my boss’s boss forced us to do a “grievance circle” targeting our manager

A reader writes:

I have a question for you about a scenario that happened several years ago, but still sort of haunts me. I work in the medical setting, under a new manager, Jane, and a relatively well-established director, John, who has a reputation for pushing shortcomings off onto other individuals. There was some friction between Jane and another employee, and during a one-on-one meeting with John over another issue, I was asked how I would’ve handled it (I’m still not sure why, since I had no management background myself at the time). Since the issue seemed to be related to a misunderstanding/different communication styles, I recommended a facilitated conversation between Jane and the employee, with John being the facilitator. I’ve carried a lot of guilt around about that recommendation — it seemed so reasonable at the time…

The next day, all staff (10 of us) were instructed to proceed to a conference room. The chairs were arranged in a circle, and Jane was placed in the middle. We were then required to go around the circle one at a time and list all of our grievances with Jane’s management style. She was given no opportunity to defend her decisions. None of this seemed to be related at all to the original dispute. In fact, the employee who experienced friction with Jane was allowed to skip this particularly horrible experience “because it would be too stressful for her,” according to John.

Several of us, during our “turn,” attempted to sway the conversation away from the negative and talk about things Jane was doing well. We were told that positive reinforcement wasn’t the point of this meeting and that we needed to follow instructions.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Jane put in her notice about 30 minutes after this concluded. She still works for the organization in a different role, and I’ve had an opportunity to apologize about what happened. She and I remain on friendly terms, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s anything I could have done or said differently in the moment, and I can’t think of any better perspective on this than yours.

What on earth.

This was horrible for everyone — it was obviously horrible for Jane, but it was horrible for the rest of you too! John sounds like a sadist.

This isn’t how you give an employee feedback! Of course there are times when a manager needs to hear feedback from the employees under them, but it requires a fair amount of skill for their boss to coordinate that in a way that (a) allows employees to feel safe providing candid and useful feedback, (b) ensures those employees won’t experience any blowback for providing it, and (c) sets the manager up to process the feedback in a constructive way.

“Everyone’s going to sit in a circle and tell Jane everything we don’t like about her” is not that. It fails on every measure!

It doesn’t seem like John put any thought into this at all. Aside from how cruel it was, the fact that he didn’t even ask you to prepare anything ahead of time is telling. People don’t generally give highly useful feedback when they’re put on the spot with no warning. So it seems a lot more about John playing out some personal agenda of his own than anything designed or intended to be useful or constructive.

There are managers who are sort of bulls-in-china-shops when it comes to relaying team feedback to managers beneath them — managers who aren’t acting with ill will but just don’t understand the trepidation someone might have about delivering a candid assessment to their manager or how power dynamics can affect that process, and who therefore leap too quickly to “just tell her your complaint!” Those managers aren’t particularly skilled or thoughtful about human dynamics … but this feels like more than that. This feels like John targeting Jane in a very personal and deliberately unkind way.

But it’s 100% not your fault. A team-wide grievance circle obviously wasn’t what you were envisioning when you suggested a facilitated conversation between Jane, John, and the employee. But even if the grievance circle had been your idea, John — by nature of his position — should have been responsible for realizing that wasn’t a good idea and not doing it. It was already weird that he was asking you about how to handle the friction between Jane and your coworker, and it really seems like he was looking for cover for either his own ineptitude or his own cruelty … or both.

You’re wondering whether there was something you could have done differently once the session got under way. I love that you and your coworkers tried to talk about things Jane was doing well. But when John cut you off and insisted you criticize instead, the only other thing you could have done at that point was to refuse to go along with it — either by saying something bland like “I don’t really have any critical feedback off the top of my head” or by taking more of a stand with something like, “This feels wrong to me.” But it’s famously hard to know how to react in the moment when something weird like this is happening — there are tons of studies showing how tough people find it — and that’s doubly true when your livelihood is involved. Most people muddle through as best as they can. As long as you weren’t being actively cruel, I can’t fault you for not standing up to John when he blindsided you all with this.

This was John’s doing, not yours.

{ 280 comments… read them below }

  1. Quill*

    Would everyone who has felt personally attacked by Gretchen Weiner please raise their hands

    1. Budgie Buddy*

      we all know they were victimized by Regina George – stop trying to make Gretch happen

    2. MBK*

      “I don’t care how long it takes. I will keep you here ALL NIGHT.”
      “We can’t keep them past four.”
      “I will keep you here until FOUR.”

  2. FrogEngineer*

    this is like the Airing of Grievances from Seinfeld but without any comedy. awful.

    1. WendyinCLE*

      I was actually thinking this was more like “The Game”, which was a technique used by the Synanon cult in the 70’s. Horrific.

      1. Willm*

        agreed, my mind immediately thought of their abusive “therapy” sessions. “The game” was spread to other cults/high control groups as well, there’s chance this manager experienced it themselves.

        1. Francie Foxglove*

          That’s why I hate The Breakfast Club. That whole thing with trying to get Claire to admit she’s a virgin — “Are you a tease? Are you frigid? Just answer the question!” is right out of Synanon. And John Hughes was the right age to have been familiar with that.

      2. MassMatt*

        I was thinking the same thing. This is a common technique of abusive cults, and sadly some drug rehab facilities also use it to this day due to Synanon’s persistent influence.

        The manager that proposed this and forced participation should be fired. I doubt I could hold my tongue from saying so at the time, I’m not the best at holding in my outrage. At any rate I would go to HR or grandboss, unless the culture made this seem normal, in which case proceed straight to get out get out get out!

        1. TurnedMeIntoANewt*

          Apparently, two drug rehabs that I used to send people to (from drug court) use (or used) this approach. I had zero idea until I looked up Synanon just now. Not that I can change things now (it was nearly 20 years ago), but it makes me feel pretty awful. Life had already beat all their sense of self-worth out of them. I wonder if other people in my office/court system knew. There were few in-patient centers that took Medicaid and getting a spot in one (especially with a medically supervised detox) was so hard.

          1. MassMatt*

            Synanon has a reach from beyond the grave, sadly. And this sort of “confrontational therapy” is especially damaging when used on vulnerable populations, such as “troublemaking” minor kids turned over by parents (or the foster care system) or addicts in rehab.

            Elsewhere in the thread people mention the Elan school in Maine, and a guy named John Doe, who is writing a web graphic novel of his experience there as a teen, it is chilling.

    2. Charlotte Lucas*

      I feel like if they were all remote, John would have done a slam book & sent it to Jane.

      1. Clorinda*

        Ava has a good heart though. Every now and then she does something great. And there have been a couple of scenes in which kids went directly to her and she knew what they needed and provided it.

    3. Em*

      Reminds me of soviet informants, except the target is in the room with them as they make their reports. Next up, a show trial!

    4. ferrina*

      I had a boss that did this 1:1 with me for several months. We had a “professional improvement meeting” every week (she was clear that I wasn’t on a PIP, but it was an informal PIP. It was missing a few things, like metrics, deadlines, reasonable expectations….)
      Every week she would list everything she felt I had done wrong that week. Usually it wasn’t even something that had even gone wrong, just something she felt could go better. If I had managed to book Beyonce to do an impromptu office sing-a-long, she would have told me that I had done it wrong. I quickly started ignoring her and owning the agenda and including successes and room to grow and putting it in much better language (turns out she was both sadistic and lazy).
      Her intention was to undermine me. She left a few months after we started these meetings, and she tapped her golden child to be her successor. I was the most senior person on the team, had the highest metrics, was well-loved by clients and known for handling the tough clients, and was a natural leader on the team. So to get me out of the running, she had stopped telling the management about anything I worked on (or posited as something she had worked on) and manufactured this fake PIP/weekly slam meeting

  3. 3DogNight*

    There are a lot of WOW letters this week. Worst boss contender right here. I have no other words. Yikes.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Agreed. My god, where does somebody even come up with an idea like this, much less think it’s appropriate?

