Abusive consultant pushes my buttons
May 26, 2012 9:26 AM   Subscribe

How do I remove or minimize the menace of an abusive person who makes me see red?

I work in a field where we have consultants come in to help us with fundraising three or four times a year. Our managers have hired a team of two for this purpose.

The guy in this duo is the owner of his consultancy, and the woman is his employee. (I call them Svengali and Mini Me. She's also his girlfriend.) These people are beyond unprofessional. They are both rude, arrogant and contemptuous, and one has been consistently abusive to me personally. My objection to these people isn't so much that they offend me and hurt my feelings - waah! - though that's true. It's mostly that they're a downer for the whole team. When one person gets yelled at, everyone else on the project gets affected. When we're doing fundraising, we all need to be sparkly and on top of our game, since we're asking people for money. These two have a habit of torpedoing morale right at the moment when we all need it most.

My company has gotten roped into two more fund drives with these people. I realized, last time the dude yelled at me, that I wasn't going to be able to work with him individually any more. It's kind of a long story how this works - so let me try to condense. I work in radio. Our on-air membership appeals happen every few months. Most of the time I don't have to deal with Svengali, which is great. But he's in the control room with me when I'm on the air during my show, on the occasion of these drives.

So I don't mind consultants being in my space with me during the fundrdaising, but I do mind being snapped at and put off balance when I'm trying to stay professional on the air. Last time he yelled at me, I almost took his head off.

Another problem is his favortism - he picks one person he likes and addresses all his instructions to them. He refuses to make eye contact with me, unless he's yelling at me. He also tells long stories about "the time I met Alec Baldwin," etc. At one point in our last drive I had less than two minutes to go on the air. Svengali pushes his laptop across my body and shoves it in the face of my co-pitcher, and makes the poor guy watch a video clip of Svengali's eleven-year old daughter playing the drums and singing during her talent show. This is while we're getting ready to go on the air in a few seconds. It's just incredible. He's a radio consultant who doesn't get radio at all, and that's part of why he drives us all nuts.

I'm a pretty tolerant person, known for being able to get along with everyone at work. And I stay professional. I've never made a big on-air mistake - never sworn when my mic was on, said anything racist or offensive. I'm good at my job and I don't screw up.

But I'm to the point where I'm worried about what might happen - I can't trust myself with this person. I don't know or care what his issues are. I think he's a sexist bastard who treats women like they don't exist, and it's clear he has nothing but contempt for my work. It's all unpleasant, but the only part of this that really matters is that he's destroying the team's morale just at the moment when we really have to soar for the station. The guy is just dangerous.

My question/problem - I need to find a tactful and effective way of describing what I'm going through to my immediate manager. Management is aware of the personality issues around Svengali, but their mantra is: "He gets results." Honestly, we don't know that - we've never done a membership drive without him, so there's no basis of comparison.

How do I approach this with my manager? One difficulty is that they tend to shoot the messenger where I work. So I need to present the issue so as to persuade them that they should help ME out, because I'm their employee and they care about me (I'm not sure how true this is). That is, it would be very easy for them to perceive me as an entitled whiner around this issue. Their first instinct will be to defend the consultant, because they tend to defend the status quo (it's just easier for them, and they identify and side with power-trippers). I need to overcome their resistance on this one - and I need to ensure that I don't get stuck working with the evil asshat again, without coming off like a whining diva. So your suggestions for phrasing the issue effectively would be welcome.

One thing in my favor - the boss has witnessed at least one of Svengali's outbursts to me, so he knows it happens. (He never mentioned it because he avoids confrontation, and has never gone to bat for me on any issue since I've worked there.)

I would also be interested in finding out what other people have done when they've had to deal with abusive people in the workplace. Have you ever just gone off on someone? What was the result? Did life get better as a result? Did you get your hand slapped? Did you get fired, or did your status and professionalism suffer?
posted by cartoonella to Work & Money (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have a general "no assholes" rule around work. Once you let it happen once, all you are left with are assholes and people who can't get a job anywhere else.

You do have some power here, your company is his customer and the customer has a lot of power in these relationships. Don't be a pushover, don't let your emotions get the best of you when you talk with him and your management.

Stop him the next time this happens and say "This is inappropriate behavior, esp for a consultant who wants to keep our business."

No one is allowed to yell at you at work, let alone some hired consultant.

Can you get the team to provide a united front to management?
posted by bottlebrushtree at 9:42 AM on May 26, 2012 [9 favorites]

He never mentioned it because he avoids confrontation, and has never gone to bat for me on any issue since I've worked there.

I've dealt with an abusive coworker, and the reality is that unless your boss is 100% on your side--and it doesn't sound like this guy is--they tend to be afraid of the person, even if it's an employee, and mostly want to hunker down and placate the abuser.

