updates: the social boss, knowing when to lean out, and more

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. Here are four updates from past letter-writers.

1. My boss wants to hang out socially to improve our relationship

As I’m sure many of the updates go this year, COVID-19 hit my company pretty hard. To their immense credit, they funneled resources into keeping all employees safe and on staff. And new distancing restrictions meant pretty much all socializing was off the table, bowling included. Leah and I saw a lot less of Jane on a daily basis, which let us breathe a little bit easier at work, and clients canceled a lot of the projects we were working on, so there was less to do (and to disagree about) overall. I stepped up the friendly chat at work as you suggested, which I do think helped a bit, though the tone overall was pretty grim when we got back.

Leah and I also asked for a meeting with Jane, where we acknowledged that things had been tense and confusing. There had been many projects where she jumped in at the last minute to correct something we thought she had explicitly told us to do. We thought we might be able to better produce the results she wanted if she was willing to share her goals for the department and what her supervisors had told her to address- these were points from the comments I hadn’t considered before. Jane listened, shared a few long-term intentions that sounded good, and expressed a desire to be able to work together more effectively. But for now, she needed us to listen to her instructions- which always seemed clear, until she checked back in and announced everything was wrong. Then on the next assignment, we’d get a longer conversation with ever-more-specific instructions.

Following that meeting and a few more cycles of the familiar pattern, I ended up thinking a lot about the long-term direction I wanted to take. I realized that much as I loved my original position, it was a specialized dead end with little room to expand skills I could apply outside of this particular field and office. Moreover, following additional conversations with Jane about her goals for my position, it became clear she wanted to further specialize me, removing some qualities of the job that originally attracted me to it. With the company’s budget tight anyway and not much to do for the foreseeable future, this seemed like the perfect time to move on. I found a new position in a different field, where I am gaining a variety of skills that I hope will make me a more rounded and attractive candidate to future employers and open up more possible paths. Thank you for the advice and to all the wise commenters.

2. How do you know when to “lean out”?

Thanks so much for publishing my question last March – it was really helpful to get so many different perspectives from the comments. The week you published my letter, I had been sick with a fever and a dry cough for about seven weeks (in retrospect, my doctor suspects it was quite possibly an early case of COVID-19, but I could never swing any time off for a sick day for myself so we’ll never really know), and a few days later I missed my kiddo’s first steps because of work, and I knew I was done. I gave notice a few days before my state went on COVID lockdown – my firm was surprised, but we parted on ok terms, all things considered. I took the work-from-home job in spite of my misgivings about how it might affect my career development, and in these incredibly weird times it has turned out to be one of the better professional decisions I’ve made. Without getting overly detailed, I can say that I’m still engaged in interesting work, and the business unit I’m a part of is growing rapidly (in part because of COVID’s effect on workplaces) so there is a lot more room for advancement in the future than I originally anticipated.

Also, with the benefit of time and (finally) some sleep, I’ve realized that a big chunk of the problem was that I probably wasn’t ready to be back at work at all when I wrote to you – giving birth was physically tough on me, kiddo never slept so I was chronically sleep deprived (we went 17 months before kiddo got a full night’s sleep on their own), and my brain was utterly scrambled from stress and hormones and lack of sleep. Obviously I can’t speak for every new parent, but I definitely would’ve benefited from a longer leave and better part-time options, instead of feeling like my only choice was to find a new job. Working life is long, and the idea that a place that supposedly wanted me to stay for the rest of my career would let one rough year define my prospects is discouraging, to say the least, but it’s only reinforced my choice to find a job that fits my life instead of trying to change my life to fit a job.

