How to handle a boss from hell?
February 24, 2009 3:31 PM   Subscribe

Should we stage a "coup" on our boss? Go one level of management above or straight to HR?

DM-level boss in the job about 9 months (previous experience in same field, just new to this company). DM = poor communicator, no follow-up, zero management, inconsistent manner of treating teammates, bullies, inappropriate ways of speaking (talks down, rude). About 10 managers report to this DM. DM has a lot of latitude and very little checks and balances. Writes some people up while others skate. Has favorites and belittles others in private and public.

How to proceed?? Go to DM directly with issues = retaliation most likely and miserable life. Go to DM's manager = maybe see change, but also maybe not since DM's manager is "manage by fear" type. Go to HR = huge unknown.

All 10 have talked together. All 10 miserable. All 10 afraid to confront due to bad economy and retaliation possibility. All 10 don't want to continue in this manner, but don't know what to do.

All 10 confront DM? DM Manager? HR? Handle at the individual level?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is quitting an option? One thing I've come to realize is that you're never too "stuck" to just up and quit.

In all seriousness, I think the best option would be to find someone at or near his level and explain it to them - find someone sympathetic to your cause to aid you
posted by phrakture at 3:35 PM on February 24, 2009

Get another job. This coup type stuff never works.
posted by sweetkid at 3:44 PM on February 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

You can also try pushing back a little. Contest every write-up and come to each other's defense when he's browbeating in public. What kind of HR policies are there for retaliation? That is, know what the boss has to do in order to fire you, and fly underneath that line. It probably won't take much to get results, and there certainly are ways of dealing with this without getting fired.

Furthermore, acquaint yourself with your state's employment laws so that you have a sense of illegal retaliation (if any exists) so that you have recourse if HR disregards your concerns and something bad happens.

All the while, all 10 should be job-hunting. If the stars align, you may be able to approach your boss' boss with a nice, cinematic, "it's him or us" group moment, but that seems unlikely. Orthogonally, are there any companies that might be interested in the group's skills as a whole? Depending on your network, this could be an option for a lateral move between companies for all of you.
posted by rhizome at 3:44 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Rationally, I think it probably is correct that any type of "coup" is too risk. That being said, I have successfully been involved in one such ousting, and here's what we did:

The company had a branch-type structure, and we got a branch manager (our boss) canned by documenting her insane abuses and just handing over a log to the regional manager above her. I collaborated with one co-worker, and emailed him the stuff at the end of the day. The next morning, the regional manager, who lived several hundred miles away, greeted us as we came into work and took us out to lunch. One possibly key distinction from your situation is that her wrongs were clear-cut (i.e., leaving all day and going to a dog show, then lying on her timecard) and not perceived (i.e., being rude and abusive in verbal communication).

I quit the job anyway a few months later because it sucked it every way imaginable. Good luck.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 3:58 PM on February 24, 2009

I was also involved in such a coup attempt; the entire department went to HR about an evil manager who was making our lives miserable. It didn't work. You can try it, but I join those suggesting you look for another job.
posted by languagehat at 4:01 PM on February 24, 2009

DM? Dungeon Master? Not sure what that stands for.

Anyway, HR is not on your side and never forget that. They are there to protect the company's interest. They will always side with the high ranking person, always always always, unless you can prove that he is doing something that could create legal liability for the company. Even then they will probably try to just sweep it under the rug.

All ten of you together going to DM's manager MIGHT get something done. IF you can keep solidarity and 8 of the ten don't chicken out the day of and start pointing fingers at each other instead. And that's a very big "if."
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:14 PM on February 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

All of you looking for another job is the best idea. If you're determined to say something, I'd recommend against approaching him or anyone else all at once; I can't imagine how that would go well. Can all ten of you get together, have a constructive conversation (not a bitchfest), come up with some reasonable solutions for your problems, and elect two of the most diplomatic, calm people to say something to him?

Don't use the list you wrote out here: "poor communicator, no follow-up, zero management, inconsistent manner of treating teammates, bullies, inappropriate ways of speaking (talks down, rude)." That's all much too vague, and will come across as an attack or as whining. Come up with a few specific examples and and what you would have preferred him/her to do or say. Be respectful and brief. And know that, since this person sounds like a crummy handful, it still probably won't go well.
posted by juliplease at 4:16 PM on February 24, 2009

(DM is probably District Manager)
posted by olya at 4:21 PM on February 24, 2009

how about some organized sabotage? Miss deadlines in corpore, pretend you don't get DMs instructions, backing each-other up, of course. Basically make him look bad as a manager. Ten people with good records cannot all have become slackers overnight, so the top management will look at your DM as the cause of this drop in efficiency.
posted by spacefire at 4:29 PM on February 24, 2009

Don't do organized sabotage. They'll fire all of you. Seriously, listen to drjimmy, no one will back you up. For the sake of your mental health and your professional/financial future let all this go and find work somewhere else. I've seen this happen time and time again. You can't win this, and if you do, success will be short lived as you have now drawn attention to yourself as an instigator.
posted by sweetkid at 4:38 PM on February 24, 2009

If you can find another job, you can always tell HR on your exit interview that you are leaving because of your manager. Of course, they may ask why you never tried talking to HR about the manager, but that doesn't mean HR would have helped you when you did.

