Really? You're not coming in today? Well, that's a shock.
January 19, 2011 10:04 AM   Subscribe

My boss is a compulsive liar. Help?

I work for a very small nonprofit. Over the past few years it has become clear that the executive director lies compulsively. The lying most often manifests as excuses for not coming to work. She invents "meetings," awful-sounding ailments, and household crises ("the boiler, again!") in order to be out of the office. I don't think she realizes how transparent these lies are, and she doesn't make much of an effort to conceal them (hence I know she is lying, due to inconsistent explanations to staff and board members, overheard conversations that divulge the real reason for the absence, her pattern of rescheduling all meetings the day before an "unplanned" absence, etc. I won't get into too much detail, but be assured that the lies and her MO are excruciatingly clear to me and the other senior staff member.)

My immediate question: how do I respond when I know she is lying? She just emailed to say she will not be coming in and made up a story about slipping and falling on ice. I want to just write back "I'm sorry to hear that." But I know she will be insulted that I am not more sympathetic. Yes, that's right - not sympathetic enough to her fictitious injury. Is there any appropriate response?

More generally: What do I do about this? *Do* I do anything about this? She is making a six-figure salary at a tiny non-profit with a tiny budget. It is sickening to think about how our programs and clients suffer through our budget woes while she lies and blows off work (frequently it is to spend time with her grandkids.) It is also sickening to watch unknowing, well-intentioned people worry about her, send her flowers, etc, when she is "sick". I suspect that my only real recourse is to leave this job, which I am increasingly desperate to do. But I feel guilty abandoning our clients and the organization to someone who is so flagrantly checked-out. Since I have not been documenting all these instances, it would seem incredibly petty and potentially damaging to my own career to try to approach either her or the board of directors.

I'd appreciate your advice, or even just a sanity check. This has been incredibly damaging to my morale in a job where I'm already under-compensated and under-appreciated. Thanks guys.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
DOCUMENT everything.

Does this non-profit receive any state or federal funding that contributes to her salary? Perhaps you should have a conversation with the state attorneys office.

Also, I would not even respond to these emails. Her behavior is completely unprofessional and there is no need to respond to electronic messages in the form of emails or texts.
posted by cinemafiend at 10:15 AM on January 19, 2011

This *is* sad & scary. If you want to be a whistleblower, I'd start documenting her absences & and any work-related lies you catch her in. Whistleblowing can have some real consequences, so I really think it's up to you to decide whether you want to continue to work there/document/report or quietly line up another gig. I don't envy you--it's a very difficult position.
posted by smirkette at 10:16 AM on January 19, 2011

What's up with your Board of Directors? This is all grist for her annual review.
posted by carmicha at 10:19 AM on January 19, 2011

Does her email require a response other than to express sympathy for her probably (remember the boy who cried wolf?) made up injury? If not, I would just not reply. If there are work related issues that you need to discuss in a reply just address those issues and don't play in to her drama. If she complains about you not offering your sympathy, don't respond.

I assume she has no boss that you can report her behaviour to? I would start documenting it anyway - particularly noting any time she reschedules meetings before an unplanned absence and take it to the board of directors - no harm in documenting any past events that you have written evidence of already too - ie emails telling you she wont be coming in.
posted by missmagenta at 10:24 AM on January 19, 2011

If she fell on the ice, she may have broken her hip. Drop what you're doing, go to her place, and take her to the emergency room for x-rays. Don't take no for an answer. Do it right now. Stay with her until she gets the x-ray.
posted by adamrice at 10:29 AM on January 19, 2011 [20 favorites]

If it's that obvious, and you yourself are at a loss how to respond or discuss it with others, it could be that the board already knows and is in a similar position. My policy about awful co-workers/bosses is that if the problem is truly detrimental to the company, someone else probably already knows, and it's only a matter of time before there are consequences. If it's only bothering ME, then I need to get over it until it starts bothering other people too.
posted by sarling at 10:31 AM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would not even respond to these emails. Her behavior is completely unprofessional and there is no need to respond to electronic messages in the form of emails or texts.

It's hard to tell if this is an option without it causing major drama without much gain. Having a checked-out boss that doesn't like you is worse than just having a checked-out boss. At any rate absolutely do the minimum amount of playing along that you can get away with.

