why won’t my company fire my notoriously terrible manager?

A reader writes:

I was part of a mass exodus from my former employer, and most of us left because we didn’t want to continue working with our director, “Ken.” I can spare you the details, but Ken is completely awful. I saw wonderful coworkers who were otherwise completely pleasant and professional be reduced to crying, swearing at Ken, raising their voices to him, and rage-quitting meetings with him. It might not be an exaggeration to say that working with Ken was seriously traumatic, as many former employees, including me, have had nightmares about him since leaving. I gave direct feedback to Ken, as well as Ken’s boss and HR (and I know other people did as well), but we never saw any significant changes in his behavior. There have been a slew of Glassdoor reviews from both current and former employees referencing Ken being terrible to work for/with.

A lot of us are wondering why Ken hasn’t been terminated. So much good talent has left or is leaving because of him, and it’s baffling why the company continues to let this happen. I’ve heard all of the possible reasons being speculated:

1. The higher-ups somehow, despite the direct feedback and it being all over Glassdoor, don’t know how terrible he is.

2. Ken has dirt on his boss and has blackmailed them into keeping him on.

3. Ken’s part of a protected class and the company is afraid to fire him because they think it would be a liability (I hate to bring this one up, but this is how much people are grasping at straws).

4. The higher-ups think that you have to do the terrible things Ken is doing to get results out of people.

5. The higher-ups are using Ken to get people to quit so they can avoid laying people off.

Of all of these, I think 4 and 5 are the most likely. However, I don’t think the data would support 4. Ken was on parental leave last year, and I’m pretty sure the numbers would show that people were more productive when he wasn’t there (I’m kicking myself for not doing the math when I had the chance). They were certainly happiest when he was gone. That leaves 5 as the most likely candidate in my opinion, although it sounds far-fetched. On the other hand, our industry has been plagued by layoffs recently and the company’s business outlook isn’t great, so a Ken-induced mass exodus could be a way to get a lot of people to resign while not doing an official layoff. Almost none of the positions left empty by folks resigned have been backfilled due to budget constraints, which is partly why I think it’s 5.

I’m curious for your thoughts about this situation, and in general why terrible people aren’t fired.

In the vast majority of situations like this that I’ve seen, it’s none of those explanations! It’s much more common for it to be reasons #6 or #7:

6. Wimpy management above the terrible employee — management that’s too weak and/or conflict-averse to take the sort of action that results in real change (whether that’s getting the terrible employee to behave differently or firing them). This is so, so common.


7. Management above the bad manager values his non-management contributions more than anything else. If Ken is fantastic at something they really prioritize — especially something that brings in a ton of money — some companies will care about that more than the fact that’s he’s a bad manager who’s driving people away. This is usually short-sighted because there’s a point where the cost of constant churn is higher than whatever benefits the problem person brings … and in addition to that, there are opportunity costs to having someone like this on your staff: who’s to say what creative and revenue-generating initiatives people might come up with if they weren’t living in fear of Ken and trying to work around him, or what strong hires they’re missing out on because Ken has a reputation and people don’t want to work for him, or how many junior people could have blossomed into high contributors but aren’t because Ken stifles them or drives them out of the field entirely? But it’s very, very, very common for people to get away with bad management because they’re really good at something else.

Now, in your situation, it’s possible that it’s actually your explanation #5 (wanting people to quit so the company can avoid layoffs) but I’m skeptical … because generally when you need to shrink your staff, you want to pick the people who leave and the roles you’re cutting, and not just cut positions indiscriminately. When people flee a Ken, you’re most likely to lose your best people first — the ones you least want to want to lose — because they have the most options. If achieving lower staff numbers is their goal, this would be an incredibly messy and ineffective way to get there.

Also, a legal note: everyone is part of a protected class, because protected classes are things like race (not just race X), gender (not just gender X), and so forth. So it takes more than membership in a protected class for a discrimination suit, although some groups are more likely to need the protection of anti-discrimination laws than others.

{ 337 comments… read them below }

  1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Alison is spot-on about #6 and #7.

    #7 in particular, I’ve worked for a number of jerks who would never get fired, because having them on the company payroll automatically jumped us to the top of the pile when competing for contracts. The jerk was one of the first people in a particular technical field, was an excellent writer and presenter, etc. What the company should have done to keep other people happy was to pigeonhole the jerk as an SME & individual contributor, not a manager.

    1. Spearmint*

      Honestly I think a lot of bad management is a result of systems that only only allow people to move up by becoming managers. So many people who are either poorly suited to management or don’t really want to manage become managers because of this.

      1. Brain the Brian*

        Yep yep yep. I have a close family member who declined management positions for her entire career because she knew she would bad at it. She was brilliant technically and got raises as a result, but she got to the top of the nonmanagement title stack pretty quickly.

        1. Heffalump*

          At one point my father, a chemistry Ph.D., was being groomed for management. He finally said, “This isn’t for me. Put me back in the lab.”

          1. Ex consultant*

            This is me. As the name suggests, I worked in consulting for over a decade and the only way to advance was the management track. It took me getting fired to realize I hate managing and I suck at it. I have severe ADHD and I can barely manage myself; I do not want to be responsible for others. I am forever grateful that I found a position in government where my true talents are recognized and appreciated. My supervisors know and respect that I’m not interested in moving up; just assign me work and leave me alone.

          2. Clarbar*

            My dad had the same experience, but as an engineer. I think had the same title for more than 20 years by the time he retired last year. After getting to the tip of the non-management heap, advancement came through getting more interesting/complicated collaborations and projects (NASA Goddard!) and rewards for things like papers published and patents. He also worked for same company since he graduated college! (His division got sold a few times, but he’s literally only ever interviewed for a job once in his life.)

            1. Brain the Brian*

              My close relative to a T. She wrote safety-critical flight software for a living, so there was always something interesting to be done!

        2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          I worked with several people that were promoted to management, worked in management (and did a decent job in some cases), then jumped ship back to development the minute they could. Typically they changed jobs to get away from the management track, so the company lost a valuable contributor by promoting them to a manager position that they didn’t want.

          My dad was brilliant like your family member, was promoted to management at 35, managed 60-70 people for his entire career… and regretted it every day.

          1. Ollie*

            This was me. I wanted to be a manager but I quickly realized after becoming one that I now had to please two groups of people, the people above me and the people below me and they were quite often at odds. I remember one particular thing that happened that totally ruined it for me. I had good talented people working on a software system that the people above me decided to retire in 6 months time. I was not allowed to tell my people that they were going to be out of a job soon. I changed jobs and went back to the front lines.

      2. goddessoftransitory*

        I agree! I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that the only way to promote/give raises to Ken in this company is through the management track, so he’s being put into positions he is spectacularly ill suited for, is driving entire departments of people out, and causing chaos with the remaining staff because he’s the best at [Skill Set X] but the only way to keep his raises/bonuses/titles rising is to keep making him manager of various things due to how things are structured.

        1. TiredHiringManager*

          Could be. I used to work at a consulting firm that technically had an individual contributor track, but the only real way to advance in practice was to manage projects and people.

        2. Reluctant Mezzo*

          Although in the company I worked at was a family corporation, so anyone with the right last name could be pretty awful before they were moved elsewhere (though at one point the Big Boss fired his own son, and we were incredibly impressed).

      3. Smithy*

        So so true – and then those terrible managers are in fact good in their specific area of expertise.

        My own #8 is really just an expansion of the wimps of #6 – in that those in senior management don’t want to take the time to fix the mess of the bad manager situation. Essentially a case of a long-standing technical expert with a lot of historical knowledge – that no doubt is not well documented. And when it is documented, it’s not easy to decipher.

        So the calculation made by the wimpy management is the sunken cost fallacy that the loss of this person’s technical expertise, connections, and historical knowledge – is more money and effort than they want to expend.

        1. JustaTech*

          Oh boy did I have a boss like this. He wasn’t a bad person, but he was a terrible manager, just not good at the people parts at all.

          But he’d been with the company since the very, very early days when stuff wasn’t well documented (not least because he was terrible about actually writing up all the stuff that didn’t work), so if you needed to know something you had to ask him.

          He stuck around way too long, to the point some people assumed he had compromising photos, but finally left after a demotion and new management.

      4. Blarg*

        I’m stuck in a management role right now. The people who work under me are awesome. One is incredibly self-sufficient and a breeze to be the manager of. The other is earlier in his career and I really work to give him the support/engagement I know he wants. But I honestly would just love to not have to be anyone’s boss. There are a lot of things I’m really good at. Being the boss isn’t one of them.

      5. Anonymous was already taken*

        This is so true! It’s, why I stayed in my same role for 5 years, everyone says don’t you want to move up, I said but the only option is management and I don’t want to manage people! Then I did a couple of full in roles for the managers and discovered I’m actually really good at managing people! (side issue is now I can’t move up permanently as I spent too long in the weeds)

        1. Ollie*

          When my husband had to move 800 miles away for a job I negotiated a work from home situation that allowed me to move with him and keep my job. My manager said to me – you realize that this is a career ending move, you can’t be promoted any higher. Great! I was still well paid and I didn’t want to move any higher.

    2. Angstrom*

      That’s the problem when the only path for advancement is into management. I’ve never understood the logic of “You’re a great engineer/salesman/designer/etc! We’re going to reward you by having you manage people!”. It’s a completely different skill.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Agreed. A lot of times it’s something like “to justify x salary for this role it needs to include management responsibilities” and then having that person in management is more costly in productivity, morale, and turnover than creating a parallel non-management role would be. But that’s hard to show on a financial statement.

        1. Quill*

          It’s also a huge problem for the people not being considered for management – because what people are paying for non management roles doesn’t go up to match inflation, or experience, or education when the primary consideration for pay scale is whether or not management is part of the position.

      2. Hannah Lee*

        It’s part of the general “up or out” mindset that a lot of companies lock on to for whatever reason.

        Employee A could be really great at their job and really enjoy their job, be satisfied with their compensation package and work environment and happy with modest pay raises instead of big salary jumps. They could be willing to keep up with advances in their field, be happy to incorporate new systems and processes into their work. And they could be an overall asset to the group, larger organization because of their direct contributions but also because of their informal mentorship, guidance of other employees, because of the stabilizing presence of their tenure, and because of the reputation they have outside of their group. All great things!

        But if management has an “up or out” mindset, none of that will matter, because there will be a metaphorical boot on their butt, pressuring them to either pursue a promotion into management or leave for new opportunities elsewhere.

        I get that some roles, departments are intended as a feeder role to other roles, and there might be some groups where an entire roster of steady-staters isn’t ideal. But a lot of the time, it really doesn’t serve any purpose to force people out of a role they are really good at, and ding them if they don’t want to move, just because Jack Welch and his sorry ilk declared it so.

    3. Bee*

      Right, that should be a really easy thing to do – tell them they’re MUCH too valuable to have to waste their time managing people, here’s the same salary and prestige to focus on bringing in money/raising our company’s visibility at conferences etc. Of course then you also have to hire an additional person to actually manage, so.

      1. ferrina*

        I’m a fan of this tactic. “Oh, we don’t want you to be bogged down by the paperwork of management.” All the prestige, none of the people fleeing in terror (or at least, a lot less).
        The most successful tactic I’ve seen for managing these folks is to put them under a Very Senior VIP (usually one step below the CEO), then the Very Senior VIP has a executive assistant or pseudo-HR person who actually keeps an eye on them (Very Senior usually doesn’t have the time to manage either, but a well-placed highly competent support person can flag potential issues and troubleshoot really effectively).

        1. Chalky Duplicate*

          I’ve been the talented engineer with no management skills at all, and when this is done well it’s extremely effective (and flattering / good for retention).

          Back in the mid-2000s, my employer of the time created a role for someone with heavy administrative/organizational/people skills and a C-student understanding of my field, to basically be half-manager / half-assistant. They fielded meetings on my behalf, solved technical problems that were easy enough to not really need my time, and scheduled my time for the tough cases and helped me stay aware of what the business needed from me and by what deadline (while having a gentle enough touch to make it feel like they were helping rather than directing me, while the truth was somewhere between the two). When the department grew, that member of support staff took on something more like a conventional PM role as well.

          There wasn’t really a salary boost with the organizational shift concurrent with which their position was created — this was a startup, everyone was working for peanuts + an ownership share — but this was a huge benefit in terms of my experience quality coming to work and getting things done.

      2. L*

        There is surely a flip side to this: namely, that some of us would like to be in management, but we’re constantly held back because we have niche skill sets that make us “MUCH too valuable” to be in management. I can think of no better example than lawyers.

    4. Antilles*

      Yeah, I’ve definitely seen that.
      The other common occurrence #7 is that he’s a stellar salesman (or equivalent), so it ends up being a debate between the vagueness of “Ken is rude and a jerk” versus the explicit clear number in black ink of “Ken is worth $X million per year in sales”.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        In the legal biz, rainmakers famously can be as obnoxious as they want to be. This is perfectly straightforward. Less clear is why they need to be put in charge of people doing the actual work. Rainmaking and doing the work it brings in are distinct skill sets. Why not put Ken in a big corner office with a thick-skinned secretary who is handsomely paid to put up with him, let him do his thing, and keep him away from the rest of the staff?

        1. Ominous Adversary*

          You’re thinking about this logically. Law firms are notorious for not thinking about these issues logically.

          It’s probably one or more of the following:

          1) Rainmaker has a big ego, and will stomp off like a big baby if told there is something he is not good at (e.g., literally everything but rainmaking)

          2) Rainmaker really doesn’t need to put in many hours to do the rainmaking, and doesn’t want his partners to see how much ‘work’ he literally does

          3) Rainmaker has mental health issues where he is uncomfortable not being “busy” and “at work” constantly, and if rainmaking doesn’t take up enough time, he will manufacture “work” largely consisting of interfering with and micromanaging others

          4) The partnership refuses to do a cost-benefit analysis of how much money the firm is *losing* through Rainmaker being present

          5) Rainmaker isn’t in fact bringing in all that much money, but is very adept at taking credit for others’ work/blaming others for his shortcomings, and everyone just goes along with the received wisdom that “he brings in a lot of business

          1. Richard Hershberger*

            By way of counterexample, I used to know a lawyer who, when she was a paralegal, was assigned to the firm’s rainmaker. He was generally understood to be an incompetent lawyer, but he was from the right family and brought in the business. To the extent that he did actual legal work, my acquaintance’s job was to make sure he didn’t do too much damage, alerting the responsible adults when necessary.

