Can't we all just get along?
September 28, 2011 8:45 PM   Subscribe

Difficult Boss Filter: How do I deal with my smack-talkin', super negative boss?

My boss thinks it's okay to talk negatively about her employees behind their backs. A lot of the things she says are just plain cruel. For example, I have a coworker who is in the process of getting off of hard drugs and is taking all the right steps toward recovery. Not only did my boss reveal this confidential information to all of her staff, she consistently makes fun of my coworker behind her back for it. This kind of thing seems to be her favorite, well, almost exclusive, topic of conversation. There isn't a single coworker I haven't heard numerous "terrible" things about. She also talks this way about customers after they leave. The general effect is that her employees distrust each other, and also seem to be more willing to talk negatively about each other and customers. From what I can see, it's her way of bonding with her employees, finding a common enemy and all that.

On a personal note, I've worked many jobs, quite a few with high-school mentalities (kitchens, anyone?), but I haven't experienced anything like my current boss. I like to think I have a pretty thick skin, and the fact that she probably talks about me doesn't bother me as much as it would have a few years ago. It's frustrating, but something I'm prepared to deal with.

So my question is, when she brings this stuff up, what's a good way to make it clear I'm not interested in talking like that about my coworkers? Is it my place to try to suggest that what she's doing is harmful? My usual approach is smile and nod, no comment, try to change the subject. Please keep in mind that this is my boss, and that she's the sole owner of the retail business where I work, AKA The Grand Poobah, The Buck Stops Here, etc. Thanks.
posted by moons in june to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have a boss who's kind of similar, but not to the level of your boss. What you do is pretend to be busy/otherwise occupied/deaf when she starts talking smack. Then you spend your free time after work looking for another position, because it's not going to get any better.
posted by HopperFan at 8:49 PM on September 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

Insecure bully. Do not engage with her at all beyond basic pleasantries and discussions dealing solely with your work responsibilities or what was on television last night. Always acknowledge her, though, and make with the compliments now and again, lest she get the impression that you think you're better than she is, which will immediately paint a target on your back. And, as HopperFan says, start looking for other work. It won't be long before she says or does something that makes you feel like continuing to work there is undermining your integrity.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 8:52 PM on September 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: One more thing...

I like to keep in mind when dealing with these sorts that, "Happy People don't do Bad Things."

Can you imagine her inner life? Right?? It is something you would not wish on your worst enemy, which she pretty much is right now, because rest assured that she talks shit about you, too.

Try to see it as sad, yet amusing that her unhappiness is so obvious.

Do look for another gig.

Do not do or say anything that might paint a target on your back.

NEVER reveal anything personal about yourself to her or your co-workers. EVER.

Get another job.


Resist the urge, once you are on your way out the door, to tell her what an odious human being she is. That will only feed her twisted core.

After you get out - Celebrate!
posted by jbenben at 9:04 PM on September 28, 2011 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Definitely start looking for other work if possible, but in the mean time, consider the following.

Boss: "So *snide smirk* looks like Name is gettin' the shakes again!"
You: "Poor thing. *Sympathetic face for all of 30 seconds or less* Do you have a minute to discuss yesterday's reports?"

Boss: "*Cackle/smirk/confidential whisper* I'm pretty sure He_Name and She_Name are in a thing together. They're always getting lunch together, etc etc"
You: "Yeah they seem to get along pretty well. *Reflective face for all of 10 to 15 seconds or less* Were we going to follow through on Client's request?"

In other words, nullify everything. Or ignore it as the case may be. Don't come off as flippant or obviously dismissive. Seem like you're taking part while actually saying nothing. Get to the point of your being in her presence as quickly as possible, then get out of her presence ASAP.
posted by DisreputableDog at 9:09 PM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have a coworker who is in the process of getting off of hard drugs and is taking all the right steps toward recovery. Not only did my boss reveal this confidential information to all of her staff, she consistently makes fun of my coworker behind her back for it.

That's epically bad. But it also gives you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! Grab it by the horns.

1. Land a new job. Negotiate the start date. Make sure you'll be able to transition without financial stress even if you don't get your last paycheck from your current job, and if you quit your job tomorrow and have to wait the full time until the new start date. While you're doing this, just listen patiently to your boss as appropriate, and when you speak, only do so to confirm work-related questions or whatnot.

2. Once settled, the very next time she brings this stuff up again, ask her if you can talk to her for a few minutes alone about something important. Then look her right in the eye and say "[boss], I appreciate that you allow me to work here, and I enjoy contributing to the company's success every chance I get -- but you have an ongoing pattern of saying bad things about other employees behind their backs, and every time you do I start thinking about what you must be saying about me to other people. When you do that, I don't want to contribute to the company's success, because ultimately you are the person who benefits the most from that success, and frankly I don't like you very much when you're like this."

3. If you are fired immediately, just smile, say "but of course", and walk away happily with a smile, knowing you're good financially with your new job lined up. If she starts yelling, even if you haven't finished saying what you have to say, just turn around and walk out on her -- if you leave instead of letting her finish talking, she will HATE THAT WITH THE BURNING PASSION OF A THOUSAND SUNS. Again, with a smile on your face, and never come back. If she doesn't fire you, be prepared to spend the near future being abused blatantly by her. When that happens to a point you simply don't feel like putting up with, walk out and never come back.

4. Regardless of how step three plays out, expect that she won't send you your final paycheck, and she'll expect you to come back asking for it, or threatening to sue, or otherwise restoring her feeling that she's in control of you. You, of course, have followed step one, and will never come back for that last paycheck.

The golden opportunity I'm talking about here, then, is to take the moral high ground and stand up for yourself and other people against a full-size real-life adult bully. I promise you, it will be something you look back on for years and years and feel really, really good about. And it will only have cost you one paycheck! Cheap at any price.

Good luck.
posted by davejay at 9:17 PM on September 28, 2011 [7 favorites]

Do you happen to have an anonymous tip line for HR? That's definitely the wrong term, I'm sure, but at a former workplace, I had something like that, where we could call a third-party company, and tell that company what was up, and they would go back to our HR with an anonymized report.

The whole bit about disclosing confidential info is screaming for that.
posted by mornie_alantie at 9:23 PM on September 28, 2011

My original advice still stands, but davejay brings up a good point.

From a position of strength, I have a few times, deliciously and unexpectedly (to my shitty bosses,) walked out mid-shift due to their crap behavior.

Memorably, one boss ran into me 4 months later at a New Year's Eve party and was just drunk enough to tell me I was totally right to walk out after the demeaning comments he made to me (this happened at one of the TOP restaurants in NYC, he was the GM) and that he respected me for it. I still think he's a pig.

But yeah. If you have the latitude and the ire - go for it.
posted by jbenben at 10:06 PM on September 28, 2011

Shoot, just noticed that it's retail, and she's the owner. If she wasn't, then GOOD CHRIST I'd be going to the DM toute suite.

But she's the owner.

In that case, I'd be pounding the pavement to get a new job. Hell, I'd hire you if you were in the Chicago-ish area and knew anything about art.
posted by mornie_alantie at 10:08 PM on September 28, 2011

You have no control over her behavior, only yours.

Your best bet is to find another job. If you'd rather stay, don't share your personal information and do your best to tune out non-work-related garbage.
posted by Sir Cholmondeley at 6:04 AM on September 29, 2011

Best answer: a good way to subvert negativity like that is to counter a negative statment with a positive one. When she makes fun of the person who is quitting drugs, say that it must be really hard to do and that you admire their strength. If she makes fun of someone's appearance, say something nice about their personality. You have to do it in a low-key matter of fact way, so it doesn't come off as snarky
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:06 PM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

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