our new boss doesn’t know how awful her second-in-command is

A reader writes:

I am an upper level manager in a mid-sized company with about 200 employees. This past year, the head of our company, Jim, who was problematic but visionary, decided to retire after decades in leadership. I used to report to Jim, but in the changeover it was decided that I would report to the second-in-command, Sally, who had desperately wanted the top job but was not advanced in the interview process.

Internally, employees were overjoyed since Sally is extremely toxic, but our former boss had a soft spot for her and has painted her in a very positive light to the new boss, Kate. Kate obviously has a big job transitioning to a new company as a leader in the midst of a pandemic, and as such has delegated much of the day-to-day work to Sally, who Kate believes to be highly qualified and trustworthy, while Kate gets acclimated.

Here’s the current issue: Sally is actively lying about a lot of things, to many different people, with the seeming intent to set up Kate to fail at earning the trust of her employees and stakeholders. I’ll give an example: at a recent meeting that Sally was leading to address COVID concerns, she gave us specific examples of ongoing work happening (for example, specific surveys that had been sent), and encouraged us to conduct similar work in our own departments. However, when I followed up with two of the people supposedly working on these very specific tasks in order to team up, they had no idea what I was talking about. No surveys had been written or sent to anyone. Here’s another example: Kate believes Sally to be organizing and running a series of important meetings but Sally is not running those meetings, nor does she attend most of them, though Kate clearly thinks she has been. Sally also has a habit of scheduling meetings, then canceling them one minute before or just not showing up at all, with no explanation, but she reports back as if she has attended those meetings. Finally — and I do have more examples, but will stick to these — she presents herself as giving specific directives from Kate, but those instructions often contradict things Kate has said to directly us, often in writing. Just the other day, she told a group that I was in that my department would be allowed to continue to 100% virtually when Kate had been clear with me the day before that this was not the case. And now several other departments are frustrated that we are getting some kind of special treatment (which isn’t even true).

One of the only good things I can say about Sally’s leadership in this context is that she does not actually manage her direct reports; in fact, she doesn’t even meet with us regularly or, in some cases, for YEARS, so we don’t have to interact with her often. (The truth is it is unclear to most of us what, if anything, Sally actually does do.) But now it’s also become clear that she is filling her own vacuum with misinformation to cover her failings, and since most of us are still working remotely, it’s hard for us to fact check and run things by each other. It feels like a constant set-up. And I’m getting a sense that some non-management staff, who aren’t as clued in to this dynamic, are starting to get disgruntled with Kate’s leadership.

I really think Sally is a narcissist, and possibly a sociopath. She has thoroughly messed with people’s lives in the past in truly unbelievable ways, some of which have resulted in legal action, yet she always manages to get away with it. Hence, we are all scared, both of Sally’s quiet, calculating wrath, and because we fear Kate will think we are all a bunch of disgruntled employees not being flexible if we try to clue her in. But we all really like Kate and want her to succeed!

Help! What on earth do we do? (Noting here that leaving is not an option for most of us as we are in very specific field, have significant investment in the company, and are lucky to have an amount of flexibility that many others don’t during COVID-19.)

I wrote back and asked, “How much contact do you have with Kate? And is there anyone who sees what’s going on who has a lot of contact and good rapport with her?” The response:

I have some one-on-one contact with Kate but she is extremely busy so it’s been limited, and more along the lines of getting to know me and the needs of my department. She did ask me outright how often I meet with Sally and I honestly told her that we do not meet. There are others with more clout who are absolutely at the end of their tether with Sally, and I know at least one has expressed some concerns, but not explicitly. Another high-level employee, who I functionally report to, is in the best position to say something but Sally has been very destructive to him in the past (so I understand why he is reluctant to put himself on the line.) There has been a culture of distrust for so long that we are used to walking on eggshells, and it’s been easier to function and do our jobs well without poking the beast.

Ideally a couple of the highest-clout people would speak up — and other managers would then back them up if needed. If that can’t be the person you mentioned who Sally has targeted in the past, it’s okay if it’s others with somewhat less clout — but ideally it would be a group who are relatively high-level and/or who have some rapport with Kate.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, one less aggressive option — which could still end up being quite effective — is to just matter-of-factly fill in Kate when you see disparities between what she and Sally are saying. Like if Kate mentions work that she thinks Sally assigned but which you know isn’t happening, make sure Kate knows her info is wrong. It doesn’t have to be “wow, Sally is lying to you”; it can be “to make sure we’re all on the same page, my understanding is that isn’t happening — I asked Jane and Lucifer about it and they both said they didn’t know anything about it.” Or if Kate references the meetings she thinks Sally is running, you should say, “Hmmm, I’m not sure if you realize — Jane has been the one running those and Sally doesn’t usually attend.” As a manager, even a single instance of that kind of discrepancy is something I would look into — and if it happened repeatedly, I would take a very serious look at what was going on.

In fact, you don’t even need to wait for Kate to reference something incorrect from Sally. You can bring it up proactively — especially Sally’s instructions that contradict Kate’s. For example: “Can I ask you to clarify what you wanted in regard to X? You had asked us to do Y, but Sally has told us that you actually want Z. I want to make sure I’m doing what you want.”

After all, this is what you’d be doing — or should be doing — if Sally weren’t a nefarious villain. If you spotted obvious miscommunications or contradictions, you’d presumably try to clear them up. Do that here.

So it doesn’t have to be framed as “we need to have a serious talk about Sally.” It can just be a series of matter-of-fact statements that remove whatever shield of invisibility Sally thinks she has on this stuff. (And by the way, it’s really weird that Sally assumes she can get away with seeding flagrant contradictions all over your office and that people won’t immediately speak up about it — and since indeed they’re apparently not, that’s a sign of how thoroughly she has messed with people’s heads there!)

