my boss keeps asking me to do things that aggravate our community partners

A reader writes:

I started working for a nonprofit last year. I work with our community partners a lot, and our director, “Fergus,’ likes to ask me to ask them for things without telling me they already said no. He’d tell you that he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t take no for an answer. Which is fine, I guess, but not the way he does it.

Two short examples:

1. My first week, he told me to email one of our partners, introduce myself, and ask them to do Favor X. I got back a very terse email with the partner with all the levels of their organization cc’d, saying they had already explained multiple times that they cannot and will not do Favor X. When I asked Fergus about this, he said he forgot asking them and they shouldn’t have been so “rude” (his word) in their response.

2. Our venue for a donor event fell through at the last minute and a local church agreed to host it. Unknown to me, they told Fergus that with other events, we had just a few hours to set up and clean up before and after the event. He sent me over there with supplies two days before to start setting up, which ended up with me having a very awkward conversation with the people there about how there was no way we could do that and they had already explained it to him. Fergus’s response was, “Well, they should have at least let you store the stuff there since you brought it over.”

So far I’m doing a few things. First, I’m recognizing red flags (if he asks me to contact someone I have no relationship with and he does to ask them to do something, that’s a red flag). I’m also prefacing my requests to people with, “Fergus asked me to ask you” — awkward, but true. And with something like the second example, I’m either asking him for more details like “what time did they say they were available for me to bring stuff over?” or being proactive and emailing to say, “Fergus said I should bring some of our supplies for the event over today, is 10 am good for you?”

But I get a LOT of no’s, and angry ones! Because they already told HIM no, and now I’m asking again.

I know I need to address this because working with our partners is a big part of my job and I’m pissing them off. Also, his reputation is … terrible. When I say “Fergus asked me to ask…” I’ve seen people actually roll their eyes in meetings. I don’t want to not do what he asks me to do, but he’s asking me to do things that are hurting our relationships with our partners.

Well, it’s going to get to the point where no one will be willing to help your organization at all, because Fergus will have used up all their good will and then some, and people will know that saying yes to him/your org means their boundaries will be trampled over. It sounds like some of them have already concluded that.

I think you’ve got to tackle this on two fronts: Fergus himself, and the way you approach the partners. You’re handling the partner piece well already — making it clear requests come from Fergus, and confirming details with them rather than taking Fergus at his word when he tells you something is okay. Keep doing that. Also, when people get angry that you’re asking them again when they already told Fergus no, you can be apologetic! It’s fine to say, “I’m so sorry, when he told me to contact you I didn’t realize you’d already spoken about it. We definitely don’t want to hassle you and I’ll relay this conversation to him.” (Obviously you can’t be like “yeah, he sucks” but you can agree they shouldn’t be hassled and indicate you’ll convey their irritation, which will politely separately yourself from him.)

On top of that, you should also talk to Fergus himself. At a minimum, every time someone is upset you contacted them, you should pass that on to him; don’t buffer him from it, and make it clear exactly how upset each person is. That’s information he needs; if community partners are frustrated with your organization, that’s highly relevant info that the the org needs to be aware of. (I’m assuming Fergus himself is the head — but if he’s not, someone above him definitely needs to hear this is happening.) You can also ask him more clarifying questions when he assigns you something — like, “so I have all the context, have you had any conversations with them about this yet?”

But you should also try talking to him about the pattern itself. For example:  “I’ve had multiple conversations recently with community partners who were upset because they felt we weren’t respecting clear boundaries they had already laid out for us — people who had told you no about something and were upset when you asked me to ask them again, or things like when Org X felt they’d made it clear we only had access to their space for a few hours. A lot of the people I’m contacting seem really fed up with us. I’m getting the sense it’s harming our reputation and they’re going to start saying no to us more often because of it.”

There’s a good chance Fergus won’t care … but it’s possible that by spelling it out like this, you might get him to check some of his worst tendencies. People who operate like this seem not to realize just how bothered people are by their behavior (they’re bad at picking up on cues or they think people won’t really mind after the immediate conversation ends, or they just have weird, miscalibrated norms), and it’s possible that you acting as a sort of interpreter — “no, they are very upset, and they are still upset even though two months have gone by” — will help nudge him toward a different framework.

But it might not. If not … well, then part of your job is doing something that you know is a bad idea. Some people can make their peace with that; some can’t. Generally it depends on how large a portion of your job it is and how bad the ramifications really are. If your whole job is to build relationships with community partners and Fergus won’t change, you probably need to move on because you’re being hamstrung in a fundamental way from getting the results you’ve been hired to achieve, and you risk blowback to your own reputation too. On the other hand, if it’s a smaller piece of your job and doesn’t come up a ton, you might choose to live with it and just focus on damage control.

I should add that in some jobs you’d have the option of just exercising your own judgment before carrying out Fergus’s requests — and strategically ignoring the ones where you can tell you’re going to annoy someone. That can be playing with fire, though; in some cases it can work beautifully for all involved, and in others it can get you fired (or one day you’ll end up ignoring a request that was actually really important). Either way, it might be helpful to ask colleagues for advice on working with Fergus; you might find out people have useful strategies for working around him.

Read an update to this letter

{ 202 comments… read them below }

  1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

    OP, I hope Alison’s suggestions work, but be aware that Fergus may be one of those bosses that suck and will never change. If that is the case, you should start working on a Plan B. Please ask yourself if you want to spend the next few years cleaning up his messes.

    Good luck!

    1. Polar Vortex*

      I had thought the same thing. I hope Alison’s suggestions work, but with people like that I’d not be surprised if he just continues on burning all his bridges.

      I worry about LWs reputation taking the hit just by association with Fergus, so I’d also consider that on top of everything else in case your field is a bit niche.

    2. Beka Cooper*

      I was on the receiving end of a Fergus within a university departmental setting, and the person he’d set up to be his “fall person” was very nice and I actually got along with her well. But every time I and my department set up a good system for working better with her and things seemed to be going better, Fergus would undermine her and go to her boss and get her yelled at, and then I would be so confused why things we had worked out were suddenly being challenged and pushed and questioned yet again. She quit after about 6 months in the role. He and his boss totally used her as a scapegoat for all the problems they had created, too.

      He poisoned the next person as well, but that person was hired as a previous contact of his, so was even worse because they believed his stories and joined in his crusades of constantly pushing our boundaries. I ended up leaving as well, after about a year and a half of having to indirectly deal with the department poisoned by Fergus. It never ended. Misconceptions that had been thoroughly cleared up sprang up again every semester without fail. My bet is on Fergus being toxic and manipulative and not going to change.

    3. ferrina*

      Fergus won’t change. He knows what he’s doing and he doesn’t care. He may even lash out at OP for calling him on his BS.

      OP, definitely work on that Plan B. If I were you, I’d also start documenting all the times this happens. It’s going to be a lot. Make a token effort to ask Fergus to adjust, but if he pushes back or retaliates, don’t push it. Once you have some solid documentation, you have the option of going to HR or a more senior level person for “advice”. As in: “I’ve been running into an issue I don’t know how to solve. On X occassions in Y months, Fergus has asked me to ask a community partner for a favor or to do something that goes directly against what the community partner has said. Fergus doesn’t tell me that they’d previously said no. The community partner then gets mad at me. I’ve brought this up to Fergus, and he said [WHATEVER HE SAID]. I’m not sure how to handle this.” Note that you should already be halfway out the door when you say this. If you want to save it for your exit interview, that’s just fine. Or if your organization is crappy, you don’t need to tell them- odds are pretty high at some point someone from a community partner is going to complain (another reason for you to keep documentation)

      But OP, Fergus’s behavior is not normal and not okay. It’s not on you to be trying to read his mind to guess what he’s hiding. He’s not a good boss and he’s not going to change. Take care of yourself.

      1. GammaGirl1908*

        Fergus is the ultimate asker in ask / guess culture.

        I knew someone like this, who kept shrugging and saying, “well, the worst they can say is no,” with no concept of how much people hate having to keep asserting their boundaries as you try to trample them. Yes, I can always say no, but if I’ve told you no five times and you’re still pushing, I’m going to hate you. Ugh.

        1. Silver Robin*

          Absolutely; repeated requests are not okay when the response given was firm/clear. Honestly, it gets to be haranguing/harassment (not the legal sense).

          I could maaaybe see something where Fergus needs an extremely explicit “no”. That said, there is also no way that every single org he talks to has the same highly indirect communication style. And the fact that he is asking OP to go at it again while conveniently forgetting to mention the previous interactions makes me think otherwise.

        2. OlympiasEpiriot*

          Please, no. I definitely am an “asker” in the ask vs guess spectrum, but, asking doesn’t mean asking repeatedly and basically trying to run roughshod over people’s boundaries. Asking includes listening to the damn answer and accepting a “no” or a “yes, this time is ok with these restrictions but don’t assume it will work at all times” or some other kind of less-than-a-full-yes.