Because I had to suck it up and deal with that particular situation, I actually turned to short-acting anti-anxiety meds (i.e. benzos) and a lot of drinking after work. I don't recommend that course of action at all, unless you genuinely need the job to live.

If possible start living as frugally as possible, saving, and looking for a new position. Having an eye on the door will make it so much better. It'll also give you something to focus on besides your dread of working with this guy. Even if the jobs aren't completely suitable or are in a crappy location, getting a response to your application or an invitation for an interview does wonders for your self-esteem in situations like this. You are a valuable member of your workplace, and I'm very sorry that your immediate supervisor doesn't see this.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:43 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Start working on your resume. Based on the evidence you've presented, this is an uphill battle. Is this the hill you want to die on? (the answer may well be yes.)

You've said your boss avoids confrontation, they blame the messenger where you work, and he's never gone to bat for you. If you blow up at this consultant, you will be seen as the problem.

Document, document, document. Build your case for how he is negatively affecting morale. Talk with the others - are *they* willing to go to bat and speak on your behalf, if you start this? If they say no, then, honestly, don't even bother presenting to your boss. Just find another job as soon as possible. Even if they are on your side... start looking anyway. Better to have the options.

If you get your coworkers behind you, and you've built your case on documented incidents which are backed up by their words, and your framing how this hurts the company, then the next issue is to find a solution to present to them. Not just "these consultants are unprofessional and hurting our business" but "here's how I propose to solve the problem (look at xyz competitors who are at same or below rate and known for their professionalism blah blah)." Once you have that, then when you're at the planning stage for the next fundraiser (i.e. immediately after one has finished), give it your best shot.

But be prepared with an exit strategy, because I think you know in your gut that they might take the coward's way out - and you need to know how you will respond, whether it's hunkering down and sucking it until you can get another job, or calmly resigning on the spot.
posted by canine epigram at 9:48 AM on May 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

I think your first step is to document his behavior, and if your coworkers are like-minded, get them to document it too. If he behaves inappropriately, register a complaint with your boss. You don't have to ask him to fire the guy, just build a history of complaints. It will help if your coworkers do, too. Educate yourself on relevant words that will ding his workplace harassment radar. Don't threaten or exaggerate, but don't spare the details. Ask him if you have to work with Svengali again, you'd like some input about how to minimize the damage he does.

The other thing that might help is to frame it to your boss as, "I understand this guy gets results, but he behaves inappropriately toward women." Or, "he has harassed Joanne and Claire more than once, doing X, Y, and Z." Basically, you're standing up for the rest of your team, not just yourself.

I suspect the way you're going to effect change is not to get your boss to do something nice for you, but to save his own skin. He doesn't want a lawsuit. He doesn't want to be perceived as so ineffective that you take it up the ladder and make it about him ("Dear HR manager, my boss is so incompetent that he has repeatedly hired this consultant who sexually harasses the staff even though we have complained multiple times.")
posted by elizeh at 9:56 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Okay, so your manager is cowardly and easily awed or cowed. The easiest way to get these guys fired will be to find a new, even more famous or authoritative, fundraising guru. I'd research who ELSE has fired this duo. Gently play to your manager's insecurities. You heard that many of the other big stations are adopting this new fundraising philosophy and seeing it get bigger results. Not that your station would fall behind, but...
posted by salvia at 9:57 AM on May 26, 2012 [13 favorites]

I handled an issue with a coworker that my boss was unwilling to address. My read on it wasn't that his desire to stay uninvolved was less about favoritism than it was about not giving a shit, and that I probably had some leeway to throw a proverbial elbow or two, which I did, and the coworker backed off.

I would recommend against popping off at the guy, though, since it usually makes you wind up looking kind of ridiculous, there's nowhere to go after that, and if the guy's an asshole, he'll probably enjoy it. It's not like it is in the movies. I think a better way to respond directly is to slow your speech down, get VERY close, speak softly, and stay the adult.

The tactics you use are going to be particular to your situation, but if it's a matter of your boss simply not caring or having backbone, I'd encourage you to fill the power vacuum by managing up. The key is always to have things figured out a few moves ahead of whoever you're dealing with, whether it's your boss, the consultant, or your coworkers.

I think this definitely means building consensus among your coworkers and presenting a united front, and advocating for a new consulting firm.

One idea would be to get a new consultant into the building to make a direct pitch to your boss, perhaps in the presence of your team. If your boss is non-confrontational, you might be able to get him to commit to the new consultant (since he doesn't like to say no). This makes the breaking of the bad news to the current consultant something that he has to do later, and makes him look good in front of his subordinates.

