I'd really like to like this job
August 18, 2012 3:25 PM   Subscribe

I have a job that I like (or at least I like sometimes) with a boss who alternately micromanages and is totally hands-off. Morale at the store is really low, particularly lately, as we've had several big tasks to juggle. I need advice on how to deal with it. Snowflake details inside.

The job is one I like; it's a bookselling gig, and I love books and talking to people about them. It's dealing with the boss(es), who are also the store's owner(s), that's hard.

So there's one boss, mostly, and she's the store owner, but her partner is in the store a lot and so we sort of report to both of them. Her teenage son also works at the store; he has made several *major* mistakes recently (including deleting a ton of special orders and leaving the doors open overnight); this is part of my frustration with working there, since I don't feel like any of the rest of us would ever get away with that kind of shit. There is one manager and a couple of shift managers; I'm technically a shift manager sometimes, I think, but there is no formal managerial positions or much of a hierarchy.

The boss/owner suffers from chronic physical illness(es) which have been keeping her away from the store more and more. Communication with her has to be done via phone and email when she's sick. We get task lists occasionally by email, and tone is sort of hard to decypher there but she frequently sounds sort of pissed off at us. Requests (such as for better chairs, since we sit on stools that make all of our backs hurt) go over badly; the better stools request got a response (sent to all the employees) that was a 800+ word tirade about all the stuff we've been doing wrong. I at once point attempted to make a suggestion about stuff to add to a section I know she knows nothing about and got an email back berating me for wasting time on a section where nothing sells (which was upsetting on two levels: the being berated one, and the one where she thinks we should ignore sections where nothing sells, since if they're doing that poorly we probably need to fix something).

We never get positive feedback on what we're doing.

The most recent crisis has been a rearranging of about 1/4 or 1/5 of the store. We were sent instructions on how to do this and have been following them as closely as possible (her emails are often hard to decipher, partially because translating words to physical space is hard and partially because she's long-winded and unclear). This morning we were warned by her partner that she'd been in this morning and was rearranging stuff and was really upset at our failure to follow instructions (we'd been following them, painstakingly, to the letter). Her emails to us didn't have a pissed off tone as expected, but the warning really colored the day, and all of us were pretty miserable. (We have the store open while we're doing this, so we're constantly interrupted from our tasks to man the registers and help customers. No extra employees have been brought in for extra hours while this is going on.)

I know this is a really long list of complaints, so let me just state: I love books, I love getting advanced readers, I love talking to people about books. The bookstore is beautiful; there are a lot of book-related stuff that the boss(es) are great at; it's the managerial stuff that totally sucks.

So I need advice, basically. I'm considering talking to the boss, or writing her (I'd rather write her, since I can control my tone and emotion better that way). I'm looking for other jobs and can probably find something tolerable if I definitely need it (IE if I get fired). How do I do this? What do I say? Should I say anything at all? I'm so stressed out and emotionally messed up that I'm having a hard time thinking about this in a way that's useful.
posted by Harry Potter and the Puppet of Sock to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is a small business - small business people mostly have zero social skills and ALL the responsibility. She is freaking out (and taking it out on you instead of getting therapy) not for any reason but just because that's what most people in small business with staff and poorly-performing sections do. Her son is crap and she knows it so it's more crap she has to deal with on top of everything else. She will go apeshit if you try to talk to her and your life there will henceforth be worse than it is now.

Either you stay, knowing that none of what she says or does is personal, it's just her very own very flawed coping mechanism, and that the likelihood of you getting fired for performance reasons is very, very slim (she doesn't have time to hire someone else) or you look for a job somewhere else.
posted by heyjude at 3:50 PM on August 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

I don't think these people are going to be receptive to your concerns. Your bosses are going to evaluate themselves on the successes even you attribute to them, and they're likely to handle your constructive feedback with the same poor attitude they've exhibited on other occasions.

I understand you care about the store and would like to see it managed better. If it's possible for you to see the things the bosses are doing well as 'good enough,' you may be able to let some of this stuff slide. But a boss who responds with anger when you point out an ergonomic issue seriously doesn't care about you. A letter isn't going to help.

If your frustrations are pushing you toward that point, I'm afraid it's time to just look for another job. When you have one, the day you give notice would be an opportunity to negotiate for a better work environment. But I suspect that won't work out either, and you'll be glad you've lined up an alternative and quit on your own terms.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:52 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is so totally par for the course for small business.