          This dingbat is just a bully.

          1. Antilles*


            This isn’t a difference in ask vs guess, this is the difference between reasonable vs unreasonable.

        3. not that kind of Doctor*

          The worst they can say is no, but then you have to accept the no – if you ignore it, you’re not an asker, you’re a jerk.

          1. allathian*

            Yeah, this. I’m an asker, a rather extreme one in that I find it difficult to deal with extreme guessers. But I do take no for an answer, that’s the whole point of being an asker. Guessers guess because they can’t deal with a direct no, and I have very little patience with people like that and won’t deal with them at all if given the option.

            Fergus isn’t an asker, he’s an eternal optimist who thinks that he’ll get a different answer if he keeps pushing. As well as a jerk.

            1. BatManDan*

              I agree with Silver, Olympius, Doctor, and you. I’m an asker; guessers are tough for me to work with. There is a Fergus in our town, and he has to recruit a new “board” (not a real board, just what he calls his volunteers whose task it is to round up more volunteers) because he goes too far every year. People are spreading the word NOT to work with him from the start, because you volunteer an inch, you’ll get volun-told a mile. And it kills me, because it’s a great cause. But his execution is terrible.

        4. Petty Betty*

          He’s a railroader. He’s going to keep asking, or he’s going to send others to keep asking (flying monkeys, minions, lackeys, underlings, peers, maybe even someone with higher standing, anything to railroad the desired outcome he wants).
          He’s just laying his track(s) down so he can ensure that yes train keeps coming. If it doesn’t, he’ll eventually abandon the line and work on another one until he needs another “yes” from that particular Avenue. Can’t stop Fergus’ progress!

    4. MEH Squared*

      This is what I was thinking the whole time I read this letter. “Your boss sucks and isn’t going to change.” I think Alison’s advice is solid, but I also think it won’t work because Fergus is employing willful ignorance–and that never ends well.

    5. Inkognyto*

      OP – Plan B – stands for Brush UP the Resume! or Bail. Depends how much time you need.

  2. Dust Bunny*

    Fergus is a massive coward who has foisted off on you everyone who got tired of dealing with him. Now he has a way to keep harassing your community, but vicariously so he doesn’t have to face it.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I don’t trust him to tell you the truth on this, OP, but you could try asking if he has talked to [community org in question] about [favor] before. I’m sure he’ll just lie and say he hasn’t, and then you’ll find out that he has, over and over again, but you could try it.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        She still should ask him, every time, and document it, and maybe at some point they might resort to placating irate community partners with “Oh, I’m sorry for the mixup, Fergus told me he hadn’t brought this up before”, so that if they complain to a BoD, it falls on Fergus, not the OP.

          1. Megan*

            When Fergus says he hasn’t spoken with a partner, I would frame it as “Fergus has been meaning to catch up with you on XYZ, can you confirm the details for me?” You could even ask them to forward emails between Fergus and themselves.
            Church example:
            Fergus has been meaning to catch up with you on the event we are holding at your church on x day from y:00 to z:00. Can you confirm our set up and breakdown time?

            Knowing that Fergus expects on site storage (ridiculous) you could also ask about availability as a standard procedure.

            Church example:
            Fergus has been meaning to catch up with you on the event we are holding at your church on x day from y:00 to z:00. Can you confirm our set up and breakdown time? Also is it possible to store supplies at the facility in advance?

            Most facilities have standard procedures for this, so I would keep a spreadsheet for my own reference with the facility name, address, contact number, preferably an email address, set up and break down policy, storage availability/policy.

            My script when responding to Fergus would be, “I’ll confirm that with the partner then head on over” followed by a call (not an email, unless you feel you need a written record) asking the partner if the policy in your spreadsheet is still correct. I would create an appointment in your calendar starting at the time you need to leave the office to reach the venue by their designated set up time. Then I would invite Fergus, and in the invite email reiterate the policy and let him know leaving at the appointed time will give you the full set up time.

            1. Lizzo*

              Good suggestions but also this is a helluva lot of effort to work around a terrible boss (who isn’t likely to change). I’m exhausted just reading this.

              1. Petty Betty*

                Yes, it’s extra work, but it thwarts Fergus from playing the “I didn’t know” or “I forgot” or “I wasn’t informed/wasn’t fully aware of all the updated details” routines he’s likely to play once he gets OP involved. And once it’s in writing, it allows other management and anyone else (perhaps even the other organizations, if they’re cc’d) to keep track of the efforts and details necessary to keep Fergus from manipulating and trying to weasel more out of people.

            2. Inca*

              No, why? If the NPO rests on a director who is being unreasonable… let it fall apart. Why save it?

      2. The Rules are Made Up*

        I don’t even think he’d deny it. OP mentions that he’s one of those “don’t take no for an answer” people so i’d bet he would tell OP that he did talk to them but she should still ask because you “can’t take no for an answer.” Seems like he needs to be in some kind of cut throat corporate bro-culture that appreciates that kind of thing because that is NOT an effective strategy when you’re asking like, churches for favors lol.

    2. Kella*

      Agreed. It sounds to me like he has completely run out of goodwill with all these community partners and part of the reason this is OP’s job is because OP is not Fergus so the partners won’t just immediately delete OP’s emails. But if OP keeps following Fergus’s instructions, they’ll likely shut OP out too.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        They will. This is just stalling until the community catches on and stops dealing with the OP, too.

        Who is above Fergus? Either the management at this place is useless or they’re unaware and need to be clued in.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          I desperately want to know if Fergus is THE director or just A director at this org. If he’s THE director, then the board of directors needs to be clued in to his terrible habits.

          1. OP*

            I’m the OP — it’s a small nonprofit, and he is the executive director. The only people above him are the board. I’m new to the small nonprofit world so to have no one to speak to about an issue with my boss except the board is very new to me!

            1. Dust Bunny*

              Start looking for another job. This one is going to suck the life out of you and Fergus is very, very, unlikely to come to his senses.

              1. Enai*

                That is probably the only way for this job to end half okay, meaning without burnout and everybody mad at OP. Fergus just sucks.

            2. HonorBox*

              I think your board needs to know about this OP. Fergus’s actions are undermining your (and your organization’s) credibility in the community. If I was the chair of the board, I’d want to have a staff member approach me if something like this was occurring.

              The only caveat is this: if the board is made up of people hand-picked by Fergus who are just there more to attend meetings and approve his recommendations, you might want to tiptoe. Perhaps if that’s the case, you could suggest to a couple of the people who have been upset that they reach out to the board. Also, if the board is just Fergus’s people, it might be worth looking for a new place to work. It is only going to get more difficult if there’s no recourse for you or your community partners.

            3. Slow Gin Lizz*

              Oh wow, OP. Yeah, it’s highly unlikely you will be able to change the way Fergus operates if he is the ED. Going to the board is an option but unless you are very committed to this org I’d say leaving is a much better option for your own mental health. I’m also curious a) how long Fergus has been the ED and b) how many ppl had your position before you and how long they were there. The answer to these two questions could possibly give you clarity on whether you should bother trying to fix Fergus or not.

              1. OP*

                Fergus has been ED for twenty years. My job is sort of new — it combines a previous job with some higher level responsibilities (which is why I took it, I was looking for an opportunity to do more project management). The lower level job that was folded into mine was part time and had a lot of turnover, but that wasn’t surprising to me with a part time role. That might have been a bad impression, though.

                1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

                  From you’ve written, OP, I doubt the part-time status is why there’s been so much turnover. If the Board isn’t open to quick changes (and that would not surprise me), better to get out early and preserve your reputation.

                2. Ashley*

                  I worked for an ED like this. They kept thinking the people who had my job were bad hires until I joined and some of the Board knew me. It took two people after me before the ED was finally fired. They will keep blaming it was just part time until someone gives them reason to look harder. You don’t owe anyone to do that but you maybe able to lay a foundation in the meantime. It is a tough battle.
                  If you do know any partners and can at least get them to start copying you on emails it can help so you can push back with I was already told know. For the really bad ones I would flag them to someone on the Board. (Who that is depends on who you know, who is BFF with the ED, and who is active on the board.)

                3. Michelle Smith*

                  I am so sorry OP. I echo everyone else’s sentiments that it’s a good idea to look for another role.

                4. Observer*

                  I’d be willing to bet that the high turnover had more to do with Fergus being a piece of work rather than the part time status.

                5. bighairnoheart*

                  Oh dear. I feel like I could have written something like this about my boss at the small nonprofit I used to work for. I spoke with the board several times about issues that I and my teammates had with him, complaints we were getting from the community we served, etc. It didn’t matter. They nodded sympathetically, but threw up their hands. He was only employed there for 3 years, but they’d had a string of bad Executive Directors before him and strongly wanted him to last. If yours has been there for 20 years, and presumably has acted this way towards the community you serve for a long time…the most likely board knows, and you’re not in a great position to change their minds. You can certainly try, but I wouldn’t go into it assuming that it will work. Think about if you can live with a boss like this. Maybe you can if the rest of your job is fulfilling, but if not, please start working on getting out. Good luck!