            1. Ominous Adversary*

              That is a less-dysfunctional-than-average way to manage the situation, but dismissing “not too much damage” is a problem when you’re the client whose case he is ‘lightly’ damaging, or when a seasoned, competent professional goes to a competitor because they’re tired of Rainmaker’s nonsense.

              I doubt that the firm sat down and did a solid cost-benefit analysis of how much business they really brought in through Rainmaker, vs. how much damage he did to them financially in other realms, vs. how much business they could bring in through other channels in his absence. Some of these ‘rainmakers’ get by because everyone around them just assumes without question that they are essential to helping the firm turn a profit.

            2. AnonyNurse*

              This is like half of medical practices, where there’s an NP or RN or PA cleaning up after the doc or running prevention. I worked at a hospital with a real … of a cardiothoracic surgeon (not a specialty known for friendliness, and this guy was extra special). The practice had an NP whose job was basically to run interference for this guy. He started rounds at 5am, and she’d come in at 3:30am, to be sure that things were as he liked them, to review his notes on his own patients so that when he started yelling about things not being done, she’d be ready to remind him that’s what he ordered, etc. I dreaded when he was on service, but I did really enjoy the NP.

          2. JustaTech*

            Interesting that this is the intersection of Big Law and science Academia, where if Professor Big Deal brings in the big grants, no one will deal with the fact that he’s astonishingly abusive and chews through grad students like a mulcher.

        2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          Why not put Ken in a big corner office with a thick-skinned secretary who is handsomely paid to put up with him, let him do his thing, and keep him away from the rest of the staff?

          1, cruel to said Admin Assistant unless the JD is literally “trade sanity for fistfuls of cash” and
          2, not enough masochists to service all the Rainmakers.

          Other than that, solid proposal.

          1. Rocket Raccoon*

            I’ve had a job that was literally “babysit the VP”. It can go either way, depending on the VP.

            My VP was fine – he was nasty to people who didn’t enact his (horrible) ideas, but very jovial with people who just did whatever he wanted (my job).

            I have seen another VP who was just awful to everyone and I wouldn’t have wanted to be his EA at all.

          2. AngryOctopus*

            Honestly, I’ve known several admins who are excellent at managing people like Ken, and would take that job in a second. It’s a specific personality type for sure, but there are absolutely those out there who would take that on and do a beautiful job of managing up Ken w/out seeming like they influenced him at all. He’ll never even know he’s being kept away from the other staff!

            1. NotAnotherManager!*

              Yup. I work with kick-ass EA right now whose big, scary, business generating Ken is borderline terrified of her. She is exceptional at her job, and she knows when to walk away and roll her eyes and when to tell him to sit down and mind his manners. She gets things done. She is paid handsomely for it, and it was made very clear in the interview what she was dealing with. Some people are good at managing difficult people without the difficult person knowing they’re being managed.

          3. learnedthehardway*

            As long as the EA is informed at the outset about what the challenges are – there are definitely some people who are very good at managing very difficult people. Because that’s really what this person does. It might look like the management goes in the opposite direction, but the reality is that the EA manages the executive. People who can do this are gold.

          4. Bunny Lake Is Found*

            Eh, I’ve seen it. It doesn’t always work, but every once in awhile you find an Admin who isn’t ruffled very much by the behavior that drove many others to quit. If it works out, the Admin to the Nightmare Boss will basically have it made in other areas of the job because no one will want to risk the Admin leaving and trying to find someone else.

            1. Reluctant Mezzo*

              And some people just match up well. I was warned about an older woman with a Personality, but if you just admired the pictures of the deer she shot and commiserated a bit about the Younger Generation, she was nice as pie. We’re still FB friends a decade after we stopped working with each other.

        3. J*

          In a Big Law firm I worked in, they had an ombudsperson. They also had a committee that person presented to and the committee would do the math on the reality of lawsuit cost versus the cost of the employee in question. They’d keep it semi-anonymous, listing pay grade of the person(s) making the complaint and things like publicness of the incident and manager’s thoughts. I know because they documented this and presented it at Board meetings. They’d document exactly how racist someone was but the benefit in keeping them. Then they’d preach DEI in pitches and tell the diverse staff to join committees for change and then give them lower reviews for so much committee time.

          Only once did someone get fired but 1) it happened very publicly at a firmwide event in a public place and involved racist and sexist behaviors including physical contact with a tongue, 2) the partner involved lost support from his own boss in that moment but they still would have kept him if the boss had asked, 3) they still gave him a payout outside of his equity and paid for him to go to rehab with a positive reference letter.

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            This sounds like a discovery nightmare for the inevitable lawsuit. If you’re not going to do anything about it, don’t do the math. “Well, your honor, you can see here that they were willing to tolerate approximately $2.45M of racism per year.”

            1. Reluctant Mezzo*

              This sounds like the bit in Animal House where inferior candidates for Alpha House were directed to the punchbowl room where the foreign guys, the blind guy and the guy in the wheelchair were kept.

        4. Fish*

          Long ago, LinkedIn published a story about toxic manager “Freddy”, who was fired only after his conduct in an interview cost the employer a job candidate they really wanted.

          The candidate, Nancy, would have brought a lot of new business with her. Including some clients who would come only if they could continue working with her.

          Glen, who shared the original story with LI, admitted in a follow-up that the employer had looked the other way on Freddy because he was great face-to-face with clients. Other people did the actual work Freddy brought in. Freddy treated colleagues badly, and didn’t hide that from Nancy in the interview.

      2. College Career Counselor*

        Big fan of Bob Sutton’s “The No Asshole Rule.” Lays out the costs toxic jerks cause even if they’re “rainmakers” (absenteeism, illness, turnover, training new hires, reputational hits, etc.).

    5. TootsNYC*

      >>What the company should have done to keep other people happy was to pigeonhole the jerk as an SME & individual contributor, not a manager.

      So many companies don’t understand or won’t accept the idea of paying an individual contributor more than you pauy the person who manages them.
      They know some expert deserves more money, and they have to pay them that to keep them from leaving. So they promote them into management, instead of simply labeling them a star layer and paying them a lot more without giving them management responsibilities or authority.

      1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        This is probably because pay bands only allow for so much without people becoming managers.
        Also, people who get a kick out of terrorising other people, won’t like it if they’re not given people to terrorise.

    6. Sloanicota*

      I think I would rephrase #6 as something like “inertia is extremely powerful.” If Ken has been there for a long time, longer than these “new” employees that come and go, the idea of changing Ken may seem more scary to the leadership than the fear of continuing on in their current not-good state.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        “But Scylla and Charybdis have ALWAYS been here! You’ll learn to work around them or get eaten soon enough.”

      2. Goldenrod*

        “I think I would rephrase #6 as something like “inertia is extremely powerful.””

        Hard agree! My last boss was a “Ken.” She is horrid – and she doesn’t even bring in good results, because she’s incompetent and has others do her work – but since she’s near retirement age – and since she has powerful allies – her bosses (I believe) are just waiting for her to eventually retire.

        Since the people above her aren’t the ones who are suffering (aka they don’t have to report to her), they find it easier to turn a blind eye. Awful, but true.

        1. Reluctant Mezzo*

          I had a boss like that, but she slowly but surely lost all but one of her reports because of her um, personality (she had to have the one report, who needed psychic powers to keep up with her).

    7. Artemesia*

      yeah, I have seen horrifying rain makers protected. Men who harassed women, who destroyed other careers intentionally, who were raging azzhats, but who brought in grants or clients.

      And the protected class argument is bogus. Yes we are all in ‘protected classes’ but the fact is that many managers are reluctant to deal with a poor employee who is a racial minority or sometimes an elderly person because they fear lawsuits that will cost more in reputation and money than just living with terrible workers. I watched a friend’s company do this with a minority hire who literally never did any work for months because of one excuse after another but they still were afraid to fire her. And yes, of course they could have, but weak management and their legal team are often afraid to.

      1. Ominous Adversary*

        What you are leaving out is that they are often afraid to fire these bad workers because the company has been bad at management. When Legal asks “when we’re accused of discrimination, how are you going to show that this person was fired for objective reasons?” the company comes up empty-handed, because they haven’t documented the bad behavior, or allowed it to slide for others.

        1. VR*

          Less cynically, juries that hear discrimination cases often inherently sympathize with the plaintiff or dismiss the employer as a “deep pocket,” and will render judgments regardless of how meticulously the company documented the fired employee’s incompetence.

    8. The Prettiest Curse*

      There is also the “institutional knowledge is a vastly overrated commodity” phenomenon. This is what happened to the bully who ruled over the toxic team in my previous job. She had so much institutional knowledge and so many credentials that nobody wanted to fire her even though she drove multiple people off the team – plus, she manipulated the organisation into hiring her best friend as her manager. (To be fair, they did have difficulty hiring for the manager position, but they didn’t disclose the non-work relationship to anyone who didn’t already know about it.) The best friend was way too much of a wimp to ever say no to all the bully’s ideas, good or not so good.

      It all went sideways when I reported the bully, they gave the best friend a choice of being demoted or leaving and the bully realised she couldn’t rule the roost anymore and eventually left. Last I heard, the team was doing just fine without the bully’s knowledge and credentials.

    9. Vanilla lattes are the best*

      I work for a Ken now. It is awful on so many levels. So many have left the company because of him and management refuses to do nothing. He has even had formal complaints to HR about his poor management and general nasty behavior to his staff.

      Our project is very complex and requires a lot of institutional knowledge in order to succeed. It is a very hard role to fill. Our Ken has been with the company 20+ years, so his knowledge is quite valuable. I suspect that is why they keep him around. Also, it is a role that literally no one wants (according to the person who formerly held the role), so finding a replacement for Ken could take months, if not years.

      Ken’s inept manager recently got fired, so I am holding out hope that Ken is next.

    10. MigraineMonth*

      I worked at a company that had a great individual contributor, but he was not only not management track, he was not allowed to speak to any customer. He seemed happy as a clam with this arrangement, and I know several people who envied his restrictions.

    11. Office Gumby*

      I wonder if the whole “Move up to Management” idea is a leftover from the centuries of Master/Apprentice way of learning a trade. A Master, um, Smith, let us say, takes on apprentice smiths to learn how to pound a horseshoe. They learn under the guidance of their master until they are skilled enough to journey out into the world to practice their craft (the Journeyman). Then, once they’ve had sufficient years of skills, mastering their craft, they become a Master and are expected to take on apprentices.

      Thus, the current promo tree including management echoing this pattern, possibly?

    12. I Laugh at Inappropriate Times*

      My boss calls it the bullshit vs benefit meter. As long as the benefits outweigh the bullshit, most organizations will put up with a good amount of crap.

  2. qtipqueenie*

    I worked with someone so awful in so many ways that everyone was convinced that he HAD to have dirt on someone (your #2!). I think in reality it was just wimpy crappy management up top, and the fact that he knew the “right ” people to suck up to/play golf with/talk sports with. So frustrating.

    No one could understand how upper management could hear the consistent feedback of, hey, this guy is THE WORST all the time, and then just kind of…do nothing.

    I am angry just thinking about that guy.

    1. econobiker*

      Same here that i worked for/with a problem individual who was a narcissistic martinet to his underlings. The company accepted his behavior until he insulted a customer representative who he (the problem person) deemed to be below him in status. Then the company finally gave the problem person the boot.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        Just about the only way to get rid of these types is to have them get too comfortable and overstep–that is, insult the wrong person or embezzle so flagrantly it can’t be ignored.

        1. Bee*

          Put down in writing that you’re doing illegal retaliation, that’s what did it for my friend’s horrible boss! (I think this was a lack of savvy about how horribly she’d stepped in it, not a belief she’d get away with it, but this was one case where “HR is there to protect the company” meant “against employee lawsuits that we will DEFINITELY lose.”)

      2. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

        Just here to appreciate the phrase “narcissistic martinet”. Evocative, precise, and fun to say!

        (Also makes me think of martens, which is nice)

    2. Stoney Lonesome*

      Yeah, I’ve found that when someone awful seems like they are being protected by higher ups, its never blackmail. It’s always that the higher up just likes the awful person and doesn’t want to believe they have terrible judgement.

      I had a terrible manager once and the director let her get away with it even when she did pretty blatantly illegal stuff. The director had brought bad manager with her to our organization. They had previously worked together, but bad manager wasn’t a manager then. It was pretty clear that the director just didn’t want to believe that she was a poor judge of character or that she had convinced someone to move halfway across the country for a job she was not equipped to handle. No blackmail. Just pride.

      1. MassMatt*

        Many terrible managers are sociopaths that are very aware of who they can and cannot get away with treating poorly. The fact that they are so adept at kissing up to their managers (or donors, or big clients, etc) while kicking down on underlings shows how conscious and aware they are of what they are doing.

        I had a terrible boss while working retail many years ago and after he left, a customer would NOT a stop raving about how wonderful and nice he was and why did he leave, we must miss him too!

        No, he was nasty and abusive, AND he was ordering excess product to stockpile for when he opened a rival store. AND you should have heard the nasty things he said about YOU as soon as you left the store!

        This sort of behavior is why 360 reviews can be really useful.

        1. Employee of the Bearimy*

          I definitely worked with someone like this. All our managers and funders loved her, but she made everyone who worked for her cry at least once, and multiple underlings quit or transferred to get away from her. She left on her own but every couple of years would reach out to her friends in the office to discuss coming back. By the time this started happening, I had been promoted and I used my own knowledge of her habits to squash any plans to rehire her. It felt great to be able to do that.

