Dealing with an employer with crappy boundaries, in a niche field?
March 26, 2013 12:26 PM   Subscribe

I’m in a small and incestuous field. My current employer has boundary issues and doesn't respect my time - it's driving me up the wall. I have to be very careful about how I handle this, since he has fingers in most of the pies in town. How can I assert myself without jeopardising my chances of future work?

I’m a Celtic fiddler. I was hired for a series of gigs starting with St Patrick’s Day, but the guy convening the band is... problematic. He ignores or forgets what I say and doesn't respect my time. I'm not very assertive at the best of times, but this guy's basically railroading over my attempts to assert myself.

For starters, he’s sleazy enough around women that the (male) musician friend who recommended me to him had noticed and felt compelled to warn me about this. He’s apparently prone to those small insidious types of boundary violations that are difficult to call out: He’ll stand just that bit closer to women than is friendly, finds excuses to touch them, leaving his hand on their arms just that bit longer than he should etc. Things he wouldn’t do to men of course, but all small encroachments that are so often brushed off as “friendliness” and lead to that awesome “why are you making such a fuss? He’s only being nice, crazy bitch!” reaction if you complain. Though that said, he also bragged after a gig that he’s been blacklisted from one big band in the area for “going after every skirt in the place.”

I mention my husband around him a lot and try to keep my distance, so I haven’t had much of a problem with this yet. Though he’s been eager to suggest that I stay late after rehearsal or meet up with him alone to discuss duet work and the like.

He’ll call me over and over if he doesn’t get an answer, even after he’s left voicemail. Even when he does get through, I can expect at least three phone conversations the day before a rehearsal or a gig. There's rarely anything said that couldn't wait until we meet up or left in a message.

He’s also either not hearing or forgetting things. I’ll tell him that he hasn’t sent me the charts or setlist for a gig, and he’ll say he’ll get on it, then won’t do anything. When I turn up to rehearsal and remind him that I don’t have the charts, I get “You should have told me,” but no response when I remind him that I did.

I’ve lost track of the number of times he’s asked me “So, remind me: You’re Irish, right?” and I’ve said no, I’m English. He asked me once whether I’d ever played in Ireland and I said I hadn’t, although I’d travelled there once; two minutes later he was introducing me to the owner of The Gaelic Club in our city as “This is Anon, she’s Irish and has played professionally in Dublin and at-” and he rattled off several prestigious festivals in Ireland that I’ve never even been to. I don’t know what he’s thinking and I didn’t know how to contradict him without making him lose face. But I worry that at some point his making up things about me will cause me trouble.

The biggest annoyance so far is that we organised a rehearsal day back in Jan to get the band together and run through everything before the St Pat’s gigs. It was done early enough that everyone confirmed they were available. Makes things easy, right?

In one of the four calls the day before the rehearsal date, he mentioned that the drummer might be unavailable so we might need to reschedule. Annoying, but whatever. I told him I was available any day but Monday, when I have another commitment. He said that would be fine and he’d let me know that same night if we were going ahead with the rehearsal the next day. I heard nothing else about the drummer, and the fourth call finished with a “see you tomorrow” so I thought all was well.

So of course, less than an hour before I have to leave for the rehearsal, he started calling. I was busy so I didn’t answer the first few calls, but I read the transcript of the voicemail: The drummer can’t make it so we’re rehearsing on Monday instead. He kept calling, and when I was free I answered. I reminded him that I’d said I wasn’t available Monday; he said Monday is the day that works for the drummer, so I had to be there.

I wanted the gigs (and need the money) so I said I’d see what I can do, but that I wasn’t happy that he’s scheduled things for the one day when he knew I was committed elsewhere, at which point he demands to know what that other commitment is. I tell him I’m volunteering at an event that a friend is coordinating, and his response is “Well, at least you’re getting paid for my thing.”

At that point, I was shocked enough that I didn’t know what to say. I don’t always react well in the moment, and I couldn’t find a good way of saying “Wow, that’s really disrespectful. I’m sure you wouldn’t like it if I threw over my commitment to you for someone who offered me more money. So I’m disappointed you think that’s okay when you’re on the other end.”

I don’t know whether he sees my time as less important because I’m a woman or whether he does this to everyone. But honestly I’m not sure it matters.

The trouble is that this guy is a big name in our small niche. He’s been in this city longer than I have and has fingers in practically every pie in town (barring that one big band group) - he’s cozy with all the big folk clubs, venue owners, and local festivals, he performs with several bands, he even has connections with the city’s Symphony Orchestra. If I piss him off, I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t get hired by the folks he has influence with. I’m good, but there are plenty of fiddlers around of my caliber.

TL;DR So how do I handle this? He’s getting me work, which is great, but he doesn’t seem to have any respect for my time or listen to what I say. I don’t know how to talk about this with him without upsetting him. I’m seriously considering finishing up the gigs he's booked and then being “unavailable” any time he calls me in future, but don’t want to burn any bridges.