But I would also consider a more direct conversation with Kate if you think you have sufficient cover for it, and if you trust her to protect you from retaliation from Sally afterwards (something you should specifically ask for). It’s possible she’s already been seeing some of this and you can help her connect the dots. Just give real thought to what you’ve seen of Kate and whether you can trust her enough to handle this in a way that makes things better, not worse.

{ 107 comments… read them below }

  1. Xavier Desmond*

    I think there is one thing working in your favour if as a group you decide to speak up. You mention that you are in a very specific field so I assume it would be much more difficult for Kate to replace a bunch of you than to replace Sally
    Good luck!

    1. Lance*

      That alone brings up a very prominent point here: as I’m seeing it, either Sally’s gotta go, or others are going to go to get away from her. People have to fill Kate in on this, or it’s going to be a far, far bigger mess than it is right now.

      Also Sally sounds like the absolute worst. Does she just not have any limits to what she’ll lie about?

    2. Chinook*

      I have survived a Sally and did so only by asking for clarification, in the manner Allison recommends, from the source every time I was given contradictory information. During the process, I had to have a thick skin as Sally did retaliate but I framed it in my head as the dying fight of a cornered rat. It also helpe that no one wanted to be a receptionist and I was excellent at it, so there was no way she could manoeuvr to have me fired (and man did she try!)

      Unfortunately, Sally took down others due to her toxicity before she was forced to retire 6 months early. Good people quit in tears or were fired. But, Sally eventually was given enough rope to hang herself and enough spotlight was shone on said rope that even her closest friends in management couldn’t deny it. And, when they realized that they had been conned, she was gone fast and without compensation.

      So, the bad news is that, once Sally realizes that Kate may be seeing the manipulation, Sally may try and burn everyone on her way down. But, if you stay professional and think of it as not personal (or better yet, a sign of your competency that she targeted you), the work environment will be so much lighter after she is gone.

      1. tinyclubrockshow*

        I have also survived a Sally who I also believed to be a narcissist. (My mom is one as well, so my radar went off pretty early.) She would lie to everyone—about everything—and then cry to the VP that no one on her team would do what she asked. She would also badmouth my coworkers to my face and would expect me to side with her (triangulation!).

        What finally drove her out was a team effort that never directly attacked her. (If you know a narcissist, an attack will make their behavior 100x worse.)
        •  I made written notes of things she would say to us vs through email vs what she told to my coworkers.
        • We all had meetings with the VP to explain our issues.
        • I would send the VP emails from her that contradicted what he told us.
        • Etc.

        I ended up leaving the job, but it was bittersweet because she put in her resignation about 3 days before me. I WISH I would have gotten to go first, only because two of my coworkers had already put in their notices the weeks before.

      2. The Ending*

        There is always one in the work place. This is great advice and has confirmed that we are handling our Sally correctly.

    1. Heidi*

      Yes, but I’m also just a tiny bit enjoying the anticipation of Sally’s “quiet, calculating wrath.” So much tension. So much drama.

      1. Casey*

        It’s like watching Succession: I DESPERATELY need to know what happens but the second I start imagining myself in this situation my stomach turns into knots

            1. paxfelis*

              Thebe Moon, sign you up to write it, to read it, or both?

              I think Alison would do well as a Greek goddess, except that AFAIK there isn’t a god/goddess of common sense.

              1. AthenaC*

                Athena? Goddess of wisdom and war? (I guess I see common sense at least as a component of wisdom)

                1. jules*

                  Common sense and direct communication seem like the 21st century equivalents of wisdom and war.

              2. skipping girl*

                From memory, there sort of is! Well, technically she was a Titaness but still. Her name was Metis and she was Zeus’s first wife. She was turned into a fly so he swallowed her to keep her safe (?) and she lived in his head giving him quiet advice. Zeus experienced pounding headaches, which his son relieved by splitting Zeus’s head open with a mallet, split his father’s skull, and Athena (Zeus and Thetis’s daughter) sprang fully grown and clad from Zeus’s head.

                That’s not that helpful for this fanfic though.

          1. Zweisatz*

            Can we have a little respect here for the fact that a real human being wrote in with serious concerns about their job?

        1. ellex42*

          This is *exactly* why I can’t watch either version of The Office: they give me second-hand anxiety!

          This is also why I tell people that while the film Office Space is a parody and exaggeration of office life, it still hits awfully close to home.

    2. Chinook*

      I am having flashbacks but keep reassuring myself that 5 got a promotion after Sally left partially due to my professionalism under fire.

      I also got a great interview story for the “tell me how you dealt with a difficult situation.”

    3. Just some internet rando*

      YES!!! PLEASE send a follow up with what happens. I am hoping for a positive outcome. YIKES!!

  2. laughingrachel*

    Yeah, it sounds like there’s a lot of built up drama around Sally and so it can seem like there needs to be a We Need to Talk About Sally convo with Kate, but yeah I think with Alison’s ‘address it in the moment’ advice, it can end up being a lot more low-key. Which can be good if you don’t like confrontation!

    The best piece of advice I have ever taken away from this site is to always remember that you and your boss(es) are a team and to bring up any problems with that sort of point of view. A “here is this obstacle to good work and how do you want me to proceed for the best result for all of us” in a very businesslike/professional/neutral tone can do wonders.

  3. Guacamole Bob*

    This is such a tough position to be in with someone new. You don’t want to trash someone to the new boss, because it can be very hard to tell whether someone who does that is giving helpful information or is prone to drama and interpersonal issues. If you’ve known Kate for a few months and she knows you aren’t typically stirring up trouble just for the sake of it, then it gets easier to speak up.