Whistleblowing can have some real consequences, so I really think it's up to you to decide whether you want to continue to work there/document/report or quietly line up another gig.

It's not exactly uncommon for small orgs (be it a business or a non-profit) to have embarrassingly incompetent executives. In my opinion you have a crappy boss and your main options are either to ignore it keep collecting your paycheck or go work somewhere else. Your other options are to somehow get your boss to stop or somehow get her fired or something so that you have the same job with a different boss. Those options are much trickier and could result in negative consequences for you if it ends up blowing up in your face.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:43 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

What is most important to you? (This may require some thought.)

Do you most want to serve your clients in this organization? If so, politely pretend to her that these things really happened, without getting involved in them, and focus on your job and the people you serve. Take note of how the things you do make a difference. If it makes you feel any better, I'll point out that a truthful boss would probably draw the same large salary despite the economic straits of the organization. A change in salary paid turns on the salary decisions made by the board about what is needed to fill your boss's position, not the character of this particular woman.

Do you most want this woman replaced with someone else, then be ready for the difficult path of a whistleblower, which can include losing your job at least for a time. Do document everything carefully, then take it to the board director you most trust. It would be nice to have the support of the other senior staffer to do this, but it is generally not safe to share your plans for whistleblowing until just before you do it (by going to the board director.)

Or do you most want to move to a different job? If so, start looking seriously now, and focus your attention on doing that. Once in a different job, by which I mean settled and past any probationary period ,you can decide whether or not you want to notify your current organization why you left.
posted by bearwife at 10:48 AM on January 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

Do not approach her unless this is the hill you are ready to die on. I think your options are to a) quit, b) keep your head down and say nothing, or C) pack your bags, blow the whistle and let the chips fall where they may. I would definitely not try to manage this situation in your position as a subordinate. Either the board of directors already knows and is looking the other way, or they don't and they will see you as a lying troublemaker.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:51 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't mean this in an unkind way -- but you should be spending your time worried about what you are doing, not what she is doing. If you are to a point where you can't deal with her, then you need to get another job.

I know that the small non-profit is a different experience and that there are different factors involved, but in the end this is a boss that is driving you crazy by blowing off work. I can't see how even an impeccably documented list of lies about reasons for taking days off would change her behavior if you confronted her, and unless her behavior is more shocking than what you have described (is she doing this every week?) I can't see the Board flipping out.

From my far removed perspective, I can see how it's annoying as hell, but I did not get a gut feeling of oh my God, really?! as I read it. If you were otherwise happy and appreciated (and fairly compensated), would this be as much of an issue? It sounds to me like the proverbial straw.
posted by mrs. taters at 10:56 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, if it's this obvious, and you and at least the other senior staff member discuss her behavior, then I would not discount the thought that it's obvious to most people and it's not really a secret.
posted by mrs. taters at 10:58 AM on January 19, 2011

Another thought is what if your boss is friendly with the Board of Directors and *they* don't know/care? That happens, too.
posted by smirkette at 11:00 AM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

The notion of reporting this to the state attorney is laughable. I'm not even convinced you have enough to go the board of your own organization. Ultimately, the board should be evaluating her performance and worth on criteria of what she and the organization accomplish. If her attendance problems and lying create problems for the organization that lead it to be ineffective, the issues of what does not get done should be the focus of the board.

I once worked for an executive whose behavior was far worse. When he was in the office, which was infrequent, he generally played computer games all day. For the first six months I worked there, he didn't do a single productive thing that I could tell. Then our largest project was completely defunded and my group began plans to lay off 150 people the next day. The guy who never did a single thing started working the phones and within a couple of hours he was able to get the funding restored through his political connections. I no longer begrudged his sporadic attendance or solitaire habit. I figured he earned a couple of years worth of salary that day.

As you may surmise, I suspect that attempting to document a series of incidents where she blew off a day and called in sick when she really wasn't are not likely to go well for you. Even if the board accepts your version and removes her (which isn't all that likely) you are going to face consequences for the rest of your career. I don't mean to minimize the uncomfortable feeling that you have or to suggest that your executive isn't a screw-up. I'm quite sure that you are keeping the best interests of your clients at heart and that you are genuinely distressed to be in this situation, but I think far and away your best recourse is to get the hell out of there.
posted by Lame_username at 11:03 AM on January 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

Rule #1 at work: focus on what you're doing and not what other people are doing.