      Just because it’s a circle doesn’t mean it’s holistic.

      1. Artemesia*

        MIght as well just circulate a ‘slam book’ and be done with it — or do I hopelessly date myself here.

        1. Zombeyonce*

          Not defending slam books, but at least you can look at those and cry about what it says about you in private. Somehow John’s invented something worse than a slam book. This is the kind of innovation we definitely don’t need.

          1. Artemesia*

            I was teaching HS in 68 and it was a problem, more in middle schools than high schools — but a definite thing then we had to combat. And of course the bad part wasn’t just that you read about what people thought of you, but that everyone else read it too. Albeit actually sitting in the circle while you are slammed is worse.

            1. Artemesia*

              T groups were were one of those abusive techniques of that era — lots of it in education and in therapy adjacent activities.

            2. Zoe Karvounopsina*

              I came across it as a child of the UK 90s in the Anne Fine book The Angel of Nitshill Road, where it is being used positively, but the teacher’s first reaction is that it’s awful.

        1. Zombeyonce*

          The most literal interpretation with an actual 360 grouping of people, but only for the bad stuff.

      2. misspiggy*

        There seem to be a few genuinely horrible people hiding in the ethical/holistic/nonprofit world. I’ve learned to be very careful around new managers just in case they turn out like a few of my old ones.

        1. STAT!*

          And in political parties in my experience. Amazing how much gets done despite them, really.

      3. Dancing Otter*

        Sounds like John had been reading about 1970-ish “encounter groups”. Only he deliberately set up a single victim, instead of the freeform nastiness of the originals.

        No, that wasn’t the intended result, just what usually happened without a skilled therapist in charge. Do it yourself group therapy was a bad, bad idea.

    2. Cat Tree*

      Good thing Elon took over Twitter last year, to leave some room in the game for other bosses this year.

    3. Meow*

      My boss suggested doing this (having everyone meet together with him and tell him what he needs to do) for a coworker who is truly terrible at his job and extremely abrasive. Thankfully, I talked her out of it. Too bad she won’t actually just give him the feedback :/

    1. Heidi*

      I have so many questions! What happened to John? Did he try this with anyone else? How did everyone else react afterwards? Did anyone report this? Who does this?

      1. OP*

        OP here. So, this happened several years ago, and there have definitely been developments since. As it turns out, this is a clinic that was very quickly becoming extremely self sufficient and having both a manager and director was redundant. None of us (Jane included) knew this at the time, but john was facing obscurity and had survived in the past by permitting (or causing) chaos that he could come in and “correct”. Jane was just the first victim – no nurse manager had lasted alongside him more than a year. This is a specialty medical clinic, though, in an extremely niche field, and word gets around. John’s in-crisis approach has kept him in his job, but that clinic is essentially toxic, keeps losing its providers, and is turning into a millstone around the hospital’s neck, whereas Jane was offered a different role in the same system and is absolutely flourishing. I moved on and advanced in the field and was asked a few months back to fill in down there. John has been relegated to the back room somewhere, barely interacts with the staff, and everything is seemingly running alright, though it’s worth noting that none of the original staff are still there.

        1. Zarniwoop*

          John still works there?!?!?
          John sucks, but whoever his boss is sucks just as bad.

          1. OP*

            I think the reason he’s found a refuge is that the hospital system is small. It’s changed management companies three times since I left, which unfortunately means John’s oversight has less experience with the system than he does.

            Because he works largely as a contractor, the hospital’s HR views him as untouchable. At least word of what he’s like has spread enough that he’s struggling to find employees, and that’s gratifying in its own way.

              1. OP*

                John is employed by a management company to manage a specific clinic service line (think dialysis or dermatology). He’s accountable to that company (based on the east coast), while the hospital is on the west coast. The hospital’s own HR has been unwilling to get involved, since he isn’t technically their employee (I know this first-hand, as I complained about him at length both after this and right before my departure from that hospital), and the company he does work for is far more interested in the clinic’s bottom line and has no local representative. I should also add that John is very, very good at talking around things. His ability to effortlessly BS is one of the reasons I think he’s lasted so long and one of the most infuriating things about working with him.

        2. MEH Squared*

          I just saw this, OP. I’m glad you and Jane are out of there, but, yeah. John needed a boot to the butt–which is his manager.

    2. goddessoftransitory*

      The cheese stands alone. Anne Lamott’s early novel Joe Jones has a scene where one character is describing Farmer in the Dell to another and pointing out how brutally sadistic it is.

  4. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

    John is an abuser, and roped the rest of you into participating in this abuse.

    Good on Jane for getting out ASAP.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      Agreed. OP, this is not your fault at all. Nothing you did prompted this, and it’s very likely there’s nothing you could have done to stop it without losing your job.

      I’m glad Jane got out ASAP, and if you’re still working under John, I’d recommend you do the same. John is not someone you can trust.

    2. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Jane 100% did the right thing by immediately giving notice. This is insane.

      I would not have blamed the rest of you if you had just walked out of this fiasco. But don’t blame yourself that you didn’t. It can be hard when your boss is right there telling you it MUST be done this way, even if its insane.

    3. Beth*

      This was done to me by a volunteer group, years ago. I have taken pains never to see any of them again.

  5. NameRequired*

    You: “hmmm what about a facilitated conversation?”
    This man with a bad idea generator where his head should be: “ahhh yes a forced bullying circle, perfect idea”

      1. MigraineMonth*

        “What can I do to make this conversation maximally ineffective and also harmful to all involved?”

        1. OP*

          OP here. It turns out you’re right – basically he saw this as his opportunity to drive her out. Not because there was any problem between them personally, which somehow actually makes it worse. He was at risk of being made redundant and laid off, so keeping everything in absolute chaos was his way of staying valuable. He’s done different but similarly terrible things to three other managers since Jane. Fortunately, they all moved onto better things, and he’s still stuck in his own hailstorm of misery. So at least there’s that.

          1. Chauncy Gardener*

            Holy cow. The fact that he’s still there renders me speechless!
            Why is he still there?

          2. Her name was Joanne*

            Now I’m curious. What different awful things did this man do to the managers?

          3. fhqwhgads*

            It doesn’t reflect very well on whoever manages him that they have not noticed this pattern of chaos is caused by him.

      2. BubbleTea*

        I’m also not sure it classes as a conversation if Jane wasn’t allowed to respond!

    1. Meep*

      It really comes off as “I fantasized about doing this to a bad manager I had in the past, so others probably want to do it now!” Which I mean… May not be untrue. But somethings are meant to stay fantasy.

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      man with a bad idea generator where his head should be

      If there is an upside to this situation, it’s that I got to read this and got a good laugh out of it!

      And yes, I have uses for this and will be stealing it. Thank you.

    3. Mirve*

      No telling how many people he asked what to do and someone eventually said something “close enough” to what he wanted to do anyhow, so probably not even from what this particular person said.

    4. OyHiOh*

      I love the phrase “bad ideas generator where their head should be.” Going to remember that one!

      I had a high school teacher present an activity to my classroom that amounted to mandatory verbal bullying of a fellow student. I didn’t even like the student in question (he’d bullied me, actually) but in the moment when my name was called, managed to push back, and in fact, the rest of the class more or less followed my lead. To this day, I’m not sure why our teacher didn’t assert more power over the situation and force us to conform to his instructions. It’s possible that his bad ideas generator short circuited when a dozen of us basically said nope, and said why we refused, and he realized how bad of an idea it actually was.

      1. Truthfully*

        This brought back bad memories of a high school class where the teacher made a student he wanted to punish/embarrass stand in a wastebasket on top of a table for the rest of the class. I wish I/someone would have protested instead of sitting there like sheeple. Good times!!

