A frumpy "Devil Wears Prada"
November 6, 2012 10:29 PM   Subscribe

My boss is a nitpicking control freak with a temper. Help me make it through the next couple of months without losing my mind.

I work in the entertainment industry for an extremely difficult person. Yes, the business is full of them, but he has a reputation for being exceptionally difficult. It's a good job to suffer through for another year-ish, but I'm so miserable that I'm not sure I can make it until the show wraps for the season.

I'm trying to keep this somewhat vague, but here are my major issues:

He is extremely sensitive. I have to walk on eggshells, and even the slightest turn of phrase sets him off. I don't take it personally, but getting snapped at or yelled at every day over little things is starting to wear me down. I try to say things in the most neutral/positive way possible, but it's . . . frustrating.

He is impossible to please. My job involves a lot of data-processing, and he will seize on a little mistake (like 102 instead of 101 out of a very, very large, multipage spreadsheet) call me into his office, and accuse me of causing him extra work, not being careful, and possibly being dyslexic. (I'm not dyslexic - not there's anything wrong with that). He seems to have a mental file of all the mistakes I've made over the past year and brings them up while criticizing me for other (minor) mistakes. I'm having a hard time gauging whether or not I actually suck at my job or if he's crazy. I'm pretty sure he's just a terrible boss, but I'm starting to wonder if I'm stupid/lazy/whatever. How do I know if I really need to step it up?

My coworkers are supportive, it's a job that could lead to other things, but the nitpicking combined with low pay, long hours, and a lack of respect in general are making me effing miserable. This is not my first job in the business, but I'm starting to wonder if it's my last. I'm actively job-hunting, but there are enough perks to this job that it would be hard to leave. I'm starting to wonder, though, if my sanity is worth having to pay more for health insurance or deal with a crappier commute. I came back to this job after a short break because I was unable to find anything better, but I'm starting to wonder if I need to redefine "better."

How do I get through this?

(A lot of craziness omitted for the sake of brevity and anonymity)
posted by ablazingsaddle to Work & Money (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Treat everything like it's an interesting conversation.

I had an asshole boss who used to leave me tied up in knots inside, and I seriously questioned what I was doing, putting up with it. Then someone who'd been through the same thing told me that he handled it by treating it like it was an interesting conversation, and it clicked for me that I could choose how I responded to the emotional content of the interaction just as much as the intellectual part of it.

This isn't a story of ignoring a bully and the bully going away. It's that once I'd figured out that I could just act like he wasn't being an ass, it was basically the same thing internally for me as if he wasn't. I started to understand that he was acting that way more for his sake than for mine. I quit being upset by him. I felt more in control of our interactions. I let him express himself how he would, and I would deal with the informational part of what he said, and do my job well.

I ultimately stayed on for six years, but there's no reason you need to stay on. But you should leave at a time of your own choosing, for an opportunity of your own choosing, not because his bad behaviour dictates that you have to leave.
posted by fatbird at 11:28 PM on November 6, 2012 [22 favorites]

I had a bully of a boss and had many of the same doubts you express here. I quit and got a new boss who thinks I'm awesome and loves my work, and I am so, so much happier overall. A stressful work environment that whittles away at your self-esteem and mental health? Get out as soon as you can!
posted by emd3737 at 2:04 AM on November 7, 2012

I have put up with way too much garbage from way too many people in my work life -- I just didn't know how not to, I was sortof all or nothing, and if I was in the job, well, I just took whatever grief was being handed out.

I mentor a young man, this past week there was a crisis in his work, his boss started to ream my friend and Mike says "Hey, I'm not going to listen to this; treat me with respect or you'll lose me." And he meant it, too. His boss all the sudden quit being a jerk; Mike called him on it and the game has stopped.

So I'm trying to learn from his example, in my own life. He's very strong and really believes in himself; I also am strong and believe in myself in some ways but there are definitely holes in my psyche, in places where he has none. It's great to see him model it; he is actually treated far better than people who knuckle under.

So maybe you're like me, and maybe you too can learn from Mike, and tell this guy to buzz off when he starts jumping down your throat.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:20 AM on November 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yes, your sanity IS worth higher health insurance or a worse commute! Please keep up your job hunt, and I hope you find a great one very soon.