                6. FrivYeti*

                  Hi, OP! I work in not-for-profits, and I’ve worked in a number of small ones where there was just a board, the ED, and their immediate staff.

                  Based on everything you’ve written, I don’t think this situation is salvageable. Fergus has been around too long for anything to change, and the turnover indicates that this isn’t a new problem. I’d start job hunting ASAP, and in the mean time do your best to make sure people know these requests aren’t coming from you so that Fergus can’t throw you under the bus to buy himself another year or two.

                7. Not Tom, Just Petty*

                  My theory:
                  Your job was created because Fergus needs a buffer. The Board wants him because they like his results, so they created a whipping boy layer to protect him from those “uncooperative” partners who don’t understand his vision.

                8. Rhymetime*

                  I’ve been in nonprofits my entire career, and echo other commenters that the board is unlikely to be responsive if you contact them if he’s been there for 20 years. The one thing that might get their attention is ongoing turnover now that the position is full-time after you leave and find a much better job.

                  I once worked for a nonprofit that was a great place to work until they changed the executive team. I was the first of something like eight people in the national headquarters who left over nine months. That’s what got the board’s attention. they replaced the entire leadership team and the organization is back to being a good place to work.

                9. Bookmark*

                  Oof. As someone who has worked in nonprofits, you should get out of this job as soon as you can. Fergus will not change, and the board will continue to enable him until he pisses off major funders/donors or his actions start having a significant impact on the ability to deliver on his promises to funders.

                  The good news for you is that I guarantee that Fergus is a known quantity in your community, and everyone gets that it is terrible to work for him. I highly recommend you doing in person one on ones with people at your level or a bit above with the organizations you are trying to partner with outside of specific requests that you have with them (you might already doing this since it’s classic community organizing). Build some personal relationships with those orgs and show yourself to be a kind, competent human working under impossible conditions, keep an eye out for when any of them are hiring, and reach out personally to your contact to let them know that you are applying.

                10. Never Knew I Was a Dancer*

                  I typically avoid pile-ons to just say “+1,” but I’m doing it here because I have been in this kind of small non-profit where there was no check on an executive director who needed one. We also had extraordinarily high turnover. The ED behaved in ways that actively undermined the organization’s efforts. But they had been there forever and were close to the board, so we who had been there for only 1, 2, 3 years had no weight.

                  The best thing you can do for your health, sanity, and happiness is leave. Use the other suggestions in the meantime to shield yourself, and start the job search before the work situation saps out your energy. I wish you success!

                11. linger*

                  Best possible scenario is that (i) Board is aware of Fergus’s limitations, and (ii) your position may have been created to eventually take over from Fergus. After all, if he’s already been there 20 years, how much longer will he be there? (Though admittedly, nonprofits don’t always have a concept of “retirement age”.) And more importantly, how much longer will the org be able to operate with him still there?

            4. Jules*

              I’ve gone to a trusted board/executive committee member when the ED at a past job was completely off the rails. I had plenty of documentation. It had gotten to the point that the ED needed to go, but the board was not involved in the day to day, so they didn’t see it – the staff was correcting the mistakes. It forced the board to handle the problem.

            5. ferrina*


              There is bees everywhere! The bees aren’t just inside the house- the bees ARE the house!

            6. Inkognyto*

              Right now you are finding out why the job was open.

              Remember those questions about how long the last person was in the job previously?

            7. Angelinha*

              I would not listen to people on this thread who may not be familiar with nonprofit governance – this is 100% not something to bring to the board. It sounds incredibly frustrating but you cannot go above the ED’s head about a management issue. At orgs I’ve worked at, approaching the board without going through the ED would be grounds for firing.

    3. Momma Bear*

      This. He’s gotten answers he doesn’t like so he’s taking advantage of OP having some goodwill with these people. OP needs to draw a line. I realize Fergus is their boss, but OP doesn’t deserve to be roadkill for Fergus. In the meantime, OP needs to cover their butt on all these interactions and update their resume.

    4. aebhel*

      Yep. He knows they’re tired of him so he’s continuing his obnoxious behavior through a proxy, with the expectation that any backlash will land on you and not him.

  3. HonorBox*

    OP, you said non-profit. I’m wondering if there’s a board of directors who you could mention this to? If Fergus is sending you on missions that are doomed from the start and are creating ill will within the community you serve, I have to believe the board would want to know about that.

    This does carry some risk for you but so does pissing off community partners to a point where your organization isn’t able to function properly. You could talk to a board member or two who you think would be receptive. Do you have closer relationships with any who also aren’t super close to Fergus? Maybe offering suggestions of organizations that were more upset and who would be willing to speak to the board. Also you could definitely do more of this work via email to give yourself the data you need to share with the board. In the first example, I’d suggest simply forwarding to those members of the board who you trust. If I was a board member and heard this kind of stuff about the director of the organization I served, I’d absolutely take it to heart and figure out how to stop it. That’s what the board is there for.

    1. Minerva*

      Yeah, if I was a non-profit board member I would very much want to know if someone was damaging the relationship with community partners as this could have long lasting repercussions and damage the mission.

      Obviously if the whole organization stinks and nobody cares then perhaps it’s time to put some feelers out there.

    2. Yes And*

      The board’s job is to safeguard the organization’s finances, legal compliance, and adherence to its mission. Every org is different, of course, and some boards are more activist than others, but most boards I’ve encountered would view this as a management issue, not a governance issue. You can go to the board if your ED is misappropriating funds, or endangering the organization. Merely being bad at his job probably isn’t going to cut it.

      And when a board is forced to intervene between an ED and an employee, I have literally never seen one side with the employee. The only times I’ve ever seen a board take action against an ED due to staff complaints were situations where the staff went to the board en masse, usually through an open letter which they also published online.

      1. HonorBox*

        Except this isn’t a ED and employee issue. The employee is bringing the board information about something the ED is doing which is damaging the organization’s mission and standing in the community. That IS a governance issue and certainly pertains to the ability of the organization to follow its mission.

        1. Ripley*

          It’s also a management issue because the board manages the ED. The ED isn’t the top of the organization, the board is. It is absolutely the responsibility of the board to manage the ED, regardless of whether they are a governance-focused board or not. It’s true that a lot of boards take a hands-off approach in this area, but IMO those boards are in dereliction of their duties. The board manages the ED, the ED manages the staff. There is a role for the board to play here, if they are so inclined.

          1. HonorBox*

            Absolutely agree! It sounds like a hand-picked group, so that might make things difficult. But if the OP leaves and the board members start hearing from the community partners, that might move the needle.

      2. OP*

        Unfortunately the board is very much stacked with people Fergus hand-picked. I like them a lot! But I don’t trust them, not enough to complain about him. (And yes, Plan B is already in the works)

        1. HonorBox*

          Glad to hear Plan B is in the works.

          I’m not a big “burn the place down” kind of person. But on your way out, it might be worth suggesting to those community partners who have been upset about the requests that they all send info to the board and anyone who is funding the organization. While it might not move the needle, when there’s funding on the line, people tend to listen.

        2. Yes And*

          I very nearly suggested this might be the case in my comment above, but I didn’t want to get too deep into speculation. I can’t say I’m surprised.

          This really sucks, OP, and I’m sorry. All I can say is get out get out get out.

        3. I'm Just Here For The Cats!*

          Could a group of ticked-off community members contact the board about Fergus without naming you? I wish there was an anonymous way that you could report him. Like could your organization do a poll of all venders, clients, community partners, etc? And could you nudge a few of these organizations to complain that way?

          1. The Prettiest Curse*

            Well, one way might be to suggest hiring a consultant to conduct focus groups or surveys with community partners, then make sure that any critical feedback makes it to the board. (I doubt that someone as oblivious as Fergus would pay attention to negative feedback himself, given that useless leaders just love to hire consultants and then ignore their advice.) But since the board are all pals of Fergus, this might not be a useful strategy unless the OP is certain that one or more of the board members value the organisation more than their relationship with Fergus.

        4. MEH Squared*

          That sucks, but it’s not surprising. I’m glad you have a Plan B in the works! Good luck no matter what you intend to do.

        5. Cloudy with*

          Drat, that sounds like going to the board won’t help!

          If you think it might benefit the organization at all, on your way out the door, you could leave a very nicely documented & extensive explanation of how Fergus is poisoning the org’s relationship with their community partners. But it might not be worth it if they’re so chosen by Fergus.

      3. Coverage Associate*

        When I served on a nonprofit board, it was drilled into us that the board had one employee, the head/CEO/executive director of the organization. All the other employees of the organization were managed by him, or sub-directors below him, but our big job was to be his boss. So if the troublesome director is the one director, that is worth taking to the board. The board is the grand boss in that situation.

        1. Observer*

          Exactly. This is one the situations where is reasonable to go to the Board.