      2. C*

        The last ‘Ken’ I worked with was the first senior hire made by a new CEO. I am sure that part of the reason they stayed around as long as they did was at least partly because getting rid of them would have highlighted that the CEO made the wrong call

    3. devtoo*

      Yes, knowing the right people at the top/being friends with the boss is a big one! I was just talking to a former co-worker about this. There’s a guy we used to work with who wasn’t necessarily a toxic personality, but deeply unproductive to a degree that dragged everyone around him down. But he was consistently promoted and never fired because he was best friends with the one of the founders (and in fact has continued to follow the founder to subsequent companies, repeating the same patterns)

      1. Goldenrod*

        “Yes, knowing the right people at the top/being friends with the boss is a big one!”

        Definitely this. Also, those who suck up and punch down can go far.

        1. I Have RBF*

          Also, those who suck up and punch down can go far.

          I had a manager like this. His superiors loved him, even though he had over 100% turnover in a year, including me. They promoted him for this. He was a complete ass – doing things like a) berating a person who didn’t even work for him about off topic stuff while we were on a multigroup conference call, b) berating and personal level insulting a coworker in a meeting with them, myself, someone from a different group and the toxic manager, and c) literally engaged in racist abuse of a coworker.

    4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      hmm, should the adage be, “don’t attribute to overseeing what can be explained as overlooking.”
      “must be part of some long term plan!”
      Yep, to get to retirement without dealing with jerks.
      Which left THAT part to you.

    5. Maglev to Crazytown*

      I still have one like that I get angry if I think about. In his case, it was because he was just as felonious as the rest of them – and I naively didn’t realize that. Until I filed a complaint and complaint, and had the corporate head of Ethics fly in to tell me off, after firing my good direct manager as a warning to me and others, rather than the Evil Director.

      That wasn’t the last time I encountered that in my career either, not realizing the bad manager/director was allowed free rein was because he represented the ethics, views, and goals of Those On High.

    6. kiki*

      Yes, I think “Ken knows how to stay in the good graces of the right people” is probably a huge factor here. He also may be really good at coming up with plausible-sounding explanations for why so many people in his department leave and that’s enough for whatever leader who likes him to look the other way as so many people leave.

        1. kiki*

          When he talks to leadership, Ken definitely says he is “tough but fair. Employees these days expect to be coddled for mediocre performance but Ken is old school and tells it like it is!” And then they all play golf together on a weekday during work hours.

        2. LW*

          Letter writer here … this is literally exactly what the company tells people when they ask why so many people are leaving.

          1. Zarniwoop*

            Does noone stop to wonder why “people not wanting to work anymore” mostly seems to apply when it’s working with Ken?

      1. Aggretsuko*

        In my experience, people in management LIKE bullies. Bullies thrive in the workplace, the bullied are driven out. I’d add that as #8, personally.

    7. Momma Bear*


      I’ve worked with someone who as far as I know is still there, but regularly made their team cry. They would be hard to replace so it’s easier to let other people go than start over with someone at their level of expertise.

      I also had another one where I think the client really liked the person and therefore they stayed on. The moment I found out they were not going to be temporary, I started looking for a new job. No way was I working under them any longer than I had to.

      My favorite remains the guy who wasn’t a manager but another employee. Never at his desk. Never reachable. No one fully knew who he reported to. Did very little work when he did show up and half of that was for his side hustle. He was untouchable because if you even looked sideways in his direction he made an EEO complaint. He’s one of the reasons when the contract switched hands I opted to go with my company vs staying in that office.

      The bottom line for the employee is “your boss is terrible and not going to change” so you need to do what’s right for you.

    8. ferrina*

      The blackmail explanation (#2) is the one my sweet optimistic heart wants to be true. That way it means that the leadership doesn’t want to make bad decisions, they just don’t have a choice! It’s not their fault- nobody’s that heartless!

      My cold jaded brain knows that it’s likely #6 or 7. They don’t care as long as it’s not inconveniencing them- sure, they’re losing some money, but not enough to want them to feel the discomfort of firing that guy. If other people are being traumatized, well, is that really more important than the CEO’s discomfort? Sarcasm, except that I’ve genuinely seen CEOs behave this way. The worst example was when a manager SAed a direct report, and the CEO did nothing because “he understood what he did was wrong, he’s very sorry and he won’t do it again” and the direct report had already resigned. The CEO swept it under the rug. Thankfully the now-former direct report independently informed the women that still worked there, news spread quickly, and the CEO was forced to fire the guy after literally no one would work with him. I later asked the CEO what he had done to protect the other people working under the manager, and the CEO gave me a blank stare.

      Blackmail does more to preserve my faith in humanity than knowing that CEOs like that are not rare.

    9. Sherm*

      There was a professor who was so awful that the students speculated that he had dirt on the other professor. But nope — he had tenure. I did hear a rumor that they were trying to find a way to fire him anyway. I just looked him up online and see that he retired about 7 years after I heard that rumor.

    10. 1-800-BrownCow*

      I worked with a guy like that as well. We think he had an arrangement with ownership that ensured he kept his job, kinda like a tenure. He once owned a portion of the company and the company purchased it from him and brought him on board. We swore he had made an arrangement with the owners when he sold them his business that they had to keep him on as an employee for as long as he wanted. Then one day at the end of his yearly 3-week trip to his timeshare in Mexico, it was announced that he had retired and was no longer with the company. Complete shock to the team, but such a relief overall!

    11. AnonORama*

      Yeah, I worked for an incredibly abusive person (body shaming, name calling, gaslighting — and that was BEFORE she got to your work!) who had 100% annual turnover on her team. She wasn’t a family member of the CEO/board member and she didn’t produce much work herself , so we were convinced she had pictures of someone senior to her in various lurid scenarios. (I also learned way more about my coworkers’ idea of lurid scenarios than I wanted to!) As far as I know, she’s still there, happily collecting her six-figure paycheck and driving people out of the organization and occasionally out of town. And while I’m sure it wasn’t really blackmail, I still have no idea why she was constantly supported and covered for while talented folks left in droves.

    12. bamcheeks*

      We didn’t have this with a person, but a *terrible* Microsoft Dynamics system that everyone hated. It was a huge investment for the organisation, and on paper it was exactly what 20% of the company needed and could be ~~tweaked~~ to provide what the other 80% needed. If you squinted. Hard. And prayed. And ignored that we also needed several things it couldn’t do. And that it only did the things we needed it to do badly, and took three times as long to do them as our previous system. And then it turned out it didn’t actually do what the 20% wanted it to do either.We spent *hours* trying to work out why nobody would let us scrap it and go back to our original system, and “someone had compromising photos of the CEO” was our best guess.

    1. Throwaway Account*

      We know that, and yet, we are convinced that the toxic coworker at old job knows where the bodies are buried! Or at least, that her threats to sue for gender discrimination are enough to scare them.

      P. S. There is no gender discrimination. Lots of other things wrong with that work place, but not that.

    2. Critical Rolls*

      I think it’s just hard to grok how the upper tiers can be so ****ing DENSE or incompetent, so we fill in the blanks with these outlier theories.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        Their density protects them–that is, “ignore it and it’ll go away” has been a lifelong and successful strategy.

        Sure, they lose some employees but hey, that’s business. They aren’t directly involved in the fallout, the paperwork, the endless hassles of the hiring and onboarding process, the delays in production as key people drop away, the morale dips and exhaustion. They have people for all that. Firing the Kens in the organization would mean them having to get personally entangled in all that messy, sloppy drama and they didn’t join the C Suite to get stuck with mop and pail duty.

        Just about the only thing a Ken can do to get fired is egregiously and publicly insult his bosses, so flagrantly break the law that he gets arrested/goes on trial (although current events show this isn’t enough for some people) or actively destroys the business through his actions. Not just individual careers, the business itself.

    3. NewJobNewGal*

      It can be nuanced blackmail. I’ve witnessed many situations where manager finagles the numbers and gets his bonus, and since grandboss also gets a bonus based on those numbers, grandboss looks the other way. And then big-grandboss looks the other way because they get an ever bigger bonus on those numbers. And so on, and so on, and Wells Fargo.
      So not so much of “I have dirty pictures of boss,” but there’s an unbelievable amount of collaborative cooking the books in companies that tolerate toxic staff.

    4. TPS reporter*

      the Greg Hirsch method, keep the envelope with copies hidden until you can wield the damning evidence. his ascendance was probably more due to nepotism though

    5. metadata minion*

      It’s somewhat more likely to be nepotism/favoritism, but at least from what I see in letters here, it’s usually pretty obvious if he’s in the CEO’s family/fraternity/whatever.

  3. econobiker*

    8. Ken is related to the CEO of the company or a similarly high placed officer in the C-suite.

    1. A Poster Has No Name*

      I was going to say–Ken is related to/went to school with/is fishing buddies with/etc. someone higher up on the food chain or on the board or whatever and can therefore do no wrong, no matter how many other people say otherwise.

      1. Ominous Adversary*

        Or the bosses think of Ken as some kind of younger version of themselves. Needless to say, Ken and his boss are very often white men.

        1. ferrina*

          Ugh, I’ve seen this happen several times. It usually is coupled with raises and promotions based on “potential”. (even when the track record directly contradicts this)

    2. LW*

      Hi, I’m the letter writer. After I sent this letter in to Allison, I realized I should have addressed this. As far as I know, he’s not related to anyone. It’s a good thought though!

    3. Ally McBeal*

      A couple jobs ago, a truly awful person joined our team in a managerial role because the head of our department had worked with her previously. She had one specific skill (magazine editor) that our head thought we needed, but she’d only ever used that skill in for-profit situations, and we were a nonprofit. She more than doubled the size of our magazine (which more than doubled the budget) and still had time to terrorize the rest of us non-magazine people. But she was a huge suck-up to our dept. head, who was too young and unqualified to be the head of the department and therefore totally overwhelmed. Our head was hired, despite her lack of qualifications, because she herself was a huge suck-up to the Executive Director of our organization (who was also young and insecure, albeit qualified for his role).

      Everyone in our 20-person department ended up going to HR and/or quitting over it. (“Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by Regina George.”) One of us was told that exec leadership was aware and “exploring options,” but nothing ever came of it until a round of pandemic-era layoffs, almost a year later, that decimated our department’s entire leadership team. So that emotional terrorist got to leave on good terms, and probably still thinks her s–t doesn’t stink. I left not too long afterward because the fish was clearly rotting from the head.

  4. Caramel & Cheddar*

    This happened at my old workplace and it was option #8: the CEO also managed like Ken and didn’t see anything wrong with it. It wasn’t until a new CEO came in that Ken was dealt with.

      1. Caramel & Cheddar*

        I didn’t interpret #4 that way, though I can see how it might be. I interpreted it as the higher-ups being fine that Ken was behaving in X, Y, Z ways even though they acknowledged that it was bad, but not necessarily that they themselves were engaging in X, Y, Z behaviours, i.e. the “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” defense, where Ken is breaking eggs but the higher ups aren’t even though they’re fine with Ken doing it. In the example from my workplace, the CEO was also breaking eggs.

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          I think you hit something–sometimes the Ken is the one making the money because in theory he’s the one taking the legal/ethical risks. The C Suite keeps their hands clean and everybody rakes in the rewards. (Of course, they are always shocked when the Ken sings like a bird to Congress or the cops if/when they get caught.)

        2. theletter*

          Sometimes it’s really about a mismatch of values between employees and managers. Managers congratulate each other when someone gets the XYZ department to work overnight to get a project done, but the associates at XYZ are told they work crazy hours because they don’t get enough done in normal working hours, instead of being compensated for the extra grind to meet an opportunity.

          Ken could have gotten very good at reporting metrics that sound good but are actually not useful, and then is pushing his reports to meet those metrics that most people on the ground know are not worth pursuing. Ken might be very emotionally attached to the some old processes and constantly reports on how many times the process is run and how great it’s going, and everyone below him is wondering what’s up with all the busy work.

  5. UKgreen*

    I worked with (mercifully not for) a Ken, but he was the ONLY person who could schmooze a particularly awful software supplier we NEEDED to maintain a bespoke product we couldn’t do without. So he could do what he liked.

    1. Throwaway Account*

      Fair enough, but give him a role where he cannot do damage by managing the best talent out the door.

      1. Sloanicota*

        Seriously, that’s when you create a “Director of X program” position that pays the same and doesn’t have any staff. Unfortunately Kens like power and are going to want at least an assistant or two so they can look important, even if they hate management and are also terrible at it.

        1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

          > that’s when you create a “Director of X program” position

          No, that’s when you start to transition the supplier relationship to someone else in the company. As well as the ‘Ken’ driving people away situation, you also have key person risk if ‘Ken’ is the only one who can manage that relationship and the relationship is essential to the company’s continued success.

          1. Llama Identity Thief*

            I read the original comment to say “if we tried to transition the supplier relationship to someone else, the supplier itself would bail near immediately.”

            I’d still argue the “they’re gonna leave eventually” adage means you either work to find someone else who can schmooze with the supplier, or find another supplier entirely. But the former would have to somehow be done before you do any amount of transitioning, and the latter clearly has a massive cost considering it’s based around a bespoke product.

    2. Ominous Adversary*

      As AAM has said in the past, what happens when Ken quits or gets hit by a bus?

      When your business would implode without Ken, you need to fix your business so it won’t implode without Ken. Otherwise, everything is purely an excuse to avoid dealing with Ken.

  6. MaxedBookPro*

    Option 8: You’re no longer there so who cares?? Really. Stop giving this dude rent-free space in your head, especially in today’s housing market.

    1. cardigarden*

      Not really helpful. It took me a full three years after leaving a toxic job to fully evict the toxic management still squatting in my brain. Ken was clearly a problem whom people are still dealing with the effects of working under.

      1. ragazza*

        Yep. These experiences can be truly traumatic. Telling people to “get over it” is really ignorant and condescending.

        1. A Datum*

          At the same time, writing to an advice columnist about things in the past that she wasn’t there for and cannot help you with is just building an add on in that headspace. You can’t just “get over it,” but you can stop engaging with it.

          1. somehow*

            And when the next job has a similar problem? I really don’t understand the approach that considers this situation as existing in a vacuum. It’s a common problem; as such, what difference does the timing make? What – it won’t be a problem anywhere ever again for the LW?

