transcript of “My Boss is a Jerk — But Only to Me”

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “My Boss is a Jerk – But Only to Me.”

Alison: Managers can have a huge amount of influence over your day to day quality of life at work. A good boss can make even boring jobs pretty good, and a bad boss can take a great job and destroy it. Bad bosses come in a lot of different flavors, but one of the hardest to deal with is a boss who is just mean. Today’s guest is worried that might be the boss she has ended up with at a new job. Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Alison: I’m so glad to have you here. You wrote to me and you said, basically, your boss is pretty awful to you. You’ve been there a few months and it feels like the way she treats you is abusive. When she gives you feedback on your work, she makes it personal and it feels like she talks to you with real hostility. When you’ve tried to defend yourself – like one time where she thought you had forgotten to include something in a draft and you pointed out that no, actually you had included it – she’s told you to just stop being defensive. And then a complicating factor is that while she’s pretty mean to you, everyone else seems to like her and it doesn’t seem like she’s treating other people this way. Am I getting that right, and is there anything you would want to add to that?

Guest: Yeah, I mean that’s spot on. She’s been there for probably two years now and I’ve just joined recently, and I’m one of two people that she manages, and she seems to be pretty close with the other person that she manages, who’s been there for a while. And right from the get go, I’ve really sensed this kind of hostile vibe from her and it just makes working with her really difficult. And especially when I’m in a new job and I’m trying to get trained and up to speed on things. It almost feels like she doesn’t want me to get better or that I’m just kind of her punching bag or something.

Alison: And was it like that from day one?

Guest: Pretty soon, maybe not the first week – the first week was such a whirlwind. I guess, yeah, it was pretty soon right away. She was just immediately hypercritical of everything I did or said.

Alison: Will you tell me more about specifically what sorts of things she says to you that feel abusive?

Guest: Sure. As you said, recently I made a draft for her and she asked for a specific finding to be included in it, which I did, but she reviewed it late at night and she missed it, I guess. So she came in the next day and she asked, “Hey, why wasn’t this in the draft?” And I said, “Oh actually it’s right here, here’s the paragraph.” And I showed it to her on my computer. And she looks at me and says, “That wasn’t there yesterday.” And I said, “Oh no, actually it was.” And she said, “All right, you should not be so defensive. It’s not about you being right or me being wrong.” Which I was just really taken aback by because I didn’t know how to respond. I was just flagging that for her because since it wasn’t a draft, she wasn’t going to have to do it herself. The hostility right off the bat was just really difficult to deal with.

Alison: That’s so bizarre because I’m trying to imagine how you could have responded to that in any other way. She was saying it wasn’t there, and you were pointing out that it was. It’s hard to picture what response she wanted from you.

Guest: I don’t know. I felt like she wanted it to not be there and she wanted to berate me for it not being there, and I took that away from her or something.

Alison: Yeah. And I think, you said to me in your original email that it feels like she’s almost putting down your work.

Guest: Yeah, she is. She definitely does try to put down my work. She almost wants to make me feel like I’m dumb, or… like, she tries to explain to me what our line of work is all about. But I’ve done our line of work for four years and I’ve always had good reviews. At my last company, I really rose to the top of my team pretty quickly and I was a go-to person for questions. It does feel kind of condescending, like she’s trying to put me down. She actually told me the other day in so many words that I’m not curious enough for this line of work. Her exact words were, “I just don’t know how to teach curiosity.” And I didn’t know what to say to that because I’ve done the work for four years and I always did a good job and I pride myself on going the extra mile. And especially when I’m in a situation where someone doesn’t think my work is good enough, that really puts me into turbo mode and I really want to do a good job. But it just feels like even if I do go that extra mile, if I somehow squeak by, she says nothing. But if there’s even a small mistake, she jumps on it and harps on it and explains it in a very patronizing, condescending way about how I should have known better. But it feels like she doesn’t want to help me, she just wants to berate me.

Alison: Yeah. And is the hostility that you’re feeling from her, is that present in the majority of your interactions with her? Or is it more just occasional?

