my awful coworker’s employees want me to help them

A reader writes:

My counterpart — let’s call him John — and I each manage workers who are part of various teams in the same department. Some of John’s employees recently approached me with concerns about his management style. From what I can gather, after being moved to these employees’ team to “help them out” (he ran out of stuff to do and gets moved around often), John began demanding the team go against their client’s standards at the tail-end of production. The newer guys went along with it, but the more experienced ones pointed out the obvious — they can’t do that. Not only did John use this to pit team members against each other and then gaslight them, but he also forbade them from speaking to his boss about any issues. (Which I assume is why they’re talking to me instead of John’s and my mutual boss. I don’t have authority over anyone involved.)

I know his employees are telling the truth because unfortunately, John did shockingly similar things to me and my team earlier this year … right down to leveling the same wild accusations at me when I finally called him out in a one-on-one meeting (he used the exact same personal accusations and insults in both situations, which creeps me out). There were other identical toxic behaviors, but ultimately, according to John, the only problem is that everyone else has a bad attitude and no one appreciates all his experience. (For context, we’re all about the same age with similar technical expertise. The only difference is John and I went the management route in recent years.)

I never fully told our boss everything that had gone on between me and John because I didn’t fully understand what was going on. Instead, I just sat with him and talked it out, not letting him get away with the bogus blame-casting and subject-changing, pointing out where he had crossed some big boundaries and caused chaos on my usually peaceful team. After 1.5 hours of the aforementioned ego-throwing and wild accusations, he finally backed down and even apologized. Things cooled off for our whole team after that talk, then he got moved to another team. (Though if I’m being honest, I suspected he was unstable and lost my former respect and trust in him.)

At the time, I was completely shocked at his behavior but believed he had legitimately misunderstood me, our team, and our project. I also thought perhaps this sprang from some kind of personal stress. He had mentioned he “gets enough attitude at home and doesn’t need it at work” (ha!) and since I’m a woman, I wondered if he was projecting wife-problems on me. But now, hearing he’s done all the exact same things and said all the same words, this time to men who he actually has authority over, it appears this is simply what John does to get his way.

And I know his tactics work because, to my shame, I’ve defended him over the years when people casually complained about him (starting back before I was a manager). I just couldn’t see him doing the things people were describing. He was too nice and calm of a guy. While our mutual boss said she always gets complaints that he’s a micromanager, she still thinks that’s just a misunderstanding.

In short: John is a smooth operator until he’s really, really not. Since his employees were too scared to go to his boss about his bullying management style, last week I just went to her and explained everything that’s been going on. In response, she talked with a couple of the involved team members, then John, then called their entire team in for a meeting — along with her own boss.

My boss used this meeting to defend John and all his actions, told them that none of what they thought happened actually happened (OMG), and they just needed to respect John’s role more.

To me it seems my boss has been successfully manipulated by John, and she’s not exactly known for being bold or dependable besides. If anything, the team is now more upset and more unified against John than ever. For my part, I think I have to drop it (right?) — but when it definitely happens again, it would kill me to watch my boss flop yet again. How does this realistically get resolved?

Ooooh. Yeah, this is bad — and your boss bears at least as much responsibility for that as John does!

If you hadn’t described your boss as “not exactly known for being bold or dependable,” I’d suggest you go back to her and talk again. If you didn’t already spell out that John previously snookered you too, I’d suggest doing that now, to make it clear that he has a pattern of covering up problems and hiding how he really behaves, and explicitly state that you think he is intentionally hiding things from her now.

But you don’t have a good boss. And you already tried one conversation, and she wildly mishandled it. What she said in her meeting with John’s team is likely to drive the problems further underground; she will have confirmed for John’s employees that he’s untouchable and they’re not likely to get any help from above him.

So yeah, you don’t have many options at this point. You tried! You brought the information to the right person. Unfortunately, the “right person” isn’t willing or equipped to do anything about it.

Before you drop it entirely, though: Do you have the ear of anyone senior to your boss? If you happen to have a great relationship with her boss, for example, and trust that person to act on the information more appropriately, that’s the one avenue that’s still open. You’d need to proceed with caution, because your boss has shown she’s really bad at this stuff … but if her boss happens to be good at it and you trust them to ensure you’re protected from fall-out, you could have a very direct, very discreet conversation with them about what you’re seeing. But if that person hasn’t shown you that they’re a safe route to take — actively shown you that, not just “hasn’t done anything horrible that I’ve seen” — then the risk to you could be awfully high, since your manager would likely see it as you directly undermining her management decisions, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

If that’s not a safe, viable route, then you’re pretty much at the limit of what you personally can do to help. You gave it a shot using the options that are available, but ultimately whether or how it gets addressed isn’t up to you. You were right to try to step in if you could, but from here it’s up to others. That’s a frustrating answer, I know.