          2. Quill*

            Sometimes figuring out the correct framing – even if that framing is “wow, my boss’ boss was a spineless sea sponge” – is what allows you to stop engaging with the past job.

          3. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            I’d say that hearing Alison’s take, being reassured that her 7 was not “you’re an idiot for asking the question, no wonder he was able to get away with such behaviour”, might help to get closure. You can mull stuff over for years, then just mentioning it to someone else and hearing their take, and being reassured by it, can do the world of good
            (speaking as someone who will mull everything over for far too long).

      2. Mim*

        It took me over 20 years to stop having nightmares about a toxic high school teacher I (and everyone else) was scared of. People don’t live in our heads because we welcome them in. They invade our thoughts and literal dreams because of the trauma they caused. Working through questions like the OP’s is a way to deal with their toxic presence and attempt to heal some of that trauma.

        Also, it’s okay for people to be curious about things that had a large impact on their lives. Jeez.

        1. Goldenrod*

          Yep! I still get angry when I think about the kid who bullied me in high school. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.

        2. Frodo*

          Truth. My former job still occupies a portion of my brain even though I am happily in a new career.

    2. somehow*

      But “dude” represents those managers in a lot of other workplaces who drag everyone down as management plays pocket billiard and for whatever its reason, refuses to address things.

      That’s the point of discussing it.

    3. Caramel & Cheddar*

      Lots of people write in about situations that happened to them in the past so they can find out what they *should* have done and perhaps more importantly what to do if they find themselves in a similar situation in the future. It’s not unique to encounter a “why won’t they fire this obliviously terrible person” situation at work.

      1. AnonORama*

        100%. It’s worth asking what to do in the future, because terrible bosses are not exactly rare! And, a lot of times this is easier to do when you’ve escaped. I know when I worked for my evil boss, I got my work done, but all my extra headspace was filled by trying to figure out what would and would not set her off so I could avoid as much of the personal insults and screaming as possible. It was definitely more “get through today” than really thinking about the future.

    4. Econobiker*

      It is called PTSD post traumatic stress disorder from dealing with crazy people in charge as management.

      I had PTSD from the narsastic martinet “Ken” vice president who I worked for/with. I had to talk one coworker down from literally wanting to physically kick our Ken’s ass it was that bad. I took to secretly recording my interactions with my “Ken” because he was so bad about say many different things yet expecting results from items he never ever mentioned.

      We had to listen to our Ken’s discussions with his lawyers about his ongoing divorce and (in his own mind) his scummy wife . This was because he spoke to the lawyer in front of us in a conference room while we were all working on a project together! And his stubbornness escalated his legal divorce issues to the higher courts of our state! (His poor ex-wife!)

      This vp Ken even had a company paid “executive coach” who I had to talk to about Ken’s interactions with me! Sure (sarcasm) I was absolutely going to be truthful about someone like that to this coach / psychologist! I even went to corporate HR about Ken but nothing got done because of us employees complaining.

      It wasn’t until vp Ken insulted a low level customer representative trying to give a seminar class on the customer’s quality control efforts did vp Ken get canned. He had played around with changing his phone ring tones in the back of the small conference room to the disruption of the class. This caused the customer representative to cut the class short by one day and report to his higher ups that our company wasn’t being a “good supplier vendor”. That was the final factor to boot out vp Ken.

    5. Keymaster of Gozer*

      There is a lot of ignorance in telling people to ‘just get over it’, not saying you’re ignorant, just that that saying is.

      People can have negative impact on others that lasts long after that person has left their life.

      1. Fish*

        Or a positive impact. When a former employer wanted me to work with a boss nobody wanted, I should have said no instead of, I don’t like boss and I don’t want them.

        I might still have gotten stuck with boss, but I should have made them stick it to me.

        At the next employer, I did say no to a task because the dept involved hadn’t been given the right tools to do it correctly. Had to go through some motions, but ultimately it worked.

    6. 1-800-BrownCow*

      This is an advice column that many of us follow/read because people share stories and ask questions that us readers may relate to at the same time. So whether it happened in the OPs past or is happening now, reading their experience and Alison’s response is helpful to many. So yeah, many of us do care and I personally am glad that OP sent this email.

      1. LW*

        LW here. I’m interpreting MaxedBookPro’s comment in the most generous way possible, and there is something to be said for being mindful about where I’m putting my energy. At the same time, as many commenters have said, thinking and discussing what happened can be part of a healing process for something that was truly traumatic.

        Thank you for your comment, glad to know some people are finding it helpful. :)

  7. Busy Middle Manager*

    Corollary to 5 – Another possibility is they’re selling the business/doing layoffs anyway so don’t care. Been there done that and their keeping a few incompetent leaders in the ranks made sense after the fact

    Also, I’ll add a #8: they don’t remember what it’s like to be low level. At past past job we had a lazy, not great Director and when I met with the President about all of the complaints he’d heard, I got a lot of “why don’t you just (insert thing only Directors have the ability to do).” It was like he could no longer grasp that the incompetent Director was the leader. People couldn’t just tell him off or ignore him or overturn his rules or get budgets approved or new hired approved around his back.

    It was such a blind spot to the president and board level. They saw him as a peer or lower than them so the dynamic with them was completely different.

    1. Sloanicota*

      They also overestimate how hard it is at the top, I think. They believe only someone exceptional (like themselves) could make these higher-level decisions, thus Ken is safe as there are so few exceptional (*ahem white male MBA*) leaders that they know first-hand. Having been entry-level, mid-level and now sometimes senior level, I can tell you it’s actually not harder and more people could do a great job if given a chance and some support.

      1. ferrina*

        This is so true that it hurts.
        I started at the bottom and now I’m at the senior-middle with a very good view of the top. The bottom is harder. The bottom is more likely to be painful, powerless and traumatizing. The top is more likely to be uncomfortable- that’s not the same thing at all.

    2. Dona Florinda*

      A few jobs back we had a director who was loved by those above her, but hated by us lower level employees. She was smart enough to stay in her superiors good graces while making us look like pot stirrers.
      Took an awful lot of things going wrong for the board to realize maybe we weren’t the problem after all.

  8. Heidi*

    I also think that the Kens of this world can be pretty adept at deflecting blame from themselves. They may convince their bosses that the department had a lot of bad employees that needed to be weeded out. He may also not have done anything that affected his bosses directly, and so they don’t recognize the full impact of his terrible management.

    1. Buzzybeeworld*

      Yes. Ken also has the fact that people are yelling, swearing, crying, and rage quitting to prove to his bosses that these people are the problem, not him.

    2. Seal*

      Very true, especially if Ken’s boss doesn’t know enough about his unit to properly evaluate it or its impact on the larger organization. I was recently part of a mass exodus that saw over a third of the staff leave in just over a year, which is unheard of in my profession. The new director that was brought in had no managerial experience but was very good at covering their own ass. They made all sorts of promises that sound good on paper but were wildly impractical, if not impossible, while bullying those of us who were trying to keep things running. People documented like crazy and went to HR repeatedly, but nothing ever happened so people started leaving in droves. The consensus amongst those of us who left is that the new director has been lying to their boss about our work since they got there while touting their grandiose plans to “right-size” the unit. Since there aren’t enough people left to do even the bare minimum and other units have been complaining, I’d like to think their boss will be forced to do something soon. Even then, it will take years to fix the entirely preventable mess the new director made.

    3. LW*

      Hi, I’m the letter writer, and this is absolutely true. And in fact the more people resigned, the more opportunity there is to blame problems on former employees who aren’t there to defend themselves.

    4. JustKnope*

      My terrible new boss in 2022 got away with labeling the existing team “below-market talent” so it looked like a net win when some of us left. Still hurts to this day. We were doing really good work.

  9. Reality Check*

    Going through this right now. My coworker is the top salesman by a long shot. So they keep him on board while the rest of us are miserable.

    1. anonymous for this comment*

      Yeah I came here for the rainmaker/top salesman reason. H works adjacent to a Ken who will never be fired because he is by far the highest grossing sales guy every single year.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I worked for one of these early in my career in a relatively small organization. The Head Salesweasel would promise the client things that were technically, temporally, and physically impossible and then scream at all the people actually trying to deliver on his promises that they just weren’t working hard enough and weren’t smart enough. He got canned after about 10 of us quit within the span of a month, but the company never really recovered from the exodus and went under.

    3. Don't kneel in front of me*

      Yeah, that’s just #7, and its pretty common. Businesses care about one thing: money. If Ken makes a lot of money then he’s practically untouchable.

  10. Irish Teacher*

    Yeah, I’m no expert but I think the most likely option is just that many, if not most, people dislike conflict and prefer not to treat others badly and well, firing people isn’t very nice. This goes double for people who “really are terrible” as they are likely to become aggressive if given negative feedback or told they are on a PIP or are being fired.

    I’d say a #8 or maybe a #6b is that Ken is just so obnoxious and hard to deal with that management don’t want to “draw him on them,” especially not in a context where they have to give him bad news.

    I guess that files under 6 really, but it could explain why they would avoid dealing with Ken even if they are normally willing to fire people, put them on PIPs, etc. If he reduces people to tears in normal interactions, I’d imagine his reaction to being put on a PIP or fired or anything of that ilk would be even worse.

    Not that that’s any excuse. Management involves making those kind of decisions.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      If they are truly worried about it escalating into a Situation, call security or the cops (pre-emptively or if the Situation happens). Don’t just leave it out of a fear of his reaction (and besides you still have the risk of the volatile person blowing up over something else)… this has made me see red today (not the comment I’m responding to particularly, just the situation as a whole) as I am sick of people tiptoeing around “broken stair” employees that are just draining the company’s resources, out of conflict avoidance or risk aversion. Ken’s manager needs to … manage!

    2. Charlotte Lucas*

      I worked somewhere that never fired a member of the management team, unless they did something verifiably illegal. My theory is that they didn’t want to pay unemployment benefits or admit that they made a mistake in hiring management. (They also were very averse to potential lawsuits, & had been sued by fired employees in the past.) They would, however, move people around to where they thought they could do the least damage. For a while, many ended up in HR.

      So glad I no longer work there.

  11. Bookworm*

    Also chiming in that 6 and/or 7 are unfortunately far more common than we would like. I also worked with someone a bit like Ken, although Glassdoor was not as well-known then and it was a field that is notorious for poor employment conditions. The person was (I believe) good and efficient in the job itself, it’s just as a person they were terrible, even to people who were on the good side/friends (as much as one could be).

  12. mlem*

    I would normally be skeptical of #5, but I’ve heard of people (friends of friends) being transferred to a product and manager they could not work with, saying so, and being told “too bad, we’re putting you there anyway”, and not having that change even when they responded by giving notice. It very much smelled like a back-door layoff. I don’t think that can be the whole of any answer, though, just because I can’t see the math working.

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      This was my thought. Even this is stipulating to Alison’s objection that companies want layoffs to be targeted. One would think so, but I don’t think the evidence supports this as a universal truth But even then, this scenario of back-door layoffs works just fine.

      1. Quill*

        Layoffs that only exist to fluff this quarter’s stock market numbers are notoriously untargeted. The Jack Welch method is to reduce employees using whatever numbers you can cook up (so, say, 5-10% of every department regardless of what that does to productivity or whether one department is full of people who golf on the job and the other is overworked and understaffed and churning out the actual product) because all short term profit spikes look good to the stock market.

  13. Jester*

    I lived through a #6, though the problem was caused by a coworker, not a boss. Everyone above us just won’t actually do anything! We had meeting after meeting and nothing changed. Their only real action for dealing with the situation was suggesting I see the EAP therapist. Then, someone else in my department got fired for watching adult entertainment at work and I discovered where the line was.

  14. Good Enough For Government Work*

    The first Director I ever worked for was notoriously awful: I swear I am not exaggerating when I say that he was accompanied at all times by an anger-management therapist, and the first morning I was there, he bawled out MY line manager in front of the entire office, right up to calling him a stupid see-you-next-Tuesday.

    He got away with it for both of Alison’s reasons: he got results, and because he was so appalling he had senior management cowed as well. (He was also a very large man, vertically AND horizontally, so his rage could be incredibly physically intimidating.) Eventually we got a new CEO in who was ex-military and didn’t give a flying fck (there was speculation she was brought in specifically because she had the guts to deal with him), and ‘Bazza’ was OUT.

    1. Artemesia*

      This can be true for benign useless people too. I watched an admin who could not use a computer or type and would not step into a role we needed working with clients and so had pretty much nothing to do all day but file her nails and read — while we desperately needed that client service role filled but couldn’t because we were ‘fully staffed.’

      A new director came in and she was gone in two weeks; no one before him was willing to deal with the unpleasantness of getting rid of a longtime employee who had become useless and was unwilling to adapt and change.

      In that same place we had a person whose job was to type for a senior person who didn’t use a computer but dictated and was very productive — so she had a full time job as typist. then he left. I counseled her about that client support role that we desperately needed to be filled and that she could protect her job if she were willing to be trained to do that; nope, she actually thought she should have a raise because now she was being asked to do more admin work that her main source of work was gone. She was let go shortly thereafter.

      1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

        Benign useless is what we had in my department for close to 15 years. Dave used to be able to do the basics of what he was hired to do, albeit, a bit slow and needed constant reminders. Over 15 years he was able to less and less until all he did all day was watch YouTube videos. A new VP finally fired him, but honestly I felt even more bad for the guy at that point who had been totally unmanaged for 15 years. He wasn’t malicious, just totally incompetent not quite to the point of disabled, and we all just stepped over the broken stair.

  15. LifebeforeCorona*

    It can also be a case of the devil you know. My terrible co-worker was kept on throughout the pandemic because we were essential and couldn’t afford to lose anyone. Unfortunately, they knew that and the bad behaviour escalated. Ironically, when the pandemic ended, good people left and the terrible co-worker stayed to continually create more havoc. The workplace continues to be a trainwreck.

