I have thirty minutes to make my boss stop hating me.
December 19, 2012 8:10 PM   Subscribe

My boss treats me like garbage. My coworkers encouraged me to set up a meeting with her to discuss how we can have a better relationship. Our meeting is tomorrow and I'm regretting scheduling this talk. How can I go through with it and get the best results without humiliating myself?

I work at an immigration law firm as a paralegal. My boss, an associate attorney, is extremely overworked, underappreciated, and not very well-supported by her own boss. She deals with this by verbally abusing her paralegals. I've been working for this lady for maybe a year and I'm kind of at the end of my rope.

My boss isn’t a bad person, but she regularly stays at work until 3 a.m., and I can’t imagine even the kindest person in the world being immune to that sort of stress. I’ve tried very hard to be supportive. I’ve been with her when she’s burst into tears because she’s so overwhelmed, and my heart just goes out to her. We’re both kind of outspoken women in our thirties so I suppose I identify with her and can be kind of protective of her. When other paralegals and contract attorneys complained about her, I used to defend her by pointing out how impossible her job can be. My friends and coworkers can’t believe how much I defend this woman because she’s honestly such a bitch to me that they don’t think her exhaustion is a sufficient excuse. I still feel awful for her, but I agree that something about our work relationship has to change because I seem to be her favorite rage target and I don’t know how I got there. Basically, I want to ask how.

My coworkers and some other attorneys encouraged me to set up a meeting with my boss to discuss our apparent conflict, but I’m incredibly nervous because, as is often the case with this sort of thing, I never really bothered to document all of the times my boss blamed me for someone else’s mistake or forgot to ask me for a file she needed and froze me out for a week because I didn’t read her mind. I can’t even really outline them here because they’re so small and would seem so petty. There are a million tiny things that have happened over the year that have made colleagues say, “Why does she come down so much harder on you than anyone else?” What stays with me is the tone she uses to make me feel terrible:

“I just don’t know what to do with you anymore.”
“ I want to have a good work relationship, but you make it so hard. “
“You don’t have my back.”
“I seriously just don’t know what the fuck to do with you anymore.”

I can expect to hear some iteration of this at least once a day. Please understand that I know this may not be unusual in some work environments, but for me it’s incredibly jarring and I’d like for it to stop because try as I might, I can’t stop myself from crying in the break room on occasion when she implies that I’m just beyond hope. I just can’t imagine what she’s saying about me to the partners if she’s saying this sort of thing to my face. As far as I know, she doesn’t treat anyone else on the team this way and I make the same amount of mistakes everyone else does. (According to the contract attorneys on my team, I make fewer mistakes, but they may be trying to comfort me because we’re all underdogs.) When my boss is in a better mood, she usually compliments my work and tells me I’m good at taking criticism and fixing my mistakes, so I don’t think the problem is that I’m too defensive. A few months ago, I had a meeting with her where I framed all of my confusion about this as a how-can-I-do-better sort of plea, but I didn’t get much feedback and the issue persisted.

So, anyway, this second meeting I stupidly requested is tomorrow. Basically, I want to say, "I get that you're tired and your job is impossible and you're drowning right now, and I've been incredibly sympathetic to that, but it doesn't increase my productivity when you take it out on me. Also, why exactly do you take it out on me in particular, by the way? Is it because I've been sympathetic and I seem like a safe target because you think I'll continue to be sympathetic? How do I get you to stop?" Obviously I can’t actually ask any of that. My boyfriend is worried that this meeting will just come off as me complaining to my boss that she hurts my feelings. I’m really regretting setting this meeting. How can I get what I want out of it without seeming like a five-year-old who’s complaining she’s not nice? Help me frame this, please!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Figure out a few concrete behavioral changes you want from her, commit them to memory, and say that you've tried to work with her, but you need her to make these changes. e.g. "In order to be as productive as possible, I need you to stop telling me things like 'I just don't know what to do with you anymore' - just tell what you'd like for me to do differently."

Don't approach it as asking for something. Just state the facts: This is what you need for both of you to prosper.