          Whether the Board will listen is a different question.

      4. GalFromAway*

        As someone who faced serious issues with an ED, I can say a board can indeed side with the employee (or employees). This was based on staff interviews for the ED’s annual review, and my walking out. The ED lasted less than a year after that.
        Another ED had a horrible reputation within the local business community because of their approach to things – not paying invoices because they didn’t feel something was “done right”, asking for lots of free supports/donations without a clear ROI for the local business, and more. However, the board was limited because most members were hand-picked by the ED.

      5. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        It seems to me that adherence to the mission would necessarily involve the non-profit being able to function within its mission? And Fergus is making that increasingly impossible. (I say this with no personal knowledge of working in NP’s.)

    3. GalFromAway*

      I agree with this. If the board has members on an HR committee, they would be great ones to approach. If not, the chair of the board may be the best person to connect with about this.

    4. RedinSC*

      I guess I wouldn’t do this unless OP is ready to leave and find a new job. If the board has seen and basically turned a blind eye to this behavior, they may well not care that it continues. This could backfire on the LW.

      I have gone to the board when my ED was out of control, but I was also ready to leave if it came to that. I think it’s important to know that this could create blow back. In a perfect world, the board would want to know, but it’s not always perfect out there.

    5. Nonprofit lifer*

      I’m interested in Alison’s take on this because in my 15 year experience with nonprofits staff members going above the CEO to talk to board members is a great way to get the staff person fired while the CEO remains. I agree the board should know, but often they DO know how their CEO is operating and just haven’t chosen to deal with yet, or will never choose to deal with it.

      I find that staff in organizations with dysfunctional CEOs/EDs think that boards will come down on the side of staff but they rarely do. Like even in situations where the CEO was engaging in fraud and they were in fact terminated, the board didn’t extend any goodwill to the staff – they were almost judged as having baggage as a result of being affiliated with the CEO at all! The board wanted a full turnover. Or the board felt that a line was crossed by the staff person going over the CEO’s head and objected to that transgression more than the CEO’s behavior. It’s a weird execs protecting execs closing of ranks, bc I think in many cases if these community partners were to talk with board members their feedback would be taken seriously but when it comes from staff the dynamics are different.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I agree — going to the board is nearly always a high-risk move for the staff member who does it and can result in them being fired by the ED (if not immediately then in time). Board members say things like “we would definitely want to hear about that” — in a vacuum. In practice, there are internal politics in play, and the ED is a great fundraiser, and they have bigger priorities right now, or the ED has a completely different take (or is able to explain it away) and they’re going to defer to that, and on and on.

        Should the board want to be aware of this in theory? Sure. Is it a good idea for the OP to do that? Not unless there is a very specific set of circumstances that they probably don’t have (like they have a close rapport with one board member and could relay this with total confidence that it would never lead back to them).

        To be clear, that doesn’t mean it never works. But those are the exceptions to the rule.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          And now I see the OP has updated below that the board members are hand picked by the ED so … yeah, highly unlikely to end well for them, especially if the OP is relatively junior.

        2. OP*

          I’m not eager to go to the board. They are nice and lovely people, and I’ve met them at events, but many of them are friends and business contacts of Fergus and most of them have been there for two years or less (not sure why, I actually don’t know how boards work and if that is normal). I don’t feel comfortable speaking with them about him because they seem to think he’s amazing and are not very involved in our day-to-day activities aside from the occasional donor cocktail hour.

          1. Emily*

            OP, given the additional information you have provided and what Alison has said above, I think you are absolutely correct to not be eager to go to the board, and I don’t think you should. Fergus has been there for 20 years, and I highly doubt this “refuses to accept no” is a new thing. I don’t think it’s worth the grief that would almost certainly befall you if you went to the board. I think your best bet is to put your efforts into finding a new job.

          2. Escapee from Corporate Management*

            Hi OP. This is very common for a non-profit Board. This is also a recipe for dysfunction. The best Boards have a mix of newer and longer-term members that are committed to the cause, not the person. I’ve sat on Boards that made the difficult decision to “retire” long-term EDs. It’s hard work. Your Board is unlikely to be that Board.

            1. OP*

              I never thought to ask how long the board members had been there. When I was hired we discussed it, but mainly the fact that the board was young and diverse, which appealed to me.

              1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

                Young can mean enthusiastic and open to new ideas. It can also mean inexperience and reliance on the ED as an authority figure. If you can, try to get to know individual members of the Board and see where they stand.

                BTW, it’s a bad sign of Fergus prevents you from meeting individual members of the Board.

          3. AcademiaNut*

            From all you’ve said – start job hunting now. You can’t fix the situation, and it can damage you. You’re in a situation where you can’t believe anything your boss says, you have to live with the expectation that any encounter with the community will involve dealing with someone who is (rightfully) angry because of what you are doing, and there’s no-one who will stand up for you. Do this for long enough, and you’ll be twitchy and untrusting even after moving to a saner job.

          4. OlympiasEpiriot*

            Hello OP. I’m a board member at a small non-profit that is very useful to its community but it’s a constant struggle to keep running and was a board member of a really good PTA. Just adding my +1 to the suggestion of telling community partners to speak to board members.

            Iny experience, there’s 2 likely reasons there’s high turnover:

            1) The good reason is that the bylaws call for board elections every year or two years and the board positions are well-documented and the philosophy of the board includes having new blood frequently, overlapping with more experienced members;

            2) The bad reason is that inexperienced people join a board when asked by the ED because they believe in the org’s mission and are possibly a bit flattered they’re being tapped by such a pillar of the community. They then attend meetings and, depending on how well-developed their boundaries are, they start spotting the problems, decide they don’t want to deal with them, and get themselves gone. The longest lasting members are ones who came from disfunctional

            My advice is to echo everyone telling you to network and job search. It is the easiest option. The other option — work really hard to keep ED in check, rally community to petition the board to rein ED in, become trusted to a level where you can find all the skeletons (likely they are there) in the accounts, and get the outside accountant or auditor to bring that the the board so the board is forced to take action against the ED — is a ton of work and, imo, is only worth it to someone in your position in very few circumstances.

            It’s also exhausting. I don’t recommend it.

          5. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

            Yeah, I wouldn’t go to the board here. The odds of it turning out well are extremely low and the odds of it blowing up in your face are extremely high.

            I think you’ve made good choices along the way to try to keep the blame for all these shenanigans where it belongs – on Fergus – and try to mitigate the damage as best you can. In previous roles, I’ve had to go and ask people for emergency help on things because some executive decided they needed to know something complicated immediately. Nobody likes having a colleague get in touch and say “so, I need X, Y, and Z in 3 hours…” even if this is something that is understood to happen in our line of work. When I make contact, I will always say that the request is coming from Fernando or from Wakeen’s office and they need it ASAP – in other words, I’m not the one making the request. And people are very understanding with me about it. Though YMMV because we know that these jobs sometimes require a mad scramble. It might be different working with community partners. I would hope that reasonable people wouldn’t generally shoot the messenger; so continue to make it clear that’s what you are.

      2. Bookmark*

        Yeah, this is my experience too. At a previous job it took both a number of partner complaints and a months-long internal campaign culminating in a letter to the president of the board signed by ~50% of staff to get them to take action about the CEO. And that was with a relatively functional board!

    6. Looper*

      I have the exact same thoughts. Fergus is wasting precious capital and resources, many of which are garnered via board members. I would be very upset if I learned my contacts were being disrespected like this.

      1. Looper*

        Just saw that Fergus picked the board so nevermind! I’d gtfo asap before Fergus drags your reputation down with his.

  4. Bee*

    Fergus has depleted the goodwill of the community and has now set you up to take the fall for him with subsequent boundary-pushing. You cannot trust his judgment as he has clearly demonstrated.

    1. RunShaker*

      based on your letter OP, I agree as well you can’t trust Fergus’s judgement and I’m worried it will harm your reputation. This is huge red flag in my mind.

    2. OP*

      The second example — which is just one of many — is the worst to me, because there are organizations that are already helping us and then he tries to get them to do more than they’ve already agreed to. He reminds me of my roommates’ boyfriend in college who was the guy who would be like, can you give me a ride at 5? Great, thanks. Well, I need to make a stop first, can you pick me up at 4 so we can do that first? Also, I need a ride tomorrow (etc etc etc). Even a yes is not enough.

      1. BreweryGirl*

        I work for a small brewery that does a lot of community involvement and sponsors a lot of local events/charities. We get requests for money/free space (we have a large area suitable for meetings)/ free beer on a very regular basis and almost always try to help. Fergus’s behavior would have your org blacklisted. There are plenty of other nonprofits that we can help who will treat us with respect, and Fergus is being disrespectful.

      2. SHEILA, the co-host*

        Yes. I also [thankfully briefly] dated this guy in graduate school. A big part of me ending the relationship was realizing that I was more “personal chauffeur” than “girlfriend” – and everything that started into a “quick errand” turned into a multi-hour, multi-stop outing nightmare.