    Even so, the tone I’d go for if you have a talk with Kate is the same as Alison advises when you’re talking about past issues during a job interview. Not “Working with Sally is a toxic trash fire”, but “I have found that Sally’s communication of directives from you isn’t always consistent and creates confusion” or “I think Sally hasn’t always been clear with others about her level of involvement this project.”

    A good manager will read between the lines, and over time you can become blunter. But I’d start by sounding diplomatic.

    1. Katrinka*

      That’s why going as a group is always preferable. It’s far more likely to be seen as valid information/complaints.

    2. Sandi*

      I have had an honest conversation with a new boss about problem coworkers and it worked well. The one point in my favour was that we had both worked with the same people, so I had a certain amount of credibility despite not knowing each other. We met for a chat about my work in the first couple weeks, and I spent part of that time explaining the toxic dynamics in her new group. I explained it in a practical way, not that I was trying to get others in trouble, yet some people were causing problems and if she wanted to address them quickly then it was better to know about them from me than learn on her own. It worked! The conversation was awkward at first, but I knew that I couldn’t stay with that team if things didn’t improve, and many months later she thanked me for my honesty and said that it had really helped. She also confirmed that I was more than a neutral person in a toxic environment, and I had been given less important projects while the favourite employee was given the best ones. I suspected as much, but didn’t mention it at the time as it was only my guess, so I think it helped my credibility that I kept my personal views out of the summary as much as possible.

  4. Caroline Bowman*

    Have you considered, if Sally asks you to do something, saying that Kate wants it, (but you are 100% certain that this isn’t the case, ideally in writing), mailing back, copying in Kate and saying ”just to be sure that I’m not confused, Sally, you’ve asked me to tell the entire department that they can work from home forever at Kate’s request, Kate, I’d understood that wasn’t to be the case as of X date. So that I don’t send the wrong message, please can you clarify?”.

    I would most definitely get into league with other senior people and bring it to Kate’s attention, even in just matter-of-fact case-by case ways that she is being undermined, that things she thinks are happening, are not. But ensure everyone does it all the time. This way Kate cannot be blindsided and you cannot be singled out.

    1. beanie gee*

      I’m wondering if direct communication with Kate feels risky to the OP and even others. If OP is reporting to Sally and only communicates with Kate for specific needs (usually for Kate’s needs), OP might feel out of place following up directly with Kate on things. It seems like the best strategy to out Sally’s behavior, but I could also see why OP hasn’t tried it yet.

      1. Chinook*

        From experience, you sometimes can contact Kate with a cc for Sally only if you are playing dumb (or truly confused). It may also be the catalyst to bring everything to a head, so I wouldn’t cc Sally unless I had talked to Kate previously about contradictory requests. By doing so, you are calling Sally out. When I did this step for a blatant contradiction (which I had in writing from Sally for the first time), it triggered blatant reprisals because she was finally caught in a lie. I was on guard for reprisals not only from her but her allies and they tried, but luckily my direct boss had my back and protected me, but it was a very toxic week.

      2. Uranus Wars*

        I also wondered if it’s left over unease from the old boss, who Kate replaced. OP says he had a soft spot for her and she was left kind of unchecked, so there could be some “we’ve done this before and been told not to worry” combined with your points.

    2. irene adler*

      I would be cautious about doing the email CC: to Kate when Sally is involved. Reason: the OP wrote: “we are all scared, both of Sally’s quiet, calculating wrath”

      Unless there’s a united front with many employees CC’ing Kate with their emails to Sally, the OP might field some ugly retaliation at a later date.

      But yes, I agree, get together with as many senior people as possible to bring this to Kate’s attention.

      1. Isomorph*

        I agree, I would be afraid of retaliation, too. Someone who is lying so shamelessly about their work will probably have no problems badmouthing you, lying about your performance at evaluation time, etc. (Ask me how I know…)

    3. Katrinka*

      I would recommend emailing Kate instead (with no cc to Sally). Since OP got the info directly from Kate, it makes the most sense to contact her directly, since you’re asking her for clarification. In other instances where Sally says that something is coming from Kate and you’re not sure (because you’ve not heard anything from Kate directly), you should email Sally with a cc to Kate, asking Sally for clarification of her instructions.

      1. Amaranth*

        I agree, it sounds like OP speaks to both Kate and Sally directly, so it wouldn’t be out of place to go to Kate for clarification. After a couple of times, I’d expect Kate would ask OP whats going on, but she might initially think there is friction simply between Sally and OP if others don’t step up and do the same thing.

  5. EPLawyer*

    Sally has been the cause of lawsuits yet she is still there? Where is HR in this? Why are they not ringing the bell about this person? Even if former boss had a soft spot for her — she cost the company money with the legal action.

    Sally is the missing stair that everyone just works around rather than fall through it into the toxic hellhole that is dealing with her. it’s time to fix the stair. Be direct with your boss. She might need time to settle in and deal with all the pandemic stuff but this is absolutely positively something a boss needs to know. No matter how busy they are. Because she thinks work is being done that is not — that is going to come back to bite her AND the department in the end. If I were the boss and I found out that no one told me, Sally would not be the only one facing consequences.

    You seem like you don’t want Kate to fail. but if you don’t speak up, you are helping Sally not Kate. A group will make it harder for Sally to retaliate. So gather up your colleagues and TELL Kate.

      1. Chinook*

        Yes and no. If Sally has mastered the “kiss up and kick down” technique, management may never had had proof of it happenning, especially if she has institutional knowledge that is hard to replace. A protector (like Sally’s previous boss) also helps as she wouldn’t trwat them like that ever.

