update: my boss sent a chat message I wasn’t supposed to see — but it popped up on a shared screen

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose boss sent a chat message not intended for her — but it popped up on a shared screen? Here’s the update.

Thank you so much for everyone’s advice. Since the letter was posted a few months after it actually happened, I did some mini-updates in the comments. I am going to summarize those here and then post a further update.

The original comment about long-windedness was definitely about my retired coworker only. He was very well known for it and the boss had shown very public annoyance about it in the past (eye-rolling, complaining behind his back, snapping, etc.). After the message, I did some serious soul searching and asked for feedback from past/present colleagues and personal friends because I just didn’t know what had happened to make him say that about me. I trust these people to tell me the truth. I was majorly beating myself up and feeling pretty terrible (anxiety/imposter syndrome anyone?). I do think I could occasionally over-explain something, but not often and certainly not to the level a boss should need to even say something. I think in the end the personality quirk that made my boss dislike me was probably the fact that he is not interested in hearing anybody’s opinion unless it agreed with his and, while I was never disrespectful, I occasionally asked questions or voiced concerns such as “that’s a good idea, but due to ‘niche work factor’ can we consider X, Y, or Z” using a collaborative, upbeat tone of voice. I think he disliked anyone not agreeing with him to a ‘T’ and this fact has since been corroborated with several other colleagues who work on his level.

Ever since that chat message, my boss kept giving Mark more projects despite me asking to be on projects too. Prior to this, I was the point person on most of the projects and I know I did a good job (from feedback from others in the department and several different grandbosses). Between the chat message and the inability to do anything but very basic rote work I was not hired to do, I decided to look at other opportunities. After much research, I decided to go back to school and got accepted into a short-term fellowship.

I was still waffling on attending as it would mean moving away. I decided to tell my boss I was probably leaving as I was about to be sent on expensive training and would have been turning in my notice the day after returning. I did not feel right about it and was worried about my reference if he thought I wasted company money.

In my conversation with him, he told me he would help me make the decision on whether to go to school or work training as he was planning on promoting Mark at the end of the month when we had returned from training. I was kind of stunned since he knew that I was working towards the small promotion and had been being groomed by upper management for a leadership position. I asked him why and he said that Mark was more “hands on.” It appears it was in part a setup all along so he could justify giving the promotion to Mark, who is a yes-man.

I really, really did not want to believe sexism was at play, but I think it was to an extent. I had tenure; public, verbal approval for my work from upper management; a leadership fellowship sponsored by my company (which Mark was not invited to); and more relevant education than Mark. These things don’t make me automatically deserve the small promotion, and I know this. I was shocked because Mark had never shown desire or drive to be the head of our tiny section (really just a point person) and I had and had asked what I needed to do to get there in performance reviews etc. In the reviews given by my boss, they were glowing and he never gave me anything to improve on despite me asking about areas I could learn and grow to help our company but rather just said it was all good and he didn’t know what the future held. It turns out no women under him in any department has ever been promoted despite usually having better work and credentials than their promoted colleagues. So, in the end, he wanted someone who would never ever question him or suggest improvements who also happened to be a man.

On my way out, one of the C suite execs came to ask me why I was leaving as they thought I did fabulous work and they were really sorry to see me go and were going to miss me. I did not tell them the real reason why (though I wish I had in hindsight) as I didn’t want to jeopardize my husband’s job who also worked under my boss. (We were in completely different departments and he always did good work too so we are 99 % sure none of this had anything to do with that). If it got back to my boss that I had gotten him in trouble he could have made life ugly for my husband in retaliation.

I hate to disappoint all of you (trust me, this is a big life regret for me too), but I never confronted him on it. I sent in this letter too late to use Alison’s script and I had already moved on. I ultimately decided not to say something because my boss is the type of person who would have flipped it around on me and gaslighted me. I honestly think he would have denied the message existed. He was not a healthy person.

I took the fellowship and have since completed it. I have a new job that I love with an extremely supportive boss. He wants us to work on professional development and he regularly appreciates our hard work and gives constructive feedback. Additionally, my new company is AWESOME. They truly care about employees as human beings and go above and beyond.

I kept in contact with several people at the company after I left. It turns out Boss got called in by the board for a review shortly after I left. He announced his retirement soon after and took a lower position to “transition out” a few months after that. To the rest of the company he is simply retiring, but I know from some colleagues who are part of the higher up board that he did not willingly retire. In a way I have to thank him because I got an amazing opportunity I never would have considered otherwise and now am working a job I actually love, that challenges and respects me.