    1. Antilles*

      People in the comments have said their companies used this sort of “devil you know” or “but the next guy could be worse”. In hiring, that line of thinking absolutely baffles me. From a purely theoretical standpoint, yes, you can always find someone worse (or equally bad but different).
      But really? If Ken is really this terrible, the odds are firmly in your favor of the next guy being better rather than worse.

      1. fhqwhgads*

        Also, if someone hired Ken, took forever to get rid of Ken, then manages to hire someone worse….said someone is proving a track record of being terrible at hiring.

  16. NW Mossy*

    #6 and #7 also have a codependent relationship.

    Ken almost certainly started out as justifiably prized for That Thing Ken Does. But over time, he realized that #6 meant that he didn’t need to do anything (including basic-professionalism things) beyond his #7 skill. He’s letting his jerk flag fly because he feels invulnerable and every day he doesn’t get fired reinforces this belief.

    Meanwhile, his avoidant management almost certainly realizes that he’s a jerk but they also see how combative he is and are terrified he’ll turn his wrath on them. That hardens their avoidant streak and they’re dancing around him just like everyone else does. They then lean back into #7 to provide a justification for their fear-driven failure to manage Ken appropriately.

    The only real solution for a Ken is for Ken to become accountable to someone who won’t take his crap. But Ken’s going to do his level best to ensure that never happens, so it’s often a long wait.

    1. RVA Cat*

      Reminds me of a certain Hollywood guy who’s a talented writer but the boss from hell as a showrunner and director. His shows were great *despite* him due to the very actors he abused.

  17. jjr*

    I once saw a horrible director stay in place because, as Alison said in #7, she had achieved a significant non-management accomplishment that got our organization a lot of good press. Her boss was willing to overlook a LOT of turnover because of it.
    I saw another terrible manager stay in place for almost 3 years before being given the option to quit or be fired. The issues with her began almost immediately, and her staff were very vocal to HR and upper management. It turned out, in that case, that the manager was spinning everything to her boss to paint her employees in the worst possible light, and then attributing their great work to her management. Truly cartoon-level villain behavior. She literally fabricated problems to make it seem like she was doing a superb job of managing these unruly troublemakers, when in reality, the staff loved working together and produced incredible results of their *own* accord. She was incredible at using the right words to make herself look great. I think it took the directors three years to pick up on it because of the conflict-avoidant voices in upper management. They had a practice of making every single decision as a completely unified team, which worked well for many things, but worked very poorly when they needed to make a hard decision. The weaker, shove-it-under-the-rug voices often bogged down the directors who wanted to fix the problem.

    1. Warrior Princess Xena*

      This is also a problem that can occur when your upper-level management is too out of touch with the front-line staff! One manager should not be your only way to connect to the people working for you. Whether the solution be skip-level meetings or random office tours.

    2. Charlotte Lucas*

      Sounds like a former manager of mine. It was when we went above her head, because she was putting deliverables for a major contract on the line that she was removed. (And moved around until someone who has enough clout to stop putting up with her nonsense fired her.)

      It was once leadership realized that her behavior could be negatively affecting their positions that they started paying attention.

  18. Arya Parya*

    I work for a kind of Ken. There’s no crying, but he is a terrible manager who can’t communicate and constantly changes priorities.

    The reason he is still here is because the people right above him have had a high turnover. I have talked to several people, but they all left before any action was taken. The big boss above them is too far removed to see any of the issues.

    1. Zweisatz*

      Yup, we had this situation (too high turnover in the position above) as well with an inept coworker who is FINALLY leaving in autumn. What got him to go?
      Being put on a project where he can’t hide behind the team anymore but has to show results.

    2. Econobiker*

      I’d forgotten about the possibility that Ken’s leadership is always churning so he doesn’t get noticed or those people just kick the “problem Ken” can down the road for the next executive person to deal with. Since the Ken problem doesn’t affect their “numbers” or their “promotion” they don’t care about dealing with it.

  19. Ominous Adversary*

    Or, with #7, Ken is really not all that good at other things but has convinced management that he is – and they don’t want to admit they were wrong about Ken, so they deny or double down when presented with contrary evidence.

  20. Busy Middle Manager*

    Another one is that many companies have ridiculous thresholds to meet to fire people. I see stories online of HR overstepping but it’s just as likely it works in the opposite direction.

    I used to have a coworker who was drunk all of the time and would sometimes sleep at her desk but our HR was for whatever reason very cautious and let the situation drag on forever because we don’t have “proof” she was drunk. It was always odd to me because drinking isn’t a protected class!

    Another Director I worked adjacent too was just lazy and deflected everything. It look our biggest customer at the time leaving for higher ups to care. This was very demotivating. All of the lower level people predicting this was going to happen didn’t get listened to, which made people feel like our forecasts and status meetings and reports were useless since we had to wait for the thing to actually happen in order to take action. Which defeats the purpose of forecasting

    1. Artemesia*

      Being an alcoholic is a disability and while you can fire people for being drunk, it is tricky.

      1. Goldenrod*

        “Being an alcoholic is a disability and while you can fire people for being drunk, it is tricky.”

        This can’t be true. Can it? Don’t you have to disclose a disability in order for it to be accommodated?

        1. Hlao-roo*

          I found these bullet points from the U.S. Commision on Civil Rights (link in reply):

          * An individual who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs is not an individual with a disability when the employer acts on the basis of such use.

          * An employer may not discriminate against a person who has a history of drug addiction but who is not currently using drugs and who has been rehabilitated.

          * An employer may prohibit the illegal use of drugs and the use of alcohol at the workplace.

          Seems to me that it shouldn’t be tricky to fire someone for being drunk at work.

        2. Ally McBeal*

          I’m pretty sure you can be fired if your alcoholism impacts your work. Like, you can have an alcohol use disorder, which is protected under medical privacy and/or disability.. .but if you don’t disclose and are bad at your job, you can be fired… and if you disclose, you can be ordered to take time off for treatment (that’s the reasonable accommodation).

          In California it could be trickier because their laws have so many protections, but I imagine anywhere else in the U.S., you absolutely can be fired if you’re drunk at work or cause negative impacts to the business for any reason. Just like Michael Scott had to learn that you can’t declare bankruptcy by yelling “I! Declare! Bankruptcyyyyy!”, you can’t get out of being fired by yelling “I’m! An! Alcoholiiiiiic!”

          1. I Have RBF*

            At one job in the 90s, a sales guy got a DUI. His promotion got yanked and he got told “rehab or you’re fired.” He went to rehab, then left.

        3. Nightengale*

          Alcoholism is covered under the ADA in that a person cannot be fired for having an alcohol use disorder and may qualify for accommodations such as schedule changes for treatment.

          However workplaces can still require people to not drink alcohol at work and not be intoxicated at work.

      2. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Not true, had to fire someone who kept showing up pissed. He tried to claim he was an alcoholic but that doesn’t give anyone the right to show up shitfaced.

        Now if he’d asked for time off to attend rehab and treatment and I’d fired him for that then yes, that would have been discriminating against someone with a condition.

        1. londonedit*

          Yup. Our employee handbook states that alcoholism and drug addiction are viewed by the company as illnesses and employees will receive whatever support they need from the company to recover. However, being drunk or under the influence of drugs at work to the point where you can’t do your job also comes under ‘gross misconduct’ in our employee handbook, which means the company can dismiss an employee immediately as long as they do it fairly (or if they don’t want to do that, they can handle it as ‘misconduct’ and issue a first and final written warning, and then it’s 100% fair to dismiss the employee immediately if they’re drunk at work again). If it’s obvious that the employee is struggling with addiction, the company might well go down the route of trying to offer them help and support first, but that doesn’t mean they can’t fire them if their behaviour becomes unmanageable.

      3. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        So you fire them for sleeping at their desks, after 3 warnings or whatever.

    2. pally*

      At a very small start-up company (40 employees), we had a horrible employee. He openly defied his boss’ orders, did not take direction well, and was an obnoxious individual. The majority of his work was subpar. No one wanted to work with him or manage him.

      Documentation was gathered to terminate his employment. Only, when they informed the CEO about this situation, he declared, “No one from my company shall ever be fired. There is a place in this company for everybody.” Oh, the eyerolls this statement caused!

      We were stuck with this guy for about a year – until after the CEO himself was fired.

    3. goddessoftransitory*

      Cassandra has always been the worst job since the Trojan War: the pleasure of saying “I told you so” tends to be fleeting and the damage control permanent.

  21. TootSweet*

    I’ve experienced both #6 and #7. The comment from C-Suite about #7 was what irked me the most: “But she’s so good at her job!”

  22. Throwaway Account*

    If there really is a heaven and hell, I fully expect to be on a committee grilling (figuratively, literally, IDK) managers who let people like Ken stay in management roles (rather than putting them in an SMEs role if they bring so much to the table).

    My idea of hell is never knowing why they let the Kens stay.

    1. Jaunty Banana Hat I*

      LOL, this just makes me think of the idea that Dog Heaven is the same place as Squirrel Hell.

  23. Yes Anastasia*

    I think a frequent corollary of 6 or 7 is: management has a general contempt for staff and sees them as “troublemakers” for complaining. Even if there’s a clear pattern of mismanagement or abusive behavior, the power differential makes it easy for management to discount staff experiences and side with the lousy middle manager.

    1. ina*

      This is a thought. I’ve seen crappy managers see situations like this as “but it could happen to me!” Rather than as a unique situation in its own right and a chance to actually, you know, show they’re good managers that this wouldn’t happen to at all.

    2. Alternative Person*

      I think there can also be a sunk cost factor as higher managers think lower level staff will hold out through the middle manager’s ‘learning period’. Some might, but they’ll probably resent management for having to go through it.

  24. Stoney Lonesome*

    At my current workplace, the Ken of the office was finally fired a year or so ago after a new president was hired. I was hired to help mop of the mess that Ken created. In this case, it was reason 7 he wasn’t fired sooner. There are board members that still don’t understand why he had to be fired. It is funny to frequently hear from both people that gush about the great technical work that Ken used to do and how they miss him and people that talk about him like he was the literal devil. Luckily, for the most part, even the people that miss Ken are on board with the changes I am trying to make to turn my department into something functional again.

  25. Not a fan of Kens*

    I worked somewhere a high up was absolutely an industry darling, spoke at many conferences and brought a ton of prestige to the organization. He was also immature, verbally (and sometimes physically) violent, rude, fiscally irresponsible, and pretty terrible in general to be around. When he was going thru his divorce/custody battle he was so extremely terrible that he would regularly get into full on screaming matches with fellow managers. But the head of HR explained away his behavior and protected him from any real consequences.

    All that is to say, that I think in some ways 7 and 6 go together a lot.

  26. FrogPenRibbets*

    I think I’d add a #8 (sort of related to #6) is that this person’s manager has a blind spot when it comes to Ken.

    I’ve been watching a particularly glaring case of this over the years and it’s fascinating. Let’s say that George is the manager (Ken) and Cosmo is his manager. George is incompetent, not a great manager, and often combative and rude. Those who worked for him and in the same team but not for him, know how bad he is. People in other teams know he’s bad at his job for the reasons stated above. Examples include: hanging up on coworkers, during a training session he had his wife (not employed by our company) join the training because he didn’t know how to use Excel, so much to be cleaned up that was done wrong or just ignored (over $1M impact), and run off really good people.

    Cosmo, however, thinks he’s great. I just don’t understand it. Sitting in a calibration meeting for year end performance appraisals this guy has received an exceeds standards. I can’t begin to tell you how wrong that evaluation is.

    Cosmo is not inexperienced, nor particularly prone to mistakes. He generally has a very high standard and cares very much about his area and responsibilities. He has extensive leadership skills and experience. It’s just baffling to me how George has been not only allowed to do such a crappy job, but even rewarded for it.

    I just think Cosmo has a blind spot for George that you could hide a semi truck in.

  27. Heffalump*

    Either you believe that employees have a right to decent treatment because they’re human beings, or you don’t.

    1. Pippa K*

      This is what I was thinking. When there’s an obvious problem that just doesn’t get solved, people look for answers to the question “why isn’t the leadership putting an end to all the bad stuff Ken is doing?” And we speculate that the leaders above Ken don’t see what he’s doing, or don’t understand the effects, or their hands are tied in some way (rainmaker, knows where bodies are buried, threatening to sue, etc.)

      This presumes that everyone agrees Ken’s conduct is bad. But sometimes – maybe not often, but I’ve seen it – it turns out that the leaders are actually fine with Ken’s misconduct. Ken’s not the only bad guy, and until he does something that harms the leadership in some way, they don’t have a problem with him. Maybe that’s not the case at OP’s former workplace, but it’s what’s happening at mine. It’s not that the B-tier leader doesn’t know how viciously C- and D-tier leaders have behaved. It’s that he’s fine with it.

      1. AnonORama*

        Right, if the top-top people are abusive managers themselves (or have been), they probably think this style is the only thing that works to keep staff “in line,” and if the staff members leave they’re obviously just too weak/lazy/incompetent to swim with the sharks. This is utter BS, of course, told by managers to themselves to justify being a bully, which they find enjoyable.

  28. Dan R*

    I observed a situation similar to your #2 at a previous employer, so I wouldn’t rule it out entirely.

  29. Dawn*

    Like 98% of the time it’s because the management above the bad manager is also bad, which also helpfully explains how the bad manager got to be a manager in the first place.

    I know we’d all love for there to be A Reason That Would Explain This but most of the time Occam’s Razor cuts and “a surprising number of people actually suck at their jobs” is left.

  30. FunDip*

    Thanks for this. I often wonder how bad bosses are kept around, especially when they managed to push out great employees. Often, everyone knows who these managers are. I think that Alison is right. it’s 5 and 6, but I always hope that it is something else.

  31. pally*

    My vote is for #1. Things are getting done so there’s no reason for upper management to delve into the details.

    My reasoning: I worked for a guy who had poor people skills. And even poorer management skills. He also possessed valuable technical skills that the company would have to pay a much higher salary to acquire. As a small company, getting someone in at market rates was not gonna happen.

    So they put up with his boorishness. Or, rather, I did. I can put up with an awful lot of things, but at some point, I brought my issues with this guy to the CEO. It was explained to me that my boss had a lot of psychological issues that made him this way. His poor management ability was something CEO was sure I could overlook (“As a strong woman, you are more capable than anyone else at this company to handle this guy’s bad management.”).

