Mine starts with putting the badge in the bag. At home there is a far away spot for the bag and I immediately changed. I did not talk about work at home or on weekends.

        1. Miranda Priestly's Assistant*

          I really appreciate this list! I’ve definitely been investing in more self care than usual (since I’m also putting up with a job search and trying not to lose stamina). I was fortunate to have a work friend who, once he realized what was going on with me, expressed horror and proceeded to rant on my behalf (without me initiating anything!) on why my manager was being unjust. It was SUCH a relief to hear my defense come genuinely from someone else, because the gaslighting was getting to me. Fortunately for him, he left for greener pastures, but I’m kind of on my own now.

      2. Important Moi*

        I’m just now seeing this. I like the suggestions and will spare you do the details of why. :)

        Trust your judgement. Gaslighting is real!!!

        Also, I would ask Alison directly or even post it on the Friday Free For Alls. It can be very lonely when you’re in a bad situation at work.

        Stay the course.

  25. Ruthie*

    Serial Boss Favorite here. The nature of my role, which includes unusual access to and support of leadership, and the general lack of emphasis on management in my field has put me in a similar situation in every single one of my jobs. I generally follow the suggested advice, but wanted to add that one thing I learned that hard way is that what I say about my colleagues has more weight than I bargain for. After the second time (at two different offices) I shared concern about a colleague (one senior to me and my former boss) and they were brought in for a difficult conversation immediately to address those specific issues, I realized I needed to be very careful about how I raise issues knowing they will likely be taken very seriously and handled swiftly. There’s no such thing as “venting” in my role.

  26. L*

    Oh man, I can relate. I have a boss who I click really well with and work well with but he does NOT get along with a few of my colleagues, and he handles it unprofessionally and will vent about them to me. It’s always very uncomfortable, and it’s hard to figure out how to manage the situation.

  27. That Marketing Chick*

    I was in a similar situation where I was one of just a few people trusted and appreciated by our CEO at a very small company. I heard through the grapevine that the other employees called me “The Golden Child” and “Teacher’s Pet”, and honestly, it really ticked me off. I am a very hard-working conscientious person and don’t involve myself in office drama. It was shocking to learn how others in the company felt about me.
    Of course, once the company grew, and a new employee eventually became “The Golden Child”, it sucked to see the CEO start to treat me the way he treated others. It wasn’t until then that I truly realized how screwed up and toxic that CEO, and the company, was… and I left for greener pastures. You just can’t change someone, unfortunately. It’s best to just get out.

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