So I need to present the issue so as to persuade them that they should help ME out, because I'm their employee and they care about me (I'm not sure how true this is).

I think you'll get better results if you frame the issue in terms of how it affects the organization.

Another problem is his favortism - he picks one person he likes and addresses all his instructions to them.

See if you can get this person to call the guy out on this habit when he's doing it.
posted by alphanerd at 10:37 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Going back to late-90s slang for me here, start referring to them as "insultants."
posted by rhizome at 11:05 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Loving your responses, thank you so much!

Years ago when I was an admin employee with transferable skills, I could switch jobs a lot (and did). Now that my skills are narrowly defined in a field that's pretty much drying up, I make more money and have more status - but I'm a lot more limited in terms of where I can go, because jobs at my level are almost nonexistent. I'd certainly have to move to another city for a comparable job in my field, and I haven't ruled it out. (Persuading my hubby to uproot ourselves again another story! But it's not off the table. ) Also got some other projects I kind of need to stay in town for - I'm writing a biography and would like to stay in the same place where my subject is, because we're collaborating. So there is some light at the end of this - just mainly looking for strategies on how to cope until I make some other kinds of strides in my life outside work.

I appreciate the point some have made about making the issue about improving the company and team solidarity, and making my boss look good. A bit of psychology helps!

Great advice, Alphanerd, about using my boss's non-confrontational pattern to my advantage. He could fall under the spell of another charismatic consultant, good point! and this time a better one, I hope!

Thanks again to all who responded, I appreciate it :)
posted by cartoonella at 11:07 AM on May 26, 2012

His presence and behavior in the control room booth seems to be the most pressing issue here. Perhaps focus on solving this particular problem first.

Does he have to be in the control room for any practical purpose? If so, can you and whoever else on your team will be in there lay down the law before your segment? "OK, the next two hours are gonna go like this: No yelling. No distractions just before we go on air. I don't tell you how to do your job; you don't tell me how to do mine. Capice?" There's no need to be nice or diplomatic; just be calm, low-voiced, direct.

If he doesn't have to be in the room during the show, can you find a way to ensure that he is otherwise occupied during your segment? Can you manager at least sack up for this ONE small request? "Manager, I'm finding my show goes much better when Sir Pricks-A-Lot isn't in the booth. It's in our best interest to have him out of there."

In general, my experience with bullies is that a quiet, strong, direct, sort of squinty-eyed approach works best with dick-swingers. No soft, diplomatic "When you do this, I feel that..." stuff. "Knock it off. We're going on air."

Get in touch with your inner Clint Eastwood.
posted by quivering_fantods at 11:09 AM on May 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Insultants, YESSS!!! You speak true, rhizome!
posted by cartoonella at 11:09 AM on May 26, 2012

Response by poster: Sir Pricks A Lot! You people are a treasure trove ;)
posted by cartoonella at 11:11 AM on May 26, 2012

You may find that a voice recorder helps, since the abuse pattern is a verbal one. Would it be possible for you to simply announce that you're going to be recording your meetings with this guy to refer back to later, maybe giving a heads-up beforehand to a sympathetic colleague or two who will support you? This may keep him from popping off, because if he does, he's giving you evidence to bring to your boss.
posted by alphanerd at 11:24 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, good grief. You're talent, which means you get to play the diva card any time you like. No extraneous people in the control booth. Certainly no laptops showing extraneous video. No talking in the control booth. Out, out, out--NOW! (and you shove him out the door)

Basically, tolerate nothing and be the bigger asshole. What's he going to do, complain to management?
posted by Scram at 12:07 PM on May 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

Since you guys are the ones hiring the consultants, there's no way you should be kowtowing to his bullshit. If your boss isn't willing to step up and set limits, then there's no reason why you and your coworkers couldn't. I'd stick to simple direct responses delivered calmly and matter of fact: "That's not appropriate". "That's really offensive". "I'd appreciate it if you address the whole team". "There is no reason to raise your voice". "This isn't an appropriate time". "I can't have you in the control booth right now".

What's the worst thing that can happen? He doesn't take the gig next time it's offered?
posted by lilnublet at 12:54 PM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Radio has a high turn over rate and money is the bottom line. It sounds like you are handling it in the most professional, reasonable way, for your profession.

Do you have a good relationship with any sponsors? Could you get one of them to donate a large chunk of money for the pleasure of being in the hot spot instead of the jerk?