3. Did I mishandle phone tag with an employer? (#5 at the link)

So, it’s been 6 years since I wrote in. And I’ve gotten 2 new jobs, with one successful job search. (With the first, I was hired by my manager when after she got a new job.) I still have problems with my anxiety, but I’m in a much better place with my mental health then I was when I originally wrote in. I did find a good treatment for my anxiety, but nothing is perfect, and there will always be really good times, and less good times. I’m starting the second new job in a couple weeks, and It’s all phone and talking, in spite of my anxiety. I had to make the choice between physical and mental health, and this time due to an overwhelming number of factors in the pro column, like getting a job that will force me to work on this anxiety trigger while saving money from work related expenses, getting a wfh job won out. I plan on finding a way (probably an android app) to monitor my emotions, so that I can take any steps needed to work on my stress level. Also, in the last 4 years, I’ve found a lot more confidence, in part thanks to reading your blog.

4. My boss is a jerk — but only to me

The situation never improved with my boss. I think that she has deep-seated emotional issues and enjoys being cruel on some level. For example, in August 2019 when we hired a new grandboss to replace our retiring one, she asked me to give new grandboss a training on what I do. When grandboss asked my direct boss a follow-up question about the session, my direct boss pulled me into a meeting and berated me, asking if I understand the basics of my job. I almost cried right there. Finally in November 2019, I was contacted by a fintech firm in the area for a role that is my boss’s equivalent. The interview process took less than a week and when I received the offer, I didn’t even wait for them to check references – I told her immediately and long story short, she told me to leave that same day. She told everyone else in the department later that HR insisted I leave, which was a lie – I gave my exit interview over video to HR the next day and they were shocked that she had made me leave, and even intimated to me that she’s had a ton of complaints. I already knew that everyone in my department hated her, but it was gratifying to hear from HR as well. Anyway, I’ve been at this new job since November 2019 and I have an absolutely fantastic boss.

Anyway, now for the good part. We hired another employee, a peer of mine also reporting to her, in September 2019 from a bank in the area. He’s much older than me and almost immediately he said that our boss was the worst he had ever dealt with by far. Whenever people would reach out to him on LinkedIn for a job at our company, he would tell them to look elsewhere and that they “wouldn’t want to work here.” He had words with her in several meetings when she would try to shut him down, and he would point out that actually, he had years of experience and was not an idiot. When she would scream at him for misnaming a file that no one would ever see, he fought back. Finally he was called into a meeting with both her and our grandboss, and long story short, he ended up cursing out my boss and asking her, “How do you expect me to work when you speak to me so full of hate?” He quit right there (with nothing lined up – that’s how much he wanted out), but my direct boss apparently tells everyone she fired him.

What’s really disheartening though is that my direct boss has since received a “senior” promotion in her title. It makes me really sad about the working world – that someone can have so many complaints and be such an abject horrible person but still make it. I just hope karma catches up – at least everyone in the company knows now that she’s an awful human being. I’m going to take what I learned and if I ever have a direct report that is causing so many issues, I’ll take care of it.

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. EPLawyer*

    #1 glad you moved on. Jane was never going to change her “I told you do it one way, now change it to this other way” style. She didn’t see herself as the problem.

    #2 Oooof 17 months. So sorry. But glad you found something new.

    #3 Hang in there. Keep up the good work.

    #4 Glad you are out. But new guy was out of line. No matter how bad the boss is, you don’t curse them out. Two wrongs don’t make a right. The better way to have handled it with Grandboss right there was for him to calmly and professonally lay out his work and then let Boss explain why it was a problem. All he did was reinforce boss’s stories that she works with a bunch of incompetents who don’t know how to behave in an office. His years of experience mean nothing if this is the way he handles a conflict with his boss. I mean it was probably satisfying to hear about for you. But it was still wildly unnprofessional.

    1. OP#4*

      You’re right, it was incredibly satisfying. While I agree that it wasn’t professional, I completely understand that her torture brought that out of him. He actually told me later that during his severance discussion, he learned that my supervisor was going to be punished in some way by HR. He said he wasn’t legally allowed to discuss the particulars with me.

      1. RC Rascal*

        I’ve worked for this boss before and heard the same lines from HR.