What you can do, though, is look for other ways to support John’s team. Can you be a discreet sounding board to any who you particularly trust (just be sure to steer carefully here so that you don’t end up looking to your boss like you’re undermining John), champion their work to others and raise their visibility in the organization more broadly (which may put them in a better position to escape John), offer to be a reference for other jobs, and otherwise use your influence to help them? Realistically, that might be all you can do from here.

{ 113 comments… read them below }

  1. Pizza Rat*

    I don’t think he got moved around because he ran out of stuff to do. I think he got moved around because nobody has the nerve to formally write him up.

    1. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

      *John* probably says that’s the reason, but yeah, this sounds like classic missing stair territory. All his previous bosses are sweeping his shenanigans under the rug and foisting him onto other teams to make it “not their problem” anymore.

        1. RVA Cat*

          This. The pattern reminds me of the Catholic church abuse scandals where the bad priests were shuffled around to hurt more kids.

          1. Hannah Lee*

            What’s that Ben Franklin quote?
            Paraphrasing: if you allow bad people to do bad things, you are actively causing harm to innocent people

      1. Frickityfrack*

        I wonder if John is maybe less of a pseudonym than we think, because I once worked adjacent to a supervisor like this (oh wait, he was *Jonathan*, never John because that would be too familiar). He just kept getting shuffled around and we all kept hoping he’d cross a line so blatantly that he’d get fired, but he always toed it. I have so many Jonathan stories. That guy was the WORST.

    2. Heidi*

      It seem really strange that the boss seems to not have any awareness of this either. People generally don’t get moved around because they were so great at the their jobs they made themselves obsolete.

      1. Lacey*

        No, but I imagine John went to his boss and asked to me moved to a different team. I’ve seen this in actions with someone who was incredibly 2-faced with everyone. It was a small company so eventually we all knew he was blaming each of us to the others for things that were actually all his fault.

        When it hit the point where everyone but the owner was angry & distrustful of him – he quit. The owner probably still believes we lost a good employee.

      2. Goldenrod*

        This: “You don’t have a good boss. And you already tried one conversation, and she wildly mishandled it.”

        I read somewhere once (maybe it was “The Workplace Bullying Handbook”?) that you should *never* go to a bully’s boss with a problem, because their boss is always the person who loves them the most. I’ve found this to be absolutely true, in my experience.

        The recommendation was to talk to someone at least one more step up the ladder, as Alison suggests. That advice always stuck with me. I would give up on John’s boss, at this point. She knows, she’s been told, and she just doesn’t care.

        1. Never Knew I was a Dancer*

          This is a point I hadn’t considered before. Making a mental note if it, though I really, REALLY hope I’ll never need to actually use it.

        2. Tired and confused*

          These words are SO TRUE and that’s exactly what happened at my company until we fund someone senior (not in their department) that was appalled by our John’s behaviour and had a discreet discussion with the CEO. And while John is still there, his power to make people miserable has largely diminished. But it took a long time to find somebody powerful enough and trustworthy enough

        3. boof*

          That’s interesting – kind of checks presumably the bully would have been handled early if the boss was aware/not going to tolerate that sort of behavior. ++ bullies tend to target those they think are vulnerable so bosses probably won’t experience any of it firsthand.

    3. CubeFarmer*

      This is it.

      John seems like that organization’s version of the person who has the polaroids. The person who seemingly can say and do anything (or nothing!) without anyone noticing or acting. Every organization has one.

      1. NotRealAnonForThis*

        Absolutely. I can’t believe it had to be pointed out to me (when I was very new to my career) that I could report Robert all I wanted….the Lannister Corp would never do a thing about it.

    4. This_is_Todays_Name*

      Ugh this is soooo what happens in the Federal Civilian world. Bad employees, even if “fired” from Program or Project X, just keep getting moved around. It’s soooo hard to fire a Civilian. And everyone KNOWS who the problem children are and they just end up not having to do any work and getting paid to just d*ck around all damn day! Soooo frustrating. I feel so bad for John’s colleague(s).

  2. mb*

    If/when John’s team complains to the OP again, she could recommend documentation. They should be asking John to put all his instructions in writing so they have something to back up their complaints.

    1. Jellyfish Catcher*

      I’d tell your team to document now and John’s team to document as well, perhaps on their lunch hours – and to keep those notes at home until needed.

    2. Heart&Vine*

      Yes! I was thinking some malicious compliance might be due here. John wants you to do something that goes against an agreement you have with your client (despite you pointing this out to him)? Type up an email that outlines exactly what he said he wants done and list your concerns. Then end with, “Are you sure you want to move forward as you’ve said? If so, please respond to this email in the affirmative and I will do exactly as I’ve outlined.”

