Besting a brigade of bully bosses?
August 15, 2012 3:36 PM   Subscribe

Suggestions for developing/maintaining emotional boundaries with a toxic boss, after being "too nice" early on?

Length, apologies, and so forth.

Hello MeFites.

I'm in my mid-20s, and started a job as an admin. assistant (union employee) at a university almost a year ago--essentially, my first full-time job after making the decision to leave a fledgling creative career (and other 1/2-time admin. jobs). I support two people; my boss, A, and her boss, B. They are both difficult bosses in different ways. B rarely speaks to me, but makes immediate, impacting judgments on my performance (as described below). A has extremely limited professional boundaries, thinking nothing of telling me about her PMS/cycles/other bodily functions, exes, other personal drama, and generally treating me as an audience member/sounding board, getting visibly cranky when I appear busy. She's a gossip and very nosy, routinely complaining about and judging both employees and faculty members here (including the person who was last in my position), and in addition is a seemingly compulsive corrector/criticizer. She also has a borderline sycophantic/doting relationship with boss B.

I have a habit of historically being way too accepting with people (particularly people who I work for, since I feel that much more pressure to stay "neutral"), and weak personal boundaries (which I've been working on building up over the past year). So, it's taken me some time to really understand A's behavior and the dangers of having a "friendly" boss. The first six months of my employment were without incident, and I received solid feedback on my performance. I was very friendly to A, not delving into personal matters, but not completely holding back, either. In March, things changed for the worse, as I screwed up a project deadline (bad communication with boss B). Though I haven't repeated that mistake, I've since received wildly varied feedback on my performance, called into A's office probably about once a month for an impromptu private meeting where I'm alternately praised or (more often) given surprise negative feedback on how I'm doing (for example, our last meeting just a few days ago was regarding comments made offhand to B during a lunch by a faculty member with whom I worked about 4 months ago, saying that I did not respond quickly enough to emails for this person's liking). Just a couple of months earlier, I was given a solid 3/4 (out of a rarely-given 5) annual performance review.

Aside from the impromptu meetings with A, I'm never given immediate feedback on my performance, so I basically don't know what to expect half the time. This leaves me feeling like my job's in jeopardy, and totally unconfident in my ability to succeed (A will now be copied on all emails with the person who complained about me, for instance). Worse, A still comes over to my desk to chat with/complain to me, but obviously it's clear that this relationship (and work environment) is dysfunctional, and that I need to be as professionally detached as possible (barring quitting outright).

I know I need to leave this job. It's affecting my physical and mental health at this point, and I do believe that life's too short for this. Personal politics aside, I really miss being creative, too, and feel extremely professionally compromised on a daily basis. However, I'm afraid to quit, especially with a relatively short job history, and the job search process may take a while. Although to note, I did just start applying for other jobs, which is helping. But I've struggled with anxiety, depression, and generally low self-esteem for a long time, and I'm especially particularly emotionally susceptible to people like A, who I think can smell vulnerability. But I've learned a lot about myself this past year (including coming to terms with my identity as a queer person) and I feel like I have newfound strength and steadily lower patience for bullshit. My gut is telling me, "Leave now! NOW!" but I know I can't just walk out.

So with that long backstory, I appeal to you for tips/tricks on practicing professional detachment with toxic bosses (particularly A, possibly without arousing her suspicions--she's remarked in the past that I've seemed "aloof"). I desperately need coping tools while I continue applying to other jobs. What would you advise?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's request. -- restless_nomad

I honestly believe this situation can be salvaged, and the effort should be made. You need the experience and the work history, and I think there's enough potential here to make this a successful work environment. If you can treat this as an excercise in shaping and controlling your work life, as a learning tool, the frustrations will be easier to handle. First of all, you need to put your relationship with A on a more professional footing. Since A is a sharer, all you need is a sincere and heartfelt conversation that starts like this:

"I really want to improve my professional skills and I need your help. I need to learn how to conduct myself in a more business-like manner and would like to try x,y, and z. What do you think?"

This will hopefully encourage A to make some progress in the same area, but if not will give you an easy and polite way to deflect future inapproptiate contact. I would also set up a monthly progress meeting with A (and possibly B). Make a checklist of five or ten items that YOU think you need to improve upon and ask them to rate you every month. KEEP the notes from each meeting and you'll have a great resource for A and B when evaluation time comes around. When you get any random criticism, be sure to add the issue to your checklist, replacing one that you have a handle on. This clear communication should help relieve any anxiety you have because you know you're working on it.