Is this person disliked enough for you to organize an over throw? Find 3 people that are essential, that you trust, and talk things over with them. Go to your supervisor together and say that you feel you can do what the consultant is doing. You would like to save the station money and try a fund raiser without him. Radio stations love not having to pay someone to do something. They may go for it. Point out that you have never done a drive without him, maybe you could do better. Then, make certain that you do better.
posted by myselfasme at 12:56 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't need to take the job! Just apply. It will do wonders for your ability to let nonsense roll off your back and your self-esteem will benefit. You'll also gain some perspective about your workplace--it is one of many, in a big world.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:09 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

What about not being the messenger? Did you ever tell him calmly and directly that there is really no need to yell, it is counterproductive and we can hear each other just fine? Can you get together with all your colleagues before their arrival and set some ground rules, #1 of which is "We do not yell here." And then if he proceeds to yell, each individual can remind him that we do not yell here, and then shrug and ignore his freakouts.

This is really childish and unprofessional behavior on his part and if he were good at his job I would think he wouldn't have to yell. Sometimes it helps me if I remember this when dealing with difficult people who bring hostility into the workplace - don't take it personal, it's not about you, this person has a problem that is hurting their career and can't do much for their personal life either.

I would find it easier to respond in an even-tempered way if I regarded them both as something of a curiosity - wow, what's wrong with them that they're so rude and awful? Sucks to be them! I bet they magically find difficult work environments and poor customer service and have a miserable time absolutely everywhere they go because they're so mean to everyone. Don't focus on how they behave toward you personally. The guy probably only likes people who kiss his ass and otherwise signal they're OK with his abusiveness.

I have never dealt with a person who yelled at me, but have dealt with negative, hostile, bullying types. What helped me was to not react other than to respond in a friendly, cheerful manner without backing down or apologizing for anything, so they could tell I really wasn't thrown off by their attitude (when it was a manager who I certainly couldn't talk back to). They would just find someone else to pick on. Or when it's a coworker on an equal level, I just ignore it and go back to work, or take a coffee break and go for a quick walk around the building and remind myself that they're always like that & thank god I'm not married to them.
posted by citron at 2:16 PM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

And as much as you're tempted, my opinion is that going off on him and saying exactly what you think is the last thing you should do. It isn't fair but my opinion is that it disproportionately hurts women to get fired up like that - you lose respect for being emotional and if management's approach is to look the other way because he "gets results," it won't help you. The point to make to management is that his yelling and disruptive behavior (ie, getting in people's way before they go on-air) is making it harder to get results. It's inefficient.
posted by citron at 2:23 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're a professional, too. Are you going to sit there and take it and then snipe behind his back, hoping somebody else will save you? Or are you going to grow a proverbial pair, stand up in a meeting, make a time-out hand sign and say 'Svengali - that's not professional. I know you want to get this done, but you have to do it with us. Don't do it again.'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:53 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was going to say the same thing as obiwanwasabi. This guy needs to be stood up to, in a stern but professional tone. "Excuse me, Svengali, but I won't be talked to this way. When you are ready to speak to me in a professional manner, we will reschedule the meeting."

And keep doing it every time he steps out of line. If you are absolutely careful to always respond to his behavior directly, but professionally, your position will be unassailable. He can go crying to the boss and say you talked back to him (or whatever), but upon investigation, it will be found that he is the one being nuts.
posted by gjc at 6:00 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

> In general, my experience with bullies is that a quiet, strong, direct, sort of squinty-eyed approach works best with dick-swingers. No soft, diplomatic "When you do this, I feel that..." stuff. "Knock it off. We're going on air."

I strongly agree with this. Keep your cool, be direct, and be all business, speaking in a neutral tone of voice.
posted by desuetude at 10:59 PM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Better boundaries. Sven gets his way by being aggressive and inappropriate. If he raises his voice or is rude, write on a piece of paper Stop that; we're on air. If he shoves a laptop, take the laptop and set it somewhere else. The occasional "Dude. Seriously." with a disgusted expression is recommended. He yells at you off-air - leave the room, go to the bathroom or get a cup of tea and return. Ask him if he's feeling better, as you would with a child recovering from a tantrum.

Go around him. Fundraising isn't easy; money's tight. Propose that the station use metrics to see how effective your campaigns are. Recommend trying some new ideas. Surely there's a Journal of Begathons or whatever, in your field. See who his competition is. Talk them up. Start looking for consultants to help you measure the effectiveness of campaigns.

You're female, and you're being harassed and bullied by a male. It's not okay. Psych yourself up every day, think about tanks, big strong trees, ocean waves that can wear away the strongest rocks. When he bullies or yells, say "Sven, my friend, how is it possible that you never learned not to yell at people?" "Sven, i know you like talking to Jane, but this information is important to the campaign, so let's give it a try." Be friendly, a little joke-y and indulgent about his weird difficulty with humans, and decline the bullshit.
posted by theora55 at 1:37 AM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Great great great responses, guys. Thank you SO MUCH! :D
posted by cartoonella at 8:44 AM on May 28, 2012

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