      Then when the poo hits the fan, you can pull out all your receipts and show Big Boss just how everything leads back to John.

  3. Capt. Liam Shaw*

    John is clearly a problem, but sounds like your management is enabling this mess… to me that is a bigger problem.

    1. Momma Bear*


      I also agree that they need to put everything in writing and if necessary return to the table as a group and say, “No, really, this keeps happening. Proof.” Or go to HR if his behavior crosses the line in any way outlined in a code of conduct or handbook.

    2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      My jaw dropped.
      I feel like I’m reading some Robert Bloch/Philip K Dick short terror fiction or what’s that sci fi anthology thing on Amazon now?
      Think about it:
      Fade in to OP walking into the building, sees John at the elevator and has a sudden flash back to a conversation where she’s apologizing to him for something that she at the time believes she misunderstood. Day progresses and members of his staff come to her with their own stories. She realizes she was played by John. What to do? What to do? She tells them that she will use her position to take up their cause with her own manager.
      Her own manager is in on it.
      Sinister music plays.
      Does she continue to help or does she protect herself?
      Screen fades over her typing an email.
      Will the fates be benevolent and guide the message to the wise and witty Alison Green?
      Happy music interrupted by the sound of email notification.

      1. Hannah Lee*

        I’ve seen that movie.

        It played out two months into a new job. In my case it ended with me quitting with nothing lined up* and the company facing SEC fines and mandatory restatements.

        * fortunately, my old employer was happy to offer me a new job, better role and pay, and I was back there a few weeks later.

        If I were LW I’d actually be looking. In parallel with going the skip boss route. The most valuable thing you can offer John’s reports at this point is a good example, a reference and possibly a parachute out if your new employer is hiring.

        1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

          n parallel with going the skip boss route. The most valuable thing you can offer John’s reports at this point is a good example
          This. There is no value to one’s career in staying under a malicious boss. OP would help his reports stop normalizing this behavior!

  4. Anastia Beaverhousen*

    John’s team needs to document everything in writing. Any meetings with him where he gives (or doesn’t give direction), follow it up with a summary email! Communication about projects? Through email! They are going to want to CYA to the max with him.

    1. Goldenrod*

      I mean, I’ve been in terrible workplaces where I documented everything. The problem is, the documentation doesn’t matter if leadership chooses to ignore it. If it can prove that the company is breaking actual laws, then yes, it could make a difference. Otherwise, I think a lot of people place too much faith in the power of documentation.

      Where it *can* be helpful is just in keeping clear in your own mind what is happening (i.e. it’ll keep you from being gaslit). Otherwise, documentation is all too easy to ignore.

      I do love Alison’s suggestion to provide validation and support behind the scenes. People dealing with a terrible boss are *extremely* grateful for these little actions, and it can make a big difference in how terrible someone’s overall experience is. Feeling ignored and unsupported with a toxic boss is tough!

      1. Smithy*

        I agree with this.

        The points about documentation are helpful when you work somewhere that has a process that a) has a system to intervene and b) will intervene. Positive answers to those can be as simple a structure as telling someone in leadership about a problem and they can intervene on your behalf to fix the issue. Or very often, those systems are things like complaint lines, and then investigations and what happens post-investigation. Unfortunately, I think a lot of us work for places that have a version of A – either a system to file a complaint or leadership that says they’re open to hearing about these issues – but then not B.

        So sure, documenting and sending confirmation emails are helping in preventing gaslighting and generic CYA issues. But I think it’s highly unlikely for a bigger fix. I really do believe that sometimes when someone is in the most toxic workplace, that there can be such a focus on fixing their team – that they don’t look outside their workplace. They figure they can white knuckle the problems, or will spend their energy trying fix the issue, etc. For far too many people, it postpones their job hunt when perhaps they’re even more burnt out, unhappy, or even worse – at risk of losing their job or have made “mistakes or become a “behavioral problem.”

      2. goddessoftransitory*

        It also may help prevent the worst kind of trauma bonding, where the actual toxicity is seen as some kind of rite of passage and is the basis of the ties in the workplace.

        When fellow employees reinforce ” this is How It Is, Youngling” and insist on everybody suffering like they do, the Johns of the world thrive. When, instead, they support each other with notes, receipts and documenting that “This is not normal and nobody thinks it is,” people are much less likely to simply endure and see abuse as some kind of badge of honor.

  5. WantonSeedStitch*

    Anyone else seeing the “gets enough attitude at home” thing as a HUGE character red flag? Sounds like the kind of thing abusers say about the people they abuse in their home: that they “give them attitude” and as a result are “making” them do the abusive things. I know this is reading into things, but it’s really setting off alarm bells for me when you couple it with the gaslighting and bullying but seeming like a “nice guy” to people he has to please (like his boss).