What goes around comes around and it's not up to you to see to it that she gets her 'comin around'.
posted by shew at 11:19 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not sure of this is true in your situation --but it might help to consider that if she were competent, they might not need you in your position.

This realization helped a friend of mine ---she only had her job because of her boss's inability to get things done himself.
posted by vitabellosi at 11:28 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do not pit yourself against the executive director. It may suck, and it may not be fair, but it will not work out well for you in the end if you pick this hill to die on. People with more power win power matches.
It sucks, but every job has a sucky aspect to it and to that end, this one isn't crippling. Do your job well for as long as you are there. Let her deal with her karma.
posted by 8dot3 at 11:33 AM on January 19, 2011

While it's frustrating to work with people like your boss, I don't think there is anything you can do. It's unfair that she is making a lot of money, while putting in a minimal effort. Ultimately, it might be time for you to look for a new place to work. I'm guessing her boss realizes what's going on and it's up to that person or someone higher to fix the situation.

I also want to point out that you never really know what's going on with another person. She might have a health issue that she finds embarassing and doesn't want to tell her coworkers. There have been times I have had to miss work due to medical conditions that I don't necessarily want my co-workers to know about, so I make something up.
posted by parakeetdog at 11:51 AM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

This might be a stupid question... but does she do a good job? If so, why bother saying anything?
posted by brownrd at 12:52 PM on January 19, 2011

I have the same question as brownrd. Is her staying home from work impeding her actual work? Does she still get things done?
posted by bluefly at 2:44 PM on January 19, 2011

The problem with your "problem" is that its not clear there is one big enough that the board of directors (or whomever your governing body is) would really care.

For example, I happen to work with and know a good amount of non-profit executives who make more than 100K. And honestly - most aren't particularly good at their jobs. They are there due to seniority, luck, or nepotism. They do things like take inordinate amounts of time off at very inconvenient times (like yours), spend a lot of money unethically, have no idea what the hell the programs they get paid bank to direct actually do... I could go on.

The non-profit world kind of sucks for this - we do mission based work and yet we replicate the obnoxious, soul-sucking hierarchies of profit motivated business. Its dumb, and it leads to many of our leaders being sort of ridiculous folks.

I heard it somewhere, and I've heard it a few times, but the saying goes "To be a director of a non-profit, you need to be a crook."
posted by RajahKing at 2:54 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

If there's a board, find a confidant and ask if they can bring it up in a closed session.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 3:41 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks for all the responses. It helps to put things in perspective. Yeah, I really need a new job.

About the board: there is no yearly review process, either for the ED or for the staff. The board meets infrequently and does not have a clear picture of the day-to-day operations. My boss has been gradually seeding the board with close friends and associates who would never think to question her management.

As to whether she’s doing her job – well, she pays the bills, sometimes even on time. I think I focused on the absences in my question because it came up again today and because it just plain feels bad to be lied to. While the absence-related lies are particularly galling, there’s a whole other category of lies designed to create the impression that she is working incredibly hard and devotedly to the organization. If we lose a grant or have a dismal end-of-year fundraising appeal (both fall under her direct responsibilities), it’s blamed on the grant-making foundation’s misdirected priorities or the poor economy (not the fact that the proposal was shoddy or that the appeal went out far too late and to just a tiny fraction of our potential donors due to poor record-keeping.)

I really appreciate the input; it’s helped me to think a bit more rationally about the situation and to consider what outcome I am really looking to achieve here. I’m going to intensify my job search and really hope, for the sake of our clients and programs, that she sees fit to retire in the near future.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:05 PM on January 19, 2011

I've worked at nonprofits for awhile and I've seen a lot of abuse. Nonprofit employees are just like employees everywhere else, except some of us think we deserve more because we're doing the world a big favor because our talent could easily make three times as much in the private sector. So we deserve lots of breaks. (I'm being sarcastic in case you can't tell.)