That continual battering you're taking is EXACTLY what an abusive spouse does to wear down their victim, and that is also exactly what your abusive boss is doing to you. You KNOW he is impossible to please; you KNOW your mistakes are minor, rare and easily fixable; you KNOW you are good at your job; you KNOW your coworkers all support you and your boss is widely recognized as an ass --- and yet, he's got you worrying if you're stupid or lazy or bad at that job. (If you actually WERE bad at the job, this jerk would've enjoyed himself by firing you as publicly as possible; instead, because you ARE good at the job, he's got the best of both worlds: an excellent employee plus someone to abuse.)

I like fatbird's "treat it as an interesting conversation" idea, but if that or dancestoblue's direct callout don't work, then get out of there the minute you can. And since it sounds like he's well known in the industry for being such a huge jerk, it's extremely unlikely that quitting, no matter WHAT this guy might say about you, will actually adversely affect you in the future.
posted by easily confused at 3:10 AM on November 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am not sure that calling this guy out won't get you into trouble. I am not saying that it didn't work for the guy dancestoblue mentioned, or that nobody should ever do it. However I'm familiar with bullies and familiar with the advice "oh, he only screams at you because you don't scream back at him" (which, again, dancestoblue was clearly giving much more considered and thoughtful advice than that, whereas 'scream back at him' is usually said glibly, but you know what I mean). Often, responding forcefully to these people will get an extremely aggressive response, of the kind that draws blood, as in firings and smear campaigns.

Also, if 'everyone' knows what this guy is like, and he's still in work - that means he can get away with abusing people because he's 'special', whereas you're just another employee that can be replaced at will. It's highly unlikely that he values you enough to care if he loses you or not. Right or wrong, that's probably how your boss sees the situation and you can expect him to act accordingly.

It is never ever worth it to put up with this kind of abuse. Even though you don't believe it and know it's not true, that part of you is helpless compared to the other part of you that believes every word of it and knows it is true. If your boss were kicking and punching you every day you would be injured, but our culture tells you that psychological assaults can be wished away by being a strong person (and therefore, if this affects you, you must not be that strong of a person and you therefore must be the kind of victim that sort of brings it on themselves and kinda sorta deserves it even though you would never say that in mixed company...)

I guarantee you that this is negatively affecting how you come across in job hunting and making your search for better employment take ten times longer. Employers can smell emotional injury and they do hold it against you. You can overcome this, but you will have to become a kick-ass actor when you look for work and absolutely not entertain the idea that you could possibly have any weaknesses. If you have to become a narcissistic con artist to achieve this, do so (I mean obviously without actually lying, of course).

I would suggest that you quit but then you would need a reference from this guy, so what you must do is look. Harder. Look much harder. Sign up with ten temp agencies if you have to and call each of them every day just to have another job to go to and put distance between you and your current boss.

Do not, not, not, ever think that it's worth tolerating abuse because you'll benefit in other ways. You rarely do get those other benefits out of an abusive situation anyway, but even if you did, there are other places you can go to get those same benefits, and more, without abuse.

I don't care how important this other guy thinks he is, you are wonderfully and fearfully made, and you were not put on this earth to be abused by him.
posted by tel3path at 4:19 AM on November 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

My sister did the entertainment industry thing and she worked for a horrible, horrible woman. Now she's not in that industry anymore, and she's pretty happy about it.

While looking for a better job, don't concentrate on how much worse it will be than what you have now, look for something amazing.

Since you have a natural stopping point, when the show wraps, this is a great excuse to ask for a letter of recommendation.

When your boss isn't in the middle of being a nit-picky jerk (and they're in every place, I have a boss who talks to me like I'm 7 years old. One day I'm going to put a tack in her chair) just say, "I'm getting things set up for some work during the hiatus. Would you write a letter of recommendation for me?"

Now, I doubt very seriously that your boss actually thinks you're useless, because you were re-hired into the position. If he wanted to fire you, he would have.

The letter will do two things:

1. It will prove to you that he does esteem your work.
2. As he writes it, he'll internalize his praise.

Once you have the letter, you can feel better about the times when he's complaining that he wanted a latte not a cappuccino or whateverthefuck he goes on about when he's on a tear.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:43 AM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Asshole boss in show biz? Gee, who knew? Anyway, try to be all Zen-- figure that he is under hideous pressure, can't deal with his boss and thus takes it out on you because you're there, not because you're inept or stupid. It's not personal, it's (show) business. Otherwise, try hard to double and triple check your work--I have to make huge, exacting spreadsheets to account for every second of 240 minute films, and I check, check and recheck as even 1 transposed number messes up the entire budget, timing and a bunch of other vital details.
Make friends with others so you can commiserate and so you have another reference. But if he's legendary for his ass-holiness, his rep will proceed him, and most people will understand what you went through. Like everyone who ever worked for Joel Silver, you've got great stories.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:47 AM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, I had one of these. I tried it all: staring blankly, laughing at him, walking away from him, nodding pleasantly and agreeing excessively, yelling back. I treated it like a science project. And my results were... ASSHOLES DON'T CARE.