    1. duinath*

      i was absolutely getting red flags from that, yeah. idk what he’s actually like at home, and i don’t care to speculate, but talking like that is showing some nasty views imho. one can only hope he’s talking about his kids. even if he is, it’s messed up in this context. being fed up with your teens is pretty normal, i think. comparing your teens to the people you work with is not.

    2. Michelle Smith*

      Thank you for articulating why that line increased my heart rate and breath. I couldn’t place why it was bothering me so much, but you nailed it.

        1. WillowSunstar*

          Abusers are often charming to people they don’t abuse, in part because it helps them to be able to gaslight the victims. (I.e. how could he be doing that, he’s sooooo nice, kind of thing.)

          1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

            This kind of behavior can also make it harder for victims to be believed when they try to reach out for help. In this case, John’s obviously brainwashed his boss into thinking he’s too nice a guy to do anything awful. He has probably made a point of buttering her up, and it’s paid off for him!

    3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Ahh, the martyr defense.
      There is no scenario he can’t turn against himself, for the win.
      His wife never “asks” him to do anything, she orders him.
      His staff never asks for clarification, they challenge his authority.
      OP doesn’t ask if he’s given his staff bad information, OP wants to make him look incompetent.

    4. Ari*

      I had the same thought about the red flag.

      Any abuser I’ve ever known was the same way. So nice to everyone just outside their control, that people refused to believe they could really be doing X, Y and Z. It’s astonishing and frightening to witness it happening.

    5. justcommentary*

      I’s a very domineering and aggressive thing to say. I think even in a situation if I had having problems at home with family/roommates/etc. that I perceived as not my fault or out of my control and were affecting my emotions/behavior at work, I wouldn’t phrase like that. It’s very presumptuous to assume that just because I’m going through some tough stuff that I should receive this kind of blanket deferential and “obedient” behavior from my coworkers or even my subordinates.

      1. justcommentary*

        I guess another way to put it, I might use that phrasing if I’m venting or complaining about say the weather or some particularly rude customers, but never as a way to demand some kind of treatment.

        1. Myrin*

          Yeah, more than anything, it read as “uncontrolled” to me – you might mutter this to yourself or when you get into a bit of an upset “woe is me” stage while venting with your best friend, but not as an earnest justification to a colleague!

      2. Grumpus*

        Thank you. It’s meant to belittle whoever is the target of the comment, takes them out of a work role and places them in a personal (subordinate) role to the speaker. Absolutely inappropriate.

    6. Ally McBeal*

      Oh, that was an immediate red flag for me. Men who say that about their wives are rarely as harangued as they claim to be, and in fact are frequently the primary instigator of said “attitude.”

      1. Twix*

        Yup, that was my immediate thought too. In my experience people who say this really mean “I have no respect for my partner and don’t care what they want, and they have the audacity to have needs and opinions anyway.”

      2. I&I*

        Or if he means his kids, then he’s infantilizing his colleagues.

        And frankly, that’s not something that good parents say casually about their children either. (Yes, sometimes kids cop an attitude, but either there’s a reason worth understanding or, if it really is just teenage hormones, then that’s developmentally appropriate and the mature thing it do is remember who’s the grown-up. It’s certainly not your co-workers’ problem.)

    7. fine tipped pen aficionado*

      It’s definitely a red flag for troubling casual misogyny, which has no place at work. I don’t know that it’s enough to lead straight to possible abuser and, more importantly, I think being abusive at home is gonna be even less actionable for the LW than the things we know for sure that John does at the workplace.

      Not trying to diminish anyone’s experience or anything, it’s probably just not going to give the LW any useful new information and it’s a pretty distressing thought to have niggling in the back of your head about someone you have to see every day.

      1. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

        I don’t think anyone was suggesting they do anything about his home life. Just that it’s a flag for his behavior. If he’s an abusing gaslighter at home, of course he’s an abusing gaslighter at work – that’s his personality.

        I absolutely had the same thought. “I get enough attitude at home” <-who talks like that about their family? Abusers. Control freaks. Authoritarians who think any question is a challenge and everyone owes them unquestioning obedience.

      2. Festively Dressed Earl*

        The useful takeaway is in recognizing common abuser behaviors that John is taking into the workplace, and in adopting effective strategies for coping until OP and/or John’s team can escape.

    8. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      That comment definitely jumped out at me, too. Could “just” be an indication of garden variety misogyny/sexism.

    9. Budgie Buddy*

      I wouldn’t necessarily call this a red flag because on some level a red flag is still a behavior that’s indicative of something more troubling. This is John flying his abuser flag proudly and in the open. He’s horrible to anyone he perceives as his inferior, which includes his spouse. There’s nothing to extrapolate here. John came out and said exactly what kind of person he is.