I can almost guarantee a top-rated performance review when the time comes. And a great way to add value to any future job interviews. Every boss likes to see employees with a strong desire for self improvement. Good luck!
posted by raisingsand at 4:07 PM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't say sorry too much. There's an arab proverb that says "sorries make you a donkey and people will ride"

Start documenting.

Ask for feedback on pretty much everything as you go along.

Emails are great for this.

Then when they slam you you've got an arsenal of evidence that they had multiple chances to tell you what wasn't working before it was too late.
posted by misspony at 4:07 PM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

If you are a union admin assistant at a university, there's a good chance that you are almost impossible to fire. Could you look into this, perhaps by talking to a union rep or another person in a similar position? Knowing that your job is not in jeopardy might help your confidence.
posted by medusa at 4:13 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is completely possible to fire anyone that management wants to fire, and for any reason. Nobody should ever ride on the assumption that they can't be fired. Never assume that good performance, and any amount of documentation to prove it, has any bearing on whether you keep your job. The main reason people lose their jobs is because they upset the boss, and stupendous performance won't save you in that event. Your bosses sound like the kind of people who are terribly sensitive to upset. I don't say this to scare you but as (what I think is) a fact or probability that you can deal with proactively.

Yes, aggressively look for something new, and in the future cut down the interpersonal information you share to zero. You are a machine, understand? I think your instinct that this is not a tenable situation, is right. Best quit while you're ahead. (I briefly wondered if you worked at That Place, in which case, for the love of God tell them nothing and job hunt like your life depended on it.)

I think The Nice Factor Book by Robin Chandler and Jo Ellen Grzyb is just the thing for you. Please do not cite "self esteem" as a reason for doing anything. You need to have the right information about what to do and then act on that information, and you can do this with or without benefit of "self esteem" which I think is more of a marketing construct than a reality - you know, like cellulite.
posted by tel3path at 4:45 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Please do not assume your job is safe because you are represented by a union. A friend of mine had almost this very same situation and one day, she found herself asked to a meeting in which the boss and the boss's boss slid a piece of paper across the table and told her she had to sign it. It was a termination letter. The union rep she contacted didn't do anything but offer a sympathetic ear.

I am almost curious to know where you are working because the set up sounds eerily similar. Boss A did crazy shit like get upset if my friend didn't staple papers at an angle, or question her about why she ordered pink erasers instead of white and just made her life hell. The sad thing is that HR has probably heard about your bosses but will never do anything about it and let them go through admins like ravenous soul-suckers.

You are dealing with sociopaths here. In this instance, it won't matter if you are the best possible employee in the world. That's not what drives your bosses. I suggest you try and make allies with others in the department and with colleagues around campus who may serve as good resources and will be good morale boosters. You might also use the time at the university to network and find a similar position for another department or a job elsewhere.

Just remember that you're dealing with the pathologies of psycopaths and adjust accordingly. Good luck, I really sympathize with your situation.
posted by loquat at 5:00 PM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wow, I was an admin at a university in a union position in my 20's with a boss with the most horrible boundaries - she would give me unsolicited "advice" (i.e., cruel criticism) about my career, religion, love life, family, table manners, meal choices, and once had the nerve to say to me, "now, what are we going to do about your weight, dear?" She constantly positioned herself as my un-asked for mentor and treated me like I didn't have a brain in my head and I felt helpless against the force of her overbearing will. I was going through mental health issues and domestic violence at the time, and couldn't identify just how abusive she was and I didn't leave the job for eight years. Don't be me!

That said, I don't actually think you'll wind up like me. Good for you for identifying the issue so quickly! Here are some suggestions I have based on what I wish I had done.

-Gone to the union for advice. It sounds like you're in a small department - do you know other union admins in other departments? It might be helpful just to talk to someone in a similar position as you and even just compare how their offices run.

- Does your university have an ombuds office? They might not be super helpful but they at least keep confidentiality if you just need to talk about. Be aware that their hands may be somewhat tied because you're union, but it is worth looking into.

- Do you like working at the university in general? I loved the academic environment and tuition benefits and great vacation time, I just hated my boss. I wish I had looked into applying for an internal job in another department instead of leaving the university - and being an internal candidate can often give you an advantage in hiring.