  5. Book lover*

    Oh, yeah, OP, you need to look around for a new gig. If you stay in nonprofit work, those same community partners will always be in your network. And Fergus’s reputation is going to rub on you, if it hasn’t already.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Agreed. OP, I’d say give this one good-hearted stab at trying to fix Fergus or going to whoever is in charge of him with your concerns and if nothing changes – and they should change quickly – run away and don’t look back.

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

      Agreed, I think this job is already a lost cause because it’s so egregious and clearly intentional. I think the OP should just cut losses and run. This organization is probably on the down slide to closing anyway if all your community partners are reacting hostilely to contact. If leaving ASAP is not possible for the OP, it’s time to start proactively finding new partners and building relationships that Fergus is blocked from poisoning. Trying to fix Fergus is just a waste of time.

    3. OP*

      Weirdly, I’ve had a few places low key offer me job opportunities recently (like, “well if you can work for Fergus, you’d love it here and we know you can work hard!”). So I’m hoping it’s not damaging my reputation that much …

      1. GammaGirl1908*

        Maybe not yet, but get out before it does. You don’t have to save this place.

        The next time that quiet offer of help happens, take that yes for an answer. “Really? I’m actually thinking about my next steps. Would you be able to talk with me about your team?” People will know what that means.

          1. Emily*

            Thirding this. It’s worth at least following up to see what the potential job might be and if it might be something you would be interested in.

            1. SHEILA, the co-host*

              Absolutely. This is your escape hatch. Even if it turns out they were being kind and aren’t in a position to hire right now, they have networks and other contacts of their own, and/or may be willing to be a reference for you. Which is going to be important because Fergus doesn’t strike me as the type that’s going to put a lot of effort into a reference. He likely won’t outright sabotage you, because it appears he likes other people to do his dirty work, but he’s also not going to go out of his way for you. You need these third parties that you’ve worked with to be able to say “She did excellent work while having to deal with an unreasonable person, and we’re excited to see her get a better opportunity.”

        1. Sara without an H*

          Maybe not yet, but get out before it does. You don’t have to save this place.

          What GammaGirl1908 said. OP, if you stay too long, you’re going to be permanently tagged as Fergus’ minion. Don’t do that to yourself. Build your own network and start looking for your next job.

      2. MsM*

        I’d follow up on those if I were you. At the very least, ask those people if you can meet up for coffee and maybe get a contact network established that doesn’t have to go through Fergus. Just because he doesn’t want to loop you in on anything doesn’t mean they can’t copy you on their refusals or follow up with you to confirm that no means no as soon as they’re done with him. But right now, they might be interpreting “Fergus asked me to do this” as “I recognize this is a waste of everyone’s time, but I still need to put us both through the motions to keep him happy,” instead of “I genuinely have no idea what’s going on here, and we might be able to avoid going through this every time if I did.”

      3. OP*

        Of the two most realistic offers, one is a job I know I don’t want and the other doesn’t exist yet, it was more of a “we keep talking about how we need to create a job to do X and your name keeps coming up” and I said yes, that sounds like something I’d love to do.

        1. Blueberry Daydream*

          “well if you can work for Fergus, you’d love it here”

          But you hate working for Fergus

      4. Bookmark*

        Even if you’re not ready to seriously entertain these job offers, definitely keep cultivating these personal connections. Those comments indicate that everyone knows Fergus sucks, and that you’re the messenger. Keep meeting them for coffee or other check-ins, especially when you don’t have an immediate thing you’re supposed to be asking them for on Fergus’s behalf. If you can find ways to help them in your role, especially if those ways don’t have to go through Fergus, do them. When you’re ready to get out, they can either be great landing places or enthusiastic references.

        1. Bookmark*

          One more thing. It is very important to think through your exit strategy before you are ready to leave a job like this. Nonprofit community work, even in a functional organization, makes a lot of emotional demands, and it is so easy to not see the signs you’re headed to burnout until you’re way, way past your limits. At that point, it can be really difficult to summon the energy necessary to get out, which leads to feeling trapped in a role that’s making you miserable. So, do yourself and your mental health a favor and update your resume, set some job search alerts, and take other steps that will help you know you have the option to leave when you need to.

      5. Venus*

        Fergus has been around for 20 years and it sounds like the communities are very well aware of him so they would know that the bad behavior is on him and not you. I disagree that Fergus is likely to give you a bad reputation, especially with how you are phrasing things “Fergus has asked me to ask you about… “, and this is reflected in their comments about you working for Fergus.

        I think you need to find something else because working for Fergus is stressful, but I don’t think you need to be worried about your reputation. If Fergus was new and trying to hide behind you then it would be less clear, but if they are responding “Fergus already asked and we said No” then they know it’s a Fergus problem.

  6. E*

    At this point I would document and take it above him or to his equal if you can. He’s tanking the non-profit by annoying everyone in the community.

    1. NYWeasel*

      This was my thought. Fergus is positioning the letter writer to be the one who “ruined the relationships” bc they couldn’t overcome the hostility that Fergus created. I don’t think the relationship with Fergus is worth trying to salvage.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        Yeah, honestly, I think that’s true. I think Fergus is past caring about his relationships with the community or with OP, so unless you’re worried Fergus could ruin your reputation, OP, you should try to go above him or else get out.

      2. learnedthehardway*

        Agreed. If the OP can speak to whoever Fergus reports to – the board, probably – then they can show them the messages they are getting from community partners. That might insulate the OP from whatever games Fergus is playing in setting them up to be the fall guy.

        But in the meantime, I think the OP really needs to find another role.

  7. Abogado Avocado*

    I can’t help wondering if Fergus is the founder of the nonprofit. In my experience, nonprofits often are created by people like Fergus because they’re able to dream big and ignore obstacles. But there eventually comes a time when ignoring obstacles trips those founders up, just like it has with Fergus, so now he’s passed the job off to the LW — and been less than honest about it.

    If there is no one higher up than Fergus, other than the organization’s Board, I’d recommend that the LW start looking for another job. People like Fergus don’t change. They just go on dreaming big, expecting others to join their dreams and ignore the obstacles. And when the others object that the obstacles really are obstacles, people like Fergus either say that the obstacles aren’t as big as everyone thinks or they criticize the others for focusing on that. Nonprofit Boards rarely demand that people like Fergus change unless the org is flush with cash and the Board can afford to search for, and hire, a competent director to take Fergus’ place.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      Your description perfectly matches the CEO of a startup where I worked (briefly). Kicking through obstacles works great as long as they’re foam, but it’s hard to recover from when you hit a cast-iron one. We had conversations where he asked for an omelet, I said I needed eggs before I could make it, and he berated me for lack of vision.

    2. OP*

      Not the founder, but the person who took over from the founder about twenty years ago and built it to what it is today.

      1. BigCityLittleEsq*

        My first job outta grad school was working for a Fergus at a nonprofit in downtown NYC. My Fergus was the founding ED who hand picked his board. He was also known to have an outrageous temper and a talent for shamelessly pestering our community partners to the point where no one would work with us and would actively screen our calls/emails. My advice is to plan for a Plan B and make sure you let the CPs know that Fergus is the one asking. You’ll need those partners when you jump ship; god knows Fergus won’t be the one to help you w that.

    3. Budgie Buddy*

      From Fergus’ point of view these obstacles really are nothing. Because he’s not the one who has to deal with them. Other people fix the problems for him so they may as well not exist.

    4. Snow*

      Yep. You have to pick a balance. The one I work with tends more towards “it matters more that we have the 100% perfect fully detailed plan to do X before we start than that X is started within the next decade” – and no, I am not kidding about the decade, there’s multiple supposedly-important tasks where we’ve been trying to hash out fine details for 10+ years and have not made any appreciable progress. But that’s a backlash to our founder, who was absolutely the “move fast and break things” sort and caused some major issues by not bothering to sort out things like “how should we implement X” before starting to implement X.

  8. Parenthesis Guy*

    I had a boss like this. Just make sure to say that your boss told you to do the thing. People will be annoyed, but they’ll also feel sorry for you.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Yes. It sounds like OP is getting a little bit of the blowback by just being the one in front of them while they’re annoyed, but if protecting your reputation is a concern people will remember you as someone who did their best in a bad situation. Ask me how I know lol

    2. nom de beurre*

      Yeah. I work for a Fergus now, and have for 3.5 years. Part of my job is, realistically, shielding other people from Fergus, including by making sure all of Fergus’s wackiness gets funneled through one person (me, sigh).

      I don’t totally agree with all the commenters who are saying “Get out now.” As long as you’re clear with folks that *Fergus* is the one telling you to ask these questions, and you’re understanding and/or apologetic when they say they already talked to Fergus about this, I don’t think it will reflect badly on you. People are going to be able to tell that you’re normal and Fergus is crazy. They probably already know.