    10. goddessoftransitory*

      Every internal signal I had blared DANGER, WILL ROBINSON when I read that. That’s such a classic sign.

    1. Be Gneiss*

      And then everyone clapped.
      Not great, actionable advice for people who need their job to…you know…pay for a place to live and food and medicine and stuff. But sure sounds cool on the internet.

    2. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      And then what happens when they say – oh you won’t work with our best employee? You can be replaced, he can’t. Unless you are prepared to walk that day don’t do this.

      Which btw, OP, it never hurts to look around see what other employment is available to you. You don’t have to actually leave. But, your boss has shown you who they are. Someone even higher up knows he keeps getting moved around and the real reason why he does. They have shown you who they are and who they will defend. Believe them. Have an exit strategy.

  6. Observer*

    Also, OP. If there really is no one above your boss who can be trusted to do something? Maybe *you* should be looking for a new job.

    But in the meantime, do what ever you can in the vein that Allison suggested, as well as encouraging all of John’s staff to document everything. If nothing else, it will make the gaslighting portion of this less effective. And it (or when) things blow up, it will be harder for management (especially his boss) to pretend that none of this happened and that no one knew about it.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      This. Unless there’s someone with power who’s inclined to un-f*** this situation, it’s time to start putting feelers out there if you haven’t already. If no one is willing to act, you have bigger problems than just John.

    2. goddessoftransitory*

      Because from the letter, it sounds like John is insisting on shortcuts and sloppy work, which is cheating their clients, and that the higher ups are okay with this, maybe as some kind of penny wise, pound foolish “cost saving” measure.

      If that’s an accurate read, LW, your company’s reputation is going to tank, if it hasn’t already. I would start updating your resume and putting out feelers now, while you can still escape the smears these practices may leave on your professional standing and career.

    1. fine tipped pen aficionado*

      Damn if it wouldn’t be satisfying as hell to see a client cut ties and cite John as the reason, and just quietly know you did that. Terrible idea; way too much risk to yourself and the other people who obviously still need the income or they would have already jumped ship. But so pleasing to imagine!

    2. She of Many Hats*

      First, multiple members of that team need to have hard documention that John ordered them to do that. Have them record, get it in writing/email, etc from him. Otherwise they’re bus-fodder to John.

      I don’t know if the team can counter verify John orders that go against client or corporate policy with someone above or outside of him: “Can you confirm that this is accurate like John said?” The employ looks like they’re working to be accurate but bringing problematic actions to the attention of those who might have the power to fix the problem.

  7. IrishGirl*

    OP wrote that her boss’s boss was in the meeting and Alison ignored that in her advise? If her grandboss was there and saw everything, I’m not sure there is much the OP can do within her vertical.

    1. kiki*

      If LW has a good relationship with their boss’s boss, I think it would be fair to chat with them about concerns about how that meeting went. Especially if LW can share some details that may have been missed in that meeting or about their own experience with John. If I were LW’s boss’s boss, I’d be interesting in knowing if LW has additional information or perspective that might change my opinion of how this is being handled.

      1. Emily*

        Yeah, I’m really hoping LW does have a good relationship with her boss’s boss and can take Alison’s advice on that (assuming all the specifications Alison gave are met), because otherwise I don’t see much hope for this situation getting any better.

    2. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      > In response, she talked with a couple of the involved team members, then John, then called their entire team in for a meeting — along with her own boss.

      Yes, you are right. OP and John share a boss (Mutual Boss). Mutual Boss included her own boss in the meeting. So Mutual Boss’s Boss saw what happened in the meeting — which was all or mostly Mutual Boss talking. I’m guessing that they haven’t actually talked to anyone on John’s team. Was OP in that meeting (it’s not clear). Has MBB talked to OP? (Also not clear.)

  8. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

    I wondered if we were coworkers up until the “big meeting,” which hasn’t happened here. Our Bob is evil, useless, and entrenched. In our org, it’s because there are some staff holes that the powers that be are afraid would be worse without Bob. As in, “We know he’s terrible but he’s holding up half the sky.” He is not holding up so much as a shelf in truth but he has sold his image well.

  9. Sparkles McFadden*

    I think every time I actually get around to posting a comment, the comment consists of recommending documenting everything. Everyone involved here needs to document everything, and wait for an appropriate opportunity to present itself. If you have contacts higher up and you have that political capital, you could try to take it up the chain, but I think you are better off waiting for a bit.

    I have seen the dynamic of John and your boss over and over again. Your boss is insecure. John manages up well and works to make your boss feel dependent on him. He’ll support her and undermine her at the same time to keep her feeling as if she needs him to be around. She, in turn, will protect him to the point of not believing reality. What eventually happens is that John feels so invincible that he does something outside of the protective bubble of the boss (and whoever else he has snowed) and they both get what’s coming. The problem is all of the collateral damage. People will quit and/or get let go because of John and the boss will not care. If John has been moved around this much, the denouement is coming. It’s just a matter of when and who will get hurt in the meantime. Don’t be surprised, LW, if John comes after you. Since you don’t believe his act anymore, he will want to undermine your credibility.