At the same time, consider looking for other jobs if that's possible or even other jobs within the same firm.
posted by ignignokt at 8:23 PM on December 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

"I like and respect you but the way you treat me is abusive and unacceptable. Please stop."
posted by unSane at 8:35 PM on December 19, 2012 [24 favorites]

i think you should say exactly, word for word, what you want to say. it's not obvious why you can't say any of that, in fact, that's not true. you seem to be locked into a law-firm authoritarian-style mindset, in which you're infantalized and your boss is put on a pedestal. in truth, you're both adults, and she's being a complete asshole. you are making a serious, serious mistake if you think that backing down and showing respect is going to placate a person like this. you have to show some backbone. you've been waiting a year for her to magically gain some sort of inner decency that would prevent her from taking her shit out on a subordinate, and guess what - you can wait as long as you want, but it ain't gonna happen.
posted by facetious at 8:53 PM on December 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

I am a fancy-pants lawyer.

I don't think you were stupid to request this meeting. I think the meeting is required. The comments you describe are unprofessional, particularly the WTF one. That language is absolutely unacceptable, full stop. Yes, you are her subordinate and your job is to make her job easier. However, I find the comments you describe inappropriate even if you are an incompetent paralegal. (you might be good or not - I don't know)

If your associate attorney routinely works until 3 am, she can't manage her cases, deadlines are unrealistic, or your firm is severely understaffed. Chances are, it is a combination of more than one of these factors. I imagine that she is probably pissing off the firm because immigration work is generally done on a flat fee basis rather than billed by the hour, so all of those late nights aren't raking in the profits. To the contrary, it's terribly inefficient.

I think something along the lines of unSane's comment is appropriate. I don't recommend saying what you write in the last paragraph of your question. If your firm is large enough to have an HR department, I think you need to clue them in on what's going on, although they probably already know because a number of other coworkers already know (and HR is the secret police). If you don't have an HR person, talk to your associate's supervising partner.

Lastly, there may be another dynamic here, the mention of which may make some people scream. Could there be some kind of Mean Girls BS going on? Last year a study was published that reported pretty much zero percent of female secretaries preferred to work for female lawyers, and some of the selected quotes in the article could have been lifted from your question. My firm has a pretty low tolerance for this sort of BS, but I have seen it from female lawyers whom I like and consider to be good friends. Male attorneys are more likely to just fire a staff member they have a problem with. I won't speculate here to avoid indignation, but I have an idea or two of what's going on here and would share it by MeMail if you are inclined to drop me a line.

Best of luck. Again, keep it short. Don't ask questions as in your model quote. Make declarations that the behavior is not professional and not acceptable. If you don't see changes after your talk, or if she reverts back to her old ways, talk to her supervising partner about it and maybe you can be assigned to another lawyer.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:18 PM on December 19, 2012 [30 favorites]

It sounds like your boss doesn't have healthy boundaries, and this is carrying over into the way she treats you. Quite frankly, it's a co-dependent cycle. Boss overworks to fulfill some sort of perceived expectation/need and then bashes you for not sufficiently supporting her when the repercussions of her lack of boundaries comes to roost. It's not for nothing that it's called the 'kicking machine,' and it's a (as if you hadn't guessed) sign of a dysfunctional work environment. It's not really your job to determine whether she's working this hard because she "has to" or chooses to, all you can do is hold your own boundaries. Before you go in to speak with her, please take a moment to reaffirm that it's not ok for your boss to tear you down and it's not a reasonable thing to cry on a regular basis. Stand up for yourself, don't give in to the crazy - really listen to what she says and decide for yourself if it's reasonable. Crazy begets crazy, don't let her get to you.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:55 PM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Cancel the meeting, or make it about something fairly innocuous. I've worked in law firms, for and with toxic attorneys. I think this conversation is a very, very bad idea and is unlikely to go well. She is not going to admit to anything. She is stressed out and treats people badly when she is stressed out -- a conversation like this is not going to make her feel good, she will feel attacked and likely get back at you sooner or later. She personalizes all of it and you've bought into it. You don't need to understand her and be her buddy. You need her to knock it off and behave professionally.