{ 57 comments… read them below }

  1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

    Have to say – I wonder if the C-suite person read between the lines of what OP said, and did a bit of digging. Sounds like something definitely happened to push “Mr Nobody Better Disagree With Me” out of the door early.

    1. Weekend Please*

      I doesn’t sound like it would take much digging to see that every woman who worked under him was passed over for promotion favor of less qualified men.

      1. Jay*

        Yes, and at the same time people are so accustomed to seeing men predominate in leadership that they may not notice unless they are systematically looking for it. I would have told you that my company leadership is diverse – that was always my impression. Then I attended a video conference with the entire leadership team and realized that there were two women out of 15 people. There were several people of Asian heritage and no other people of color. So more diverse than anyplace I’ve ever worked, and not exactly “diverse.”

        1. AKchic*

          I am on a board and an executive team that both claim to be “diverse”. Sure, in *some* ways, they are. Until you get us sitting together on screen or in a room. It’s a blinding glare from the light, I can openly tell you. Calling it out is uncomfortable, but necessary. It doesn’t make friends in the room, but it does bring more *talent* to the table.

          1. Anonnies*

            Same. The business organization board I’m on has a great mix of men & women, but only has one Black person. The issue is, and it’s been discussed, the board members are voted on by our membership(around 300 members). Our last nomination slate had 3 white people and 4 Black people, and only three board slots were open. Guess who got elected? We still only have one Black board member. I don’t know how to change this (and I roll off the board tomorrow anyway).

          2. Amphian*

            A lot of people don’t seem to understand diverse means different backgrounds, genders, orientations, religions, ages, etc. The execs at my company are all old, white, men – not diverse. My team at work consists of all Asian men (only one not Indian) and me (non-Asian, non-male). When our company started pushing diversity, the rest of my team bragged about how “diverse” our team was because it’s almost all not white. Calling them on that baffled them – they truly think they are “diverse”.

            1. Claire*

              I’m reminded of when I was in undergrad and I got an email for a special philosophy conference for groups underrepresented in philosophy, and one of the underrepresented groups listed was “undergraduates of a racial/ethnic background”, a group which includes all undergraduates. If you mean “not white”, you can say “not white”, it’s okay.

      2. Paulina*

        Well he was certainly open about his biased opinion with the project head that he sent the mean IM to. She could be expected to notice the difference in quality between the OP (whose expert answer was being denigrated in the IM) and Mark the yes-man being pushed on her, and consider its source.

  2. EPLawyer*

    Oh that sucks.

    the company hasn’t noticed that men are getting promoted despite women doing all the work in this guy’s department? He can’t be THAT great if all he wants under him is incompetent people who won’t question him. so its not like he is the big rainmaker at the company that everybody puts up with for $$$$$.

        1. Squab*

          Right. LW, I’m really sorry those higher-ups didn’t have your back. Glad you ended up in a good spot, but it’s really painful to be in that “there’s a glaring problem and nobody has the will to do something about it” spot.

    1. PT*

      Probably someone noticed something was off but had no actionable proof, so when they met LW who was a promising candidate for a promotion, they threw company resources behind grooming and mentoring her for one. Then, when a less qualified man received the promotion and in tandem she left the company and wouldn’t say why, they had their smoking gun to force Crap Boss into the PIP pipeline.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Yup – sadly it looks like it took a woman that C-suite had been grooming for a promotion leaving for them to notice the turnover pattern under the former manager.

        At least they did notice and do something about it in pushing him out though. Too many places we’ve heard about here would have just shrugged and moved on.

  3. Monty and Millie's Mom*

    I’m glad for the opportunity that you took with the fellowship, and that it has landed you a great new position! This is a good update! Much as I would wish that your old boss would get his comeuppance or have actual consequences so he could learn his lesson, unfortunately that’s not real life much of the time, and at least he is “retiring”, so that’s something! Congratulations to you, OP, and may this coming year be fabulous for you!

  4. Sophie1*

    I hate the “he’s not healthy” euphemism for “they aren’t a nice or honest person”. This guy is a sexist, mean asshole, his health (mental or otherwise) has nothing to do with it.

    1. Ambarish*

      I’ve always understood that expression to mean that he’s not healthy for me, similar to “a packet of potato chips isn’t a healthy meal”.

      1. Working Hypothesis*

        That’s what I read it as, also. Not that house health was impaired, but that he impairs the health of others who have to deal with him regularly.

      1. Working Hypothesis*

        Are ALL cases of somebody choosing to be an asshole forms of personality disorder? The psychotherapists I know have mostly thought there’s a place in the theory for healthy jerks.