    As I said, all you can do is document everything (including the meeting with your boss) and encourage others to do the same, and wait. In the meantime, just be a good human as you’ve been doing. Sometimes we have to accept that things are out of our control.

    1. Goldenrod*

      I mean, I’ve been in terrible workplaces where I documented everything. The problem is, the documentation doesn’t matter if leadership chooses to ignore it. If it can prove that the company is breaking actual laws, then yes, it could make a difference. Otherwise, I think a lot of people place too much faith in the power of documentation.

      Where it *can* be helpful is just in keeping clear in your own mind what is happening (i.e. it’ll keep you from being gaslit). Otherwise, documentation is all too easy to ignore.

      I do love Alison’s suggestion to provide validation and support behind the scenes. People dealing with a terrible boss are *extremely* grateful for these little actions, and it can make a big difference in how terrible someone’s overall experience is. Feeling ignored and unsupported with a toxic boss is tough!

      1. Sparkles McFadden*

        I am not suggesting documentation will fix this. I have tons of stuff documented which I never got an opportunity to use. I am just saying that documentation is a useful tool in cases where you need to rebut something. So, when my version of John blamed me for a whole pile of stuff, I was able to provide facts to refute what was being said. My boss didn’t care, my grandboss didn’t care, but the division head sure did, and my John ran his complaints up that high. Plus, writing stuff down keeps you from doubting yourself. For me, it also gets it out of my head so I can just do my job. I find it cathartic.

        Overall, we have to accept that we really have no control over anything. You can’t make your boss not be crazy, you can’t make your lazy coworker do more work, and you can’t make the Johns of the world into decent people. You can, however, control what you do. Sometimes that means looking for a new job and sometimes that means you just put things into perspective for yourself and saying “I’ve got decent benefits and I like the work. I can do a good job and be kind to people at work but I can’t do much else.” And do be kind to John’s team because they really are in a terrible spot.

        1. Goldenrod*

          “Plus, writing stuff down keeps you from doubting yourself. For me, it also gets it out of my head so I can just do my job. I find it cathartic.”

          Totally agree with this.

          1. Emily*

            As long as you are purely doing the documentation for yourself, then I think it is worthwhile, but I think having the assumption that if you start documenting things will change anything when the boss has already proven to be this obtuse, is just going to set you up for further frustration/disappointment (unless it is something legally actionable).

            1. Santiago*

              It’s still advisable to document, because personnel changes. It’s better to be prepared if the political winds blow in your favor, rather than to assume the worst and get caught with your pants down. Particularly, if leadership is dysfunctional.

    2. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

      “He’ll support her and undermine her at the same time to keep her feeling as if she needs him to be around.” Oh, wow, that is perceptive. Wow.

      I am remembering the worst guy I ever had as a manager, how hands off and “unaware” my grandboss was and what a smarmy “nice guy” the manager was. Supposedly a visionary and always starting new initiatives.

      When he left, we discovered he had been doing no work at all. There were literally no projects to be handed off. So he wasn’t even replaced. And my grandboss became my boss. I don’t think she was insecure, but she also didn’t really like being a people manager. But she liked being able to talk up her team’s accomplishments and look good to the C-suite. So that’s another way these guys can get away with it – pretend to be working so hard, inventing new things and taking all the weight off the grandboss, when actually they’re dumping all the real work on the underlings and lying about the rest.

  10. pally*

    Oh man does this situation sound familiar!

    John provides value – for management. Or his value outweighs whatever issues folks have with him.

    Gotta pinpoint what that value is. Then figure out how to meet this value in other ways. And get management to agree to achieving that value in those other ways – in order to let him go (heh, that’s the tough part!).
    Does he have a special skill set? Would replacing him be a big struggle? Is he achieving high productivity from his reports?

    I am in no way supporting John here. I work in a very similar environment where management fully supports, values -and excuses- all of John’s exploits. Even the abusive ones (document these all you want. It will be ignored). Unless there is a mass exodus of employees, John is gonna stay. But since jobs don’t grow on trees, we all stay.

    Best avenue is to support John’s reports as best you can.

    1. fine tipped pen aficionado*

      Yeah this is a great point about the value he adds to management. At the risk of leaning too much into unhelpful speculation, I wonder if they sometimes lean on John to do things they want but can’t ask for (ie cutting corners)? Or if he’s a great place for his boss to lay blame and their boss for some reason doesn’t see it as a problem that they can’t manage John?