    So I worked around my boss and completed all assignments. Met deadlines. Dealt with unrealistic orders from my boss and learned how to handle his lies, obfuscations and manipulations. And his misogynistic ways.

    After my boss retired, I realized just how nuts he was. There’s something to be said about working too long for a bad manager. One gets used to the crazy and views it as being entirely normal.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Agreed: I think this is a primary one. It’s not causing management problems (or it’s not causing them big enough problems) so they’re not going to bother with it. They don’t have to deal with the guy every day.

  32. Turquoisecow*

    Husband worked for a startup for awhile, was in on the ground floor. The owner/CEO was a nice guy but he basically refused to ever fire anyone, no matter how terrible they were at their jobs. He felt like firing an employee indicated you had made a mistake as a manager and showed weakness or something like that, because a good manager would only hire perfect employees who were perfect for the job or would be able to mold them into perfect employees. He also was terrible at hiring – his interviewing style was to talk for most of the time and barely let the candidate get a word in edgewise, so obviously did not hire perfect employees every time.

    It’s quite possible someone who is extremely firing-averse and has these or similar views is supervising Ken or even HR or higher up than that. There were a number of employees who quit Husband’s old job because they were tired of dealing with terrible coworkers who had no chance of getting fired. Eventually the startup was acquired by a larger company with better management and the employees who didn’t quit (because they preferred the startup environment) were either managed into being actual good employees or let go.

    1. Zweisatz*

      Love the strategy to compound bad hiring with the refusal to fix the error.

      Like the next best thing after only making perfect hires (who does that?? though one could certainly start by letting the candidate answer questions) is swiftly parting ways with people who are not working out. It keeps ill effects to a minimum and strengthens the team’s trust in their management because they’re not left alone with underperforming or mean colleagues.

      1. Alternative Person*

        It boggles the mind.

        Not exactly the same, but someone I helped hire at the start of the fiscal year first dropped down their hours, then quit amid some mild drama. It happens. On paper and in the interview they seemed like they would be fine. Am I disappointed? Yeah, a little. Do I wonder if there was something I missed? Again, a little. But sometimes things just don’t work out. It’s the way of the world. I’m very glad they recognized that they were a bad fit and left rather than dragging things out.

    2. J*

      Having worked in and adjacent to startups, it is amazing how pervasive it is. And the managers will even confess to such things. I helped with acquisitions of two startups and both founders expressed relief that they’d finally have someone in place on the outside who could fire staff they weren’t happy with. I’ve seen the opposite too, where anyone who gives any pushback to the founder is just fired and the founder dreads acquisition or an IPO because then their position is vulnerable.

  33. CubeFarmer*

    Every single place I have ever worked has had at least one Ken. My current theory is that it’s easier to expect other employees to backfill for this person than it is to actively manage them.

    It’s been a real lesson in how NOT to supervise people. I’m trying to do better.

  34. Pretty as a Princess*

    I have a #8 or #9 option – we have a Ken – and one of the problems is that he has the ear of the C-suite directly, but everyone else in his organization doesn’t. They have to go to HR if they want to say something. Or say it in an exit interview. Ken bullies people and starts upward campaigns against them with the C-suite. So by the CEO hears something out of an exit interview, he is conditioned by Ken that the person was a problem employee and is just retaliating.

    It’s maddening, and I wish I could say more. But proximity to the people who make the big decisions definitely contributes to this, especially when the bad manager in question is an abuser (vs just completely ignorant). Abusers are charming right up until they decide to show you who’s boss in their mind. So our Ken is charming UP the org chart and we have enough comm barriers than his devastating behavior DOWN is perceived by the C-suite as a failure on the part of Ken’s victims.

    1. Pippa K*

      Ah, wish I had read down farther before my comment above. There’s a version of this where I work, too, and it’s absolutely poisonous, and absolutely unfixable.

  35. Marzipan Dragon*

    We had one of these. Horrible with people, but a genius grant writer. She should have been locked away somewhere writing grants and not interacting with a single human. But, being a brilliant grant writer she wrote her own promotions into every grant application, eventually ending up a vice-president and finally having the power to be the evil witch she aspired to. And the CEO adored her because of the one skill that ended up the tiniest part of her job because of her creating her own job descriptions in the grants. Was never so glad to go to a retirement party as hers.

    1. Angstrom*

      The parallel in acadamia would be the professor who is a world-famous researcher and brings in bushels of grant money, but is a terrible teacher and and awful department head.

      They should be left alone to do their research.

  36. Llama Llama*

    I have been with the same company for a long time. When I started my then manager was an awful human being and 75% of our team hated her. Her one redeeming quality was that she had been with the company forever and knew the work well. But she was an awful people manager and management knew it. If you took a poll of people today of one of the their awful managers she would be on the list. Nothing was never done about it and it always baffled me.

    Well she left for another project recently and management was sooooo gung ho about celebrating her and it was weird because many many other people have left for other projects (and higher ranking and been there more years) without such fanfare.

    She talked great game though and I think management was hearing that and not the hate that people have for her.

  37. Babs*

    Went through this a while ago. We were told that it was easier to replace all of us than one senior director. To this day, I’m still not clear about what he contributed, other than being a handsome man who was great at politicking.

  38. bighairnoheart*

    Oh boy, this hits home. I used to work for a Ken at a small nonprofit. I met several times with our board before leaving to discuss the issues. They were always so sympathetic, but so incapable of doing more than shrugging their shoulders and saying they understood if I needed to leave. I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back, it was a combo of 6 and 7. He was quite good at getting certain things done (at the expense of destroying staff morale and upsetting a lot of unimportant members of our community), so they were too scared to interfere, despite hearing a lot from staff and those community members about how horrid he was.

    I also learned that the last 2 executive directors they had before him and before I was hired were complete disasters–drug use on the job, fraud and potential embezzlement, etc. So they were willing to excuse his abusive behavior because at least he wasn’t 100% made of bees (only like 90%, and he was good at making it look more like 0-10% to people who were important!). I think I’d still classify that excuse under #6 here, but it at least helped me understand why they were being such wimps when I found that out.

  39. Addison DeWitt*

    Yeah, it’s lousy, but you don’t work there any more! Let ’em keep digging, they’ll never know why things are going so wrong.

  40. Single Parent Barbie*

    My theory on this is #11 B.

    In my 30 plus years of working (Did I just type that?) I have decided that most Managers really don’t know how to manage people. We assume when we are dealing with a problem co-worker or boss, that a manager will take care of it. They don’t know how. We do leadership classes, and online webinars, but ultimately as a whole orgs seem to be poor at teaching and expecting managers to 1) set expectations 2) follow up and 3) do something about it.

    I have seen this from all sides, including having bosses be surprised when I did this with my people. (then add in the layer of some (BUT NOT ALL) reluctant HR people.)

    I was put on a PIP by a manager who basically just wanted me out…. and it was the worst document I have ever seen. I asked him for clarification and he would respond “figure it out.” (and yes he PIPed me out of a job.) There were no clear expectations and nothing related to my actual job performance, or anything measurable.

    In another role, I worked in a compliance function and a (problem) team member in another department broke a clear compliance rule that required a write up. I put everything together and took it to his manager to explain what needed to be done. He said “Wow, you all are really going to write him up this time?” The manager was all giddy. I responded “No, you are going to write him up this time. He is your employee!” The look on his face was utter shock!

  41. Stuckinacrazyjob*

    As a black woman I really do not think protected classes work the way people think they do. There is always some reason you can be fired.

    1. SnappinTerrapin*

      You are absolutely correct.

      However, some people can’t wrap their heads around that. Some of those people are also in management, and are afraid to do their jobs for a variety of reasons, including fear based on their gross misunderstanding of how equal protection of the law works in actual litigation. Their fear of litigation isn’t based on the actual law, but on the myths they believe.

    2. Aggretsuko*

      They can’t openly say “we’re firing you because of X,” but they can sure fire you for wearing “the wrong color socks.”

  42. BellyButton*

    I had this discussion with a leader last week. He said the problematic employee was valuable enough to “break a few glasses”, I asked how many glasses they were willing to break and how long they were willing to let one employee dictate the company culture. He didn’t have an answer, but at least it is out there, so the next time there is an issue I can bring this up again.

    1. Heffalump*

      Napoleon said, “You have to break some eggs to make an omelet.”

      George Orwell’s response to this was, “Show me the omelet.”

  43. Mack*

    I think another possibility is nepotism. After an entire year of working with a guy who was bad at his job, just incompetent not malicious, I found out he was related to the owner, through marriage to one of the owner’s extended family. Which explained why they didn’t look like each other at all and weren’t exactly close.

  44. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Took us 2 years to get rid of a truly toxic guy (think transphobic, unpleasant, only showed up when he felt like it) because HR were terrified of retaliation. Because the guy was black, gay and had a number of serious health issues and would threaten legal action Constantly.

    Put him on a PIP? Lawyer. Tell him to stop yelling at trans women? Lawyer – you were telling him his religion was wrong.

    It was a nightmare.

    1. Pretty as a Princess*

      May have once suggested HR tell our corporate HR counsel that he was welcome to open a position for the problem employee (complete with fraud) he wouldn’t let me part ways with, and that I was happy to facilitate the transfer.

      Shockingly my offer was not accepted.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I left the company shortly after he was eventually got rid of but it took actual illegal behaviour from him for HR to pull their finger out.

        That was the ‘doesn’t matter what you have or believe in or are, you cannot use that as an excuse to ignore the law’ moment.

    2. Irish Teacher*

      There are a family in Ireland so notorious for doing this that a judge hearing one of the cases, put his head in his hands and told them, “now, please stop” and “you’ve wasted a day of it with stupid arguments.”

      They’ve sued numerous employers, ex-employers, universities, the state… The court case above was about one of the sons/brothers who was fired from his teaching job a year ago for transphobia and basically bullying the principal and is still turning up to stand outside the school every day.

        1. I should really pick a name*

          And HR never thought to ask them “Is this a legitimate legal threat?”

  45. Young Business*

    I’ve dealt with two managers like Ken. Ken 1 had caused severe attrition in our department but never received scrutiny, despite employees telling HR they were the main reason they were leaving in their exit interviews.

    I believe Ken 1 was protected because they had been one of the first hires in the company and so the co-founders and executive team were loyal to them, to a fault. They weren’t particularly good at their job and micromanaged the heck out of everyone but they possessed a lot of domain and organizational knowledge. Ken 1 was eventually let go, but it was done under the guise that they were leaving of their own volition.

    Ken 2 was a CEO hire who, like their predecessor, caused severe attrition in our department and overall sowed a lot of discord amongst other departments. I think they’re still kicking around. As Turquoisecow stated above, I think there was reluctance to deal with Ken 2 because that would mean the CEO made a bad hiring decision.

    I’m in tech, and it never amazes me how many bad apples are rattling around and manage to get promoted. The industry also suffers from a lot of “misunderstood genius” tropes to justify absolutely horrific behaviour.

  46. EMP*

    I worked several rungs under a terrible VP for a while. Everyone knew his decisions had caused a ton of issue. Less so with people/retention, because it was more direction of the group than personnel issues – but still issues that very likely cost the company hundreds of thousands if not more in lost productivity and stalled projects. It took years and years to manage him out (I’d left by then) though due to C-level politics. I don’t know why the bottom line wasn’t persuasive to those at the top levels but looking up from the bottom, that guy was a HUGE drain on our resources but pushing him out was just not a priority.

  47. Lady_blerd*

    My additions:

    Option 8: The company’s bottom line isn’t affected so the bosses simply don’t care what’s going on in your section. OP didn’t say how crucial their section was to the company but maybe they were considered negligeable compared to other sections.

    Option 9, based on some former colleagues’ experience : Ken knows how to flip the script and convince his managers that the accusers were the problem and not him. It’s possible this could be merged with Allison’s Option 6 because I’ve heard stories of people going into mediation and the “Ken” being accused pretty much took over the procedure and made the accusers look bad.

    1. I Have RBF*

      So basically the Ken’s of the world have DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) down to a science, IME. They are the abusers of the corporate world.

      The one I dealt with most recently had this down to a science. He convinced HR that we were the problem, even though he was the one who started the personal insults and yelling in meetings, and he was the one who was blatantly racist to a coworker.

  48. VP of Monitoring Employees’ LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*

    What would happen to Ken if employees started quitting (or threatening to quit) at the mere mention of possibly being assigned to his chain of command?

    1. Not OP But Worked With Them*

      This did in fact happen and they were told if they don’t like it they are welcome to find another job.

  49. K*

    Number 5 seems exceptionally unlikely. Ken isn’t doing this on purpose to get people to quit. He can’t tell the future. If they need to downsize they can’t just bank on the right number of people deciding to quit on their own.

    It’s way more likely that he is good at other stuff and the company is keeping him because the good still outweigh the bad from their perspective.

  50. Managing to get by*

    Option 8 – Ken has upper management convinced that he is integral to the success of the organization and that the organization is better off without the people who leave because of him. He takes credit for any successes whether he was involved with them or not and blames his direct reports for any failures. He has upper management convinced that when people leave he “managed them out” because they are poor performers. His ability to goad employees into yelling at him and rage quitting reinforces this story to his superiors. If someone rage quits, it’s fine because they were unstable and the company is better off without them.

    I worked with someone like this for years, let’s call her “Connie”. Everyone level with or below her thought she was horrible. Everyone above her thought she had a challenging personality but that was a good thing because she “got results”. She was a lazy, mean-spirited, spin master. It took being bought out by another organization and new leadership seeing her behavior before she had a chance to ingratiate herself with them to get her out.

    1. No Direct Reports*

      This is especially funny because the “Connie” at my job is actually named Connie. We all know she abrasive, lazy and will throw her direct reports under the bus at the slightest hint there may be an issue. The layer above her thinks she’s terrific and just misunderstood. Without a significant leadership change, we just have to work around her until she retires.