        1. Sharpie*

          Sounds like the bystander effect, where the more people there are present when something happens, the less likely someone is to phone the emergency services. Everyone thinks someone else will so nobody does – which is why in first aid courses we’re taught to pick someone specific to phone 999/911, to break the effect and make sure that the emergency services do actually get called.

          1. STAT!*

            Good information! I have never been taught that in first aid classes (though I can’t remember how many … umm … decades? since I last did one).

      2. Ellis Bell*

        Kids will often pack together against a teacher if they feel unsafe – it’s not like their mortgages are at risk. One of the things you learn when training to teach is that you have to get their behaviour through mutual relationships and a sense of safety. Yeah, there is a lot of power involved in being a teacher, but if you remove something basic like trust, then you throw all the power away. It’s a bit like if your boss removed the pay packet – what’s the point in listening after that?

    5. 3DogNight*

      I read this probably 5 minutes after you posted, and the phrase “bad idea generator” keeps running through my head. I have a picture of an actual generator with bad ideas in speech bubbles going now.

      1. NameRequired*

        I’m so glad people enjoyed it so much!

        In my mind the generator functions a bit like a machine where you press a button and get one of those little capsules with a toy inside except its a slip of paper that says “bully your subordinates :)”

  6. I should really pick a name*

    Based on what was described, I think this is just what John wanted to do, not his interpretation of the LW’s suggestion.

    1. Ita*

      That’s exactly what I thought. I’m not sure (from the contents of the letter) that this was his interpretation of your advice.

      1. Ita*

        …which is neither here nor there. I think if you had had any sort of heads up you could have talked to your coworkers and agreed to take a group stand. But nobody can fault OP for not taking a stronger stance when being blindsided by such a weird situation.

        1. Lisa B*

          Except that the OP says they have felt guilty over their recommendation, as if this is what John thought they meant. So in that case I think it’s good for the OP to hear that this was probably something that John was already thinking about doing and completely disregarded OP’s good suggestion. OP I think your suggestion went in one ear and out the other. Clearly, there’s nothing in between John’s ears for it to have gotten stuck on.

          1. INFJedi*

            So in that case I think it’s good for the OP to hear that this was probably something that John was already thinking about doing and completely disregarded OP’s good suggestion.

            Yes. I don’t believe for a second that John was inspired by OP’s (logical!) suggestion of a form of mediation.
            But at the same time, I know myself and I’m pretty sure that if I were in OP’s shoes and had given that suggestion and the next thing that happens is what John did, even I would feel guilty and worry that perhaps I had given him permission or the idea.

    2. Irish Teacher*

      Yup, it would take quite a bit of obliviousness to interpret, “maybe you should sit down with Jane and the employee and facilitate a conversation between them” as “maybe you should sit down with all employees except the one with a grievance and force them to criticise Jane.”

    3. SereneScientist*

      I agree. It feels like the barest slip of a pretense but that’s all he needed, I suppose.

    4. OP*

      OP here. I found out later on that John did absolutely everything possible to frame this as my doing, both to Jane and to everyone else. Jane and I were and are quite close, though, so it never crossed over into her actually blaming me, but I definitely felt horrible for quite some time.

      1. MEH Squared*

        Wow. John is a jerk through and throughh. I want to emphasize that this is all on him and not on you at all. I think you know that, but I hope it helps to hear from many people on the internet. I hope John got his in the end, though I am not sanguine about it.

      2. Silver Robin*

        That is grotesque behavior, glad you and Jane had a strong enough relationship that she knew not to blame you for it. John is certainly a particular blend of nasty.

      3. Ellis Bell*

        Yeah he needed a scapegoat because not only did he know full well that it was sketchy and abusive, he also knows he is useless at his job and needed to drive her out with an abusive technique while pointing the finger elsewhere. The only thing he can do is manipulate. Must be fun inside his head.

      4. ferrina*

        Yep, he was waiting for someone to say something that he could misconstrue. I’ve worked with this type of person before, and they are always looking for someone to scapegoat. There is literally no way to dodge this- they could target you for any number of reasons, all of which are a reflection on them, not you.

  7. Trina*

    It feels like it’s been a while since we’ve had a proper WTF Wednesday and oh boy is today delivering.

  8. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    John apparently admires the techniques of Mao Zedong. This is absurd.

    1. Quill*

      What do cults and fringe political cults and John have in common? Shaming rituals, apparently.

      1. hewhosaysfish*

        It might be a cliche comparison, but my first thought was 1984.
        Specifically the “Two Minute Hate”.

        1. Quill*

          I mean it’s cliche because apparently real cults do do that. Because it serves some sort of purpose within a cult structure, and 1984 is in many ways about politics-as-cult

          1. Empress Ki*

            It reminds of Aunt Lydia in the Handmaid’s tale, when she puts Janine in a circle and asks all the handmaids to blame her.

      2. SereneScientist*

        Only thing missing from this letter was the corporal punishment piece, yeesh.

      1. SereneScientist*

        Absolutely horrifying. The psychological piece alone is so incredibly damaging.

      2. Yellow Rose*

        I came here to say this. All that’s missing is the dazibao.

        The other image in my head is the ‘My Fault’ circle in The Handmaid’s Tale.

  9. Brain the Brian*

    Today really is the day for truly bananas letters, isn’t it? Wowowowowow, this is awful.

  10. Meep*

    On the one hand, I think we have all had managers who we have fantasized to do this to because no one likes them… On the other hand, it isn’t a good look if their own manager thinks this should be reality.

  11. Ro*

    OP I’m dying to know did John get any blowback from this from his boss for example?

    It was 100% not your fault and I’m glad Jane got out but did anything happen to John? He should not be managing anyone.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      I 100% need to know where John is now, and 100% agree that it is not at all OP’s fault.

    2. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Should not be managing anyone and as someone else commented below, is hopefully not married and has no children or step-children.

      1. Continental Blvd*

        I shared my story of being the target of something similar. While I was in the middle of all this, I commented to a friend, “It comes as no surprise to me that this guy is divorced.”

    3. goddessoftransitory*

      I mean, I hope his boss got an earful from Jane on her way out the door, at least!

  12. CheesePlease*

    If I were OP in the movie version of my life I would have taken the opportunity to criticize John instead

    “Sorry, I don’t have any critical feedback for Jane. She does a great job maintaining the llama database and communicating problems with the team. However, I do have feedback for you, John. You must really have your head up your butt if you think this is a useful way to deal with communication breakdown in the workplace. Jane is clearly upset and will never work for or respect you again. You no longer have my respect”

    And then I walk out while everyone clapped.

    If only….haha

    1. BellyButton*

      Why oh why are we so incapable of such great words and actions in the moment?!?! I will now applaud you for having a perfect response *clap clap clap*

      1. Zombeyonce*

        Because we’re always still in shock from the pure insanity of the moment and our brains aren’t working at full capacity to come up with a scathing reply. Or maybe that’s just me.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Also, people never clap at the right time. Or if they do, it’s all at once instead of starting with the single person clapping slowly. The applause choreography is just all wrong.

      2. Sasha*

        L’esprit de l’escalier – the perfect response that you unfortunately only think of at the bottom of the stairs as you are leaving.

    2. Retro*

      “I got a call from the jerk store-they’re running out of YOU”
      (Applicable Seinfeld quote)

    3. AnonORama*

      Jane, great working with you! John, you should really have that rectocranial inversion checked out.

  13. Reality Check*

    No advice for OP, but I do hope that John is neither married nor has children.

  14. BellyButton*

    Today’s post have been some doozies!
    WOW! I put myself in Jane’s position and all I could imagine doing was sitting with my mouth hanging open while the reality of the situation sunk in and then walking out OR bursting into tears and running out.
    In OP’s position I can only imagine my mouth hanging open and walking out.