Do you realize that if this wasn't in a work context, what you just described is classic abusive behavior? If this were a romantic relationship, no one here would advise you to have some come-to-Jesus chat with your abuser. It especially concerns me that you are being urged by your co-workers (paralegals and contract attorneys?) to have this chat. Is this woman actually your "boss" or just the person who assigns you work? Have you spoken to anyone at your firm with actual authority about the problem?

The way to end this sort of unprofessional behavior is to cut it off when it appears. When she says, "Wow, I just don't know what the fuck to do with you anymore." You say, "That is extremely unprofessional. I am going back to my cube/desk/office to give you a moment for yourself." Walk to your desk and document the incident for yourself. The reason why you are a target for your rage is because she is a person who gives in to rage and you are the easiest target. Don't have a chat about what's going through her head. Just cut it off each time it happens.
posted by stowaway at 10:03 PM on December 19, 2012 [12 favorites]

Don't tell her all about her. How overworked she is, how difficult her job is, etc. A) She knows. She's the expert in how fucked up her job is. B) It's making her feel insecure and defensive, which is why she turns around and lashes out at you anyway.

Keep it simple and give her a problem she can solve that benefits her. Don't introduce a bunch of details and personal stuff and defensive evidence that she can quibble over with you and turn this into a referendum on your feelings. Don't ask, tell. Lots of good advice upthread.
posted by desuetude at 10:24 PM on December 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Your boss is a work psycho. She probably needs meds at this point. Or therapy. Or both. She lets herself get to be extremely overworked, under-appreciated and not very well-supported. In turn, she then lets that crap roll downhill. This is not a winnable situation.

Boss lady, if she were to really concede to changing her relationship with you, would have to change her relationship with her boss, the firm and her entire work ethic. In my experience, a (self-flagellating) worker-drone-Borg like your boss is in too deep into her own maniacal work habits to experience a revelation on the heels of an office sit down.

This does not mean the meeting will not produce some meaningful result. It is possible that in the short term, there will be improvement in your relationship. It may even provide you the necessary breathing room to seek other avenues of employment (as undesirable as that may be). However, in the end, you are dealing with a person who, given her penchant for trashing her life with work days that last to 3am, is unlikely to experience any meaningful change that will stick for the long term.

As far as what you should say in the meeting - well unSane has the best line to get started but I would caution you not to expect it to last (if boss lady even does respond favorably).
posted by lampshade at 12:52 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would go with something like ignignokt's approach. Depending on the work atmosphere, can you take a wing-person in with you to help keep you on message + it may help to change her perception of the request slightly from "you are being mean to me" to "everyone is aware that you are treating me worse than other staff"
posted by crocomancer at 1:19 AM on December 20, 2012

I was in your exact position, although I'm a dude and my boss was a workaholic woman. My boss treated me and many others in my workplace like crap. Time came for a meeting. Like you, I hadn't documented all her insanity. This is what I did, and what happened next. Perhaps you can learn from my example.

I spent a couple of days writing out a script. I knew what I wanted to say but I knew that the meeting was going to be the sort of "cut the tension with a knife" situation and that I'd either get nervous or flustered or she'd cut me off and I'd lose my focus and train of thought.

I fine tuned the script.

I made sure the language was respectful for her position but also left no room for ambiguity.

I read for hyperbole from early drafts and cut it out.

I made sure that what I was going to say was factual and not even a little embellished or derived from heresy; only examples of what I had personally witnessed were included.

I also knew I wanted to tell her that her behaviour constituted workplace bullying, so I researched examples and definitions of workplace bullying from respected websites that deal specifically with that topic and tied specific things she said and did to those definitions. I researched our workplace policies on bullying and what workplace behaviour should be like. I tied her behaviour to these and how she had contravened these rules.

When the meeting started, I was lucky in that before she said anything she wanted to say, she asked me if there was anything I wanted to say. I said there was and told her because I wanted to be clear about what was going on, i'd like to read from a script. She said that was fine. So I did. As I did, she took notes. She tried to interrupt me a few times but I politely asked that she let me finish, which she did.