Guest: I would say that it’s present in most of our interactions. I’ve actually in the past two weeks, since I wrote in, I’ve tried to just distance myself from her a little bit because I figured that, you know, maybe that would be one way to dial back on the abusive nature of the interactions. I don’t ask questions to her anymore, I ask my coworker who is a very sweet person, and I just really try to keep my distance because that seems to be working out a little bit better for me.

Alison: And your coworker, this is the one other person that your boss manages and they have a pretty good relationship. You don’t see your boss treating your coworker that way?

Guest: No, I don’t. She has been here for probably eight months or so, my coworker. And so she’s definitely been doing the work for longer. But yeah, my coworker will go to my boss and we’ll ask her questions, and my boss will be very forthcoming in advice, and will actually tell her what she wants or give her a plan rather than just throwing her in the deep end almost, and just expecting some kind of results that won’t result in berating.

Alison: I’m almost getting the sense that she might just have an irrational dislike of you or something.

Guest: Yeah, I’m thinking that too because we do have a larger team of six or seven people and the majority are women. And everyone seems to get along really well, and everyone on the team and at the company overall is really friendly and nice and loves their job and it’s great. But I think that my boss, as you said, just has some kind of dislike of me. And actually, I think this will be symbolized in my next incident. Basically, this was another time earlier on where I asked her if she would be able to help me find a piece of data to be able to disqualify a certain result that we found. And so I said basically, “I’m sorry you have to go looking for it.” You know, just something like polite, I felt – you know, I know she’s busy and I just couldn’t find it and I wanted to see if she could help. But after I said that, “Hey, sorry, you have to go looking for it.” She turned to me and said, “Okay, stop apologizing. I obviously have to do this. How else do you think it’s gonna get done if I don’t do this? Really, I want to hear it.” And she just, she doesn’t smile that much in general – well, she kind of does with other people but never with me. But she just stares at me with this terrifying face and I don’t know what to do. I just kind of looked away and said “Yeah, I’m sorry. You’re right.” What was I supposed to say?

Alison: Right. This sounds really awful. Is she – I’m just curious and I’m sorry, I’ll start giving you some advice and I’ll stop with my questions after this one, but I do have so many questions about it – is she a newer manager? Do you happen to know if she has a lot of management experience or if she’s just getting her feet wet?

Guest: Yes. I actually think that she is a new manager – I’m not sure, but I took a look at her LinkedIn and she has mostly a lot of contracting work and consultant type things before this job. And so I really get the sense that she has never managed before.

Alison: I have a theory. I have two theories about your boss. I have absolutely nothing to back them up. They’re just speculation, but my gut is saying she’s a brand new manager. She really doesn’t know how to manage and she might be really stressed out. I’m actually curious to know what you’ve noticed about her stress level. Because what you’re describing sounds like someone who is stressed out and does not know how to manage effectively and is taking that stress out on you. But my second theory is that maybe she just has an irrational dislike of you. Maybe she didn’t want to hire you, she wanted to hire her friend, or maybe you look just like her cousin who she hates. There might just be something really irrational going on here that isn’t about you at all.

Guest: Well, I do think that she’s probably pretty stressed. She does tend to email on the weekend and she’ll review my reports on the weekend. She stays up late to do things and she seems like maybe a higher stress individual, so that definitely I think could be contributing. Maybe it’s just easier to take it out on me because I’m new and I’m definitely still learning and I’m not, it takes a while to get up to speed, especially on a more technical kind of thing that we do – but I just don’t see her treating my peer like that, or any of her peers, or my grand-boss.

Alison: Yeah. Well she definitely wouldn’t do it above her because people who are abusive tend to at least know that they can’t aim it upward. They can only get away with it downward, which of course just makes it even crappier because it means it’s actually within their control and they’re picking and choosing. But I could definitely see it being that she is taking her stress out on you and the reason she’s taking it out on you and not on your coworker is because she was able to juggle things before you got there. And having to train you and having to answer your questions and having to manage you is adding to her stress in a way that your longer term coworker isn’t. None of this is justified and of course all of this is speculation. I could be completely off base, but if I’m right – it might just be an interesting thing to have in the back of your head as you’re watching the situation to see if you see further signs that that fits.