  15. Spiders Everywhere*

    Ok yeah, so like a business version of “attack therapy.” Which is associated with cults and brainwashing, and can cause long-term psychological damage. What on earth.

    1. zuzu*

      I was recently watching a documentary on the Elan School, which used this technique to keep its young inmates in line and off balance (and keep them under control/keep them feeling like they were never going to improve so the school could wring more money out of the parents who sent them there), only there was a lot of yelling of abuse, and sometimes it ended with an actual fight.

      1. zuzu*

        Oh, and the guy who ran the school got this technique from Synanon. Which was definitely a cult.

      2. Sad Desk Salad*

        If you found that doc interesting, please search for Joe vs. Elan School (first hit should be a wordpress, that’s what you’re looking for). It’s an ongoing graphic novel about a young man’s experience there, his survival, and the lasting effects of the abuse. It’s absolutely riveting. And indeed, it is an extreme version of what went down at this fiasco of a “grievance circle.”

  16. Yinka Double Dare*

    only acceptable if there was an aluminum pole and the airing of grievances was followed by the feats of strength

  17. Boolie*

    I would have liked to March right out, straight to HR, and bring them in the room to witness what is happening.

    OP I agree that you and your colleagues did the right thing here and I’m sorry that you’re still haunted by the whole ordeal. I would be traumatized just to witness it too.

    1. All Het Up About It*

      That’s what I want to know! Did anyone go to HR about it?

      I just can’t imagine an HR person receiving this abrupt resignation and finding out why and not heading out to get a resignation letter from John. I mean, what the WHAT!?!?

  18. This_Is_Todays_Name*

    I wonder if it would have worked if the circle said things like, “well she’s so efficient that she makes me feel like a slacker.” Or “the clients all love her so much that we feel like chopped liver,” or whatever else that is a compliment but meets the letter of the “complaint” required by the boss? Obviously the best response would have been a mass exodus accompanied by a chorus of “oh HELL NOs” but I get that when it’s “the boss” you can’t just do that.

    1. Polly Hedron*

      From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

      “How do you like the Queen?” said the Cat in a low voice.
      “Not at all,” said Alice: “she’s so extremely——” Just then she noticed that the Queen was close behind her listening: so she went on, “——likely to win, that it’s hardly worth while finishing the game.”
      The Queen smiled and passed on.

    2. Tiggerann*

      “You know the most awful thing about her is how she is set up as a scapegoat for her superiors faults.”

  19. Jane*

    If John still works there, I would report this to HR, even years after the fact. What in the world…

  20. mlem*

    I have to say, this site is great for presenting scenarios that allow me to develop Just In Case scripts. Now, if I ever find myself in a similar scenario, I’ll be practiced and (I hope) ready to stand up and say, “Sorry, I can’t participate in this; forced bullying circles are against my religion.”

    1. Zombeyonce*

      My anxiety usually has me prepared for terrible situations but this one was so bananacrackers that my catastrophizing brain never would have been prepared. Definitely a “replay situation in the shower the next day to workshop perfect responses” kind of moment.

    2. Insert Clever Name Here*

      *clutches stomach* “I’m so sorry I must have had bad tuna fish for lunch”
      *runs out of room*
      *runs straight to HR*
      “you are needed in the conference RIGHT NOW”

  21. Anon Again... Naturally*

    This has me flashing back to the time in elementary school where we were forced to do this for a student who was BEING BULLIED. If this happened in my workplace I’d be seriously tempted to quit without anything else lined up. OP, I seriously doubt anyone who is cruel enough to force this on their employees would be willing to listen to anything you said in the moment.

    1. Observer*

      UH! WHAAAAAT!!!!!! ~~Screeching in my head!~~

      Your school forced students to do an attack circle?!?!?!?!?

      Please tell me that some sane adult found out about it did something about it…..

      Except that I suspect that no one did do anything about it.

      1. Anon Again... Naturally*

        A bunch of us went home and told our parents, who raises a stink with the school board. The teacher was ‘coached’. The bullying continued unabated.

    2. OyHiOh*

      I’m high school, I had a teacher try to stage an attack circle under the guise of a classroom activity related to the topic we were discussing. A couple students gamely followed directions, and when I was called, I said nope and metaphorically joined my classmate as a target. Given that I was much less popular than the targeted student (and had no family connections in a school where 2/rds of the students were distantly related to each other), to this day I remain amazed that instead of taking opportunity to verbally beat up on me, the rest of the class took my lead and refused to participate. Our teacher wasn’t as much of a sadist as John in the letter though.

    3. SuperAnon*

      This happened to me after three girls left a mean note in my desk after a misunderstanding! Unfortunately, I was unable to quit the fourth grade. I read this letter wondering, “Wait, is this a thing???!!!”

    4. Carit*

      I had this done to me as a child. It remains the single most traumatic experience of my life, and has deeply harmed my ability to, in real time

      1. Carit*

        Not sure what I did there!
        At any rate, it’s made it almost impossible to trust anyone. It was initiated and coordinated by the “counselor” (only staffer) of the after school program I went to, and I was already one of the least popular kids in school and bullied relentlessly. My crime: telling the two biggest bullies to stop making one of the other girls cry because of the face paint she chose. There were about 20 other kids in the circle, and thankfully I no longer remember what they said.

        This is flat out sadistic amongst adults. I don’t even know what to call it when perpetrated against children.

        I find it shocking that there wasn’t immediate fallout both from those in the room and from other leadership once it was known (once Jane gave notice).

        My advice to LW in the moment would have been stronger, and I think everyone needs to do the same thing: you must object immediately. I recognize that this is difficult, but even remaining silent in the circle is complicit. I’m very happy that this Jane has blossomed; others do not.

  22. Anonomatopoeia*

    OP, I think if you and Jane are on friendly terms now, she absolutely knew and knows this was not on you. It’d be hard to forgive this kind of nastiness if she thought you had any legitimate part in causing it, you know?

    (also, wow, John. Wow.)

    1. Silver Robin*

      +1 I highly doubt Jane thinks you had any hand in this, OP. John is way out of bounds and Jane knows it. Besides, since several folks tried to be nice to her and he shut them down, she also knows that nobody actually wanted to just dump a bunch of critiques on her out of the blue. You are in the clear.

  23. hex*

    “#1 Grievance: Not going straight to HR when John started setting this farce up. Both to protect yourself and us from this nonsense.”

    If I had the immense courage to turn live into a self insert story, I would have waited this exercise out. And then, when Jane got up and John started walking out, call him by name, tap against the back rest of the hot seat and tell him to sit down.
    Let me dream.

  24. Sparkles McFadden*

    None of this is on you, LW. You’re haunted by this because you’re a decent person, but you tried to do the right thing in a crazy situation. Logical, professional people remain logical and professional even in crazy situations. First, because your brain is trying to make sense of it all in the heat of the moment, and second, because you do not have any idea what might make the crazy escalate. You think “Maybe if I just talk calmly and mention Jane’s good qualities, John will realize he’s being crazy.”

    As someone who has worked with a lot of John-type people over the years, I can assure you that this attack circle is what John wanted to do all along, and it’s what he would have done no matter what you said when he asked your opinion.

  25. Roland*

    It sounds like you’re carrying some guilt that it was your suggestion that led to this. I really doubt that though! “Facilitated convo between Jane and Xavier” is nothing like “shame circle for everyone EXCEPT Xavier to say Jane’s shortcomings”. Whatever John’s inspiration was, I don’t think it was you, OP.

  26. Kan*

    This happened to me once, but it had to do with the comedy sketches I had written and directed for a concert, as a volunteer, for an amateur chorus I was in – the sketches went too far for some people. It was a feedback circle after the concert, and I wasn’t sitting in the middle, but everyone around the circle pretty much let me have it, one by one. What the chorus director didn’t say to the group, was that I had repeatedly asked for some of the practice time to show the sketches to the full chorus *well before* the performance and she never gave me the time. Not even at the dress rehearsal! Also – the most risque moments that people found objectionable were improvised by the performers during the performance – and neither of them took responsibility for it when I was being blamed.