        “ This isn’t the first complaint about Bossy”
        “Bossy had been given things to work on.”
        “ We are aware of the issue in your department and something is being done”

        HR knows , they don’t care, and your bad boss charms them and the powers that be behind closed doors.

        1. Vicki*

          That was my experience. Quit a job without anything lined up right before the pandemic really got bad in the US. I and a coworker were targeted by a bad boss. We both were reporting things to HR and she was brand new you would think they would do something but they didn’t. They lost me, the first coworker, and 2 others who came on after we had quit. All before they final walked her out the door. For whatever reason herbeimg in that position was more important than the other 4 people. It sucks because I enjoyed my job even when it sucked just to have her gone 6 months later.

          1. TardyTardis*

            My CO in the Air Force was such an exciting individual that as GS-9 (mixed military/civilian office) quit with no notice. Apparently it wasn’t just me he hated!

      2. Momma Bear*

        I wonder how much he put up with before he cracked. It’s not professional, but neither is the way he and you were being treated. I had a very terrible boss who blocked someone from attending their child’s wedding and made them post-pone surgery – I would have quit on the spot if they had tried that on me! Sometimes situations are just that bad and the only way to improve it is to get out. Unfortunately some companies don’t look at the big picture (like losing staff) and keep problematic people in positions they have no business being in. I’m glad you have moved on.

      3. RB*

        Sounds like supervisor wasn’t punished but was instead rewarded with a better title.

        This update is really disheartening. Some people just have a penchant for bullying but when those people are allowed to flourish in their jobs and are even rewarded for their bad behavior, that’s when it becomes a really depraved situation.

    2. Anononon*

      Eh, I disagree re #4. I’ll never argue that it was the choice he should have made, if you asked me beforehand, but I think it’s fully understandable why he did, and it wouldn’t make me look negatively on him.

    3. Zweisatz*

      Yeah I disagree. If you’re being abused on the reg, cursing someone out truly is the lesser of two evils morally speaking (and it can be very important emotionally to stand up for yourself when somebody else is tearing you down all the time).

      You can’t reform abusers by being extra professional when you tell them that they are wrong. You cannot reform them at all because it has to come from them (or someone with power holding them accountable).

      The only thing I would consider is whether cursing can hurt me professionally, but I might still decide the situation is worth it. I’ve got to assume coworker made that call.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        The bit I disagree with in OP4’s update is when they say “now for the good part” because I don’t actually see anything good at all: I see a well-seasoned worker cracking up and an abusive boss being promoted. The only good part is that OP could see that it wasn’t their fault, they weren’t the only one to not be able to satisfy that boss.

  2. Kali*

    OP4, I find it fascinating that between your original letter and now, you’ve figured out how everyone else hated this supervisor too. Just tells you how powerful bosses can be – they were clearly being nice to her face and it took you a bit to peel back that surface layer. Sounds like she was awful to everyone behind closed doors. It is disheartening that she got a promotion and that they would look past the complaints – there are more problems in that office than just that one boss.

    Anyway, I’m glad you made it out!

    1. Seashells*

      Isn’t it strange that the worst people seem to move up the ladder? Sometimes I think it’s to pass off the person so they no longer have to deal with them.

    2. OP#4*

      Yes, about two months after I wrote my original letter, I went out to a happy hour with the other members of the team, not including her, and they told me all of their horror stories too. However, the one bubbly and friendly girl who was my peer actually tried to throw me under the bus multiple times to get in good with our supervisor. It was so demoralizing that no one cared to fix the problem – they just wanted to ignore the supervisor because she did good work, and she was good at acting fun and friendly. I am so glad I’m out of there. Thinking about it, even now, still makes me upset.

      At least with the male peer, who was 45 and quit in a rage after only 3 months, really vindicated me and let me know it wasn’t just me. The female peer, my boss, and my other friend in the department are still there. I guess the female peer is still throwing people under the bus.