That doesn’t really steer you in any particular direction of action, of course. So let’s talk about what to do. I think you have a few options here. The first one, which I don’t like and I don’t recommend, is that you could just give this some time and see if it gets better once you’re both more used to working together. I don’t like that approach because I think it sounds pretty bad and you’re understandably pretty unhappy, and I don’t know that it’s likely to change if you just try to wait it out. And if she were like this with everyone, that would be bad in a different way. It’s terrible to have a manager where that’s just her style. But in that case it would be possible that you could end up finding ways to work reasonably happily with a manager who just has a crappy style. But the fact that she’s just doing it to you says to me that there’s something going on that’s specific to the two of you, or that the way you’re approaching the work is somehow out of sync with what she wants and she hasn’t figured out how to articulate that. And that’s not likely to go away if you just leave it alone, so I don’t recommend just waiting and seeing.

The option that I suspect will get better results, but you might not want to do it, is that you can try talking to her about it head on. Something weird is going on, since she’s not doing this with other people. And it’s probably in your best interest to address it and find out what it is. It might be worth talking with her, sitting down and asking to talk about how things are going overall. You’re a few months into the job, so this is a logical time to do that anyway. And as part of that conversation you could say pretty straightforwardly that you’re getting the sense that she might be unhappy with your work and even frustrated with you and ask to talk about that. Would you be comfortable doing that? Or maybe not comfortable because it sounds like this whole thing is pretty uncomfortable, but can you imagine doing that?

Guest: Yeah, I might try to pick a day when she’s not under a lot of stress. I don’t really know how to read her yet, but definitely, when she’s less busy. I do want to definitely address it. I just feel like I’m worried that if I address it with her directly she’ll just say something like, “You need to get better,” or “Your work is bad.” It’s just frustrating to me because I really do try really hard and I try to follow her exact protocols as much as possible. I’ll copy something that she did at a previous incident and use it for a new one. The same type of incident, tweak it with the additional details and suddenly it won’t be good enough and she’ll add additional details even when mine was more than sufficient and was good enough, a week ago. And it feels like she wants to set me up to not be successful. But I would definitely be interested in talking to her about it. And I think I would frame it like that: “I get the sense that you’re unhappy with my work or maybe just with me in general. How can we fix it?”

Alison: And you might be thinking, “Gosh, I’m just going to be inviting even more criticism from her,” and you might. But the idea is, if she is thinking something about you, it’s better for you to hear it. And what you want to really focus on here, as much as you can, is the big picture. Overall, how are things going? And overall, what does she think you need to be doing differently or working on? It’s not an invitation for her to get into the nitty gritty complaints that she’s had in the past. I mean, she might do that and you can’t stop her from doing that, but as much as you can, I think you want to frame it as: you’re getting the sense that overall you might not be approaching the job in the way that she wants – and you really want to, you want to do a good job at work. You want her feedback. And you don’t want to have a situation where she’s frustrated or unhappy with you.

I will say there is a risk to this option that you would have to be okay with going in. Because it is possible that if you sit down with her and you say that, she might move pretty quickly to, “Yeah, things are not going well,” and that could move you more quickly into a situation where potentially she’s even talking about whether or not it’s the right job for you, and it could take you down a path of even being pushed out of the job. I have no idea whether or not that’s likely to happen, but it is certainly the case that if you bring up the topic and you say, “Hey, let’s step back and reflect on how things are going,” that is a possible outcome. I’m going to argue that if that is the outcome, it’s still better to know about it and to bring it to the surface so that you can figure out how to proceed. Because if that’s the case, it’s going to happen at some point, and you might as well not be blindsided by it. But it is possible the initiating this conversation could make it happen sooner. Does that make sense?

Guest: It does make sense. It’s one reason that I’ve been avoiding her a little bit, except for when I have a one on one with her or another type of meeting. I do try to kind of keep my distance, because I figure if I can just lay low – I’ve been trying the lay low approach. So yeah, I guess there is a risk that it would bring it to the surface. But I do also really want to know about that and address it and know – if it’s not going to work out, I would like to be somewhere where it will.