    And honestly – the audience loved it – even the improvised bits – and over the couple of concerts of me introducing comedy sketches between or during songs, our audiences for the performances grew.

    Totally okay to have a full discussion about what the “character” of the chorus was going to be. Totally okay to decide against having sketches. Totally not okay to beat up on me en masse. I quit the chorus, and the audiences got small again. Still proud of my work.

  27. Observer*

    Just one thing. You have absolutely ZERO reason to feel guilty about your suggestion. Because not only was it perfectly reasonable. But the grievance circle is not *remotely* what you suggested!

    I want to know why the guy still has a job there!

  28. Cats and Bats Rule*

    I don’t know if anyone else has commented on this yet, but this kind of circle is straight out of a cult playbook!

    1. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

      Yes, I was thinking this (cult shows are my guilty tv pleasure).

      1. RVA Cat*

        “Have you heard about cult shows, cult shows?
        Different kinds of cult shows
        Brainwash, sex, and ugly dudes
        And a bit of volleyball.”

  29. MEH Squared*

    OP, I echo the others in saying that you have no blame in this siuation. In fact, I thintk it’s admirable that you and your other coworkers tried to say what you liked about Jane when John pushed you to say negative things. This is all on him.

    I am curious as to why he allowed the one Jane actually had conflict with to not participate, but that’s tangential to the issue at hand. I also wonder if John is still there and if his behavior is indicative of something wrong with your work environment in general.

    In any case, John is solely to blame for this and I hope you can absolve yourself of any guilt you still feel.

  30. HigherEdEscapee*

    Ok, so I was subject to something like this. I’m the commenter who shared the story about my dog pooping next to the desk of the VP who fired me. That same VP, about a month prior to unceremoniously firing me, called a meeting where the agenda, which I got right before I walked in the door was “Everything HigherEdEscapee Is Doing Wrong.” I wish I was kidding. The meeting proceeded just as you would expect. The VP and ED lashing out at me, the other VP and our part time staff completely mystified as to what was going on while being forced to say unpleasant things about me.
    I was vocal in my defense of their absurd criticisms which mostly amounted to 1) you don’t make the coffee that you don’t drink and 2) you don’t instantaneously know when the copier that isn’t anywhere near where you sit is out of paper and so other people have to refill it.

    All this is to say, OP, that you did nothing wrong. I had no issue with the other people in the room. The VP who received the gift from my dog? She was behind it all and it was obvious. Please don’t carry guilt about this. You did nothing wrong. John is the AH here.

    1. Enai*

      Your dog is the real mvp and best doggo. I’m sorry these ridiculous people did that to you.

      Also, LW? John was not reasonable and very likely wouldn’t know what “reasonable” means if you provided him the dictionary definition as well as no fewer than three (3) well-written essays about how to manage conflict between employees reasonably. None of this is your fault.

      1. Ermintrude (she/her)*

        To quote the Captain Awkward blog: Reasons are for reasonable people.
        John had a twisted excuse to abuse Jane, the OP’s actual suggestion was eminently reasonable.

    2. Heffalump*

      Your dog story reminds me of a passage from Congo Kitabu by Jean-Pierre Hallet. One of my favorite nonfiction books. He spent ~12 years in the former Belgian Congo, first with the colonial administration and then in business for himself.

      Hallet left the colonial administration after having one too many battles with his control-freak supervisor. A couple of years later he had occasion to buy two elephants from someone a couple of hundred miles away, so he went to collect them and drive them back to his then current location. The route went through the village where he’d previously been stationed, and he went right past his ex-supervisor’s cabin. The supervisor came out to see what was going on (“like a helmeted mouse”), and with perfect timing, one of the elephants took a dump on his doorstep. Not only are elephants big, but their digestive systems are only 20% efficient, so they take huge dumps.

    3. St Lucia*

      I’m also in higher Ed, and this also happened to me! Wow, why do people do this? With the exception that I wasn’t actually present at the hate circle. I was told about this “all hands” meeting after it happened.
      I was the faculty director of a graduate program. I disagreed with the department chair about a few things he wanted me to do in terms of classes (he wanted to combine 3 classes into 1), which I explained to him would threaten our funding and ability to compete for students etc so I didn’t think think his ideas were a good plan. He couldn’t force me to do what he wanted since my position was independent of the department and was only under the dean, not him. So I politely discussed his idea with him and explained why I wouldn’t be doing it.
      So nezxt he invited all the faculty, admins, and also all the graduate students (!!!) to a meeting specifically convened in order to complain about me. Then, after it happened, he called me up and told me all about the meeting and he also told me that everyone in the meeting disagreed with me about everything I was doing and agreed with him, so I would have to do what he wanted now. (I also heard from other faculty who participated – apparently a few spoke up in my favor but the chair shut them down and kept the meeting on the topic of everything I was doing wrong. Obviously, I wasn’t not present to defend myself).
      It was incredibly hurtful. I had worked very hard for my position and had built the program for years. And I had previously had a good reputation with the faculty and students which I worked hard at.
      However, I realized I could no longer lead the graduate program after my chair had publicly destroyed me like that, in front of all the students and faculty that I needed to lead, and with everyone realizing that he didn’t suppport me. And I believed that he probably really just wanted me out. So I resigned my position immediately to become just plain faculty again, which was way less work for me anyway.
      Weirdly, my chair became even more enraged that I had quit! It turned out to be a disaster becausethe graduate program subsequently lost its funding due to lack of involvement by senior faculty (me, and a few other faculty who he had edged out) and also because of the changes the chair put in place after I quit which weakened our education program.
      I honestly don’t know what other outcome my chair thought would be the outcome of his little hate meeting. Since that time (4 years), he has refused to either look at me or speak to me. Fortunately, nothing in my life depends on him. I’m also on good terms with most of the other faculty who started contacting me etc after it all went down.
      It never occurred to me to go to HR but probably they wouldn’t have done anything anyway – HR in academia is basically a joke.

      1. coffee*

        Well well well, if it isn’t the consequences of his actions.

        I’m sure he wanted you to do whatever he said, so he didn’t have to do the work and had a handy person to blame. You quit and he got neither.

    4. Carit*

      Hm.., I wonder if the after school “counselor” I experienced became that VP….
      It’s unlikely, but I love your dog’s vengeance so much that I will pretend she was.

  31. Jojo*

    As I was reading this banana pants situation I hit, “John, who has a reputation for pushing shortcomings off onto other individuals.” And thought, oh, we have a narcissist. But wow, that flew pretty far past narcissism and right into sadism.

  32. Irish Teacher*

    This was not your fault. What you suggested, a meeting between John, Jane and the employee in question was completely different from what John actually did and far more reasonable. I suspect he had every intention of doing it anyway, whatever you suggested.

    And I’m pretty sure Jane realised that you and others did not want to say anything negative and were likely struggling to think of anything negative.

    I think what I would have done was to try and think of something so utterly minor that it was clear to Jane that “this is the worst thing I can think of about your management because there are no real issues,” but that assumes John would accept something like that and that I could think of an example. Of the top of my head, I am struggling to think of anything I could say for any of my bosses.

  33. Trout 'Waver*

    This is so bizarre I can’t but help jump to nefarious motives. Was John involved with the employee that complained about Jane in any way?

    1. Katydid*

      My parents were like this. Pathological psychology (narcissism and sociopathy in their cases), not ordinary people with nefarious motives. Scapegoating one of their children (different victim at different times) and getting their other children to pile on verbally gave them a sense of belonging, as well as a feeling of power and control. (They needed to expel/exclude someone to get that sense of belonging to a group: there had to be people who were kept out in order for them to be in the center of the group.)