        Technically, nothing she was doing is enough to fire someone on paper – she could argue that the recipient misheard her (because nothing was written) or she is a victim of bullying or jealousy. A narcissist/sociopath master the psychological game and major in gas lighting. Only her own writtn words can take her down.

        1. LizardOfOdds*

          This, plus the organization is still pretty small with only 200 people. The company may not have an HR team at all at that size, or maybe they’re outsourcing some HR transactional tasks to a vendor and they’re leaving the rest up to executives. A lot of smaller companies have this sort of setup, and exactly this type of thing happens. A LOT.

    1. Important Moi*

      EPLawyer, this is what working in toxic environments can do to people. Not telling Kate helps Sally…Missing stair step indeed…

      (I also think your comments are judged harshly, not that you need approval from me.)

    2. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      Sally must have skill at playing the victim. She found herself in a perfect storm situation and manipulated it for years with old boss.
      In him she found someone who apparently didn’t like conflict, didn’t think people would lie to his face, didn’t really trust his employees and was happy to delegate to his right hand person.
      Sally moved in like Rasputin, fed him false info, convinced him she was handling it and that he shouldn’t get involved in “petty, day to day, personality issues.”
      When the shit hit the fan, he and all the people he’d told about his indispensable right hand Sally were not shocked that these people, who Sally had be “protecting her boss from” would react so badly.

    3. MCL*

      Yes. Especially since it seems like Sally is sabotaging Kate. She might be angling to get another shot at the top job. Even if Kate leaves and Sally doesn’t move into that position, you will still have a Sally problem, and Sally might well sabotage the next boss. Or – nightmare! – Sally gets the top job which might become intolerable? (Sounds like she didn’t make it to the finalists in the last round, but who knows what could happen?). It sounds like Sally was able to get away with a lot because Jim tolerated this behavior, but Kate needs a chance to figure out that Jim sold her a bill of goods when it came to Sally, and she needs to be able to address it quickly, as it already sounds like there are toxic stirrings of discontent. If a bunch of higher-ups are able to clue her in faster, Kate can deal with this more effectively and quickly instead of having more damage control to worry about!

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

      Some companies have as a policy of not interviening if the lawsuit regards something that happened outside the office. For example, if Sally got caught on camera damaging OP’s property because she suspects her spouse is cheating with OP and no party is in the other’s chain of command. Basically, the employer will act like those schools that sweapt bullying under the rug claiming it’s “kids’ stuff”.

  6. TimeTravl_R*

    This sounds so much like my director. Fortunately, he has just very recently left the company and we could’t be happier. I think his boss got wise to him, honestly. But it was a miserable time. Hard to imagine you can go years without meeting with your boss, but it happened to me too!

  7. Mazzy*

    “Sally to be organizing and running a series of important meetings but Sally is not running those meetings, nor does she attend most of them, though Kate clearly thinks she has been”

    This don’t make much sense to me, though it doesn’t change the advice. I can’t think of an example where a bunch of important meetings just didn’t happen and there was no repercussion. Weren’t important decisions supposed to have been made? Weren’t there any deliverables? There is a weird dichotomy here where the meetings were supposedly very important yet nothing came out of them and Kate didn’t notice.

    “she gave us specific examples of ongoing work happening (for example, specific surveys that had been sent), and encouraged us to conduct similar work in our own departments”

    Again, I’m not getting how Kate can be so out of the loop on this. Did the surveys not get responses? Isn’t that raising a red flag? Personally, I would only be telling other managers to copy the survey if we got meaningful responses to it.

    In other words, Kate is being way, way too hands off.

    1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*


      Is the top job not actually about managing the organization, but rather something like non-profit fundraising, or PR, or sales? Making Sally, the technical #2, the de facto CEO?

    2. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      Sally is lying to Kate and the war-weary staff is not telling Kate about it because they’ve been basically victimized by her for so long that they don’t realize they can speak up. thinking here of Alison’s warnings about how a toxic workplace can warp one’s views.

      1. Chinook*

        Yup. It is rather easy to do if you are a gate keeper to an executive, doubly so if the excutive is new to the company and doesn’t know what normal should look like.

    3. EvilQueenRegina*

      The way I read “nor does she attend most of them” suggested to me that the meetings were happening, just being run by someone else and Sally wasn’t attending. OP correct me if I misread that.

      1. Myrin*

        I read it that way, too (as did Alison – in her script, it’s other coworker Jane who’s been running the meetings).

    4. Cj*

      I think the meetings are happening, but somebody else is running them, although it is a little unclear.

    5. andy*

      > I can’t think of an example where a bunch of important meetings just didn’t happen and there was no repercussion. Weren’t important decisions supposed to have been made? Weren’t there any deliverables?

      Typically, meetings don’t have deliverables. Pretty often it takes multiple meetings till decisions are reached. Pretty often they are about either starting discussion with goal of moving toward decisions or about answering questions or about collecting requirements.

      In all those, Sally would be expected to move things along and the lack of meetings/analysis/answers would start to cause issues only in long term. Possibly in months.

      1. Mazzy*

        Oh maybe it’s company dependent. I couldn’t even fake having or leading one meeting, people would absolutely grill me on who said what and who’s doing what. We almost never have meetings where people don’t leave with specific work.

        1. andy*

          > We almost never have meetings where people don’t leave with specific work.

          Now it is better, but in big company we used to have so many pointless ones. Or good meetings for 3 participants and 15 other people being there completely useless.