Alison: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s exactly the right way to look at it because it would suck if that’s where that conversation went. But that conversation would not be the cause of it going there. If that is what happens, it wouldn’t have only happened because you raised it. If that’s going to come of it, that’s going to come of it sooner or later anyway. You can only lay low for so long. If that is the direction that this is going in, at some point it’s going to happen anyway. And there’s some advantage to taking some control of the situation and saying, “Hey, let’s talk about what’s going on so that we can both figure out how to move forward here.”

I just don’t want you… I would never want to encourage you to go into this conversation without pointing out this potential risk because I wouldn’t want you to do it, have that happen, and then be blindsided by it.

Guest: Yeah, sure, sure, definitely. But I agree. I think it’s better to kind of get it out in the open if possible.

Alison: And who knows? There’s lots of other things that you could hear. I mean, you might hear, I don’t know, you might hear that yes, she’s been frustrated because she feels like you’re not retaining information she’s giving you. Honestly, from what you’ve said, it doesn’t sound like that’s the case, but who knows? Maybe there actually is something legitimate about her perspective, and she’s handling it really badly and it’s making her cranky with you in a way that’s completely inappropriate – but maybe there is something there at the core that’s causing it that actually would be helpful for you to hear. But even if nothing like that does come out of it, the fact that you’re initiating this discussion hopefully will flag for her in a very appropriate and polite way that she’s being kind of a jerk to you. And if she is just a horrible person, maybe she doesn’t care. But if she’s not a horrible person, if she’s just a very bad, inexperienced manager who’s under a lot of stress and she’s handling this terribly, it might prod her into realizing that she needs to figure out how to change the way she’s dealing with you. Who knows?

Guest: Yeah, yeah, I would like that. I’ve also considered that maybe my work quality just isn’t good, but I try really hard and I work really hard and I usually am successful, and I just think that addressing with her head-on would be good just to find out, you know, maybe to flag it with her. Maybe she doesn’t realize she’s doing it or yeah, maybe she’s just taking out her stress on me.

Alison: Yeah. And I think no matter what comes out of that conversation, I think you’re going to come away with much more information than you have right now. Even if she’s just like, “Yeah, you need to do a better job,” and she doesn’t give you anything beyond that – now you know that you sat down and you tried to address it in a mature way and you couldn’t get anywhere with her, and she didn’t show any sign that she plans to change what she’s doing. And so now you can decide: Okay. Knowing that there’s no sign that this is going to be different in the near future, what do you want to do? Do you want to stay and keep trying to work on it? Do you want to maybe start looking around? But you’ll be better equipped… you’ll have a better feel for that once you talk to her.

Guest: Okay. Yeah. Thanks. Yeah, I think I will talk to her about it and get her perspective.

Alison: And do you feel like you have good language to use? Do you have a good sense of how you would bring this up with her?

Guest: Well I guess I would just say, “I get the sense that maybe you’re not super happy with my work and I’m wondering if there’s anything that…” I guess I would ask if there were any pointers she could give, or any glaring issues that she would like to see me address. Is that how you would do it?

Alison: Well, I’m going to tweak it a little bit. I think that’s a great start, but to bring it up initially I would say something like, “Hey, now that I’ve been here a few months, could we schedule some time to sit down and talk about how things are going overall?” So you’re not catching her off guard, you’re actually scheduling time to do it, so hopefully she will prepare a little bit for it, one hopes. And then when you actually do sit down, I would repeat that. “I’m hoping to talk about how things are going overall and what you might like me to work on doing differently,” and see what she says. But at some point in that conversation I would say, “Can I be candid with you? I’ve gotten the impression at times that you’ve been pretty frustrated with me or with my work., and I really want feedback from you. And if there are things that you want me doing differently, I’m really open to hearing them and I want to work on them. But I am getting the sense that you’re pretty frustrated and I’m wondering if I’m interpreting that correctly.”

Any decent manager – not that I’m categorizing her as a decent manager because it really doesn’t sound like she is – but any even halfway decent manager is, if someone is going to hear someone saying to them, “Hey, I am feeling like you’re frustrated,” that’s a message. So that’s a little bit more than, “Are there pointers that you want to give me?” You’re flagging that this is a problem. And you’re not being aggressive about it, you’re raising it in a very polite, appropriate way. But you are sharing with her that she’s coming across as very frustrated with you and you’re concerned about that.