      My mantra is also: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” If my Fergus asks for something unreasonable, I try to nudge him in another direction, but if he still wants the thing, then what the hell. I do what he says. It’s not *my* nonprofit.

      Maybe OP can’t stand it and wants to get out! But if in their case – as in mine – the other parts of the job are really good, I’m just not as convinced as everyone else seems to be that this has to be a dealbreaker.

      1. OP*

        I’m looking, but for the right thing. This job was a strategic move for me — and I don’t want to ruin that just because he’s annoying. The best solution would be for me to find a job where this experience made me better. And working with the community partners is what I really like.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          It sounds like you’re approaching it with a level head. Just be very aware that jobs/managers like this can warp your norms, and that you want to be making it very clear that you are working for Fergus, not agreeing with or advocating for Fergus. I don’t know what the nonprofit sector in your area is like, but mine is a very close knit community and my Fergus could have helped me or hurt me, depending on how I played it. I think you’re approaching it correctly to be on the “help” side of the spectrum, just keep your head above water.

        2. Lizzo*

          Just want to be clear that what he is doing is beyond “annoying”. He is a terrible leader/manager, and he is proactively interfering with the organization’s effective and efficient fulfillment of its mission. Please don’t minimize his behavior and its destructive impact on you and the communities you serve.

      2. Pounce de Lion*

        Eventually “Don’t blame me, blame Fergus!” protests will start to have a whiff of passing-the-buck that doesn’t put the speaker in the best light. Everyone is different but it sounds like the OP has goals that will be better served by more positive interactions.

  9. Oxford Common Sense*

    If Fergus is not the Executive Director, I’m afraid you need to go over his head. If he is the Executive Director, I’m afraid you should start looking for another job. He knows he’s doing the wrong thing, doesn’t care, and there’s no one to stop him. I guess it’s possible the board could, but it’s a rare board that would do that. I’m sorry.

    1. Tom Davidson*

      100% – and, in the context of some of the comments above: If Fergus *is* the founder/CEO/ED of the organization, Fergus may very well have a hand-picked BoD that won’t rock the boat or rein him in (even though providing that level of oversight is *literally* their job).

      If Fergus is NOT the founder — or if there are signs of an independent board — then it may be worth raising the issue with the board, ideally as part of a coalition of others who have noticed the same problem.

      But first and foremost, OP needs to ensure their reputation survives this. (As the lawyers always joke: “If someone’s got to go to jail … make sure it’s the client.”)

  10. Lost academic*

    This guy sounds very much like someone who can’t remember ANYTHING. He doesn’t remember he asked or had others do it, maybe multiple times before it even gets to you, and he doesn’t remember they responded already. He’s blocked out their responses completely. Everything is new to him and occurring in a vacuum so it really never makes sense to him why people are “rude”. Admittedly all of this is conjecture but in my experience it’s really likely. And as already mentioned – this is not the kind of person who can change. Time to find a new job because while it’ll take longer to get painted with the same brush since he’s created quite the reputation, it’ll eventually happen.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      He remembers, he just doesn’t want to tell the OP that he’s already been told off.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        I agree. I don’t think this is a case of Hanlon’s Razor (where most things can be attributed to stupidity rather than malice); I think this is a case of Fergus knowing exactly what he’s doing and not caring that he’s ruining his, the org’s, and OP’s reputation.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Yeah, “doesn’t take no for an answer” isn’t usually a memory issue. It’s a boundary-stomping issue.

        2. steliafidelis*

          This is perhaps an example where Occam’s Razor overrides Hanlon’s: when the simplest explanation is malice rather than stupidity, attribute it to malice.

    2. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

      He either remembers, or doesn’t think he needs to remember. Example 2 is the giveaway–not “I didn’t realize that would be a problem, I hope you apologized.” He said they should have “‘at least” let you inconvenience the organization that is doing you a favor, because that’s easier for him.

      I would expect a director who was actually having trouble keeping track of who he’d already talked to, to assign LW to make and track all those requests.

      1. GammaGirl1908*

        That reminded me of the story here about a job interviewee who showed up in person with their family in tow for a Zoom interview. The assumption is that you won’t be able to reject someone who clearly has made a lot of effort to their face. No, you’ve just annoyed someone who previously was neutral.

      2. hbc*

        I would bet on “doesn’t think he needs to remember.” The answers he doesn’t like simply don’t register in his brain because of the way things Should Be. Of course he should be able to set up two days in advance, that’s how this all comes together. Of course they shouldn’t be so rude, that’s not how people treat non-profits that do great things.

        People like this are often great at growing tiny orgs because they have the vision and energy to charge in and get the right stuff done, and the stuff is all small-scale. It’s when there’s too much to hold in active memory that they flounder.

  11. Daniel*

    I’m not usually the sort who immediately jumps to “flee!” in the comments, but when I imagine a happy ending, I’m mostly imagining OP getting a new job.

    If nothing else I hope OP thinks about if they’d be happy if, in a few years’ time, the situation is the same. Or it’s a little different, but only because OP is playing interpreter in the way Alison mentioned above. If it’s the second case, maybe they would be! That likely depends on their (OP’s) personality, the effort that would require, and their commitment to the cause.

    But given that the letter was written between “He’d tell you that he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t take no for an answer,” and “Also, his reputation is … terrible,” I’m not optimistic. But OP should at least think about what staying in this job would mean long-term to them.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      In this instance, Fergus is impossible and there is no obvious mechanism by which to straighten him out. Maybe the board could help, but maybe they’re his friends/figureheads.

  12. Yes And*

    I’ve worked for my share of Ferguses (Fergi?) in the nonprofit world. In my experience, bosses who insist on always getting their own way and put their employees in bad situations also fly off the handle at even the most polite, constructive feedback from said employees. Alison’s advice is both 1) 100% the correct by-the-book way to handle this situation, and also 2) almost guaranteed to make LW’s life miserable and/or get them fired.

    If LW is on a career track where they need to maintain these community relationships beyond this particular job, they need to get out ASAP.

  13. Observer*

    OP, I’m with everyone who thinks that you should be looking for a new job. Even if you manage to resolve this issue to some extent, Fergus is NOT a good boss. I’d be willing to bet that this is not the only problem, just the one that is the most obvious to you.

    But also, is it possible to approach the Board? It’s generally not the place of the Board to deal with day to day issues. But the situation here is a broad pattern of behavior that is really doing damage to the organization and could literally lead to its demise. That’s within their purview.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      OP said in a comment up above that he’s been here 20 years, so it’s highly likely the board is happy with his results. Whether they know about and approve of his methods is another matter, though.

  14. Luna*

    It’s very rarely ever good to be the type of person that refuses to accept a ‘no’.

    What you are doing is good. The fact that the other party is telling you such a severe no, when you are making it clear that you are merely the messenger that they are shooting with all the arrows they can grab a hold of, is not okay.
    I understand it’s annoying to have to reiterate something you already made clear, but come on. Don’t shoot the messenger.

    Either put your foot down and refuse to ask ‘favors’ and whatever Fergus is telling you to do, which could put your position into jeopardy because you are basically refusing to do your job, or you might need to find a different position. One that doesn’t get you put under Fergus’ thumb.
    Because it really sounds like Fergus has tainted and poisoned the entire relationship those partners have with the non-profit when it comes to anything coming from his direction. With any luck, it’s still localized with Fergus and not the whole non-profit.

    1. Boop*

      I was coming here to say the same thing! More in the personal context, but if someone doesn’t respect a “no” then I’m done. There’s nothing admirable about someone who refuses to respect another person’s choices. I know this letter is relating to work situations, but I’m guessing Fergus is like this in his personal life and probably his interactions with coworkers also. Pass.

      1. Luna*

        Even in work-related situations, the refusal to accept a ‘No’ or even the broader stroke of ‘accepting the decision this person has made’, is not good as Ferguson clearly displays. He is alienating his employee, ruining the reputation of his company, and the goodwill of the community.

  15. Quokka*

    Any person who tells you they don’t take no for an answer is waving a massive red flag of disrespect. They only ever hear the echos of what is going around in their own heads. They will throw you and others under the bus time and time again to serve their needs.

    This is different from people who don’t let a no derail them from the overall goal. Those people are able to respect the no and use creativity and the resources around them to find another way.

  16. triplehiccup*

    is there any way to broach the board? as a board member myself, I’d want to know if the ED was ticking everyone off

  17. Dell*

    I’ve worked for a Fergus before. I lasted 18 months. It destroyed my mental health. Listen to your gut, OP. This kind of insidious boundary-pushing, manipulation and avoidance of clear communication can really mess with your head so much more than it feels like it “should”. Please take care of yourself.

  18. El l*

    Consider operating on the assumption that – every time you’re asking someone external for a favor – he has already asked and been told no.

    So when Fergus tells you to Call X and ask for Favor Y, call X and start the conversation with a tentative, “I’m __ with __. I gather I’m operating with partial information, but I’m wondering if we contacted you about Favor Y?”