    2. Aquawoman*

      Sophie, I agree with you. People in general very often conflate the two, which makes it hard on the many, many people with mental ill problems who aren’t mean assholes/misogynist egotists/other bad character trait. I think people should be careful with that language because of its impact on people who are already struggling with problems.

    3. Batgirl*

      I’ve always assumed it was a metaphor! When people say their family or a person is not healthy, I’ve never taken it to mean their actual literal health, mental or physical.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, same here. But because so many people interpret this phrase more literally, it’s probably best to avoid it. I know I’ve been guilty in the past of saying that someone’s crazy, a nutjob, completely insane or certifiable when I’ve really meant that they are a jerk. I’m much more careful about this now, though. Just because someone is dealing with depression or anxiety or any other mental illness doesn’t mean they’re by definition also a bad employee, and it’s offensive to imply they are.

  5. RJ*

    Ultimately, you needed to make the right decision for you OP and congrats on your new position! I wish you much happiness and success. I’m glad this former boss was phased out by consequence of his own actions.

  6. Generic Name*

    Hey, don’t beat yourself up for not giving the executive a “tell all” account of your former boss. You did what was best for you. I’ve heard so many stories of folks being honest and forthright in exit interviews and it backfiring on them. You had no way of knowing they would retire your old boss. They could have just as easily circled the wagons and badmouthed you in references.

    1. ChiliPepper*

      I feel like someday there will be another update in which the OP has a new role that puts her in the room with the old C suite execs and somehow, and very professionally, the whole story comes out. Perhaps in some way that cuts off an -ism that is hurting someone else. This is like AAM fan fiction! lol

    2. Shirley Keeldar*

      Yes indeed! You don’t owe it to the company or to the world to put yourself or your family at risk to fix people who are choosing to behave in selfish and sexist and generally dreadful ways. Choosing to take your awesome self and talents elsewhere IS a way of dealing with sexism. Maybe in other situations or at other times you’ll be able to choose a different way, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t the right way (or a right way) to deal with this. Glad you have found better place, one that deserves you more!

    3. Not So NewReader*

      OP, in my opinion you made the correct choice. You had to think of your spouse who was still working under this dude. The first job I had, the owner also hired my family member. I quit because of all the lying, (huge number of hours, working on my own, etc) none of the lies became reality. Once I quit, she retaliated by firing my family member. The whole time she was complaining that she had to hire new help. Family member was doing fine with their job and probably would have kept doing the job, there was no reason for my family member to go also.

      If we don’t know how things will play out we do have to protect ourselves and our loved ones. In your case, it would have been nice to dump this garbage out on the table for all to see. But it wasn’t necessary as in the end they got rid of the bad boss anyway. This means you don’t have to wonder if bad boss or anyone is out there bad mouthing you because of what you could have said. It’s really a good outcome, I think.

    4. Sparkles McFadden*

      Agreed. You acted like a professional and did what was best for you and your family. There’s very little to be gained by doing anything else.

    5. Batgirl*

      Unless the OP is great at covering up her feelings and behaved totally enthusiastically about the circumstances her face probably did a perfectly good job of confirming his suspicions.

  7. California Ltd.*

    One of the (many) things I hate about the isms is the crazy-makingness of it – where you have to spend YOUR energy asking yourself, “Is it me? Or is it the ism?” And then work doubly hard to make sure it’s not you while the ismist can simply go about their day.

    Congratulations on getting out of there. FWIW, I vote definitely sexism.

    1. Quinalla*

      Ugh right and it is one of the things about micro-aggressions that is so hard to explain to people who don’t experience them regularly. How exhausting it is to be 2nd guessing yourself ALL THE TIME and how it eats away at your confidence. I feel like the vast majority of my “confidence problem” as a woman is from this: how can you be confident when not only are so many around you questioning you more than others but you are questioning yourself? I have all the sympathy for those who confront this on multiple axes, must be 10x as exhausting as what I deal with and 10x harder to be confident :(

      1. TechWorker*

        Agreed. I luckily have worked with mostly great people but there’s definitely been a few instances where male colleagues have been dismissive, rude, talked over me etc. Now, can I *prove* that’s because I’m a woman? No. And in some cases the people in question are rude to everyone. I spoke to both someone in HR (female) and my grand boss (male) about this when they asked whether I’d encountered sexism and both times the response was basically that you’ll never know, but it’s reasonable to assume that at least some of the time it is. (Because why should everyone else always get the benefit of doubt?)

    2. Manana*

      100% agree (both the crazy-making and that this scenario was absolutely related to sexism). It’s a traumatic thing to go through and even worse it will continue to happen throughout your life. There is nothing you can learn/do to protect yourself from -isms, because they have nothing to do with you and everything to do with the aggressor, who are typically enabled by other aggressors. Or, people who think being an asshole is a mental health issue deserving of our back-breaking compassion.