      They kept this pattern of abuse all their lives; when we kids grew up and wouldn’t let them do it to us anymore (or our spouses or children), they found new victims amongst their neighbors and acquaintances. It seems to be how they maintained their psychological equilibrium.

      If John’s like my folks, he’s just looking for an excuse to get a group to pile on someone, and he’s doing it for reasons he doesn’t even understand himself.

    2. EchoGirl*

      OP commented above, apparently it’s even more bizarre than that. According to OP, John was deliberately causing chaos in order to make himself look valuable and evade a possible layoff. Presumably the minor complaint against Jane just gave him an excuse.

  34. Robert E.O. Speedwagon*

    This reads like shit they were accused of doing at Elan School. Holy fuck.

  35. Dances with Flax*

    Since John had apparently had some conflicts of his own with Jane, this may have been his way of nudging her to quit. And even if she hadn’t resigned, everyone else working around her would have been left with an indelible image of Jane sitting in the circle while John egged them all on to criticize her and refused to listen to anyone pointing out her good qualities.

    The only upside to this fiasco is that now you all know what kind of person John really is. If he pulled this with Jane, he can do it to any of you and he’s signaled his willingness to do so. That would have been a “polish up that resume” moment for me!

  36. Polly Hedron*

    I worked for a place that, before my time, had done this. Everyone in one department was complaining about the department head.
    On the theory that open communication would solve everything, the grandboss called a staff meeting and forced all the staff to repeat their complaints to the department head’s face (which of course infuriated the department head).
    The grandboss soon called a second meeting and said they were keeping the department head and “If you can’t be loyal, you should leave.” They almost all quit immediately.

  37. Kristina*

    I’m curious why everyone just didn’t walk out of that as fast they could, instead of participating at all?

    1. Continental Blvd*

      Bc when somebody in authority asks you to do something, the impulse is to comply. And once somebody starts it, the impulse is strengthened. Even if someone was uncomfortable, it is extremely difficult to take a stand and say, “No, this is wrong, I’m leaving.” I have a little sympathy for people who were there in the moment. I do hope at some point they all reflect and realize that participating was poor judgement.

      1. RVA Cat*

        This. In addition to the cult tactics already mentioned, this is reminding me of the infamous Stanford prison “experiment”.

    2. Former Young Lady*

      Power dynamics, and probably a fair bit of shock. Most people don’t have a playbook for a situation like that, because no reasonable person would ever expect it.

    3. Irish Teacher*

      I suspect fear may have been a part. Nobody would know if anybody else would walk out and if only one person did…well, we’ve seen how John treats somebody who just had somebody complain to him about them. If somebody walked out on his plan, I’d imagine he’d be likely to do something at least as bad as this to them.

    4. Carit*

      Yeah, this is where I land, too. But I recognize that my experience gives me a unique awareness of the true urgency, and I will NOT stand by while others are bullied and harmed.

      I know it can be difficult in the moment for many people to do the right thing, even to go for help, for many reasons. I know this, and I accept it in most – not all- situations.

  38. Black horse*

    I had something very similar happen to me…at a birthday sleepover in middle school. For it to happen as an adult, at work, instigated by a manager? Unbelievable. Poor Jane! And poor OP for being forced into such a cruel situation. OP, not your fault. John sucks.

  39. Continental Blvd*

    Oooh, I was the target of something like this. I wasn’t there for the circle, at least, but the way my manager (new to me and new to managing) decided to address some friction he felt with me by holding a meeting with everyone I had worked with and finding out everything that had ever irritated them about me. It was very Mean Girls burn book.

    The friction he felt stemmed from me being a direct communicator (if you have ever used DISC, my D score is like twice the rest of my scores) and him being more touchy-feely. We had a series of meetings in the aftermath where he eventually admitted he didn’t like talking to me. We could probably have benefitted from a REAL facilitated conversation about what came across poorly to him and how people with different communication styles can learn to get along, but the burn meeting was not that.

    I am a big proponent of facilitated conversations and have asked for them with good outcomes. But man, you gotta have the right facilitator. It has to first off be an actual facilitator who knows how to facilitate, but it should also be a neutral third party, not someone in the management chain of either party.

    1. El l*

      That’s even better than the comparison I was going for – “Putting Jane in the medieval stocks.”

  40. Falling Diphthong*

    John playing out some personal agenda of his own.

    OP, you could have said “The sparrows dance at midnight beneath the celery stalks” and John would have come up with this or something similar. This is about him being an ass with power.

  41. Dread Pirate Roberts*

    Given the vast difference between what you suggested and what John came up with, it might be a kindness to yourself to examine why you carry blame over the suggestion itself. Is it a pattern of trying to own the crazy of other people? Or maybe it’s just wrapped up in the ickiness of being a witness / participant – which yeah would stun many people into submission.

    1. Irish Teacher*

      You’ve probably seen this now, but the LW has indicated that John tried to put the blame on her to Jane and others. I get the impression he implied or even outright said that it was her suggestion.

      I strongly suspect that is just another manipulation from John, but I can understand why it would make the LW feel guilty.

  42. Calamity Janine*

    honestly there are only two ways i can make sense of john’s decision here.

    one is: he wanted to do this and would have found a way to do it even if you didn’t mention it, LW, so please don’t feel guilty. this is him on a weird power trip.

    second is: …i know this is conspiratorial, but part of me can’t help but read this as “i am mad that i have to actually do some ‘soft skills’ management work so i’m going to do it as badly as possible so nobody ever asks me to do this again!”.

    am i trying to figure out what chess moves the pigeon is attempting? yes. but it’s such an absurd endpoint to a very sensible request that part of me is just striving to find sense where there’s not any. and so i am over here creating conspiracy theories that this was something he did as an intentional bit of weaponized incompetence to make it make sense…

  43. Csethiro Ceredin*

    This is genuinely monstrous. I can’t see how John can possibly be a decent human being or a decent boss/colleague and I would take any possible steps to avoid him.

  44. Garblesnark*

    John’s conflict management strategy here was almost certainly not inspired by you, LW. It was lifted directly from Patrick Lencioni’s book Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which is chock full of disgusting ideas just like it.

    Also it was actively taught to me in accredited business school in 2023. :)

    1. Enai*

      What!? You’re having us on, aren’t you? Please say you’re having us on.
      I thought that sort of thing was thoroughly debunked and relegated to cults that want to brainwash their members. Who accredited that business school, Dr. Evil?

      1. Garblesnark*

        I would prefer to be lying!

        The same people who accredited Harvard business school also accredited this place.

        1. Enai*

          Well, that’s me speechless. Was the instructor reprimanded or fired for teaching obvious hot garbage, at least?

      2. Goldenrod*

        Dr. Evil’s School of Business would actually explain a lot.

        I think I know of many graduates from that program….My former boss must have graduated with honors.

    2. Christina*

      OMG. I shared a story below about how this basically happened to me. Our team (including our manager) had to read this book a year or 2 earlier to “repair relationships” across 2 teams.

    3. Calamity Janine*

      i am simultaneously deeply horrified, and also somewhat mad at the state of the world because if i had less morals and put in the effort i am *sure* i could do this grift not just better in general but also somehow more ethically than this bonkers yonkers nonsense

    4. Observer*

      I googled the title. I don’t even want to try to understand how anyone can “explain” how something like this would improve any of the items on his list. DEEPLY perverse.

  45. Goldenrod*

    WOWZA. I particularly like this piece of Alison’s advice: “It’s famously hard to know how to react in the moment when something weird like this is happening — there are tons of studies showing how tough people find it — and that’s doubly true when your livelihood is involved.”