      2. Alice*

        God I wish meetings at my org had deliverables. Even if the deliverable were “in meeting 1 we will articulate options and select the most promising 3 options, in meetings 2-4 we will game out ramifications of each option, in meeting 5 we will decide the option and the timeline for revisiting the decision.”

        1. Mazzy*

          My Lord. And this is why I never survived long in large companies. I always thrived in small – medium sized ones because my brain doesn’t work around meetings and processes like that. You also bought back a memory from a past job in a cubicle farm, where part of meetings was to see who was overlapping with which other departments, which would have been fine if they didn’t take offense every time we mistakenly worked on stuff we didn’t know they were working on.

          So maybe this does happen, but Kate should still have tried to get some feedback.

    6. cmcinnyc*

      Oh, I have seen exactly this happen. I had to work for a jerk who pulled this all the time. He was a TALKER! He had all the vocab, very smooth. His favorite trick was scheduling meetings and not appearing. The fact is, the higher ups were so freaking busy they had no time to micromanage and no desire to do so, either. That is usually a good thing! But he used that to report on initiatives and progress that either didn’t exist, or was created by someone else, and got away with it. He got gently pushed out. Very gently. I never understood it. He made a boatload of money and did nothing for it but wear a tie.

    7. EPLawyer*

      Yeah, Kate needs to stop getting acclimated and start managing. If one of my downline reports said they never met with their direct manager, I would be wondering how that manager is, you know, managing. Not just nodding and going “welp, I’m busy still figuring things out, have a nice day.” Which is not exactly what was said but had about the same effect as far as the LW can see.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        I think Sally sound supremely toxic here, but I am wondering if Kate is the strong leader everyone thinks she is. Or is everyone just rooting for her because she is NOT Sally.

        I know it’s common to delegate day-to-day tasks so you can focus on bigger picture (I do it all the time), but Kate also doesn’t seem to be following up to see how those are going? Or if she is, there is such a huge disconnect between her and Sally the OP needs to 100% bring this up. If OP is worried about confrontation I think Alison’t advice to frame it as clarity is the best way to do that.

      2. Mazzy*

        Kate needs to stop getting acclimated and start managing

        Yes, this. How long does it take to get your logins to the software and key card and all of that setting up stuff?

        Isn’t part of acclimating meeting with your subordinates to find out what they do?

      3. HarvestKaleSlaw*

        It is a bit questionable to come into a top role like that and have someone who is:
        A) a gatekeeper, controlling your information and access to you
        B) who you didn’t hire
        C) that you trust

        I feel like you can roll with any combination of two, but never all three.

  8. Annony*

    Another possibility would be to reach out about the cancelled meetings. Something like “I was wondering if there is a new plan for the X meetings. The last two have been cancelled so we haven’t met since (date). I felt that these meetings were helpful to my department.” Or if they are still happening but without Sally, ask Kate if she could attend one and point out the deficit caused by neither her or Sally attending. The goal is to point out that Sally isn’t doing it and the consequences of that without musing on motives at all. Treat it as if Sally simply has too much on her plate.

  9. Dust Bunny*

    This sounds like an absolute nightmare. I’m with AAM–try the neutral “I need to clarify this because it’s not what I’m hearing from Sally” approach. One, you’ll clue Kate in that the message isn’t getting sent as she intended, and two, you’ll be able to see how she reacts.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      Yes – this is what I did. Our Sally would put in a request for X from our supporting department, and after the first few times, I realized that the VP of that division had no idea that we were providing this support and that he wouldn’t have approved it. So, I started verbally confirming all requests from Sally with the VP. This was pre-COVID, so I was able to casually bring up Sally’s requests in conversation with the VP, which kept him in the loop and in a position to shut Sally down when she over-stepped. (Genders and names mixed to protect the innocent).

  10. Pink Basil*

    I’m preemptively asking for an update on this one! You sound like a very conscientious employee and I hope this all works out well for you.

  11. Solitary Daughter*

    I will say: we had a similar problem with somebody in our organization, whose behavior was problematic long before the new boss showed up. When the new boss was here and and getting acclimated, some of the management tried to have a conversation with them about a few outright lies we were hearing from the Problem Person’s end. It…didn’t go great. I think this has more to do with the fact that the new boss was inexperienced, had lots of baggage from other positions, and is pretty conflict avoidant. I would say it’s still not going great, but at least now the new boss (not really new anymore) kind of sees what we were trying to say. It’s still not fixed, and it’s still a drain on everybody’s morale, but that’s a story for another time.

    I don’t know that it would have changed anything for the better at the time, because I think we have a fundamental issue with management here that’s only made worse by the boss’ avoidance issues. But if I could go back in time, I would try to speak in incredibly neutral language, do the whole, here’s the impact to business thing, etc, and keep my expectations a lot lower than I had them.

    If you think Kate shows signs of common sense and effective leadership, then I think you’ve got a good chance of the conversation being useful to her. Alison laid out some really good advice and possible paths. Ultimately, Kate has inherited a lot of stress and dysfunction in her new role — I think you do have to give her this information, as kindly, directly, and neutrally as possible. That might be with a big conversation or it might be with the consistent application of the actual truth when you have the opportunity. Good luck — this is a hard situation!

    1. Lizzo*

      I have to say that keeping expectations low is key, especially when dealing with a conflict-avoidant person. I had to bring my former boss’s poor management and leadership to the attention of Grandboss, but knew ahead of time that Grandboss wouldn’t go anywhere near anything that smelled even slightly of conflict. I went into the meeting prepared to say my piece but also prepared for Grandboss having zero concern about my concerns. That is in fact what happened–tl;dr: “Your boss can do what she wants”–and so my meeting concluded with me giving notice.