Guest: Okay. Yeah, I think that’s way better than mine (laughs).

Alison: No, I mean it’s very similar (laughs). It’s similar to yours. I just tweaked it a little.

I also wanted to say, I know you had asked me when you first emailed me about whether this might be something to go to HR about, or go over your manager’s head to her boss. It depends on what her boss is like. In general, I would say it might not have a real impact on what’s going on based on what you’ve described, because with HR at least it is probably not at the bar where they would intervene. Her own manager might, but it’s a risky thing to do because her own manager might turn right back around and just report that conversation to her, and it might make things worse. The times when you can successfully go over your boss’s head to their boss – the times that I would recommend doing it, at least – are when you have pretty good rapport with the boss’s boss and you feel like you really know that you can trust them to handle it well and to not make the situation worse for you, and when you’ve seen that they have a track record of being willing to intervene with the managers under them. If you haven’t seen that stuff, that doesn’t mean that it’s not true. It just makes it a riskier thing to try to do.

Guest: Okay. And I don’t really want to go to my boss’s boss or HR just because as you said, it’s not horribly egregious but it is making my working life kind of miserable. But I do think that it would be better to probably just talk to her first.

Alison: I think so. And I mean, I do think it’s pretty egregious. I definitely don’t intend to minimize what’s happening. What you’re talking about sounds pretty awful. The vibe that I’m getting from the examples that you’ve given really is that she’s getting some sort of satisfaction out of criticizing you and that’s really messed up and that’s not good. If I had a manager who was working for me and I heard that they were doing that to their staff members, I would absolutely intervene. But there are so many managers out there who are very hands-off about the managers under them, which is why I think you’ve got to really know in a pretty solid way that her boss is someone to intervene. With HR, they should be good at intervening if it’s something like harassment or discrimination or something that’s pretty black and white, or if she were doing something like yelling, but when it’s a little bit more subtle, and frankly this doesn’t sound all that subtle, but when it’s a little bit more subtle, they tend to be a little bit more hands-off. There are some really good HR people out there who would handle this beautifully, but they tend to be the exception more than the rule, unfortunately.

Guest: Right. Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. For sure. I will try talking to her, I think.

Alison: I think that’s the right thing to do. And actually, I have one other thought. Would you ever want to talk to your coworker about it, the other person who your boss manages, and try to get insight from her?

Guest: Yeah. So I have debated about that. My other coworker is the nicest person, so bubbly, so great. And so I actually go to her for questions instead of my boss because she’s so nice and she’s so helpful. And so yeah, I have thought about it but I also worry that she’s kind of friends with my boss and I don’t know if I mentioned this earlier, but my boss just got promoted to manager when I got hired. So basically my coworker became her direct report right when I got hired. They had kind of like a friendship before that for six months when my coworker joined and my manager was already there.

Alison: Ohhh. Well, that explains why she’s nice to her. Now I’m all the more convinced of my theory that she’s a bad, stressed out, first-time manager who doesn’t really know how to manage and is taking her frustration out on you. And that puts it into context. It makes it make more sense why she’s not doing it to your coworker.

Guest: Okay. Yeah. Yeah. So that’s why I haven’t reached out to my coworker yet, because I’m afraid my coworker just hasn’t had this experience at all and so she’ll just be like, “Well that’s strange.” And my boss hasn’t really done any of this or said any of this to me in front of other people. It’s usually in one on one meetings or something.

Alison: Yeah. In that case, it might not be that fruitful to talk to your coworker. If she had been managed by your boss longer, then potentially you could talk to her and you might hear something like, “Oh, she’s like that with everyone in the beginning,” or who knows? But it sounds like your situations have been different. The chronology has been different enough that it might not be that useful anyway.

Guest: Yeah. So, so that’s why I held off. And I haven’t been able to talk to really anyone about it (laughs). So it’s been helpful to talk to you about it.