    This is so true and it’s validating to hear! When I think back to similar crazy stuff I endured at previous terrible jobs, I tend to think, “Why didn’t I say something and/or react more than I did??” But this is after having had time to process whatever crazypants thing was happening in the moment, unexpectedly.

    I would like to uncharitably add that I really wish I could put my former crazy boss in the center of this (wildly inappropriate) grievance circle. I would have SOOO much to say.

    1. Rainbow*

      I mean, I wouldn’t want to do this to anyone but having my wildly unpopular old big boss on the middle would be sitcom-level funny. All the employees would be fighting for who had the worst grievance, and Former Big Boss would definitely still leave the exercise happily assuming everyone still worshipped the ground he walked on!

  46. RVA Cat*

    Since they didn’t have the aluminum pole or feats of strength, we can cross comedy streams and say “she turned me into a newt!”

  47. Addison DeWitt*

    I was involved with an organization, as a volunteer. They did a retreat (aka giving up your weekend for meetings) and at one point we were all supposed to take the end of a piece of yarn and then come up with some way we had disappointed the organization, let it down… and drop the piece of yarn as we confessed our sin.

    I figured, I’m a volunteer, they’re lucky to get whatever they get out of me and I had several accomplishments in audience-building and publicity efforts, so I refused to let go of my piece of yarn. At the end, they’re all looking at me, because I didn’t feel guilty about anything.

    They were not pleased that I didn’t abase myself, but you know, F that BS. Good for Jane for quitting almost on the spot, I wish (but don’t blame her) she had simply walked out once this disgusting incident started.

  48. Christina*

    My boss tried to do this with me, though framed as “helping me repair bridges.”

    After 3 years of glowing performance reviews, project awards, and nothing but great feedback from my boss, as soon as I started asking about moving up or moving into a management role, she suddenly told me that she’d gotten complaints ever since I started from my colleagues that I was hard to work with. When I asked why this was the first I was hearing about it, she said “it made her uncomfortable, and this was what she meant that I was too confrontational.” She wouldn’t tell me who said these things because it was “confidential” but she suggested I go to random coworkers and ask for their feedback on my work style. When I did that, and got positive feedback and shared that with her, she said she hadn’t heard the same thing. This time, she gave me a list of people who had complained, told me I should set up 1:1 meetings with them for them to tell me the problems that they had with me. When I asked (twice) for her to be part of these conversations to help facilitate them, she said no because I would get more honest feedback if she wasn’t in the room, and then I was supposed to report back to her with what they said and what I was going to change.

    A friend dubbed this “Christina’s Contrition Tour.” I quit the next day with nothing lined up.

    1. A Simple Narwhal*

      Man your boss was really doing olympic-level gymnastics to get out of doing their job.

    2. Garblesnark*

      This happened to me too!!

      Except instead of telling me who make the accusations when I came back with written evidence that everyone on my team thought I was fine or better, they ignored the evidence completely and continued to tell me I was bad at relationships and mean and unprofessional.

      1. AnonORama*

        My abusive former boss told me people “lined up at her door” to complain about me, but that no one would address me directly because I was either too aggressive or too fragile (depending on the day). She wouldn’t tell me who complained, but I asked everyone I worked with if they’d like me to do anything differently, and there were a few small, legit suggestions and zero complaints. I wondered if my boss had misinterpreted something, but then realized she just got off on being mean.

        And I wasn’t even her #1 target! She also told my coworker she’d look into getting the coworker’s position turned into full-time on the next year’s budget, and when the budget was passed without the change, my coworker asked about it. Our boss gave her a sad look and said, in that awful smarmy tone people use with dementia patients, “dear, we never had that conversation.”

        I know the word “gaslighting” is overused, but in this case, it’s accurate.

        1. Christina*

          Possibly the worst part of the whole experience was my boss (and her boss, and the whole organization in general) thought they were so kind and nice and supportive so it felt like, wow, if this kind nice person is telling me people hate working with me because I’m mean and she only didn’t tell because of how nice she is, then it must be something really wrong with me. That was also my cue to get out of nonprofits

      2. Christina*

        YEP. When I told my boss that I did what she asked and solicited feedback from colleagues and shared what the feedback was, I think she wasn’t expecting me to have done that so it took a bunch of her ammo away. That’s when it turned into the blustering about I must not have talked to the right people (and the “right” people were exactly who I thought: an old white guy coming off a career change who didn’t like that I knew how to do my job better than he did, a coworker who thought we should all be so grateful to be working for a nonprofit to the extent that we shouldn’t ask for travel reimbursement, and a coworker who I had documented to my boss multiple times wasn’t doing her job). Funny that.

      3. Enai*

        Sounds like the mean and unprofessional people who are bad at relationships were your bosses.

    3. Goldenrod*

      “A friend dubbed this “Christina’s Contrition Tour.””

      LOL! How could you NOT quit in that situation??

      1. Christina*

        My friend asked if they provided the sackcloth and ashes or if I was supposed to get them myself

        1. Calamity Janine*

          at least you get to mark it as a business expense, next to the ritual clipboard to smack yourself in the head with after each chant of “mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” as you march around the office

    4. Anon Also Too Direct*

      As absolutely terrible as all this is, thank you for sharing because it helps me realize that this happens to other people too, not just me. And to the commenter who suggested that the boss was threatened by Christina: sadly, I suspect that is true in my case too, but it took me awhile to come back from the emotional beating and realize that.

    5. All Het Up About It*

      I think I would have had to set up at least one of these 1:1 meetings with the complainers to see if they REALLY would have complained to me.

      But then, yes, still would have quit after that because absolutely your manager sucked and wasn’t going to get better.

  49. Someone Else's Boss*

    Who knows what I would have done in that situation, but I would like to think that at this point in my career, I would have gotten up and went to HR. I cannot imagine what John was thinking!

  50. Teacher Here*

    Anybody else watch Abbott Elementary? It was bad enough when Ava did this in the first episode- definitely not funny in real life. OP, it wasn’t your fault. You made a thoughtful and professional suggestion. Your manager is nuts.

    1. Ex-prof*

      Oh, did it come from a tv show? That explains it. That’s probably where John got the idea. The only analogous situation I could think of was the struggle sessions in the Cultural Revolution. (Which I know people who went through as victims: Those were much worse than what John did, of course.)

      1. Dahlia*

        Abbott Elementary first aired in December 2021 and this letter says this happened “several years ago” so, probably not where he got the idea.

    2. Carit*

      It was done to me, as a kid, in about 1983. So, definitely predates the show. I’m horrified that it was shown as comic in any way. WTH?!

      1. Teacher Here*

        The principal tries it on a teacher, and the rest of the staff stand up to her and tells her to stop- it definitely wasn’t being shown a good choice. I’m sorry that was done to you as a child.

  51. Kelsbells22*

    It always amazes me how some people actually make it to management. This whole bullying circle must have been awful. My husband had something similar several years ago but it was more of a “ firing squad”. His boss not only brought in HR but several other upper management to sit in as he fired my husband from his job. They were only called there to basically try to humiliate him. But unbeknownst to the boss, my husband was leaving that toxic workplace for another job anyways.

    1. RVA Cat*

      So glad it worked out for your husband!

      It’s mind-blowing how clueless and sadistic some bosses are. It’s grim to think how the “firing squad” could become more literal in the US if it made someone snap.

      1. Kelsbells22*

        My husband is definitely a lot happier where is is now. The funny part is right after the toxic boss fired him, that boss also broke a million dollar contract with a vendor. A contract my husband wrote. The vendor sued the company and their lawyer asked if my husband would testify. He was a main key witness basically. The lawyer told him that he didn’t have to, but my husband did. His old place of employment lost the case… big time. They not only had to pay the million, but also an extra million, plus pay all the lawyers and they no longer have the product to use. Karma!!!