We deal with this where I work -not so much anymore since the female boss passed away last year and the manager took over most of the day to day stuff-but my advice is to not take any of this stuff personally. I.E. show up, do your job the best you can, and realize that talking to the bosses will probably be futile. I guess what I am saying is don't expect the owners to act like "real" managers. The owner is simply projecting her stress onto you guys and I promise it isn't personal.

If I were you I would continue to look for other employment if it continues to stress you, but if you are able to depersonalize this and enjoy your job, rock on. Trust me, no one is getting fired here.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:01 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think there may be a nice opening for you to manage the managers. Obviously the person/people who are the putative managers aren't managing very well. The owner is probably going nuts like "do I have to do everything?" where a little diplomacy to get the point across that yes, they do have to do everything when nobody else can figure out what they're supposed to do. Refocus her micromanaging onto her communications. 800 words about what people are doing wrong means she doesn't think people care.

You're on the ball and have an interest in having a good store and all that, so if the owner/manager's illness begets a culture of "Mayor visits city!" they might really appreciate someone having a clue. When she sends inscrutable instructions, interpret them back to her as a confirmation: "OK, are you saying you want Science Fiction and Fantasy to be in reverse alphabetical order by publisher? Western Religion should be filed upside down and every 17th book is followed by a kewpie doll squished in between?" Stuff like that. Get a dialog going, you might be able to take the place over.
posted by rhizome at 5:46 PM on August 18, 2012

There are books out there on how to exercise influence even without official power. I suggest you find one. Also, read "Getting to yes", which is a quick read. Grab "mind and heart of the negotiator" if you are up for something more in depth. (Or that might be "heart and mind..." -- I don't have time to look it up just now.)

As someone with health issues who used to be on lots of medication myself, the long-winded tirades sound sickness related to me. Try to turn a deaf ear to 75% of that (of the bitch fit aspect, I mean). It is hard to not sound pissed off and grumpy when you are in chronic pain, don't have enough energy, and your life is falling apart.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 6:18 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well money is positive feedback, I know that doesn't help much.

There is a way to manage a boss that give instructions and then pulls a random "you guys fucked up" a few weeks down the road. You force them to assume responsibility for any failures. I try to do this under "keeping them in the loop" or "touching base" not "i need your signoff to procede".

I worked for a senior exec who thought he was Steve Jobs, he would flip out over shit like single images using the wrong font in beta sfotware. What I started doing it sending screenshots as the team worked with a note like "Just wanted to bounce this off you and keep you in the loop on progress made to UI enhancements. WDYT?"

That made it his responsibility to find imaginary random problems well before beta plus it kept him invested in the project. He went from nitpicking to defending us even when we screwed up.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:54 PM on August 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've been in incredibly similar situations - bookstore too. Shop ran like clockwork until micro-manager owner turned up once or twice a month then everything was wrong and a disaster. She was suffering early onset dementia which didn't help, so she was forever losing her glasses and orders and blaming people for stealing her glasses. I had to leave - it wasn't going to get any better. Small businesses typically don't have HR departments, the owners no formal training in business nor management. I would not confront her - it won't do any good. I'd suck it up and start looking for another job.
posted by mattoxic at 6:56 PM on August 18, 2012

It sounds to me like email makes the situation worse rather than better at this point. But you can peppare for an in person chat the same way you would an email. Write out bullet points of what you want to address in their ideal sequence and including positives. And if it has to be email, be as positive and supportive in tone as possible.

Book a time to talk with your bosses about the communication challenges you've been having, but framed as "i want to help support you to make the bookstore run better." If there's another shift manager who could participate, consider inviting him/her - but only of they can be non-accusatory. Be clear that you really like the bookstore, and that then try to describe the challenges your management hasn't seen. Request improvements to the system (such as either doing some reorganizing during hours you're usually not open or putting additional staff on during that time) framed as greater efficiency or less work for boss lady (eg. one in person or phone meeting rather than many emails). Try to stay in a helpful and positive place in the conversation.

The teenage son is a separate issue - you don't know that he isn't getting grief for the screwups. Giving him hours in the family business is way easier than getting him into an alternate job. It's going to be especially hard for him to learn if his parent(s) aren't really around to train him and his screw ups make other staff unwilling to coach him.

Good luck.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 5:28 AM on August 19, 2012

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