      That doesn’t really change what LW should do, but it would be interesting info to have about the boss and org.

    2. New Jack Karyn*

      And the value he provides to management doesn’t have to be tangible value to the company. It doesn’t have to be his technical skill set, his ability to schmooze clients, or his rare combination of degrees and licensures.

      It could be that he knows how to make his boss look good to her own boss. Or that he fulfills some emotional need his boss has (this doesn’t necessarily mean an inappropriate relationship). Or that he is willing to manage a team others see as a dead end. Or that the boss hates the hiring process so much, she’s overly invested in seeing the best in everyone. Or a million things!

  11. VP of Monitoring Employees' LinkedIn Profiles**

    Can a company (i.e. HR) really enforce a manager’s “you’re not allowed to talk to my boss” rule?

    1. So they all cheap-ass rolled over and one fell out*

      A company can almost certainly enforce such a rule.
      Grandboss can enforce it by refusing to meet/listen.
      A manager can create such a rule, but without the support from above, can’t (or shouldn’t be able to) enforce it.

    2. ecnaseener*

      Like, legally? Sure, as long as John isn’t doing anything illegal. If he is, and he punished someone for telling his boss about it, the retaliation would likely be illegal regardless of whether he had a blanket ban on talking to his boss.

      The optics would be terrible of course regardless of legality.

  12. Festively Dressed Earl*

    Realistically, John isn’t going to change, and the situation will only be resolved when John leaves/is fired or the rest of his team does. Until then:
    – document incidents of John advising his team against the company’s interest, such as going against a client’s wishes. Focus on facts rather than John’s myriad personality problems.
    – set professional boundaries and stick to them. That’s hard for his team when he holds power over their livelihood, but John is so volatile that their livelihoods are in danger even if they do everything he wants.
    – Don’t gossip with each other or with John, and keep info about your personal lives to a minimum. The exception is to check with others if they suspect John is lying or trying to pit employees against each other. The idea is to deprive John of ammunition to manipulate people.
    – talk to HR, possibly as a group.

    Good luck with that wasp’s nest, OP. I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      It would be worth it for John’s direct reports to put it in emails any directions that he has given them that contravene client requirements / regulatory standards / company policies / etc.

      Along the lines of “Just so we are on the same page, in our conversation today, you have directed me to proceed with the widget process at 6% beyond performance tolerances set by the client. As I understand it, this will violate our contract obligation. Please confirm that I am understanding you correctly.”

  13. Coin Purse*

    I worked for a John and the mind games are hard to handle day to day. You go to HR and are told everyone loves him, what’s wrong with you? Yet he’s cruel and wildly inappropriate in 1:1 situations. I don’t have great ideas since I quit a very good job over a similar situation. No regrets though, it was worth it.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      In that kind of situation, getting out as soon as you can find something else seems like a great idea!

  14. Raida*

    Oh did you say “bullying”? well then you clearly have a responsibility to report these things to HR.


    Also, sorry, but you should be putting in a complaint about your boss. Because they have not done their job acceptably.

    Sorry. But you should meet with their boss and discuss the ramifications of this protection of a toxic, bullying, threatening, no-value-producing manager your boss is protecting.

    1. Goldenrod*

      Raida, are you British? Because I know that workplace bullying is illegal in Britain – sadly for us, it is 100% legal here in America.

      HR would likely not care one bit, unless the bullying were based on race or gender (which is illegal here). But otherwise? They are more likely to label it as a personality conflict, and quite possibly label the person reporting it as a troublemaker.

  15. Bex (in computers)*

    Have you gone to HR, or just your boss? I would recommend HR if you haven’t yet, because this sounds like it needs an impartial assessment if nothing else.

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. It sucks, it’s not normal, and professionals shouldn’t behave this way.

  16. Remove Yourself from the Situation*

    I don’t agree with the suggestion of being a sounding board. I did this for over 10 years when there were complaints against my boss. I also had no authority to change anything. It became very toxic for me personally to listen to all the vile things she did to others. At the end of the day though, I had to work with her. I tried to warn her about what others were saying, cajole her into listening more, tried to help edit emails/letters that she was sending on different topics, reminded her constantly that not everyone thought the way she did, etc. She had tirades at work where she would trap her senior management into hours long meetings because she was mad at [fill in the blank]. One meeting was over 5 hours trapped in her office with no meal or bathroom break. Finally, someone stood up and said I really can’t wait any longer to go to the bathroom and everyone got up and just left her. I eventually reported her to several members of the board, but they didn’t have the nerve to do anything. My life was depressing because of it, and it turned a position that I loved into a toxic hole and a place I dreaded going to. In this instance, those people need to write up their complaint and officially send it to the boss of this person. Thank her for having a meeting about it but state the reasons why it didn’t solve the problem. If they as a group can’t do that then the situation remains the same.

