It pays my way but it corrodes my soul (and nerves)
November 4, 2008 8:46 AM   Subscribe

BadBossFilter: Earlier this year the funding for my previous job was cut, and I was about to leave when an acquaintance offered me a position in her group--she knew my work, and she had an opening for me. I was glad to work with her, as I liked what I knew of her, and her reputation in the company was good. Fast forward to now, when she turns out to be a terrible boss. I want to leave as soon as I can, but I have to survive somehow until I can get out, and I will need a letter of recommendation from this difficult person.

My new boss is mistrustful, micromanaging to an absurd degree, ill-tempered, and bullying. She's also mistress of the double-bind--e.g., if you ask her questions about an assigned task, you're stupid, but if you don't ask for the info you need, you're "not assertive enough." You never know when an innocuous discussion will turn into belittling attack on the many shortcomings of your work, or when you'll get ambushed in the middle of your morning by a nasty phone call.

Yesterday she threatened to fire me due to "poor project management" after I came in a day late on a non-critical deadline, when she herself made the last minute changes that caused the delay.

I concede that my work is not perfect, but it never will be. I am doing my best, working long hours and some weekends, and vetting my work carefully. (But I am nervous as a cat with kittens and make more stupid errors than usual.) I am not the only person treated this way. Other people in the office say she "picks on" people serially, and so when another employee screws up worse, that'll take the heat off me somewhat. This does not cheer me up.

My health, mental and general, is suffering. I feel like I have some weird form of office PTSD--my stomach clenches at the sound of the phone or an e-mail notification, thinking that I'm getting another nastygram.

Anybody had a boss like this? How do I deal with Ms. Double-Bind until I can get out of here? My stress levels are through the roof already.

Also: is it possible to get a decent recommendation from this person? I want to change careers eventually, but I have to make a living for the present, so I need another job.

Hope this is not too much venting and too little asking. Thanks, hive mind.
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy to Work & Money (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You will likely get a generalized "satisfactory" reference from the company HR department.

Since your boss treats everyone the same and she hasn't fired the whole department, don't rule out the possibility that your boss actually believes your work is satisfactory and would say so in a letter of reference. When you quit, you'll give non-personal reasons like "better opportunity" or "better fit" and not get into the whole interpersonal situation. You may even find that she's sorry to see you go.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:00 AM on November 4, 2008

Do you have a written performance evaluation from this boss? Often the crazy boss tries to straighten up for the "official" evaulation. Then, you can supply future employers with a copy of the evaluation.
posted by hworth at 9:03 AM on November 4, 2008

It's probably not as dire as you think - it's likely your boss just doesn't know how to manage, and is all over the map for it - not in control of themselves, let alone their staff. It's easily possible that you would get a good recommendation, despite the seemingly erratic and stressing behavior.
posted by TravellingDen at 9:08 AM on November 4, 2008

Best answer: Bad bosses are NOT worth it. Look for a new job ASAP and use your previous work for a reference. There are a lot of reasons someone's current boss might not provide a recommendation, especially if they don't know you're looking for another job.

Seriously, this behavior from a friend, family member, or partner would be considered emotional abuse. Don't take it lightly or think that it's your fault. It's not.

Good luck.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:14 AM on November 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't trust this erratic manager to give you a good review. I would ask a friend you've done work for for a reference. Make sure when you leave you don't burn bridges. Tell her she's the best boss you've ever worked for and her criticisms really made you better. That said, get a new job fast.
posted by xammerboy at 9:15 AM on November 4, 2008

I think you should resign and do what xammerboy said. I'm sorry you had the bad luck to encounter her. I had one horrible boss and one that was weirdly infatuated with building some kind of friendship with me. I left both jobs and should have left sooner than I did.
posted by onepapertiger at 9:57 AM on November 4, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the excellent feedback. Anybody got ideas on how to stick it out till I do find something new? Between the economy and not being in a metro area, it probably won't happen too fast. I would just like to quit and take a couple months to recover from this awfulness and then look, but I don't know if that's prudent. Thanks again for the comments so far.
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 10:21 AM on November 4, 2008

You don't have to worry about her reference. Most companies legally no longer give out any information beyond confirming your dates of employment and position. You should find someone there you like and trust who will act as a reference if necessary. Especially if you are going from this job to another job, it is absolutely credible to give other people as references. Not everyone's current boss is happy about them leaving.