      1. Cat Tree*

        Yeah, I’m glad you got out, but overall somewhat disappointed. Multiple people had issues with her and HR knew about it, but the problem was never addressed. No matter how good her work is, is it better than the cumulative work of everyone who left because of her?

        But it’s so great that this is no longer your problem.

        1. Lily Rowan*

          Yeah, I had a terrible boss who (we assumed) was never fired because the higher-ups were worried about the turnover rate. But every other position turned over quickly because of the bad boss!! Get rid of that one person and the whole picture would have improved.

        2. Absurda*

          I suspect it has more to do with a specific management technique I’ve seen multiple times in my career: Kiss Up, Kick Down. Problem managers like this never treat their bosses the way they treat those lower down the totem pole. The complaints are explained away (if they ever even make it to higher ups) as because Bad Boss is a “tough” manager and that’s what gets the best performance out of their people, or because they take no BS. Bad Boss is able to suck up and market themselves so well, higher ups are convinced the problem is everyone else but Bad Boss.

          This dynamic plays out really well if Bad Boss has to deliver specific achievements (like sales numbers). As long as they can deliver, no one cares how the sausage is made.

          1. Roy G. Biv*

            Have we worked for the same legendary jerk in sales? My company’s Legendary Jerk is the working definition of Kiss Up, Kick Down, and he delivers the sales numbers. Has also driven off or fired all the really stellar sales reps in the company, and apparently it’s just not a problem, according to the C suite.

            1. College Career Counselor*

              I highly recommend reading Bob Sutton’s book, “The No Asshole Rule” about the effect that toxic people in the workplace have on morale, sick days, turnover, productivity, relationships, etc. Unfortunately, the people who most need to read it never see themselves in it.

          2. Momma Bear*

            This would explain one of my bosses – who was a total jerk to us, but smooth talker to the CEO and clients.

          3. Confused Anon*

            This is my current boss- she yells, swears, belittles people, bullies us, etc. But around her boss, she is a none of those things. It’s like night and day. She’s quiet, respectful, polite, etc. (They wonder why turnover is so high…)

        3. Retiree Grandma*

          The department that hired me right out of college in the mid 70s was growing rapidly and was hiring a lot of new grads. The job required writing and analysis skills along with quickly learning a lot of job related material; the typical new hire majored in subjects that demonstrated those abilities with a better than average GPA. That is, until Mary. She was a recent grad who majored in a comparatively lightweight field with a mediocre GPA, partied her way through college, and was openly more interested in sports and socializing than any job job. The company had a social club that planned happy hours and distributed tickets to various events and Mary quickly became heavily involved in the social club. For a while I had to sit next to her (no cubicle!) and share a phone. People were constantly coming to her desk on social club business and she monopolized the phone. She was producing far less work than the rest of us but did not seem to be held to the same standards of quantity and quality. I complained but nothing changed except she knew it was me. Then, when she got engaged to her boyfriend, previously identified only by first name and who had been away at school, it all became clear why she had been hired and kept on despite poor performance– her fiancé’s father was the senior VP of another division of the company. She left after I moved away but I heard they were happy when she was gone.

          1. Batgirl*

            Honestly this is where my thoughts went straight away. The arsehole who doesn’t get fired is usually someone’s girlfriend, mate, roommate etc. They are trusted way more than the complaints from the plebs are. Usually, with the type of jerk who is as clever as they are work-shy, there’s been some groundwork laid to throw shade on people even before they’ve complained.

    3. UShoe*

      This is immediately what I thought on reading the update. She was obviously an expert at treating people well in the view of others, which then makes the ‘behind closed doors’ persecution so much more cruel and manipulative because everyone thinks it’s just happening to them. It’s really quite shocking.

  3. Bookworm*

    Thanks to all the LWs for their updates. Won’t lie, LW4 was depressing and brought back memories of bosses I’ve had who were somewhat similar. There are way too many people who should not be in management in any way and a lot of workplaces simply look the other way or even think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

    Glad you’re out, LW4 and that you’ll be taking that experience as what NOT to do and be. We need more people like you.