What happened next was exactly what I suspected would happen. She disagreed she was a bully and was obviously a little angry with the label. I suspected she would do this; not because anything I had accused her of was untrue, but because it's a normal human reaction to arch your back when you're told you're doing something wrong. In the end, she believed that what was going on was a difference in what she called "work style", a weaselly way of saying a clash of personalities. She said if I wanted to she could look for another place in the organisation for me to work. I said that I thought that was for the best and the meeting ended.

Afterwards, I got a call from my bosses boss, someone very senior in the organisation, who wanted to meet with me. I freaked the fuck out. This person was basically the No.2 (or No.3, depending on how you look at it) in the entire organisation. So I went to that meeting and repeated my claims.

Unsurprisingly, he felt that what I had put forward wasn't workplace bullying. He asked for more examples than I had given in the script, but I had put pretty much everything i could recall into that script so if he wasn't accepting those as bullying, I didn't have much else. For the record, it WAS workplace bullying. A talk with a union rep a few months later confirmed that. But, no surprise, the Higher Ups were closing rank and trying to avoid a bullying investigation, which they were obliged to do since i had raised it. I should have expected that. You should expect it to. I ended that meeting with some on-my-feet clever workplace politics; I said I was I was certain this was workplace bullying but since we couldn't agree on that, I'd drop the charge to avoid a long drawn out investigation. No.2 appreciated that and said he'd try to find another place for me within the organisation.

What I did in that moment was probably a bit gutless, I grant you, but realising they were closing ranks, the best I could come up with in a high stakes moment.

The outcome was a surprising one. I never did get moved, but I left the organisation almost a year later on my own terms. I know the Higher Up I spoke to called my boss a few times and after that my boss was very, very, very nice to me, and others. I suspect (but can't prove) that No.2 actually did think what I had told him was workplace bullying and had told my boss off for it.

So not a great outcome, but a decent one.

If I could do it over, I'd probably do two things differently. I'd talk to a union rep first, and try and get them to come along to both meetings. They know workplace bullying like the back of their hand and I might have had more luck with them in my corner. If it's an option, you should try and get a union rep into that meeting.

But what I really should have done was just call No.2 directly. I would have said that I know his time is precious but that I can't work with my boss any longer and I'd like to be moved. If he wanted reasons why I would have said that I could give them to him, but he'd be obliged to investigate it, and I'm sure he didn't want that. Hopefully he'd get the drift and just move me.

So yeah, good luck. What you're about to go through isn't pretty, and not a lot of fun, but it does need to be done. But play it smart. Think of the politics of your organisation and how any allegations you make will work up and down the chain of command. Make sure you know your workplace rules around behaviour, bullying and have a copy of those rules handy in the meeting (with highlights to anything important, since its hard to find relevant info in a document in a meeting like this).

Also, since your co-workers acknowledge her behaviour is bad, see if any of them would be willing to back up your claims if needed. This might be useful in lieu of the documented examples you don't have. For the record, I did this and whereas many refused to back me up (out of fear), a couple of important, influential people did. I think that's what ended up saving me after the meeting with Number 2.

Finally, ask yourself and really know how far you're willing to take this. Will you resign (or threaten to do so) if need be to make a point? What's the limit on how far you'll go and what you'll do to pursue this? Knowing this might give you more confidence in the meeting, and any follow ups you'll have.

Good luck!
posted by Effigy2000 at 1:57 AM on December 20, 2012 [14 favorites]

Others have used terms like "wingman" or "union rep". These are spot on. Get someone from your HR department to come to the meeting. Possibly to moderate it.

What you describe is an HR issue. Given the dynamic between you and the boss, the two of you together in room doesn't sound productive to me. It's HR's job to deal with this, not yours.
posted by colin_l at 3:58 AM on December 20, 2012

"Look, I like you personally and work hard to support you professionally, but your comments when you're under stress are not okay with me. I need you to either treat me like a valued member of your team or fire me because I am as incompetent at my job as you continually say I am."

Then shut up and wait for her to talk.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:14 AM on December 20, 2012 [8 favorites]

I have some bad news for you.

We’re both kind of outspoken women in our thirties so I suppose I identify with her

She treats herself like crap. So why would she treat you any better? And because you're kind of similar, that's why, more than likely, you're getting it worse - because you're another her she can beat up on. And you're a subordinate her - perfect!