  52. Rose*

    Wow. The JV lacrosse team did this when I was a sophomore in high school and even then most of us knew it was a bad idea. John has the emotional intelligence of a mean young teenager.

  53. Paulina*

    LW, if you’re regretting your suggestion for a facilitated conversation with Jane, because you think it led to what John did, please let yourself off the hook. You said yourself that you didn’t have any management experience and don’t know why John asked you; there’s a very good chance that you weren’t the only person that he asked, and he may have cast a wide net for potential approaches and picked the one he liked, or built his own after looking around. So your questions about why he asked you and why he then did something that wasn’t much like what you suggested, to me seem to have the same likely answer: he wasn’t really consulting you specifically.

  54. I have RBF*


    That is so much not how to give feedback or solve an issue between a supervisor and a single employee. Yikes on bikes this is bad.

  55. Rara Avis*

    Strangely enough, I just watched the pilot episode of Abbott Elementary, which had pretty much this same scenario.

  56. Magpies*

    My only criticism of Jane is that she gave notice 30 minutes after the meeting, and didn’t just walk out.

    1. Pipe Organ Guy*

      I’ll bet Jane was so stunned and in shock it took here 30 minutes to absorb the impact and decide, “This is something I will not put up with.”

  57. plumerai*

    100%, John is in one of the derivatives of EST. The Landmark Forum is the most obvious culprit, but I’m sure that there are other culty type things that have arisen from the ashes of EST. One of the things people do in EST is pretty much exactly this – someone sits in the middle of the circle, and people around them tell them what they’ve done wrong, and that person has to sit there until they “get it.” That’s it: Until you “get it.”

    This comes from a friend who was in EST back in the day. It’s a cult technique, it’s horrifying, and I would not be surprised if Jane is truly traumatized by this. I can’t imagine what OP should have done differently!

    1. Ermintrude (she/her)*

      Landmark graduate here, oh heck to the no. This sort of behaviour would cause a massive stink and would have seen shut down with the ringleader/s being reamed out with shiny new anuses when I was involved and I doubt that it would be tolerated now. Landmark has become a pretty different beast from EST over time.
      Thankfully parts of the original EST have been jettisoned, they were pretty awful actually. I would not have stayed on board with Landmark anywhere as long as I did if it were still so.

  58. Cat's Paw for Cats*

    I’m sure over the years I must have heard about worse managers than this, but for the life of me I can’t think of one.

  59. Ex-prof*

    Can John make the ballot for worst boss of the year, or is he disqualified because LW wasn’t the person he was (most) awful to?

  60. Alex*

    It doesn’t seem like “How about sitting down and talking out the problem with a neutral third party” could possibly be construed as “let’s everyone physically surround Jane and make her feel as awful as possible both mentally and physically.” I think you can rest assured that John did not in any way take your advice. He instead made up his own thing.

  61. Sam*

    This is Attack Therapy; it’s almost exclusively used in cults and the Troubled Teen Industry.* It is extremely dark that LW’s boss even knew how to do this.

    *Btw, the TTI was borne of a cult called Synanon. All those ranches, fake schools, and wilderness programs where people send their depressed kids? Their methodology comes from that cult. The TrueAnon podcast did a really upsetting miniseries on it called The Game.

  62. Bruce*

    I know people who went through the Cultural Revolution in China, this sounds like a scenario from those days

  63. axolotlquestions*

    I had a manager who demanded we do this to her. They had just started in the role, and were doing a terrible job. A team meeting was held and the fact that we felt there were issues with their leadership came up, and they became very defensive and demanded that we all provide details of the issues there and then.
    I tried to deflect and say that this kind of feedback should be provided anonymously or at least one-to-one, but they refused. 10 minutes later after the entire team had discussed their failings with all members of the team agreeing with the criticisms raised, the manager left in tears.

  64. Michelle Smith*

    This story is horrific. It’s like the opposite of a restorative justice circle. I understand why it’s still bothering you all these years later. I hope Alison’s response helps you and that if you haven’t already, you forgive yourself for any lingering guilt you feel. (This is absolutely NOT in any way your fault, but the fact that you apologized and wrote into AAM in this way makes me think you may feel guilt even though you lack responsibility for this.)

  65. Michelle Smith*

    LW4: I am an anxious person (clinically). One thing that helps me not sound desperate or pushy in follow up communications is to have a template. I customize it to the person I’m writing to, but it keeps me on track and prevents me from agonizing over whether my word choice will be well-received.

    Generally it flows something like this:

    Hi Person’s Name,

    I wanted to follow up with you [since whatever deadline they gave me for making their decision on next steps has now passed] to see if there is an updated timeline [for a decision/for next steps]. I remain [very interested in/excited about] [whatever position it is that I want them to hire me for]. Thanks in advance for any information you can provide.

    My Real Name

    I only include the information about timeline when they tell me something in the interview like “I should know more about next steps by March 13/three weeks from now/after Jane gets back from vacation next week.” And I do not ever follow up exactly on the day they told me they’d get back to me. I give it between a couple of business days to up to a week after that just in case something came up (people get sick, HR might be moving slowly because of competing obligations, etc.). And I frame it in a way that suggests I get that and know they may have had to shift the timeline, and just want to know any updates they might have that could impact my decision-making in the other interview processes I’m in.

    Making a template and committing to a timeframe for following up may help you avoid rambling or needy-sounding messages in the future. I know it has helped me!

  66. Pipe Organ Guy*

    This took me back to nearly twenty years ago. We had a weekly staff meeting, and on this occasion the associate rector asked us to meet in the small chapel off the main body of the church, rather than in our normal meeting room. We were all (10-12 of us) sitting in a circle. As things progressed, I was horrified to witness this associate rector taking one of my coworkers to task, in front of us, for his failings in his job performance. He stood up, threw his keys to the floor, and stormed out. We sat there in stunned silence. Afterwards, I shared with our parish administrator that I thought this was horrible, and that those kinds of conversations needed to be in private, not in front of the whole staff. For some reason, that hadn’t even occurred to her.

    The associate rector went on a year or two later to become rector at another parish in another state; my coworker is still on staff. I’m retiring in a couple of months. I’ve put up with a lot over the years; fortunately, I’ve never seen anything like this incident again.

  67. yala*

    Good LORD! I wouldn’t even want to do this to a boss I didn’t like and actually had grievances with!

    It reminds me of how our library board essentially just berated our then-director for roughly an hour about whatever they could think of until she got demoralized enough to turn in her notice. (We have a…a bad library board. Like. In the news a couple of times bad. It’s bad. They’re bad.)

    This sounds horrible for EVERYONE involved. Realistically I don’t think there’s much you could’ve done because it sounds like John was on a power trip.

    1. Luna*

      Right? I would have flat-out refused to give any complaints regarding Jane’s behavior. And upon being asked why I was refusing instructions, would start complaining about John’s behavior. What the F was this dude’s problem?

  68. Luna*

    That sounds horrendous! Especially in a circle! That is a literal ‘complaints from all directions’ thrown at you. I can understand sitting down and having an open talk about issues. But not in a circle! How demeaning. And psychologically torturing because you are literally the center of something that is (verbally) attacking you.

    If you want an open talk, you do it at like a table or in a sort of triangle shape. A bit of distance between the two parties, and a wall behind the parties’ backs. Not an open back, like you’re ready to let someone stab you there.

  69. life pls stop imitating art, it's creepy*

    A few years back I wrote a story about a workplace where a “team-building” retreat is sabotaged by the facilitator, who manipulates the employees to turn on one another and do things that ensure they’ll never be able to look one another in the eye again afterwards.

    It was sparked by the terribad “cuddle a co-worker” idea, but in fleshing it out I drew on things I’d read about gamification and cult techniques, with the goal of making it as messed up as I could manage while still being psychologically believable. One of the things the facilitator does is… exactly what John did here.

    It was meant to be fiction, dammit!

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