  4. Rosalita*

    #4 I have been there and have fantastically moved on to a much better, happier place with an amazing boss. Congrats to you for moving on to better things.

  5. 2 Cents*

    #2 I”m so glad you’re in a better work situation! I could’ve written a similar letter (although my kid is nearly 3 and still hasn’t slept more than 6.5 hours straight at night. I consider anything over 5 hours to be a win). I also had terrible postpartum depression, so that didn’t help when I was trying to balance all the things. Though my workplace attempted to do a little for me, in the end, it was finding another job that truly helped. I wish there were good part time or 3/4 time work options in various skill sets (marketing, law, business) out there!

    1. tiredmom*

      I totally feel you. My 2 youngest were terrible sleepers. My youngest still doesn’t sleep the night at 3. We have tried everything under the planet!

    2. OP #2*

      Alas, I sent my update to Alison too soon – after about a month of sleeping “overnight” (by which I mean, 7-8 hours in a row) we have apparently moved into the “wouldn’t it be fun to hang out with mom & dad between 3 and 5am a few nights a week” stage of toddlerhood. ::insert eyeroll emoji:: Toddlers are lucky they are cute!

      With that said, my new gig is basically 3/4 time, it is amazing how much better I feel billing 2-3 fewer hours a day, even on the days when I’m operating on no sleep.

  6. Observer*

    #2 and #4 make me sad. I am very happy that they are both in better places now. But it is SO sad that they had to leave to find basic reasonableness.

  7. OrigCassandra*

    OP4, re the senior title: My jerk ex-boss received a promotion in title in his early 60s despite heavy turnover (particularly of women, and this was no accident) in his small unit.

    I was so furious to see it that I… shortly thereafter went for the same promotion in title in my new unit, and got it at age 46. Huge raise and a nice jolt of respect. Sometimes there are ways to channel the anger usefully!

  8. tiredmom*

    #2- I very much identify with you. Although I am not a lawyer, when my youngest was born my maternity leave was handled terribly. I worked for a small non-profit with 4 staff including the ED. I attempted to find a temp to cover my work while I was out, but I had never hired anyone before and the ED did not assist me at all. So it was either literally have no one do my work at all for 8 weeks or offer to do some while on leave. I attempted but my baby was a tough newborn and I also had to care for my 2 oldest. I was incredibly sleep deprived. I returned and among many, many other issues never caught up some 8 months later. I was perpetually 2 months behind in work. I felt bad for leaving them, but I couldn’t work without any support at all. My ED NEVER offered to help or find help. it was awful.

    1. OP #2*

      I’m so sorry you went through that! I completely get the feeling of “never catching up” – I only have one kiddo and it’s something I struggle with, at work and on the home front (although significantly less so at work now that I’ve switched roles). Glad you’ve moved on to something new!

  9. No Sleep Till Hippo*

    LW 3 , I am SO IMPRESSED!! Good on you for addressing your anxiety triggers head-on – as someone who struggles with anxiety as well, I know how hard it can be. This internet stranger is cheering you on, you’re awesome. :)

    Also – if you’d like a recommendation for mood-tracking apps: I used one for quite a while called Daylio that I really liked. It’s super customizable, gives you room to make notes and track what activities you did that day, and has a smiley-face ranking system that makes it feel easy to sum up your current mood. It also tracks your mood over time – so you can look at a graph of past entries and make connections about things like “Hmm, my mood is always higher on the weekends” or “Interesting, my mood consistently takes a dip at the beginning of winter” or whatever. You can also lock it with a PIN if you’re concerned about privacy. And best of all, it’s totally free!