These positions are often kindly referred to as 'stepping stones'. I would honestly think of it in that way so that you don't wind up like your boss (because the way she's treating you is a coping mechanism - and over time you may come to do exactly the same thing - because it will help you to cope, albeit poorly).

There are many ways in which your conversation may go - I would honestly not go through with it because the most obvious response will be that you will be ripped a new one, which will be swiftly followed by an active plot to get rid of you or at the very least make your life even more miserable on a daily basis.

She will more than likely not 'see the light' and understand the pain she is causing - she will feel threatened and insecure (as she more than likely already does) and you will be on the receiving end of it. You don't have her back, remember! Now you're going to give her even more proof!

If it helps at all, many people go through this kind of shit at work and the first time it happens, most people think that they can try to fix it and so they line up the conversation only to discover this does not end well. Having gone through this horrendous experience, the next time they wind up with a boss like this, people just quietly line up their next job.

I would save yourself the heartache, stand up for yourself on a daily basis where possible, and just quietly start looking around because it's not going to get much better - in fact, it could wind up a hell of a lot worse.
posted by heyjude at 4:35 AM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have to second the idea of looking around, either inside your org or elsewhere. Really, what you say in this mtg is really not as vital as how she reacts...and the signs don't look good. HR my or may not be helpful.

You are not obligated to make an impossibly bad job work. If you don't want to have this meeting, don't. Your coworkers aren't the ones in the line of fire. you are.

If it were me, I would cancel and talk to HR instead. Then either talk to another lawyer you would like to work for or just send out resumes.

I once had a boss I hated so much I slipped my resignation under her door and walked out. I felt bad at the time, but looking back, there was no healthy way to deal with an unhealthy bullying person.
posted by emjaybee at 5:04 AM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

OH man, I have been in the EXACT same position, to the letter, in every way. (Ugh, immigration paralegal work! That is probably the hardest job I've ever had.)

I wish that I had had this conversation, but I also know that it wouldn't have done much, perhaps might even have marked me as "trouble," and would possibly have made things worse.

That does not mean that you should not do this. You should.

Do not be afraid. Your question here shows some pretty grade-A enmeshment with your boss. I am/was the same way. I get it. But her problems are not yours. You are not married. This is just a workplace.

I think it's certainly appropriate to say "I understand the difficulties of your job." I don't think it's okay to make excuses for her, and the point above about "not telling her about her" is a good one.

You are allowed to ask not to be yelled at and berated at work. And that is what you should ask for.

I suspect, having been there, that your firm does not have an organized HR department; it probably has, like, one payroll/HR person. In general I would expect that you feel that you have no one else to turn to. But if this meeting does not go well or does not produce results, you have little choice but to include her boss in a next meeting.

I absolutely think you should stand tall on this. There is no reason this person should be allowed to continue to treat people like crap.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:06 AM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

There's been lots of good advice above, and you absolutely should go through with this meeting. I just wanted to address one thing you said:

I can’t even really outline them here because they’re so small and would seem so petty.

And that's exactly why she does it the way she does it. The Death of a Thousand Cuts, none of which is so horrible that she's the bad guy. So the next time she does it (regardless of what her reaction is in that meeting), call her on it, but do it subtly.

“I just don’t know what to do with you anymore.”
"What do you mean by that?"

“ I want to have a good work relationship, but you make it so hard. “
"How so?"

“You don’t have my back.”
"In what way?"

Make her own her bullshit, and she'll stop, or she'll go completely off the deep end and force other people in the company to take notice.
posted by Etrigan at 5:32 AM on December 20, 2012 [8 favorites]

Lots of good ideas here. I'd suggest that you keep a couple of things in mind:

She might initially get defensive or deny what you are telling her. But that does not mean that this meeting won't have the desired result. I've known some people to defend themselves quite vigorously during the actual confrontation but later, very very quietly, change their behavior.

So if she does get defensive or denies that she's ever said X or Y, don't start thinking that you have lost this battle. From her position, it would be dangerous to agree with you that she has been abusive, but if she is in any way sane she realizes it would be equally dangerous to continue the behavior. So she might deny that she has ever done anything wrong in the meeting and then behave better afterwards. That's a totally acceptable outcome in my book.