  51. noncommittal pseudonym*

    I would add #8: General contempt for non-management employees and limited information flow.

    I worked at a non-profit where the CEO was objectively awful. The Board refused to listen to mere programmatic staff because we clearly didn’t know what we were talking about. Plus, the CEO got 95% of the contact time with the Board, so we had to be sneaky about how we got our concerns heard. When we did get to talk to them, we got condescending responses like, “You don’t know how stressful a CEO’s position can be! You need to give him some space…” Oh, is that why he takes naps on the sofa in his office every afternoon? It wasn’t until the chief fundraiser pointed out that the guy hadn’t brought in a dollar that the idiot was fired. (And then the Board whined that nobody told them! They need to be kept in the loop! They can’t fix problems they don’t know about!)

    Sheesh. Never again a small non-profit.

  52. thatoneoverthere*

    Did you write a letter about my former senior manager? She was literally so awful that 10 PEOPLE (yes 10), left from underneath her in less than a year. She screwed up so much stuff, I just can’t believe shes still employed. I could have written this letter word for word. I still don’t know why she’s still there.

  53. Lora*

    Oh my goodness, my old boss Ken got hired somewhere!

    I’m not kidding, his name was indeed Ken. When I worked for him he’d only had one previous job and it was for a company that notoriously never fired anyone, but he’d been shipped overseas to work very far from other humans, and he decided he didn’t like having nobody to bully. By the time he was fired from where I was working for him, there had been 100% turnover in the group, with everyone citing him as the problem, a major regulatory inspection setback because he freaked out on the auditor, and multiple EEOC complaints on file naming him as displaying discriminatory behavior – and he had to be removed from a disciplinary meeting with senior management by security, as he had a violent outburst (which everyone under him had complained about, but nobody believed us, I guess?). His boss was also demoted for not managing him despite HR working with him. The issue was #6, Ken’s boss had a weird notion about what you’re allowed to discipline and fire people for and basically thought technical skill was the only qualification anyone should consider for employment, ever, and “personality conflicts” could be resolved by an off-site personality test workshop that tells you what kind of tree you are or whatever. Ken has since been fired within two years from everyone who ever hired him, sometimes within one year, with multiple years of unemployment between jobs, in a field that notoriously is almost always hiring.

    Almost nowhere is there any kind of instruction for managers on how to handle Kens and broadly, the really screwed up people you’re going to, statistically, eventually run into. I wish there was. There’s Bob Sutton’s books, that’s the best resource I’ve found.

  54. JustKnope*

    #7 can also be … “or at least leadership thinks so” in my experience. I was asking someone the other day how a leader got away with some terrible behavior and apparently people are scared of criticizing her because she’s “so good at X”. But I know from my time on that team that it really isn’t HER that’s good at X – it’s a combination of many factors. Really grinds my gears that upper management will keep buying that line and never hold her feet to the fire.

    1. Workfromhome*

      Its almost never “she’s really good at X” Its she has people on her team that are really good at X .

      We had a VP that was widely praised for the performance metrics of her region. They were the best in the country. she knew NOTHING about X. But was fortunate that a number of stars did that she inherited. She managed to survive until retirement but quite sure that had she hung on another couple years new senior leadership would have exposed her incompetence. There was a large number of departures in a house cleaning. she knew when to get out.

  55. kiki*

    One phenomenon I’ve encountered is inertia and/or the feeling that if something were able to be done about Ken, it would have already happened. Maybe one of the numbered reasons above was true at some point, but it’s not anymore and still things won’t change.

    This happened in a role I was in. An employee (let’s call them Brad) was terrible, but beloved by a certain senior executive and was not fired even when they were absolutely abysmal. Complaints about Brad abounded but after several years, folks gave up. The senior executive left, but people still felt like Brad was untouchable and that complaining would futile. After several months in their role, the new senior executive heard about Brad’s antics and was like, “Dear g-d, fire this guy yesterday.” Everyone was shocked that it was finally happening and that it was so simple, lol.

    1. kiki*

      I’ve also seen this happen with low staffing and budgets. For example, a team will be way understaffed for years. Management will raise the concern over and over, but upper leadership will say increasing staffing is impossible and that they don’t want to hear about it anymore. But then years later, either the financial position of the company or its upper leadership has changed. Management feels like addressing the issue is a waste of time based on previous requests. Then maybe new upper leadership looks into why the team isn’t achieving what they could be, the issue of staffing is brought up, and the change is made right away with no resistance. Management might even hear from upper leadership that they could have increased staffing a year or two ago if they had just said something.

  56. Mim*

    Yup, as I was reading the letter, I was already thinking that the potential reasons sound intriguing, but like overthinking. (And to be clear, I would 100% be thinking of those kinds of things in your situation, OP. Even though I *know* that it’s usually a simpler explanation that relies heavily on lack of attention rather than active choices on the parts of others, I still ruminate on situations I’ve been in where I really want there to have been a reason other than people randomly just not giving a fork or not thinking through something that was worth deep thought to me but didn’t matter much to them.)

    My money is on Ken is easy for them to deal with if they don’t have to deal with his anger/issues directly, so they don’t deal with it. They probably aren’t seeing any direct effects of his pushing people out of the company (yet), and it’s so much easier for them to put on blinders than to address a big problem. Even if they realize that it’s a potential big problem that could eventually affect them directly, it’s easy to put off dealing with stuff like that. Out of sight out of mind. Or even, wait and see if someone else deals with it. Or wait until something so egregious happens that it’s ironically easier for them to deal with getting rid of him.

  57. Michael W. Scottified*

    Does the equal protection clause actually apply to white people? I’d always thought no. Looking it up, I can’t see it having been decided anywhere.

    1. HannahS*

      I’ll take this as a sincere question, and yes, it does. In my region, a tribunal found that a employer had discriminated against a white immigrant. IIRC what happened was that this person was fired because their employer assumed that, because the employee was white, they supported a certain racist political party in their home country. There was no evidence that the employee supported this party, so the firing was ruled to be discriminatory based on race.

    2. Hlao-roo*

      I find it helps to think of it this way:

      I cannot fire Bob for being a man. I can fire Bob (who is a man) for being bad at his job.

      I cannot fire Bob for being white. I can fire Bob (who is white) for being bad at his job.

  58. 1-800-BrownCow*

    I have a coworker right now that falls under #6 and #7. Their manager hides from conflict management so all complaints fall on deaf ear. But hey, coworker is good at what they do and is the only person doing the position FT at the moment, so apparently everyone has to deal with all the frustration and issues this person creates because their manager let’s it continue. I’m currently having to interact with said coworker due to a project that they have to be involved in and just last Friday, I used some AMA advice to help me respond to coworker who was taking over my work, which doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction.

    Thank goodness for this site and all the helpful advice!

  59. Workfromhome*

    I don’t think this is necessarily confined to mangers (acknowledging that their negative behavior effects more people.

    A lot of companies are simply very averse to anything that opens them up to liability of firing someone “for cause”. Especially if the company doesn’t want to pay out to get them out “quietly”

    I worked for a very large financial l services company in Canada. Billions in revenue. Large inhouse HR and legal.
    I had an employee I managed that came with another company we acquired. he had probably 30 plus years of service and was a few years from retirement. he was an absolute terror. I heard him scream at his previous manager loud enough for me to hear over the phone several desks away. In performance reviews he would yell and bang on the desk. we had to make sure no one met with him alone. He left insulting voice mails.
    Every time we’d go to HR they would say they needed more “documentation”, they needed more proof to be able to let him go and that they were afraid of the optics and a lawsuit. The VP at the time refused to give him a package. So I was stuck with him. I had to “manage around him”. Often assigning work to others to avoid the complications he caused 9which wasn’t fair to them). They simply wouldn’t support me to get rid of him.

    Eventually we got a new VP who finally said we need to get rid of this guy and they gave him a year’s salary to “retire” immediately. Even then they framed it as though he “retired.” with the understanding that he was done immediately and couldn’t discuss his departure with anyone.

    Point is that even big smart companies have spineless HR or other departments that don’t want even the potential of confrontation. They would rather deal with a 20 people quitting than with 1 difficult termination.

  60. Texan In Exile*

    If it’s any comfort – and if it is, it’s probably cold comfort – Ken’s day may be coming.

    I have had two jobs with horrible, awful bosses.

    In the first, with a horrible CEO (a very small organization, so his impact was huge), there was a lot of turnover, including someone who went to lunch and never came back. I started looking for a new job two weeks after I started and quit eight months after I started.

    In the second, we got a new VP (who came from GE, which actually does mean something to those who have experience with GE alums) and I was let go after a few months of working for her, but several of my co-workers left on their own.

    The board fired the CEO a year after I quit and the new VP company fired her 18 months after she got rid of me. In both cases, friends who still worked there notified me immediately and we rejoiced together.

    1. econobiker*

      Sure, the orgs get rid of the Ken issue but Ken still benefits from salary and severance packages and probably fails upwords somewhere else.

  61. Anon4This*

    Our “Ken” just has very niche expertise and experience that is exceptionally rare (and that rarity makes it neigh impossible to train on). They do work that very few other people in the world can do, and they support a group that makes a a ton of money.

    Once we realized they were a dumpster fire of a manager (said the right things in the interview; actual performance was unacceptable), we started extricating them from people management duties. They were very upset by this change, but no amount of coaching and feedback was making a dent in their terrible management style. They no longer supervise people and, in fact, are not really supposed to directly task them with work or provide direct feedback.

  62. Insert pun here*

    I work for a much milder version of Ken — not abusive, but definitely not great at managing and not interested in getting better. In his case it’s absolutely that he brings in a ton of revenue that would be difficult to replace in the short to medium term. The industry I work in tends to have very long tenures in jobs like mine, so the level of turnover has been low, and so the cost of keeping our semi-Ken in a leadership position is really hard to quantify.

  63. Meow*

    The last company I worked for actually flat out admitted to #5, saying that the attrition would be used instead of layoffs.

    It’s just as Alison said – all the best people left our team (or so I’d like to think since I am one of them – but the two others who left were definitely our best and brightest), and too many people left so they actually had to hire replacements after all… except the pay is so crappy it’s been a year now and from what I’ve heard they haven’t been able to hire a single replacement.

  64. Roguestella*

    I really enjoyed this post because I fled a similar situation over a year ago along with other colleagues. I also laughed the whole time because my husband’s name is Ken!

  65. Mango Freak*

    And #8: someone just…likes him. He’s some important person’s buddy, and people don’t like to fire their buddies.

    A variation on #6, but one that people seem to overlook.

  66. Zarniwoop*

    #9 Class
    Upper bosses would rather lose 100 “grunts” than take action against someone “like them.”

  67. Ratsratsrats*

    On #3, we have a staff member who has bipolar disorder and when he’s “up”, he’s a nightmare to work with. Comes up with harebrained schemes and oversteps his job, taking work off of others and being very noisy and almost disruptive. Then when he’s “down”, he can’t see those schemes through and everyone has to tiptoe around him. He has tenure though (probably knows that anywhere else would dispose of him after the probationary period) and the company has been stung by a tribunal before, so they aren’t going to discipline him. So many good people have left over him. So it could be fear of that.

  68. John Smith*

    Sorry if it’s already been said, but another reason is that senior managers simply don’t want to admit Kens are a problem, as it means then that they themselves have not been doing their job properly by allowing the aituation to continue. I’ve seen all sorts of baroquean explanations from senior managers to explain low morale in a dysfunctional department and call the situation extremely complicated when it is in fact not. Its that they won’t admit they have a bad manager and that they are bad managers. In a recent staff satisfaction survey for example, senior managers received a very low score for trust, effectiveness etc. Their response? We did not whether we referred to senior managers of our department (which the survey was about) or our organisation and we didn’t know what effectiveness looks like.

    A fish rots from the head down.

  69. MuseumChick*

    What were the people above Ken like? I had a manager who was know to make people cry. It happened to me once and when I meet with HR they literally said, “I know it really sucks. You are not the only, first, or last people he has and will make cry.” What I learned over time is the those above him were also awful but in different ways. What they all shared was a total lack of seeing their own faults in how they managed people. There was a high turn over rate and they could always find a way to blame it on anything other than themselves.

    1. LW*

      Letter writer here (should I have called myself OP? or LW? I don’t know).

      Ken’s boss – one of the C suite people – is is approachable and likable, but the way they are managing Ken (or lack thereof) has completely ruined their reputation. A lot of people who left were not on good terms with Ken’s boss, and the people who stayed have lost faith in them.

      The rest of C suite can put on a kind face when they need to but they’re terrible. They don’t seem to care about people and if somebody at the company is upset about something it’s almost like they interpret that as a sign that they’re doing the right thing, because they’ve taken “good business people aren’t afraid to make the tough calls” and twisted it into “when people are upset that means you made a tough call and that means it was a good decision.”

  70. TootSweet*

    I just remembered a piece of the aftermath of my #6, from an email from a psychiatrist, of all people. Yeah, she gave us all chills, Doc!

    “I have a bunch of correspondence from [manager] (gives me chills just to type her name) about the affiliation agreement from Spring 2019, but not an actual, valid signed copy of the document.

  71. ThursdaysGeek*

    Years ago, someone told me that “A’s hire A’s, and B’s hire C’s.” Meaning that good people hire good people, and not as good people hire even less good people. In the long run, those C’s move into management and hire D’s, and they don’t recognize what is good.

    My spouse worked at a place where bad managers were just moved off to the side, but never fired. They kept their well paying jobs and didn’t do any constructive work. I took the concept of ‘seagull management’ (new boss comes in, makes a lot of noise, leaves poop everywhere, flies away) and described the spouse’s workplace as ‘seagulls all the way up.’ In other words, bad managers allow bad workers under them, and bad upper managers leave bad lower managers in place. If a company is big enough, all this disfunction doesn’t destroy the company.

  72. Hermione Granger*

    I’m a consultant of sorts to North American and global businesses, and I am astonished every day at how TERRIBLY so many organizations are run. My colleagues and I frequently shake our heads at how companies that are incredible messes manage to get to be as big as they are. So this may literally be a case of “there are a whole lot of people out there who are really, really bad at their jobs.”