Of course, in this economy, don't quit until you have another job lined up.
posted by fructose at 5:20 PM on February 24, 2009

The worst boss I ever had never screwed up in a way that was apparent to the board. She simply created a completely intolerable environment for everyone. I don't know whether I'd call this a successful coup, but we tried to turn her perceived abuses into documented failures. Every time she did something awful the person in question would send a memo saying something like "Donna, I feel I was not providing the communication you needed at the staff meeting today. I'd like to discuss how my updates can better meet your needs." We saved every response and documented lack thereof by sending followups. The keys were that we all did this together and that the tone was relentlessly positive and constructive - not because we were trying to help the situation - rather we knew that tone would drive her nuts - but because it had to be totally clear that we were taking the high road.

Anyway, we did this for a few months and then approached her with it as gently and helpfully as possible - documenting everything of course - and she lost her mind. We immediately sent a memo to the personnel committee saying regretfully that there appeared to be an issue with Donna that we couldn't resolve, and we were sure she was trying her best, and here's our evidence. the reason I say it may not be a coup is that they did not fire her over it, but when they tried to talk to her about it, she grew increasingly upset and eventually had a screaming fit to a couple of board members so had to resign.

Good times.
posted by Betsy Vane at 5:47 PM on February 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

I agree that you should be willing to quit if you attempt anything. Toxic managers reflect the attitude of higher management.

I was part of an attempted coup. All of us but the manager's pet were involved. We documented the clear-cut stuff, like spending 10 times the allowed amount on travel and sending only the pet to professional development opportunities. We complained individually to HR. HR called in an external consultant who claimed it was a communication problem.

I quit during the process, as did several others, but I did hear that the manager was demoted slightly and given a different group to insult.

The same thing happened in a different job 15 years later--the good people left; the bad manager kept her job.
posted by PatoPata at 7:35 PM on February 24, 2009

I'm surprised by all the people suggesting you leave, but then I suppose that's what I did in a similar situation. Fortunately the others who stayed behind were able to successfully oust their tormentor, so I'll tell you what they did:
1. They were completely united
2. Located the one person most invested in seeing them and the company succeed
3. Were willing to walk
In this case the evil manager was the new CEO, and the team chafing under her rule included all the department heads. They called the founder (who lived on another continent, and was not involved in day-to-day operations) and told him that they were holding a a staff meeting the following week, and if he wasn't there they were all walking. When he showed up, and they told him that it was either them or the CEO and she was fired. It was pretty impressive to hear about, I kind of wished I'd stayed to see it.

You do know that you can go to another manager too, right? Much of what you've descibed would qualify as harassment, and by law (in California, anyway) you can report this to any manager. That would include someone who manages another department totally unrelated to yours, so if you can identify someone sympathetic they can be your channel to the top boss.
posted by cali at 11:08 PM on February 24, 2009

Most PITA managers became the manager because someone higher up than them LIKED them that way. Every bad attribute can be spun to a good one, from someone's point of view. Inflexible = "unflinching." Abusive = "hardnosed go-getter." Even a few people quitting is "weeding out the dead wood."

The only thing that will eventually get the manager fired is if he has a consistent, sustained, high turnover rate and/or sustained poor performance. The key is "sustained." Short-term high turnover, I mentioned above, and short-term poor performance can be blamed on the employees.

Don't waste your time trying to engineer that - it's not worth it. Be one of the first ones to leave for a better situation. Maybe someday you'll hear that DM got what he deserved and chuckle.
posted by ctmf at 12:35 AM on February 25, 2009

Agreeing completely with Betsy Vane's suggestions. It's how I managed to get rid of a manager who was making it impossible for me to manage/motivate my own team.

Document, document, document, and ask for explanations, clarification and direction. Have someone take minutes of meetings, send the minutes for approval to the DM, asking for corrections and clarifications. If the DM doesn't respond to any of your written queries, keep following up. Not once a day, but, say, with whatever frequency works with the agreed actions from the meeting. You want to show that your DM isn't, you know, managing. Which is part of their job.

Keep in mind, though, that if the DM is an asshole but their department/region performs consistently by whatever benchmarks have been set by the DMs boss, you're not going to get far with even this sort of documentation. That being said, you'll have ammo in hand when they have a few bad quarters. And you could take your documentation to HR, to recommend that the DM have some mentoring or coursework or something to actually improve the situation for you and your coworkers.

This takes a while, though. If you can't tolerate it for that long, then go.
posted by Grrlscout at 1:32 AM on February 25, 2009

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