Alison: Good. And I also want to say, if you do talk to her and it doesn’t get better or if it even makes it worse – hopefully it won’t – you shouldn’t see it as a referendum on you or on your work. What your manager is doing is objectively really terrible management. So it’s not about you. If you are starting to second guess yourself and thinking, “Oh, maybe I’m not as good at my job as I thought that I was., or maybe I’m somehow causing this.” I don’t think that’s the case because even if you were really terrible at your work, your manager should not be handling it this way. And so the fact that she is says that this is very much about her. No matter what you might be contributing to the situation, we can very confidently know what she’s doing is about her and not about you. So if it doesn’t get better, I don’t want you to feel like you have failed or that this has revealed to you that you’re a worse worker than you thought that you were or anything like that. I think what it would reveal is that you just got stuck working for a crappy manager who’s brand new to managing, doesn’t know what she’s doing, and it’s really terrible timing that you got paired with her when you did.

But if you do end up concluding, “Okay, this is not going to get any better and I’m going to look around for something else,” which I know you might not want to do because you’re new and who wants to start a job search right away after they just settled in somewhere. But there’s no shame in doing that if that’s what you conclude makes sense.

Guest: Okay. Yeah, yeah. I have considered it because like you said, it is kind of taking a hit on my self-esteem, and to have done this work for so many years – well, not so many but, you know, four years is a good chunk of time – and I was good at it there and I’m just so apparently bad at it here. And I just don’t understand. I do think it’s kind of bad for my mental health a little bit..

Alison: Yeah, absolutely. And don’t shy away from recognizing that that could be happening because bad bosses – and especially mean bosses, which is what you have – really can mess with your head. And if you stay there for a long time it can really warp your thinking. And if you’re there long enough, sometimes when you finally do move on, you’ll carry that messed up thinking with you to the next job because they’ve messed with your head so much. So make sure that you’re not letting her get in your head. The way she’s behaving is so not okay that it can’t be about you.

Guest: Okay. Okay. Yeah. That’s a very good argument for moving on, I think, if it doesn’t get better.

Alison: I think so too, because this sounds awful.

Guest: It is (laughs).

Alison: It is, yeah! And like I said at the beginning of the show, bad bosses come in all different flavors. You’ve got the incompetent ones, you’ve got the ones who won’t give anyone any straightforward feedback or have a hard conversation. There’s a zillion types, but the type that is outright mean to you and seems to take pleasure in criticizing you and seems to want you to fail – that’s terrible. That’s a terrible way to spend so many of your hours every day when you go to work, and there’d be nothing wrong with moving on quickly if you decide that this isn’t going to change.

Guest: Yeah. Okay. Yeah. Because like you said, ideally I don’t want to leave a job after three months, but I think if there’s ever a good reason it’s because my boss is just mean.

Alison: Yeah, absolutely. And people always talk about being afraid of being seen as a job hopper or something. You were at your last job for four years, you said. Having one short-term stay is not going to be a problem. If you had a pattern of lots of three months stays, that would be a problem, but you’ve got a good solid four years at your previous job. So I think you’re fine.

Guest: Definitely. I’m pretty lucky because I’m in an area where my skills are more in demand. I’ve gotten on LinkedIn, a lot of Inmails and things like that, which I didn’t in my previous city, which was great. So that’s good. And I do really like that. It’s just, I do really need it to get better.

Alison: Yes, absolutely. And especially if you have options – even if you didn’t have a lot of options and your skills weren’t that in demand, I wouldn’t want you to stay working with someone who’s mean – but especially knowing that you do feel like you would be able to find something else. Don’t stay and suffer just because you feel like you have to do it for the sake of your resume.

Guest: Okay. Yeah. Yeah. And do you know actually the irony? When I interviewed for this job, I forget how it came up, but at one point I remember I said to one of the people who I interviewed – I don’t think it was with her, I think it was with another team member – but I said, I’ve never had a manager that I didn’t like.

Alison: (Laughs) Oh, you cursed yourself!

Guest: (Laughs) Yeah, I did curse myself.

Alison: Well, now you have the experience under your belt, so there’s that (laughs). Do you feel like you have some good next steps here to take?

Guest: Yes, yes. Really helpful. Yeah. I really like your language, “can I be candid with you? I feel like you hate me” (laughs) Of course I won’t say it in that way.

Alison: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Guest: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been really helpful to get your perspective.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.