Anyway, like most workplaces, you can't do anything about the boss. She's likely cultivated a lot of good relationships with the board, with others, and despite your knowing you could do better if you ran the place, the place is either going to be run into the ground or it will be just fine. You have permission to think of yourself and your career and what you want to do. If there's another org doing a better job, fish for opps there.

The boss will get away with this, even if the org is run into the ground. Pick your battles, do what you need to do and do the best you can do until a better opportunity surfaces.

Good luck. It's lousy to lose faith in one's workplace, but it happens all the time.
posted by anniecat at 5:15 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, I would advise not to bring it up with the board. People know people, and a lot of good nonprofit jobs are found through networking, not through competitive applications. Never say anything bad about anyone, because someone might get a bad impression of you.

And make sure you can't get blamed for anything. If they want to blame the economy, just say, okay, it's the economy. If you want to start your own nonprofit someday that's loads better and run that, then make sure you cultivate positive relationships with everybody who has any money at all, including this woman.
posted by anniecat at 5:18 PM on January 19, 2011

Something else to consider, as a rule, executive directors of small nonprofits generally know either the founder, or have heavy sway in the Board. And, as anniecat mentioned...everyone knows everyone at the C-level.
posted by dejah420 at 6:51 PM on January 19, 2011

Hi, this is actually COBRA's wife talking, not COBRA!. He pointed this thread out to me because it so closely mimics EXACTLY what I just went through.

Two weeks ago I was fired from my small nonprofit job. My crime? After 3 years + years of putting up with the same sorts of behaviors as you are from an incompetent executive director who is a sociopath (I actually went so far as to read the book The Sociopath Next Door to learn more about her behavior), I went into her office right before the holidays to express my displeasure with the work environment. It all centered around a project I was doing, which was in keeping with our work plan, for which she would not support me and was actually belittling loudly as she walked around the office.

Over the years I caught her in numerous lies about her whereabouts, about what she was working on, about who she met and what she did on her various trips on the organization's dime. She was also a hypochondriac who frequently complained of a bad back. She wasted our resources - she would buy muffins for the office and then charge them back to the organization. She would go to conferences and then spend the entire trip there in her room (I know this because a co-worker who was often made to go with her would not see her at any of the conference events.)

Nothing was ever her fault. It was always the economy. Or that people didn't understand "Our Mission." Or people didn't like her because THEY were crazy.

The only thing she did the entire summer of 2010 was shred papers. Every day we'd just hear shredding coming from her office and then she'd leave early or just disappear.

ANYWAY, I had my reckoning with her. I could tell that she was very upset by the things I said but, for me, I was ready to say them and I knew what the consequences could be. Due to holidays and vacation time, we did not really see each other or interact for two weeks. Then, once we were all back in January, she fired me.

So what I'm saying is, I kind of lived out the fantasy you're probably having now. Of having it out or of telling on your boss and winning some kind of victory for you and your co-workers. I don't see what I did as a victory - after all, I am out of a job. But I will say that the first days of being out of there felt as if I'd been released from prison. Because if you're an honest person, there's only so much you can take before that environment starts to change you and sap your energy in scary ways. I know how disheartening this can feel.

My advice, I guess, is to really, really step up your job search. I was already looking before I was fired and I had my resume professionally edited and all ship-shape. I had references lined up. Here's the thing: nonprofit board members don't really give a shit about the day-to-day workings of the nonprofit. They don't want to know. They want to come to their meetings (when they can make it) and have something to put on their own resumes. They talk big and then do nothing tangible. Two years ago, a co-worker and I went to the president of the board and presented much of this same information I've talked about here and nothing was done. So don't think the board will care about what your boss is doing - in fact, they may be upset with you for making it their problem.

Get out of there and let her be a problem for someone else.
posted by COBRA! at 7:03 PM on January 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

Ultimately, the board should be evaluating her performance and worth on criteria of what she and the organization accomplish.

Quoted for truth. The fact that the board meets infrequently (is this the same as irregularly? I mean, meeting every two months is ok) might itself be enough to leave.

Basically, if you don't respect your boss, leave your job. Whether this is corruption depends on info we don't have. At this point, it doesn't sound like you have the perspective and info necessary to communicate persuasively with the Board, so I wouldn't do it. But there are lots of well-run nonprofits out there. Go work for one.
posted by salvia at 9:11 PM on January 19, 2011

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