    (That aside, consider moving on)

  19. New Senior Mgr*

    To add to Alison’s good suggestions above, also start documenting each incident with the partners. Keep a notebook at home. Just in case.

    1. WantonSeedStitch*

      This. And save emails from the community partners as well, if you are communicating with them that way. The board may be friends/associates of Fergus, but if they are presented with a boatload of evidence that Fergus is costing them relationships, it might at least move them to tell him to knock it the heck off, even if they don’t fire him.

  20. I Have RBF*

    LW, I’m going to say what others have hinted around: RUN. GTFO.

    Fergus is using you as a sacrificial lamb to ask people again for what they have already declined to do. Of course they get mad at you, because you are being Fergus’ tool. That’s not a good spot careerwise. If you want to stay in that non-profit sector, you’re going to need to part ways with Fergus one way or another before he trashes your reputation.

  21. Zarniwoop*

    “he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t take no for an answer. Which is fine, I guess”

    It’s not fine. It’s bullying and abusive. Don’t let this guy and this organization mess with your norms.

    1. Observer*

      Agreed. There is nothing fine about not taking no for an answer.

      Would it be “fine” if he refused a “no” from someone he wanted to date? From someone whose house he wanted to go into? From someone who has something he wants?

      The problem in your examples is not in HOW he’s refusing. It’s the simple fact that he *is* actually refusing. There is no way he could continue to push that would be ok.

    2. H.Regalis*

      Yeah, “I won’t take no for an answer!” is going to range from annoying to terrifying, depending on the situation, but it’s never a good thing.

      This guy may be closer on that scale to “sales rep who keeps showing up after we’ve told them we’ll never buy anything from them” than “stalker and/or rapist,” but that doesn’t make how he’s acting okay. It’s clearly NOT okay with your community partners.

    3. OP*

      I probably should not have said it’s fine — I agree with your assessment. My intent was more on the lines of “it’s your choice that you want to be this way but don’t make me do it for you.” But you are correct, it’s not okay to be that kind of person, full stop.

      1. Zarniwoop*

        “Don’t make me do it for you”
        Unfortunately that’s exactly what he hired you for.

        1. Bookmark*

          Yep. He hired you to be the human equivalent of the stuff he told you to bring over to the venue ahead of time. He’s betting that hiring a nice sympathetic young person and making you ask for things will make the partners feel pressured into not being rude to you and make them give him what he wants.

    4. kiki*

      I think that there are two types of “doesn’t take no for an answer” and they get conflated. There’s what Fergus is doing where he is literally asking the same group over and over after they had already told him no. That’s a clear negative in my book– it’s disrespectful and it will ruin relationships. But there’s also the type of person who “doesn’t take no for an answer” who respects the no of the person or organization they just asked, but still finds a way to get something done. So if, for example, LW was trying to get their own non-profit off the ground and one person told LW it couldn’t be done, but they reached out to different connections, hustled, and made it happen, that would also be an admirable example of not taking no for an answer.

      I think this makes things kind of tricky because people will praise the latter situation for not taking no for an answer, but then people like Fergus are like, “Okay, so I will bug everyone I know repeatedly and that’s admirable.”

  22. H.Regalis*

    I have an ex-friend like this, and that was a big part of why we’re not friends anymore. He would ask the same things over and over again if he didn’t like the answer he was getting, and if you brought up that we had already discussed XYZ thing several times, then it was always that he “forgot”; he would push and push and push people to do what he wanted until they either acquiesced or blew up at him; and would remember things how he wanted them to have gone, not how they actually happened. People like this can really mess with your head.

    OP, I think don’t think this situation is fixable. You said that working with community partners is a big part of your job, and already none of the community partners can stand him. He’s making you act as his proxy and they will start to hate you too, which is going to ruin your ability to do non-profit work in your area–a big problem if this is the field you want to stay in. Even if it’s not, continuing to work for this guy is going to awful emotionally, on top of the fact that he’s completely hamstringing your ability to do your job. Plan your escape.

  23. RagingADHD*

    OP, I haven’t read all the comments so I don’t know if anyone else suggested it, but do you have a database (or even a 3-ring binder) with information about your community partners? It sounds like Fergus is carrying all this around in his head, and that’s a terrible idea for a lot of reasons. Not just your situation, but if Fergus got hit by a bus tomorrow, where does that institutional knowledge go?

    When you have a central repository for their contact information and relationship history (the same way I hope you have for your donors), then you can keep a running log of what they were (or were not) willing to do for you before, whether their policies or decisionmakers have changed, how frequently you contact them and what happened last time, and if there are specific rules for their participation.

    Creating this will give you a good, neutral, non-accusatory reason to quiz Fergus in more depth every time he brings up contacting someone new or asking for some new favor: you need it to build the database. And when you leave, your successor will have that information and be forewarned.

    If Fergus is the kind of boss he reminds me of in my own work history, he will be delighted at the idea that someone wants to write down his brilliant ideas and collect his valuable institutional knowledge.

  24. Adalind*

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. It sounds frustrating and exhausting as others have said.

    It sounds a little like how manager is/was. Not to your boss’ extent but she expected people to answer or do things instantly and when they didn’t she’d ask me to contact them. I knew they’d be angry so sometimes I’d do the “Manager asked me to ask you” thing or I’d flat out tell her she has to wait because people have other work to do besides her request. Oddly the pandemic chilled her out A LOT.

  25. Budgie Buddy*

    On the first day of training Fergus is like “Hiii welcome aboard, here’s your flying monkey suit! Now go fetch Dorothy; she’s absolutely jazzed about hanging out with me at the castle later.”

    Flying monkeys are bad enough to deal with when they know what’s going on – dealing with unwitting monkeys is even worse.

  26. Kevin Sours*

    Fergus is using you as ablative shielding. Your credibility is a priceless asset and your number one goal her needs to be to preserve it as best you can. You seem to have figured out most of it: make it clear that requests are coming from above you, do your best to predict when something is hinky and mitigate the damage. I don’t know if you can hold Fergus’s feet to the fire and get a synopsis of communication prior to contacting partners (“I’ll ask, but what have we discussed with them about this previously”). At the very least that can smoke out how much he’s willing to straight up lie to your face.

    But mostly keep in mind that you *cannot* protect the reputation of this organization and trying to is just going to hurt you in ways that will likely persist into any future roles where you might need to work with these partners. Make sure that you aren’t the one going under the bus.

  27. Fluttervale*

    One thing I have learned is that there are givers and there are askers in the world.

    Askers will ask for anything at all, and assume if you mind you will say no. Givers assume that people will tell you if they want to help you, and will tell people when they want to help them. So they assume that if you are asking, it must be a very important need.

    When an asked and a giver get together, the giver gets frustrated (if I wanted to make her a lasagna I would have told her! But she must REALLY need it…”) and the asker doesn’t get a clear boundary.

    1. OP*

      I think you’ve hit on something, because a lot of people in the non profit world are givers– they want to help! They want to fix the world! And they have a hard time saying no. But they assume that the asker (especially if it’s another non profit person) knows that there are so many limitations in terms of time, money, staff, resources, attention — they assume that if you ask it must be a big deal. So when someone like Fergus pushes, it breaks that contract among us about how we are all pressed to do the work we feel compelled to do. The giver hedges, and the asker keeps pushing. And someone like me ends up getting an earful.

      1. ArtsNerd*

        Eh, I think you have it a bit backward. Nonprofit people are givers, sure, but we ask for things all the time! People donate because we ask them to, directly and explicitly. They volunteer because we ask them to. They contact their representative because etc. We hear “no” all the time too. Sometimes the “no” is “not yet,” so we ask again. But if the “no” is “take me off your list” you. do. not. keep. them. on. the. list.

        The limitations in terms of time, money, staff, resources, attention come in because it’s beyond rude and disrespectful to make your partners spend precious time, staff-energy and attention on debating the”take me off the list” hard no they’ve already given you. Again.

      2. Observer*

        The key thing is that Fergus is not an *Asker*, he’s a *Demander*.

        THAT is what breaks the contract.

      3. Anon Y Mouse*

        Yes this, OP. I work for a nonprofit that has a mission that involves helping people quite directly. Right now we have a client that is a Fergus. Because most of us are programmed to be helpful – it’s our job – we have been too helpful to Fergus and they now have expectations that whatever they want, we’ll do. They have been told, repeatedly and in increasingly full and over-detailed ways, that we cannot legally provide them with a certain thing. Their approach to this is to keep on and on asking. If there were more people doing this job someone might eventually make a mistake, but there’s only me and I know Fergus can’t have it. Unfortunately we cannot legally block them from emailing us.

        I hope I never meet them in person because I do thoroughly despise them.

        1. Sopranohannah*

          Ah, yes, the staff splitter. If Dr. A won’t do what I want, I’ll ask Nurse B, and when they say no I’ll ask CNA C. Never realizing that we actually talk to each other. It never ends well for them, because I mistrust everything they ask for. I tend to give these types of people no wiggle room. Everything is black and white and if a policy is unclear, I’m not ruling in their favor.