I would probably have a bottom line phrase in mind, something like "I need to be treated like a professional," and if she got defensive and I got too scared to think, I would just repeat the bottom line.

It's not important that she say "You are right, I have treated you badly and I am in the wrong." It's not important that she apologize. It's important that she start treating you professionally.
posted by bunderful at 7:02 AM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think that you should have this conversation, but don't bring up that she's a bully or that you identify with her or any of that.

Just simply say, "I've noticed that you continually tell me that you're dissatisfied with my work. I was hoping that we could work together to get some concrete solutions in place to improve the situation. When you say things to me like 'I just don’t know what to do with you anymore' or 'I want to have a good work relationship, but you make it so hard.' you're relaying your frustration, but I don't know how to remedy it. I enjoy my work here, and I like and admire you. What can we do to improve communication and improve the work that I'm doing for you."

You're owning no blame in the situation, nor are you blaming her. You are asking her for specific and concrete steps for improving your work.

What should happen is that she should burst into tears of shame and remorse, because she knows she treats you shabbily and that you're her whipping boy. But don't hold your breath.

What will happen is that she's on notice, you're not taking this silently. If she really has issues, now is the time to discuss them. If she's just a mess, she won't have any specific ways of improving, and she'll just babble at you.

I suspect that she may acknowledge that she looses her cool for no reason, she'll cite her schedule, etc. At that time, you might say something like, "Wow, it must suck to have so much on your plate. I understand, and while you might feel better when you lash out at me, I find it demoralizing and insulting. I want this to work out, what are some other ways you can express your frustration?"

You have to finesse this. You don't want to admit you're doing a poor job, because you aren't. You don't want to accuse her of inappropriate behavior or bullying (even if it's true) you want her to knock this shit off.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:16 AM on December 20, 2012 [8 favorites]

No, I completely disagree with that. That sends the signal 'I am doing something wrong'. The broken record is the correct approach. "I have a right to be treated professionally". She can't argue with that.

I once confronted my (notoriously bullying) boss about inappropriate behaviour towards me. I was very firm and she backed down instantly, and in fact became super-friendly towards me after that.
posted by unSane at 7:21 AM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I hate to post a follow-up, but since a few people have shared their stories, I do have a recent anecdote from my firm.

I was surprised to learn from a trusted staff member that a female attorney in the office, who is a good friend of mine and someone I think is one of the nicest people in the world, was reducing her secretary to tears on a frequent basis. After talking with a few coworkers about what to do, the secretary had a talk with the lawyer about her abusive treatment. The attorney quickly crumbled, apologized, and copped to the bad behavior. They have worked swimmingly together ever since.

You may not necessarily have this sort of happy ending. Your associate may admit her fault or she may deny it, but it is unlikely that the situation will change if you do nothing.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:33 AM on December 20, 2012

Another anecdote to give you heart - I once had a coworker who was constantly butting heads with our boss - the fault was on both sides, but the boss is definitely a jerk and doesn't feel the need to hide it.

Coworker finally spoke to boss about it in a "look, we are not ever going to be friends but if we have to work together let's try to be more professional" way. I have no idea how boss responded in the meeting but their relationship was markedly better after that. The whole team saw the difference and it was very good for morale.

So - speaking up can be a good thing!
posted by bunderful at 9:47 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Depending on what happens in the meeting start documenting this interactions. Get a small notebook or a phone ap and keep track of what was said and the time and date. Start now writing down any and all instances you can remember, if there where any witnesses write down their names too.
posted by wwax at 10:34 AM on December 20, 2012

I agree with getting a union rep or other third party.

Was there a specific incident that drove you to set up the meeting, or another recent one that should be fresh in her memory that you could lead off with? "Last week you said so-and-so to me; [and if it was one of those WTF remarks] how should I interpret that?" After she says what she thinks was going on, the you tell her that kind of stuff makes it hard to do your job.

For afterwards, I agree with Etrigan; don't let this stuff slide. Call her on it. And, yes, document.
posted by BibiRose at 10:14 AM on December 21, 2012

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