    (I am not affiliated with Daylio in any way, just a big fan. :) )

    1. OP LWR 3*

      Thanks. One of the big issues is that I was burned out, and didn’t realize it. Covid-19 actually gave me the time to recover as I was unable to work at a physical store. Plus I found my backbone, which allowed me to admit that I couldn’t work and needed time off.
      When I realized that people were right and covid19 wasn’t going away I looked at my options and decided that there was no way I could go back to retail. So I brushed up my resume and applied to jobs in call centres that didn’t involve cold calling. I knew I could answer the phone, but couldn’t guarantee that I could make phone calls.
      As for the sitrs/apps I reached out to others I know, and got several recommendations. The one I still use is “vent”, plus I have an app called my therapy to remind me to take my meds. Plus I moved them into my office so I can remember to take them.
      The first couple of weeks were hard due to the anxiety rush I felt at the start.
      Honestly, sinceI don’t have to do cold calling it’s much easier than retail.

  10. Sarah Layne*

    For the person whose boss was a nightmare… been there! My previous boss was exactly the same! The best part now is that I know people who work with said boss and they all despise her! It makes me feel better knowing I’m not insane or making it up. Unfortunately these type of people have hard core issues and need to get right with themselves before they can ever treat anyone with respect!

  11. WorkerB*

    Regarding letter #4, the situation sounds so familiar, and yes, as others have said, it’s so disheartening how these terrible bosses are protected and promoted. I recently left a job I really liked because of a bad supervisor who had it in for me. The longer I stayed, the worse it got. Her managers knew she was not only out of line but incompetent as well. That said, I’m glad I stood up to her and fought back hard during my last few months. It put her on notice that I wasn’t going to run away in fear.

    That’s really the only way to deal with these people– make them uncomfortable and let them know you’re not going to make their lives easier by quitting without a job lined up. This bad boss thought she could get away with it because she was upper management’s darling.

    The more people stand up to these crappy, entitled bosses, the better it will be for everyone.

  12. AvidReader*

    OP#2 – I am you. You are me. Law firm lawyering is so difficult with a young child and particularly during the pandemic. While companies were allowing employees flexibility, the advice I got from my law firm boss was to do the work after my daughter goes to sleep…but because we have to bill a certain number of hours that meant 6-8 hours of work…during the night? When would I sleep? For months on end? I think the billable hour makes law firm work nearly impossible for working moms (and parents in general) because efficiency doesn’t work in your favor. I too have recently left for a non-billable-hour job. I hope the law firm world figures this out one day.

    Also the struggle re: sleep deprivation is real! And with most moms going back after at most 3 months, and most babies NOT sleeping through the night at that age…it’s almost guaranteed to be a disaster. Again, widespread changes need to be made to make this workable.

    For now, congrats to you, so happy to hear you found something that is working better for you and your family.

  13. Hrodvitnir*

    LW#2 – probably too late for you to see this, but I’m so happy to see this update! Your working situation seemed untenable but I was really worried about you screwing your future prospects (not that you should sacrifice yourself for work, that is just such a horrible catch-22). To hear you got out and got a job you actually enjoy with decent career prospects is so great.

    Also I know law firms are pretty shit for this, but you having a fever for *7 weeks* and not getting sick leave is horrifying.

  14. Liz T*

    “It makes me really sad about the working world – that someone can have so many complaints and be such an abject horrible person but still make it.”

    That’s…really how I’m feeling these days. At this point it’s hard for me to imagine ever having a job that doesn’t make at least a little miserable.

    1. Toxic Waste*

      Same here. I’m scared that I’ll just get used to it and even when I’m in a “healthy environment”, I won’t be happy because “something is missing”.

    2. TooCold*

      That is how I am feeling as well. I have truly had one amazingly horrible boss after another, who range from disrespectful to exploitative to gaslighting to abusive. A friend recently said to me, when I was venting about current situation, “But aren’t you just used to being treated like crap by now? Isn’t that working life? To be stepped on?”
      I guess I will never get used to being treated like crap.

Comments are closed.