      OP1: I’m not necessarily saying you should resign on the spot when confronted with inaction/disinterest, but get some clarity on what your plan will be if Grandboss/Kate won’t hear what you’re saying and/or won’t/doesn’t take any action to address the issue. It will help you feel much calmer when having these difficult conversations.

  12. MmmmmmMMMmm*

    Get everything that Sally’s says in writing! Its so much easier to prove it. Good news is, Sally is digging her own grave.

  13. Sanity Check*

    This is fascinating, and a good reminder that these types of people exist. Someone who spends far more time and energy stirring the pot than doing their work gives the (likely accurate) impression that they just might burn the place down on their way out if pushed. If OP directly reports to this person, it’s critical to document everything to protect against sabotage. If not…well, someone needs to step up who is comfortable with some degree of confrontation and discomfort. Stepping up can simply mean asking clear questions, making factual statements, and following up when the responses don’t make sense. A narcissist’s manipulation in an office setting depends on people’s fear of rocking the boat and appearing unreasonable. Stepping up to someone like this can backfire because people may want to shoot the messenger who has made things more uncomfortable. However, it sounds like lots of people might be relieved to see at least one person say what a lot of people are thinking. I really like Alison’s recommendation to stick to facts that should speak for themselves. There is a risk to calling a spade a spade when someone’s behavior is so extreme (“so-and-so is clearly toxic and a liar”) but I would make sure not to hedge too much, either (“personality clash,” “difference in style,” “miscommunications,” and my personal favorite, “strong personality.”). This story, which reminds me of my own experience with an old supervisor I used to call the Donald Trump of the office (until that became way too dark) has me wondering about how people can be held to account when they’re so senior that firing them means paying out massive severance and, seems to me, violating a tacit agreement to protect the reputation of powerful people (God knows the person I have in mind never made any attempts to protect the dignity or pride of the people she herself sabotaged). I would have loved to see my old supervisor be terminated for all the damage she inflicted on our company, but instead our leadership just waited until she found a job elsewhere, which she ultimately did. I’m glad she’s gone, but I’m also disappointed by what I learned about our company’s leadership and how they handle uncomfortable situations. Finally, I’ll say that when I was dealing with this person, I was the most junior person on the team and I would have loved for someone with any clout at all to stand up against my supervisor’s outrageous behavior instead of burying their head in the sand in the name of, “it’s not my business” or, “she’s not a bad person” and making me feel like I was going nuts.

  14. LQ*

    I feel for you so much on this. Our Sally got the job, and uses it as a weapon against the rest of us. The Kate above her didn’t believe us but has finally started to see a little of the behavior.

    One of the things I want to say is that you need to be prepared for Kate to learn about Sally’s behavior and even believe you…and still not do anything. Especially if Sally has deep institutional knowledge. (Or as our Sally does, holds the program hostage by refusing to give up work that could (and should) be done by someone else.)

    You can decide you want to stay (because the work you do matters, because you can be a buffer between Sally and the front line staff, because you only have a few years until retirement, because you’ve been beaten down so much by Sally you don’t think you have any marketable skills, because whatever your reason is).
    You can decide you will not put up with it and will look for other work (because you can’t handle being brought to tears daily because of Sally, because you’re worried about your reputation getting ruined, because you’ll end up divorced if you stay, because you don’t get paid enough for this bs, because it’s just not ok to be in a workplace that is this dysfunctional, because ffs no!)

    Whatever you decide is up to you, but I at least, think it’s helpful to know that one of the potential outcomes is…and then nothing happens. Sally keeps Sallying it up. Kate seems lovely but doesn’t do anything. And everyone suffers.

  15. AKchic*

    This is a huge problem. Unfortunately, the Kate well has already been poisoned by Sally’s former boss giving her such a glowing recommendation/review, and the fact that the company has kept her on for so long.

    This is going to take a more concerted effort from everyone to document Sally’s manipulations. Whenever Sally says/does something that contradicts known rules/orders/directions, email her with a cc (or bcc if you want to be sneaky) to Kate saying “hey, I know we just talked in [insert location] about [variable F]. Your directions to work from home 100% is a direct contradiction to Kate’s email on [insert date], see email attached. Could you please verify for me what the WFH policy is? I just want to C-My-B. Thanks”
    If she isn’t dense and sees Kate’s name on the email as well, she will walk it back and say she forgot Kate’s/company’s most recent policy changes.

    I think that it’s going to take as many colleagues as possible documenting the inconsistencies. Sally has spent so long manipulating, harassing, and downright bullying people that people are scared to stand up to her. This isn’t the fault of the colleagues. This is 100% the former manager and the company’s fault for allowing it to continue, but it ultimately is on Sally for doing it. Now it’s on Kate’s shoulders to decide whether she’s going to allow it to continue, especially since she appears to be Sally’s next target and it would be in her best interest to stop it.

    1. Jules the 3rd*

      Problem is, looping Sally in like that gives her more opportunities to cover her own B and lets Sally know that you’re resisting. Going direct to Kate will get results faster, and with less opportunity for Sally to lie and / or retaliate.

      1. AKchic*

        You do have a point. Might have to make separate emails to ensure that Sally isn’t aware that you’re reaching out to Kate to confirm real information, while still getting Sally to confirm the erroneous information at the same time.
        Then email Kate the confirmed *bad* information with “this is the double-checked, confirmed information Sally is giving me and has given other staff. Could you send out an email to everyone to confirm what you’d like done?”