    1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      My wife likes to talk about how most companies’ primary business is hierarchy. You might think they’re in business to make widgets, or provide accounting services to widget-makers, or whatever, but they’re not; they’re in business to maintain a hierarchy. And business decisions that seem obviously terrible (for widget-making) look better when you realize that the goal is to maintain the status-quo and reinforce the hierarchy. The company doesn’t need to be very successful, it just needs to not actually fail.

  73. Scott Michael*

    > “Also, a legal note: everyone is part of a protected class, because protected classes are things like race (not just race X), gender (not just gender X), and so forth. So it takes more than membership in a protected class for a discrimination suit, although some groups are more likely to need the protection of anti-discrimination laws than others.”

    Ha, I needed a good laugh. If everyone is part of a protected class then no one is.

    I’m not saying that this holds true in this case, but I’ve absolutely seen different standards set for those in protected groups. That may be in the form of looking the other way out of fear, or the bigotry of lowered expectations. To pretend that couldn’t be a factor is frankly absurd to me.

    1. Ominous Adversary*

      “If everyone is part of a protected class then no one is” – Paraphrasing snappy movie lines is not a substitute for being correct. Everyone is indeed “part of a protected class” because, with few exceptions, the protections are about characteristics. National origin is a protected characteristic; that doesn’t mean Italians are a “protected class” and the Welsh are not.

      That some people get it into their heads that “we can’t fire Fergus because he’s gay and he’ll sue is” doesn’t make the protected-class thing correct. It just means some managers are bad at their jobs, just like the ones who praise Fergus for being assertive while his POC colleagues are scolded for being “aggressive”.

      1. Scott Michael*

        I have no idea what movie you’re alleging that comes from. I’m not paraphrasing from a movie.

        There’s a clear difference in the letter of the law and how it is applied and interpreted – especially in terms of “disparate impact”.

        1. Southern Litigator*

          If what you’re saying is the the Supreme Court only cares when the disparate impact is on white people, then you’re right.

          But if you’re somehow implying that the most marginalized groups in society are somehow benefitting more from Title VII (even though ethically they should), that is patently false.

          Source: I am a lawyer who defends employers against discrimination claims.

    2. Hlao-roo*

      I wrote this in response to another commenter above, but I find it helpful to think of it this way:

      I cannot fire Bob for being a man. I can fire Bob (who is a man) for being bad at his job. I can also fire him for not wearing a pink shirt on Wednesday, if that’s how I want to run my company. But I cannot fire him because he is a man, because that would be firing him based on gender.

      I cannot fire Bob for being white. I can fire Bob (who is white) for being bad at his job. The same goes for any other race.

      1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

        Nah, you probably wrote it for the same commenter posting under two names. Both variations on Michael Scott.

    3. Irish Teacher*

      “Ha, I needed a good laugh. If everyone is part of a protected class then no one is.”

      That’s not really true because the point of a protected class isn’t to give any group extra rights. It’s to prevent people from being discriminated against and fired for things that are not relevant to doing their job. It isn’t true that if nobody can be fired for their race then nobody is protected from being fired by a racist who hates their race, for example.

      Rather than thinking of it as being part of a protected class, perhaps think of it as being protected from unfair dismissal. And when it’s phrased as “if everybody is protected from unfair dismissal (on grounds of race, religion, gender, etc), then nobody is,” that obviously doesn’t make sense.

      And what you are talking about in the final paragraph is simple discrimination. “The bigotry of lowered expectations” is the opposite of protection and is one of the things such laws work to protect against. Because the bigotry of lowered expectations leads to “she wouldn’t be interested in promotion and sure isn’t it great she got a job at all. I’m sure she’s delighted with that and doesn’t want any more.” The bigotry of lowered expectations is just another thing that benefits straight white able-bodies males.

      1. LilPinkSock*

        “That’s not really true because the point of a protected class isn’t to give any group extra rights.”

        Certain individuals have the…misguided…belief that that is indeed the point :-/ “We white guys are so discriminated against compared to you Mexican women, we can’t get away with anything because of our race!” <– Actual statement made by my charming ex

  74. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    The “protected class” thing can, yes, happen, but is pretty rare. In those cases, it’s usually large litigation-averse employers, like government, and it just means more objective evidence is gathered or you may get more chances before firing. You can’t say you were fired for a protected characteristic if data backs up another reason.

    That said, I have worked with many people since the mid-2000s, and I have noticed when marriage equality and similar issues come to the forefront in public, overall I am treated better at work and less likely to receive criticism. But that’s probably a combination of people seeing me as less different from them, and me being more comfortable in those times.

  75. Windaria*

    #8 Exec level is slowly working their way through the termination process. People always assume that because they don’t see it/know about it, disciplinary action isn’t happening. Getting bad employee out the door takes time, unless they have done something seriously bad (violence, theft, etc.) Bad managers are often even harder to “manage out”. Good chance they are well aware of the situation and slowly working on it behind the scenes.

  76. Humpty Dumpty*

    Thanks LW for writing this question and thanks to Alison for answering and posting it.

    I left because of a similar situation. Even though my manager was not a Ken in the sense of mistreating people, he was definitely a bad manager, exactly for the reason Alison says: having lots of skills and qualities that made the company money but that are not management skills.

    I’m pretty sure he was chosen because he was charismatic and good at doing the job himself. But he was a poor communicator and did not know how to support our team which caused a lot of people to leave.

  77. RagingADHD*

    The first time I skimmed this letter, I got the impression that Ken was swearing, yelling, and raging at employees, and that’s why they were quitting.

    But no. It’s the other way around. (My bad for skimming).

    Of course, we are supposed to always give the LW’s perspective primacy but without the details we were “spared,” it is hard to know what Ken is supposed to have done. The only people in the story whose behavior is described are the employees — who are behaving very badly indeed, even if they are frustrated with poor management.

    I think the answer to why leadership doesn’t intervene may be embedded somewhere in those spared details. If Ken’s “awfulness” is not in fact apparent to leadership, they may be under the impression that he isn’t the problem at all. Perhaps they think they have a problem screening for stable, professional candidates, and are trying to overhaul HR instead of addressing whatever Ken is doing.

    1. Phony Genius*

      I agree that details might help narrow down the reasons. Was Kevin treating people badly or was he making bad business decisions, or something else? Each could lead to a different reason that the company won’t fire him. And the employees’ behavior as described can also be defined as awful. If the company is seeing this behavior from the employees, it could be that they are seen as the problem, and not Kevin.

    2. M*

      This. I’m not saying it’s the most likely situation for your average Ken, but on the limited information given, it *is* possible he’s genuinely dealing with a team that’s been badly managed – or badly hired – and is responding to *reasonable* management with rebellion.

      Maybe the organisation has a set of goals for the team that the current team members don’t share, and Ken that is insisting – quite possibly correctly – on prioritising over pet, or more enjoyable, projects. Maybe the organisation or team has a history of laissez faire performance management that Ken’s correcting. Without more information about what’s *Ken’s* doing, it’s not really possible to eliminate those kinds of options – particularly since what we know of the *employees’* behaviour in response is… not super professional.

    3. Zarniwoop*

      When one employee rage quits it’s not unreasonable to default to assuming that employee is the problem.
      When ten employees rage quit the same manager it’s time seriously consider the possibility that the manager is the problem.

      1. LW*


        Also all ten of the employees were high performers and the epitome of professionalism when dealing with anybody except for Ken.

        1. Irish Teacher*

          I think that is central too. If one person behaves like that, it’s a them problem. If the whole team acts like that to everybody, it’s likely poor hiring or a cultural problem. If the team acts like that towards one person and treats everybody else well, well, there are really two likely options: either the person is being bullied (less likely with a director, but still possible) or they are the problem and with a director, the latter is more likely.

    4. LW*

      Fair point, I avoided giving details to 1) help keep this post anonymous, and 2) whether Ken was a good or bad manager isn’t the point of my question. I get that without details it’s hard to say why he was fired, but my question was really more of a general one and I appreciate Allison’s answers.

  78. DameB*

    I’m sorry you had to go through that OP. I will say that if there’s a toxic and abusive manager and the upper management DGAF (for whatever reason you might find, #1-37), then you’re better off elsewhere. I know that’s thin comfort while you’re looking for a job, but honestly, it took me years of being away from my toxic managers to realize just how broken the whole damned company was.

  79. WhyAreThereSoManyBadManagers*

    Don’t discount the possibility that Ken (or Kendra) could be having an affair with their own manager or higher up, or they have leverage on them from a previous affair with them. I’ve strongly suspected this of some past seemingly fire-proof bad managers, and it’s more common than people think. Disgusting but common.

  80. Anonymous was already taken*

    I work for the government. Noone can ever get fired unless some serious criminal offence has occurred. I’ve seen a colleague breach the code of conduct and not get fired. I’ve seen a colleague misuse the corporate credit card (i.e. Public money) and not get fired. I’ve seen people so behind on their work that something that is supposed to go out in 20 days goes out one year later and you know what happens to that colleague, they get promoted to manager. It’s a dreadful place to work. Hence why I’m always on here looking at tips on how to get out.

  81. Amorette Allison*

    My husband and I both quit because of a TERRIBLE manager who made our dream job a nightmare. Almost everyone quit. Then the boss moved on and the owner sold the business. So, yeah, bosses are hired to drive long time employees away. Business, BTW, is tanking under new owner. We are enjoying retirement.

  82. coffee*

    There’s also the The Sick Systems theory from Issendai – basically, you create a hellscape workplace and it acts as a trap to keep workers in place. I think this can sometimes be an accidental hellscape that becomes so hard to fix that management starts to support it, because they see it as a choice between “crumbling hellscape” vs “everything fell apart and there’s nothing left”.

  83. Starina*

    There’s also:

    – Option 8, which is that upper management doesn’t believe the complaints being made about the manager, no matter how much supporting evidence they are provided, and no matter how many people complain.

    – Option 9, where senior leadership knows there’s a problem, but responds by protecting the problematic manager and firing or forcing out anyone who raises the alarm.

  84. SB*

    I once worked for a family owned business who put their adult children in management roles but they were absolutely not up to the task & made working there pretty awful. They would have child like tantrums (think yelling, crying, stamping feet) over the silliest things & both were actively stealing from the company. The parents knew but they also knew that as no one else would employ them this was their only opportunity for an income. The turnover rate was insane. We went through 8 trainee receptionists in one year until the traineeship company decided to cut ties with us. I was so happy to leave that place.

  85. rebelwithmouseyhair*

    I think it’s most likely a combination of 6 and 7, as well as 5, with people not realising that the best employees are more likely to leave.
    I say this as a stellar employee who couldn’t leave a toxic hellhole because of specific needs (part time work) and having had a fear of risk-taking drilled into me as a child. (I did get out eventually)

  86. Witchy Librarian*

    Ken sounds like the dude equivalent of my former library director. There are rumors swirling the city is going to dump her soon and I really hope they do– the folks that have been stuck at that library deserve better and it thrives DESPITE our Ken, not because of her.

  87. IloveHR*

    Sometimes it’s a legal or federal requirement to have someone with a particular license/certification at the top in order to get federal funding. I worked for a terrible director but was kept on because there were very few of their qualifications were available to be hired. If we didn’t have this person, the entire department would have to be shut down and I
    This would have detrimental repercussions to the public. Including compromised safety. Think of the public health officers, many good ones were threw and driven away during Covid times (and still ongoing). I’ve been on recruiting committees trying to locate and attract good candidates before Covid and it was HARD even with a nationwide search. Today, I shudder to think how other states and communities are struggling with this now. That’s another reason why “Ken” is tolerated by upper management in order to continue to have federal funding.

  88. HeraTech*

    OMG, I wonder if you work at the company my “Ken” went to after he left the company we worked at?

    My nemesis worked at our company for over a dozen years and had bullied his way from software engineer to Manager to Director all the way up to VP of Engineering before he left. He didn’t like any ideas that he didn’t think of himself. He was rude to people’s faces. He once deleted an automated workflow process that my department relied on that took months to set up (and that he originally suggested!) because he was getting too many emails. He was awful to everyone, but especially to women. A whole bunch of us quit the company specifically because he was so awful to work with. We had 17% turnover (and that’s just the people I knew about) in one year. He and my favorite (female) Project Manager used to go at it hammer and tongs in meetings. After she left, I ended up following her to her next company, and we’d both get together and vent about him sometimes.

    Working with a guy like that is so stressful. Companies would be doing themselves a favor getting rid of them because employee satisfaction, morale, and productivity would go up and turnover would go down.

  89. CzechMate*

    Had a coworker like this once. I suspect that the owner actually kind of had a crush on the coworker (once we had a Zoom meeting where she shared her screen, and she accidentally flashed her Slack conversations with Ken. Not explicit but…not work appropriate. I think he was flirting with her to avoid getting the axe), but otherwise, I think it was a combination of 1 and 7–she underestimated how bad the bad was, and she overestimated how good he was at some of his other positions. (She had money troubles and was convinced he was a great salesperson, ignoring the fact he would sell things that didn’t exist.) It’s not up to the employees to fix this kind of thing–if management doesn’t understand how one bad employee is costing many good employees, then they don’t deserve to keep them.

  90. Seabunnyslugg*

    I – and many many others – left a large company because of a Ken. In my experience, Ken will be terminated eventually because as Allison said, the high cost of turnovers and replacements and inadequate staff will eventually negate any benefits Ken provides.
    In my case, the manager had been with the company for 25 years and liked to brag that she was irreplaceable unlike the rest of us. However, when our CEO and VP looked at the numbers and realized our office had the highest turnover rate out of all of our other offices combined (we had one in each Province) and the lowest profit generated as a result of said turnovers, they had to take action. It took only a day and a half after the VP got the numbers for him to jump on a plane, fly to our office, and fire her on the spot.
    There was so much rejoicing, and morale immediately improved. I had already given my two weeks before this transpired so I still ended up leaving, but from the contact I had with co-workers who remained, people actually enjoyed going to work again and productivity massively improved.
    It definitely took way too long to get to that point though.

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