  8. Kimmy Schmidt*

    I am amazed at the perceptiveness from some of the commenters on the original post. People telling OP to job hunt, to watch out for this boss, the gender issues that might be at play, the ways this will devolve. It’s a little eerie how right some of those people were. I’m glad you’re out of there and very glad at least one person in the upper administration is paying attention and was (finally) able to get this guy out.

    1. Manana*

      I’m sure many commentors are women, people of color, LGBTQ+, disabled, or combinations of that and more who have dealt with discrimination many times in their careers. I know I have.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      It’s in the specifics of what the OPs think of to say. In SOME instances it’s not a huge leap in logic to say if X is going on, then Y is also probably going on. Some abuses do not exist alone, they come along with other abuses.

    3. Sparkles McFadden*

      You can see the signs when you’ve been through it one or more (many, many more) times. These sorts of bosses have a very simple playbook.

  9. Hazel*

    I’ve sent a snarky email or two in the past where it went to the wrong person, and it was incredibly embarrassing and awkward, and I felt like a big jerk. I’ve learned my lesson.
    Now I almost never send anything negative or snarky in writing, and when I do need to send an email or IM that’s sensitive, I triple check the message, the recipients, anything that has been included at the bottom as a forwarded email, etc. This usually protects me from my own stupid potential mistakes.

    But then I thought some more about the situation in this letter and realized that I need to add another step to protect myself from other people’s stupid potential mistakes. From now on, I’ll be settng my IM app to “Do not disturb when presenting”!

    1. Anonymous Hippo*

      Honestly, you should keep it out of writing all together. It is so easy for someone to forward something, and it has happened to me on more than one occasion (not unprofessional, just not the wording I’d have used to their face sort of thing, or else personal). It’s like driving, I might trust me, but I don’t trust everyone else.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        Having been in too many positions where all of my correspondence was considered “public” (as gov’t), yup. Don’t put anything in writing with your name on it that you wouldn’t want on the front page of the newspaper.

        And always put yourself to “do not disturb” when presenting, because even if it’s not snarky from *you*, there’s always that one coworker that is a bit dense and sends you “are the scary state people gone yet because I want Subway” five times as you’re attempting to present a Serious Topic to your visiting state regulators. Thankfully State Regulators and I had previously worked together at the State Office and they thought it was funny, then also wanted Subway.

        1. Elise*

          Yeah, this is what I was thinking. Pretty much everything I do could be subject to a FOIA request so if I need to vent, I do it verbally. I think a lot of people think of the workplace instant message platforms as a safe place for that, but it’s all archived and available if requested.

      2. Batgirl*

        Even when its just on-paper writing. Never commit negativity to a physical piece of proof. Just assume it’s all going to get misplaced/published. Honestly the whole point of complaining about someone is to be soothed and petted in person, in private anyway.

    2. tangerineRose*

      If you have to send something negative, try to be “just the facts” when you write it. So instead of saying “so and so is a glassbowl”, say “so and so did x and y, etc.” Let people come to their own conclusions.

  10. Frenchie too*

    Please don’t judge yourself so harshly. Yes, we would all love to be the Norma Rae of our workplace, but we still have to make a living.
    You did what was best under your circumstances. And it might be that your graceful exit made others notice that you left as less-qualified Mark got the promotion that you deserved.
    Congratulations on your new work path! Looks like karma is a good thing for you <3

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Indeed. And that is what made Norma Rae remarkable. There are not many people who are willing and/or able to take a stand. It’s okay not to be Norma Rae.

  11. SEM*

    I’m sorry to hear that you never confronted him OP, but I’m glad everything worked out OK in the end, especially the boss being pushed out. That’s always the best revenge, isn’t it?

  12. Kwebbel*

    This is one of the letters I think about often, and, honestly, LW, I think this is a great update. It looks like you found your way out of a dark situation that would only have held you back in your career had you stayed there.

    I can understand your sentiment that you wish you’d said something to the horrible boss after his message, but I think it’s sometimes better not to cast pearls before swine. Your instinct is probably right that it wouldn’t have helped. I’ve had weird bosses, too. It’s amazing how selective their memories can be, and fascinating to see how they truly believe they are never wrong. Looks like he got what was coming to him with his early retirement, and you’re smashing it somewhere else.

    Congratulations on your new role!

  13. OhBehave*

    Disappointed that future female employees would have to waste time working for this jerk but then pleasantly surprised that he got his due in the end. I hope you’re never in this hell again.

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