  17. Jiminy Cricket*

    If he is asking engineers to do what they shouldn’t do based on the client’s specs and none of the higher-ups care, it’s time to call the whistleblower hotline.

    And, if you do, it’s time to start looking for another job, because they will figure out it was you who triggered the investigation.

  18. Hashtag Destigmatize Therapy*

    IMO, someone who’s this good at convincing other people he’s the victim is *dangerous*, and the best way to deal with him is to get away from him. OP, kudos to you for not taking the bait when you had the initial conversation with him–that takes a lot of self-discipline.

    If you are able to tell someone above your boss that John has done this twice, as Alison suggested, that’s probably your best hope for helping his employees. Beyond that, I guess you could slip them discreet notes telling them to get out ASAP.

    1. CYA*

      Hard agree. People who are able to not only avoid getting fired but instead get PROMOTED to management with this behavior are highly, highly skilled manipulators–they’ve been doing it their whole lives, and they’re *much* better at it than you.

      The only way to win is to not play the game.

  19. Been there done that*

    I have been in this same sort of situation. I reported their behavior to HR who had me speak with our Grand Boss. I never reported to our boss as they were close. I was told by the Grand Boss that I should have explained to this person how they were coming across to their employees. We were counterparts in our department, but they were higher than me in title. I wasn’t comfortable doing that. I continued to report to HR for the employees, encouraged them to self report anonymously, and then finally just backed out of the situation all together. I was able to get some space between our teams and it helped mine and my team’s morale. They were eventually promoted out of a managing role which helped tremendously.
    My advice, report to HR (anonymously if possible) encourage that team to do so as well, and then tell them if they are unwilling to help themselves, that you can’t get in the middle anymore. I felt, per training my company had given me, that I had the obligation to report it on their team’s behalf. Once your management and HR shows that they don’t care, save yourself! And if he ever becomes your boss, look for a new job!

    1. OrangeCup*

      So many bad managers out there, aren’t there? Grand Boss was failing you too! It’s not our responsibility to stop bad employees from being bad employees – that’s supposed to be for management and HR to stop! I’m leaving a job this week for a John situation. Terrible colleague, terrible manager who will get rid of anyone who points out how many problems she causes, and my colleague who got fired after they conspired against him told Grand Boss all the issues….and manager who has had three HR complaints made against her by colleagues of mine still got promoted to the highest level the company could promote her too. They truly don’t care how employees are treated, especially at very large companies. So I’m moving on to a job I’m really excited to be starting with a big raise. Hmm….maybe I should be thanking her for her terrible management skills. LOL!

  20. Cthulhu’s Librarian*

    There is one more option available to the LW here – you say John is has the team going against the client’s standards.

    Tell the client. And tell them who is responsible for those directives.

    I’ll stress that this is a pretty nuclear option – many employers are going to resent you airing dirty laundry publicly – but clients usually have standards for a reason, and finding out that some middle manager is making people violate them is the sort of thing that gets various executives to have distinct and pointed conversations with each other, which typically WILL effect change.

    I know, because I did it once when I worked in manufacturing. The “untouchable” manager who had been telling us to send out of spec parts to the client was gone by the end of a week long investigation (there were safety elements for down stream users of the product in play, and the client had tolerated the parts being out of spec when they thought it was just the shop not being able to do any better – when they found out we were shipping them under direction despite knowing they were out of spec, their willingness to tolerate the error rate changed drastically).

  21. New Senior Mgr*

    I may be confused, but did John become a manger after all he put LW through? If so, that’s very telling about your higher ups.

  22. CYA*

    Man, I don’t think it’s a good idea to be a sounding board for John’s disgruntled employees. Lift them up when you can, support them publicly when they do good work, but don’t become the “safe person” they can all vent to. Suggest they document issues and redirect them to John’s boss, HR – anyone who actually has some power here.

    I’ve been the safe manager people could come to, and all that was accomplished is that I became more unhappy at work and eventually left that job because: 1) there was nothing I could do about any of it and that was disappointing to ME as well as the complainers, 2) the complainers eventually resented me too, and 3) NOBODY can keep their mouth shut in a toxic environment where no one trusts each other and allegiances can change conversation-by-conversation, so I eventually became a target of both the complainers AND the shitty people they were complaining about.

    Be kind, be supportive, but don’t stick your neck out unless you want John back in your life. For your own safety, you should document all of this for yourself because it wouldn’t surprise me if John turned his attention back to you, knowing his employees are coming to you. (If he doesn’t know yet, he’ll find out.)

    Since you said you had been snowed by John before: Is there anything someone could have said to you that would have changed your mind? If you think of an angle there, that might be worth trying with your boss. But . . . prioritize self-preservation in this economy.

Comments are closed.