        At some point, Kate is going to wonder why Sally keeps undermining her and is going to get tired of it. Or, she’ll be out of a job because Sally’s manipulations will have worked. The company has already indicated that while they’ve chosen to keep Sally on (for whatever reason), they are not willing to give Sally more structural power by giving her the promotion she sought (and maybe was groomed for by the previous supervisor?) Upper management needs to deal with Sally. How they do it is up to them, but if they want to retain clients and employees, they should do it soon.

  16. Morning Glory*

    Yes! There are so many ways to handle this without publicly challenging the OP’s vengeful manager.

    Why choose to put a target on your back?

  17. Laure001*

    Wow, that is… a dangerous situation almost right out of a movie plot or a business thriller novel. It sounds almost scary. Hope the OP is the heroine, beats the sociopath and gets a happy ending…!

    1. Jules the 3rd*

      Well, it was giving me ‘Ellen DeGeneres’ vibes, where Ellen is Kate, and Sally is her whole exec team…

  18. YoungTen*

    So sorry this is going on in your workplace. People like Sally are more common than most people want to admit. They always seem to be one step ahead and slip through. The one downfall of manipulative, lying control freaks is that they have lots of plates spinning all at once which means one is bound to fall. I really think Alisons advice to be matter of fact about cross checking is your best bet. I hate to say it but at least you can always play doumb if Sally finds out you crossed checked what she said. Sometimes, playing doumb is the best way to outsmart a person like Sally. Best of luck to you and I hope you can update us with some good news.

    1. LQ*

      I’ve had a few moments in the last few months wondering if all bosses at some senior level are like this. Does everyone who gets to be like 5 levels up from individual contributor or so have to be completely jerktastic to get the job? (Then the question is does that happen to everyone at even 1 level up, then the question of …wait is that me too?) I agree about playing dumb working on folks like this.

  19. Liz T*

    Isn’t it riskier to bring this up instance by instance than to tell Kate everything? Sally’s clearly capable of retaliation–if she really is this nefarious, wouldn’t she try to punish whoever tells Kate about the contradictions and mixed meetings, even if they do it innocently? Whereas if you just tell Kate, “Sally has been lying about this that and the other, and she has a history of retaliating against people she views as enemies,” won’t that cue Kate to recognize attempts at retaliation?

    1. Ashley*

      If you do each instance you can easily go the bland how do you want me to handle X route. If you wait and stock pile sometimes it comes across as you are targeting someone or why didn’t you tell me sooner / too late to do anything now response. In particular when someone is new to an organization, they have to figure out who is telling the truth and who tends to stir the pot, exaggerate, and even lie. The less emotional of fact checking Alison suggests lets Kate get the opportunity to put two and two together to start checking Sally. After a few weeks of this hopefully Kate would have a big picture conversation with the LW, but that would depend on Kate being a good manager and having time to adjust.

  20. foolofgrace*

    If you do decide to go (preferably as a group) to Kate about this, which I understand is a dangerous move in some ways, I’d keep in mind that Kate probably isn’t going to put aside a lot of time for the meeting; you might get 15 minutes. So, I would be prepared for having to get in a lot of info in a short time by writing down a list of the most egregious antics of Sally so that you’re well-prepared. There will probably be more to disclose than you’ll have time for, so consider hitting the highlights. And I would couch it not as “Sally did this! And this!” but as “the company’s well being will suffer if the situation is allowed to continue.”

    That being said, bringing things to Kate’s attention one at a time as they surface sounds like a less dangerous way to go.

  21. animaniactoo*

    One thing that might be REALLY useful to say to Kate, privately, and directly, is something along the lines of this:

    “I know that Jim thought really highly of Sally and her abilities. While I’m sure that many of us don’t have the full picture and aren’t aware of some of the factors that went into that opinion, I think you should also be aware that, from below, the opinion of Sally and her capability is quite different. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but my general sense is that a lot of people are unhappy with her management style.

    Personally, I often encounter issues where what Sally tells me seems to be in direct contradiction with what you’ve told me or what someone else has done. Normally, that might not be a big deal but it’s hard to resolve because she has a tendency to take it as an attack on her and attack back. In fact, if she knew I was saying this to you, she would like come after me for it, but I thought that you should know. I understand that you can’t just act on my word and I’m not expecting any immediate change, but going forward I’d like to come to you directly when I run across a contradiction like that to clear it up, and I’d appreciate whatever you can do to protect me if Sally does come after me for that.”

    And here you are not saying that Sally is the complete and utter loss that she apparently is – you’re saying that whatever Jim valued about Sally might be reasonable, but that there are issues that Jim probably didn’t clue Kate in to, and providing your own experience of one of those issues. Here’s what you’d like to do, and here’s what you’re asking for in return – which is a fairly low level of ask.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is great wording. Matter of fact, calm, reasonable, doesn’t sound agenda-driven in a way that could make her less credible. It’s excellent!

    2. beanie gee*

      I really like this part: “I understand that you can’t just act on my word and I’m not expecting any immediate change, but going forward I’d like to come to you directly when I run across a contradiction like that to clear it up, and I’d appreciate whatever you can do to protect me if Sally does come after me for that.”

      It gives you permission to directly deal with Kate, which can feel risky.

      It also has the tone of hoping for a change in how Sally manages, rather than “Sally has to go.” The second might be the desired outcome and maybe the only solution, but it gives the impression that people would like Kate’s help in improving Sally’s “management style.” (which would be a great solution if anyone actually believed Sally could change)

      1. Tabby Baltimore*

        The only thing in the wording I’d consider changing is to include the word “retaliation,” as in: “I’d appreciate whatever you can do to protect me if Sally does retaliate against me for that.”

        1. animaniactoo*

          As a first pass at bringing this up, I thought about it, but left it out – mostly because it’s such an alarming word and the goal here is to fill Kate in without alarming her, or thinking that OP is being alarming which could undercut her credibility on this.