  28. Ama*

    Oh, *that’s* where my old coworker went.

    Seriously, OP I worked with a Fergus — although in his case the bad relations were internal, as he kept trying to get my department to do work we do not do (probably because he didn’t manage his time well and the team he *was* supposed to ask to do it required at least a week advance notice — usually when he tried to ask my team he needed it by the end of the day). After I told him no on several occasions, I thought he had stopped — only to find out he’d been asking my direct report, who was very new to the working world and assumed because a department head asked her to do it, she should do it. When I put a stop to that, he started asking *his* direct reports to ask me — and I’d have to tell them “We can’t help you with that and Fergus knows that, you need to go to the proper team.” I had to start telling every new hire on my team that Fergus or his team would probably ask them to do X, they should say no and if Fergus’s team insisted, let me know and I would intervene.

    I’m sure the reason the community partners are being what seems like rude to you is that the ONLY way to get a Fergus to stop is to hold a very hard line, because as soon as you soften the message (i.e. “we don’t currently do that”) it just opens the door for him to ask again in case you’ve changed your mind.

    1. Ama*

      It did occur to me as I continued thinking that if OP can trust that her boss won’t read her emails, she could try sending the emails phrased as “Fergus has asked me to ask you X, I’m sure you’ve probably already told him no but if you can just confirm I’ll remind him.” I’ve done this a few times with external VIPs who have insisted “Y solution must be possible” when I’m pretty sure it isn’t. But it’s trickier with an internal person since you don’t want them to see that message.

  29. Sylvan*

    This workplace has problems that you can’t solve, and that will leave you with frustrating workdays and bad relationships with professionals and organizations in your area. I think you should leave if you can.

  30. Correlation is not causation*

    I worked for a Fergus at one point.
    In my situation, the boss was arrogant enough to believe that people would think him more important if he had me do his dirty work.
    Then, when things got ugly, he would swoop in, blame the whole thing on me and try to be the hero.
    When I called him out on this behavior, he explained that it was a common way to ‘get people on your side’ and he was ‘building relationships by having a common enemy’… namely me.
    Couldn’t wait to be done with that mess.
    There are other jobs. I hope you find one soon.

  31. Ginger Cat Lady*

    “he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t take no for an answer. Which is fine, I guess”
    No. It is not fine. People need to learn to take no for an answer. Otherwise they are just trampling all over other people to get what they want. They’re ruining the goodwill with your organization. They’re making your life hell.
    None of that is “fine”

  32. Former Fergus & Co. employee*

    I worked for a Fergus for two weeks. I rebelled, he fired me, and a few months later his business failed. Neither customers nor workers like guys who “won’t take no for an answer.”

    I think the LW needs to move on.

    1. CSRoadWarrior*

      “Won’t take no for an answer.” – I can’t stand when people do that. No means no. And I were a customer and came across a Fergus who keeps pushing and pushing, I will lose my patience. Work for one, and I will not survive long there.

      But yes, I totally agree with you. Customers and workers will not stand for this.

  33. knitcrazybooknut*

    I think that OP should come into work every day, and ask, “Fergus, may I please have a raise?”

    (Joking, but same principle!)

  34. ArtsNerd*

    OP, something I haven’t seen in the comments yet is that Fergus’ disrespect for boundaries is not likely to stop with community partners.

    What happens when **you** need to tell Fergus “no” about something? What if his brother needs a liver or you need to disconnect from work to go to a funeral or start chemo or have a wedding ceremony?

    I saw that some community partners have low-keyed offered you work. In your shoes, I would strongly consider asking them some follow up questions about that.

  35. mary anne*

    If I’m reading the post correctly, Fergus is the ED of the org, right? If so, OP needs to reach out to the nonprofit’s board of directors, if there are any they feels comfortable with, because Fergus is going to run that org right into the ground. If I mis-read that, and he isn’t the ED/CEO/President, then they need to loop THAT person in on this.

    And OP should look for a new job ASAP, before their own reputation gets tanked by this situation…

    1. RagingADHD*

      OP said in some reply comments that Fergus has been ED / CEO for 20 years, the board members are hand-picked by him from his own network, and none of the board members have been there more than a couple of years.

      Realistically, there’s no recourse with the board in that kind of setup.

      1. Rick Tq*

        If Fergus has been ED for that long the Org’s reputation in the community and potential partners is already burned to charcoal. OP should get out ASAP.

  36. Isolda*

    Fergus knows exactly what he’s doing. He picked the newest hire, who doesn’t yet know the relationships the non-profit has with other orgs, and uses that person to do his dirty work. He is a manipulative bully and a jerk. OP should document, push back, ask questions, etc., but mostly should do whatever it takes not to work for Fergus anymore.

  37. Jellyfish Catcher*

    Get the heck out!
    Meanwhile, suggest to Fergus that it will help him be successful if he gives you dates and names of who /when /what he said to the other orgs.
    Keep a private file on the orgs and contacts and what he said.

    Call the other orgs before doing anything. Let them know you are calling to clarify information that you received from your boss, Fergus. That gives the other org a target other than you, They’ll also read between the lines that you doing your best in an awkward position.
    Develop contacts at these orgs; that may help you in finding a new job.

  38. DoubleSecretProbationer*

    I worked for a Fergula. After several months of asking her to consider creating some checks and balances to make sure her staff could keep up with her promises she made to clients, I told her quality was suffering and we were getting complaints.
    She told me if I didn’t like it, I could always find a new job.
    So I did. As in, I told one person who said she knew of an opening, I sent my resume over, and within a week I had been hired.
    She was very surprised when I gave my notice.

    1. BatManDan*

      “don’t you remember? We discussed this. I said it was unsustainable, you said I’d be happier somewhere else, and I agreed. I mean, you practically SOLD me on the idea of leaving, so…you’re….surprised?”
      That’s how I like to think I’d handle it. (But then again, I’m obstinately self-employed for a reason; shenanigans like this are what keep me from ever having a boss or employees.)

      1. DoubleSecretProbationer*

        That’s basically how it played out. She offered me a raise to stay, and I declined, because as a rule, if they can magically produce more money when you say you want to leave, they could’ve paid you more the whole time.

        1. An Australian in London*

          I have read of a tactic but not had occasion to use it since reading it:

          When offered a raise to stay, ask that it be backpaid. Significantly. Like when the last raise should have happened, even if that is in a previous financial year.

  39. cardigarden*

    I worked for a Fergus like this who poisoned the well so badly that [prestigious, national grant funding organization] flat out told me when rejecting the grant I applied for that they wouldn’t fund any grant to my org for as long as Fergus was in charge of it.

    1. Observer*

      Did they put it in writing?

      If so, I would send it to the Board. Not that I would expect immediate useful reaction, but it helps to destroy any plausible deniability.

  40. NonprofitAF*

    Think hard about the impact that making these requests is having on your own professional credibility and community capital. I worked for a Fergus in nonprofit community engagement for 5 years. Upon leaving that org for a community engagement job in a different organization, I have spent almost 10 years repairing relationships that were trashed when I was Fergus’ errand boy. Some people will hold this against you personally, and your professional reputation will be tarnished in a way that takes a disproportionately long time to fix.

  41. GreenDoor*

    If relationship building/maintenance is a big part of your job, please move on. I am in a large urban area and within the non-profit sector people just….know people. I’ve lost count of the number of introductions I’ve witnessed where it’s “Oh I remember you from when you were with X Group and didn’t you work with the youth of Y group for a time?” Like people will hear your name and recall your whole resume. If your career path depends on your reputation and people feeling like you’re worth their goodwill, please don’t stick around long enough for this a-hole boss to sully it!

  42. Eric Christenson*

    OP, I’m going to suggest you avoid e-mailing any Fergus requests directly, but instead check-in with your partners at least on the phone if you can so you can smooth feathers quickly and in private. Good Lord, your boss is a mess!

  43. Peter*

    I had a boss rather like this. He would bump into contacts I had good relationships with and tell me they were very keen to meet our client. I would then email that contact and it was clear they had absolutely no interest in a client meeting and, if I am being charitable, my boss had completely misinterpreted their basic politeness.

    Another time he got a client a VIP meeting. Great! But the client showed up and was very surprised that the meeting was really all about why they should donate to a charity close to the VIP’s heart, and was almost nothing to do with their reason for wanting to meet the VIP. The client concluded – I am sure correctly – that they were sold the meeting as a way to talk about their product and the VIP was sold it as a way to get a corporate donation. Then on the day neither side got what they wanted.

    I think this boss was cynical – his main “offer” was getting meetings the client couldn’t get on their own. But also he just loved meetings and kind of assumed everyone else did – so he maybe felt he was doing everyone a favour by being so pushy in order to make them happen. He did not have a successful career.

Comments are closed.