So that means you can do whatever's good for you to make you feel better. It's a little like living with an alcoholic. THEIR behavior and loudness sucks up all the air in the room. And they become the problem. ("Stepping on eggshells" is exactly what abused spouses and spouses of alcoholics say, by the way.) So, for starters, don't! Tread heavily! Take up space! Stop doing his abusive work for him. That's the thing that you can control.

If you never know what's going to set him off, just recognize that he's going to be set off, and it doesn't matter what you do. Release yourself from the bondage of his strangling abusive behavior. (And, yeah: you can leave whenever you want.)

Scott Rudin, one of just many of these types, has been treating employees like this for decades. He hasn't changed a bit. And he likely never will.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:57 AM on November 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I once had a temperamental boss in an otherwise interesting entertainment job and I felt like a farmer in the shadow of a volcano. The thing that worked for me (and I've recommended it in a few AskMes) is to carry a very obvious, hand written journal and keep track of every interaction. The pretext is that it's a tool to help you do your job better but the great side effect is that it encourages bullies to choose their words more carefully.

I found that it truly started turning around when I got into the habit of interrupting every vague, personal attack by saying, "let's concentrate on the work."

A friend of mine once wheeled around to a guy who was pushing past him in a crowd and said, "there are a thousand paths -don't take this one." It worked so awesomely that I've rephrased it successfully in a couple other situations since. In a similar sense, quietly convince your boss that you are not one of the people in the world that he can take out his frustrations on. There is no reward for treading lightly.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:45 AM on November 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you haven't seen it, you might want to watch "The devil wears Prada". On the one hand, the abused employee steps up her game and gains some respect. On the other, she eventually quits anyway. Maybe that will help you with this.

I am someone with a temper. I can really go on a tear when trying to do something challenging and it all seems to be going to hell or it is just fucking HARD to get through. If it is just fucking HARD to get through, my oldest son frequently laughs at my colorful venting.

Guess what? He is the only person on the planet getting it right. He supports me in practical terms -- "here, let me carry that for you" -- and also recognizes the swearing and hyperbole for what it is: A coping mechanism to help me push myself forward in spite of how fucking hard it is, similar to military personnel calling cadence while marching long distances with heavy rucksacks. My son doesn't take it personally. When it gets into abusive territory, he busts me on it.

I am not saying laughing at your boss is the right answer. I am trying to suggest that creative endeavors are typically enormously stressful and constantly on the verge of falling completely apart. Perhaps recognizing the negative behavior as an outgrowth of that reality will help you find a constructive coping mechanism. Perhaps thinking of it that way will help you see it more as situational and less as "they are just a jerk and I am just a victim". Viewing problems as situational is usually a better place for problem-solving than viewing in very personal terms.

Also, being emotionally supportive and conciliatory is sometimes a good way to make someone uncomfortable with their own asshole behavior.

Best of luck, whatever your decision.
posted by Michele in California at 9:04 AM on November 7, 2012

Otherwise, try hard to double and triple check your work--I have to make huge, exacting spreadsheets to account for every second of 240 minute films, and I check, check and recheck as even 1 transposed number messes up the entire budget, timing and a bunch of other vital details.

I double check everything, and honestly, it's never going to be perfect. Maybe I just suck at a data entry. I'm going to start printing things out instead of checking my work against a computer screen - that might cut down on mistakes, but I just don't think it's possible to be 100% accurate.

Also, if 'everyone' knows what this guy is like, and he's still in work - that means he can get away with abusing people because he's 'special', whereas you're just another employee that can be replaced at will. It's highly unlikely that he values you enough to care if he loses you or not. Right or wrong, that's probably how your boss sees the situation and you can expect him to act accordingly.

posted by ablazingsaddle at 9:42 AM on November 7, 2012

It sounds like he's the kind of guy whose goal in life is to make you feel shitty. It doesn't matter what you do, you're breathing his air and thus you are wrong.

In that case...well, he wants you to be miserable, I'd suggest trying to not give him what he wants. Act like everything is fine if you can, and take it with a grain of "he's just being an asshole" if you can stand it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:23 PM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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