Please feel free to memail me if you want to chat - I may be projecting my experience onto yours, but I would have loved to have had a friendly ear from someone who escaped. Good luck!
posted by Neely O'Hara at 5:00 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

extremely professionally compromised on a daily basis

I think you can't expect your job to fulfill you in every single way. Do you get to take classes for free? If so, I'd start taking advantage of every single think your job has in the way of benefits--free gym? Free lectures? Books at the library? Take advantage of all this stuff.

You can probably find ways to keep Miss Chatty-Pants at bay, while being extremely busy and professional. Make sure you document stuff and also submit progress reports to her, so that she can see what exactly you're doing. Double and triple check every deadline, every budget, etc..

Your job is not to be creative, your job is to support this department. Find another outlet for your creative drive and don't take work home with you--not just papers but the whole mindset. This is a work to live gig, and you might as well just finish out the year while looking around, making friends in other parts of the campus and networking. You don't need to take it all so seriously. You will think better of yourself by mastering this situation.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:15 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

So it sounds like you're a creative person stuck in the world of admin in order to pay your bills. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that and honestly, I don't think you need to be unhappy while you're doing it. Even the most tedious job can be pleasant if you're working for and with decent people. These two are not it. In my experience, people don't change, especially not for someone they consider an "underling". Find another job with a more sane boss before you waste too much of your life at this one.
posted by Jess the Mess at 5:34 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just to help with a little perspective, this, from a very recent AskMe, is a worst case scenario.

Your situation isn't much better, but just like my answer to that Askme, I think what you should focus on is learning from the situation and gain as much knowledge and experience as possible while your finding a new job.

Before I continue with that rant, I suggest that you search within the system and try to move either laterally or up a notch. As is said of the Civil Service, once you're in the system, you have options/opportunities.

Back to dealing with it...B is obviously the big boss but A may be an open door for you. As long as you're listening you may as well say something.

For example, "A, I've noticed that since that misstep that I made, which was a great learning experience for me, that I've had mixed reviews. This job is important to me and I want to be a top performer. What are some things that I can do to be your best employee?"

I know that sounds like ass kissing bologna/bullshit, but you want three things from this; A good review, a good recommendation-especially if it's in-house, and experience that can be documented on your resume.
posted by snsranch at 6:10 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ok, I'll just add this to think about also, because it applies double in my line of work and it drives new people nuts with worry and flailing trying to please everyone until they 'get it.'

In my line of work, being criticized is inevitable. As in, if you're never doing anything to be criticized about, you're being so careful that you're going to get criticized for being too wishy-washy. There is literally no way to not make someone (even your boss) unhappy once in a while. And they will tell you about it.

Important part: it does not mean you are doing a bad job. If you are 95%, you will hear about how you failed the other 5%. Then you get good performance reviews.

I suggest, when you have one of the not-so-fun meetings, express the desire to do better but ALSO ask for an "overall" appraisal of how you're doing. If you're in the same kind of environment as I am, you'll get a hasty, "Oh, overall, great! Just, this thing, you know..."

You also benefit from making them put that into words once in a while, lest they themselves forget it when it counts.

So this may or may not be applicable to you, but maybe it is.
posted by ctmf at 6:44 PM on August 15, 2012

Speaking from personal experience with the poor boundaries boss, my sympathies. It's very hard to 'go back' once you've set the precedent that, for instance, you will listen sympathetically to love life woes. No one likes rejection, and rejected people can lash out, so you have to find a way to reestablish boundaries without making you boss feel rejected or judged.

One way to do this is to make it all about you - when the inappropriate topics come up, try to stick resolutely with, 'I've learned the hard way that I'm no expert at love life advice - I just wouldn't know what to say about that! " or "I am so embarrassed to say this, but the truth is I just can't handle thinking about bodily functions...I'm one of those squeamish people!" or "oh, I guess I don't know X very well, I've never noticed anything like that". And then switch right to, "I know you really wanted me to work on x (negative feedback issue), can I show you an email and get your opinion? I'm really trying to get better in this area!"
posted by Ausamor at 6:53 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was in a very similar position, and honestly, only moving on worked for me. I have had nine zillion jobs (give or take) and have experienced absolutely no crazy like the crazy I had to deal with as a full-time university admin.
posted by threeants at 2:06 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

From the OP:
"Hi folks. Thanks so much for all of the helpful advice and encouragement. I really needed a reality check and, well, permission to go ahead and leave.

So, with that said, I figure it's time for an update--I just got a new job! Huzzah!"
posted by jessamyn at 8:49 AM on October 2, 2012

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