Everything you are experiencing is very real, and you are not imagining it. All I can tell you is, document everything. document, document, document. If she comes over and tells you something verbally, the second she leaves, write an email that says, "Just to confirm, you asked me to make change X and change Y to project K and that will mean we will miss our non-critical deadline of 11/6/08." NO ONE can reprimand you for doing that. It is absolutely, 100% professional. If she gives you a hard time, you can say, "Well, I am trying to improve my performance and this was suggested to me by HR." She'll never go check.

Things to help your stress: walks at lunchtime, regularly scheduled time off, Bach's Rescue Remedy. When you really can't take it, call in sick - and then come in around noon and say that you felt better so you thought you would come in. That makes you look like a hero, doesn't eat your sick time, and gives you the occasional break. If you can find an ally in your cow-orkers, by all means do, being able to vent will be a great stress reliever but of course be careful there.

Make sure you take a positive attitude when you are job hunting. Don't tell anyone you're leaving because your boss is a psycho. Say that you've outgrown your current position and there's nowhere for you to move. But it's super important that you not go to interviews looking like a dishrag. I know it will be tough but hang in there. And don't think there aren't any jobs. There may be more than you think.
posted by micawber at 10:31 AM on November 4, 2008

Regarding the venting, I would also suggest keeping a diary at home. You can come home each night and write down as little or as much of what you had to deal with. It serves the double purpose of being a venting tool and documentation for yourself in the rare case that the shit hits the fan.

People like this are unpredictable and it's imperative that you cover your ass, as micawber said above. I dealt with one difficult boss by just confirming everything in writing. She had a habit of screwing up and blaming things on me, so this would come in handy. When it comes to the verbal assaults, I would usually let the call go to voicemail and call her back later. On the occasions she would follow up with a personal visit, I would say, "I was just so busy with this project here. What can I do for you?" It was hard, but I said it with a smile and never betrayed my urge kick her for her stupidity. When she was done spewing her criticisms (valid or not), I would sit down and compose a quick email repeating them back to her and updating her on my progress on the issues.

When a manager behaves that way, it's usually indicative of a person who feels out of control for one reason or another. The key to surviving this is to put some of that control back in their hands. It'll be annoying and probably a waste of time. But no one can fault you for doing your job and keeping them informed. If anything, it'll show you as a professional who knows how to cover themselves and has a sense of accountability.

Good luck!
posted by arishaun at 10:58 AM on November 4, 2008

P.S. Under no circumstances should you vent to any co-workers. Because 1) it's unprofessional and 2) if you think you're in a world of hell now, I can guarantee it'll get worse if your boss gets wind of it.
posted by arishaun at 11:02 AM on November 4, 2008

Praise her. "Hey, I just wanted to thank you for your feedback on the X project. You were right on the money and it is a stronger product because of it. I am learning a lot from working for you."

You will choke on it at first, but insincerity becomes easier over time.
posted by LarryC at 12:23 PM on November 4, 2008

Best answer: Leave as soon as you can. Don't worry too much about references - you can always use your previous manager in the company, HR or your boss' boss as a reference. And worse case scenario, if you have to use your current boss, she won't give a bad reference - at worst it will be mediocre, but as references are taken up after interview, unless you get a "is undergoing disciplinary proceedings", or "hasn't worked here for 3 years", then it's not going to be a problem.

Surviving in the meantime (I've been there):
- get support from other team members - sounds like she's a bad boss, not that you're a bad employee - so it's likely that they'll be (or have been) experiencing the same thing. Anything that reinforces the "it's not me, it's her" will help preserve your feelings of self-worth. Other staff who've experienced it may have advice for getting through it...
- try and separate the "I'm having a bad day so I'm having a go at you" (random abuse) from the "you could have done that better but I'm overreacting and making it sound worse than it is (criticism which could have been useful if delivered constructively)". She may have some valid learning points for you, hidden amongst the anger and abuse. Try and identify those and learn from them.
- smile and nod - let it wash over you (visualise it - sounds bizarre but it works)

In interviews:
- turn the tables - ask the interviewer about their management style - it's so rare that they won't have a prepared answer, and will most likely be pretty honest. Even better, tell them how you like to be managed and ask if that fits with their model.
- don't ever mention that you're leaving because of a bad boss. Too easily interpreted as "can't get along with people".

Good luck in getting out before her impression of you become your impression of you.
posted by finding.perdita at 4:00 PM on November 4, 2008

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