    3. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

      Excellent wording – and you know, a LOT of leaders are used to coming into an organization and hearing about the people issues that were never resolved under past leadership.

  22. Sparkles McFadden*

    “…just matter-of-factly fill in Kate when you see disparities between what she and Sally are saying.”

    Yes, yes, yes. If there’s a disparity in instructions, a good employee would ask for clarification, of course! “I’ve gotten some conflicting information. Could you clarify?” Ask neutrally. Do this each time something is unclear, preferably in writing (though a casual hallway question can help too). Pretend everyone is acting in good faith, even if you know otherwise.

    People like Sally always blow themselves up. Always. It’s usually pretty anti-climactic, and sadly, so many people get hurt before the denouement. Fortunately, OP, you are in one of the scenarios which can lead to someone dealing with Sally. When someone from outside comes in, and there’s no history with Sally, that person may see things more clearly. That’s why it’s so important to present your queries in a genuine, neutral way. Present Kate with facts while Sally gives her fiction, and things may improve for everyone. At least I hope so.

  23. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    This is one of those situations where I’d LOVE to try this hypothetical conversation, but I’d have to be fully prepared for the worst (e.g., being fired on the spot):

    Sally: “Something that completely contradicts what Kate told you.”
    Me: “That’s not what Kate told me. In fact, yesterday she said (the truth).”
    Sally: “Blah blah dissembling”
    Me, in totally conversational tone: “Why are you lying?”

  24. Tidewater 4-1009*

    I don’t see why you all can’t do both. Inform Kate yourself in the moment about Sally, and some people with clout meet with Kate to discuss Sally. That could work well!

  25. Dancing Otter*

    So, if Jane is running the meetings, Jane is also issuing the meeting agendas and the minutes, right? And the meeting invitations?
    If Jane is doing this at Sally’s direction, based on instructions (supposedly) from Kate, would it not be totally normal to copy both Sally and Kate on those agendas and minutes? Putting Kate as an Optional/FYI on the invitations? Even if Jane were just doing the admin details for Sally, that wouldn’t be the least bit out of the ordinary anyplace I ever worked.
    So, meeting minutes usually include “In Attendance: Jane, OP, Tom, Dick, and Harry.” Conspicuously not listed in this case – Sally.
    Now, Kate may not notice the first time, or even the second, but eventually she’s likely to twig to the fact that Sally isn’t taking a terribly active role in these meetings she claims to be running.
    Does this constitute malicious compliance or is there a different name for it? But it covers Jane’s ass beautifully – how can Sally complain about Jane doing what any conscientious meeting organizer ought to do? – while leaving Sally’s flapping in the wind.

  26. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

    I’ve worked for a Sally before. And in fact, much like you describe in your letter, my Sally was difficult all along but got significantly worse to us when she got a new boss. I did not raise the issues to the level I should (in part because I was relatively new to the organization and was unsure of my standing) and unfortunately, that led to my Sally getting her way and positioning me out. In my exit interview, I brought up all the documented instances of my Sally doing the same sorts of things you describe in your letter. Turns out, my Sally’s new boss was digging into her ‘management’ style and had seen a number of the issues I brought up in my exit interview. Six months after I left, my Sally was fired.

    I think you are well-positioned to take your concerns to Kate and probably don’t even need the cover of wanting to clarify expectations. I think if you calmly sit down with Kate, lay out the information you’ve compiled and tell Kate that Sally has a pattern of this behavior, it’s getting worse, and it’s harder for teams to deal with this like they have in the past since everyone is working remotely. If Kate is a good leader, she will do something about this. She may already be doing something about this.

      1. TardyTardis*

        Always. I blew the whistle on someone not behaving ethically (long story, you do not want to hear it) and I was the one who was chewed up and spit out. In fact, their associate continues to perpetuate the lie, which is annoying as all crap. But I walked away, and continue to do so. (and take great comfort in what eventually happened to this person).

  27. Ellie*

    Is there any way you can clue Kate in about Sally, that it’s a pattern of behaviour, without having to directly complain about her actions? I’ve seen it done before, where someone will ask a question, and the other person will laugh and say, ‘Yep, that’s classic Sally! She never goes to those meetings!’ It can be risky but an intelligent manager will often pick up on it, and it gives you a level of plausible deniability. Or to take the example, ‘Oh you never know what’s up with Sally, she told half of us it was ok to work from home and the other half not. What are we allowed to do again?’

    I’m aware that being direct is usually best, but sometimes when you fear retaliation, you can end up being able to say a lot more with jokes than you can directly. And find a way to double-check what ever she tells you… ‘just so we’re all on the same page’ style.

  28. learnedthehardway*

    On the plus side, you’re in a situation where Kate is the intended victim of Sally’s machinations. So the person you’re trying to report the issues to is the person who has the most to lose, and is a person who has the authority to do something about it. That’s a huge advantage that most people don’t have when confronting a Sally.

    Kate – if she has any leadership and management ability – is likely to see some things for herself eventually. This isn’t her first management role, if she’s the head of the organization. She shouldn’t need more than a few nudges to get the picture.

    When I was in a situation where I was Kate, it was my first management role, and it took me months to realize that I was being set up by the Sally reporting to me, who hadn’t got the job. Didn’t help that my manager glossed over the issue, didn’t tell me my Sally had been in the running, and generally let Sally push them around. It wasn’t until after I had given Sally a “needs improvement” on her performance review (over my manager’s objections), that my manager admitted that Sally had thought she’d get the job. Thankfully, my Sally left soon after that, because I was about to put them on a PIP.

Comments are closed.