What would you do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Two things, to start: communicate with him in writing whenever possible to avoid miscommunication (text and email good, phone conversations bad, and when important things are discussed verbally follow up with a summary in writing) and apply to work for that big band.
posted by davejay at 12:49 PM on March 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

he also bragged after a gig that he’s been blacklisted from one big band in the area for “going after every skirt in the place.” .... What would you do?

I'd walk. It won't get better and life is short. There are other bands around and even if it seems like he's got his fingers in every pie, it's a safe bet that those pies aren't thrilled about it.
posted by headnsouth at 12:52 PM on March 26, 2013 [10 favorites]

I’m seriously considering finishing up the gigs he's booked and then being “unavailable” any time he calls me in future, but don’t want to burn any bridges.

Do it. If he asks why, just tell him, "I'm sorry, that won't be possible." Stop answering your phone when he calls. If he goes ballistic and starts telling people that you're unreliable, then he likely would have done that anyway for some other reason, and you've saved yourself weeks or months of wondering when that would happen.

In the meantime, start filling his role for yourself -- get "cozy with all the big folk clubs, venue owners, and local festivals," etc.

And do what davejay says -- people like this act that way over the phone and in real life because it forces you to deal with them right that minute. He's actively cutting off your ability to consider his demands on their own merits, because he knows (consciously or un-) that you might not do what he wants if you take the time to think. Give yourself the time and space to do that, and it will be tremendously easier to stand up to him.
posted by Etrigan at 12:52 PM on March 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

How much influence do you think he really really has? Because you've already had somebody approach you and warn you about him.

It's possible he's one of those guys that has two reputations and the people in his network don't think as highly of him as you fear.

It's still not a good idea to piss him off, but you also don't have to bend over for this.

What I would do is be unfailingly polite, do everything over email, and shore up your other connections. Most definitely apply to work for that big band. Make sure that you have a good relationship with everybody because that is a stronger defence against bad accusations than sometimes gets acknowledged.
posted by tel3path at 12:56 PM on March 26, 2013 [11 favorites]

I recently read or heard somewhere - maybe even here on Mefi - the clarification that boundaries are not rules you establish for other people and hope they respect, they are statements of what actions you will take in a given circumstance; 'if you X, I will Y:'

If you schedule rehearsal for a time I've said I can't be there, I won't be there.

If you lie about my professional background, I will not back you up. If you do it in my presence, I will correct the misinformation you've given.

If you touch me again, I will file assault charges.

I'm not saying that those should be your boundaries, just that that's what boundaries look like. They don't depend on others' consent, but they do depend on your following through.

This guy sounds like a nightmare and you'd probably do well to avoid working with him to the extent that that's feasible. Confronting him won't help, because he doesn't share the values necessary for the confrontation to be productive.
posted by jon1270 at 12:56 PM on March 26, 2013 [30 favorites]

he also bragged after a gig that he’s been blacklisted from one big band in the area for “going after every skirt in the place.” .... What would you do?

OMG how did I miss this? Having a bad ADD night tonight! In that case, you are better off politely distancing yourself from him in the future.

Like headnsouth, I assure you those pies are saying, in a chilly tone of voice, "Please remove your finger". You don't need to be associated with this guy. You really don't.
posted by tel3path at 12:59 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you're approaching this backwards. You don't need to find a way to draw boundaries with your words, you need to find a way to draw boundaries with your actions. He's already made it clear he's going to attempt to steamroll anything you say to 'reason' with him, so don't bother. Just tell him what you can and cannot do (in writing, if necessary) and then stick to it.

Don't let him get away with rescheduling a performance on a day you said you weren't available, that's absolutely classic boundary pushing. He's purposely testing you to see whether or not you will bend, so don't fall for it. "I'm sorry, that won't be possible" is definitely the correct response in this situation. If he declines to work with you in the future over this, consider it a bullet dodged.
posted by zug at 1:03 PM on March 26, 2013 [8 favorites]

He's a bully, but he's not nearly as respected as you fear.

Do a slow polite fade when this gig is over, pursue other opportunities.

Like everyone else, don't speak ill of him, just go about your business.

He doesn't have the power you think he does. That part is him lying, too.

Listen. I don't think there is ANYTHING you can do about laying down boundaries or whatever, because he will take everything and anything as a challenge. He's broken, you can't fix him, just move past him with the least amount of drama possible.
posted by jbenben at 1:07 PM on March 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't think you should worry about stuff that hasn't happened. He hasn't hit on you, right? Sure, be watchful, but I wouldn't stress over that.

When he introduces you with a big, fake build up, find a way to make a humorous, correction. Chances are, most people know he's a bull-shitter and don't care anyway, if the recall what he said at all.

Don't complain, don't explain. If you can't be at rehearsal, tell him you can't and don't go on about why not.

And since you know he's a phone freak--frankly, I'd just answer the call, make it short and sweet and then hang up. Why delay the inevitable--you've already proven to him that if he calls enough times, you'll answer. So either answer at the first ring or get Google Voice so he has to identify himself before you'll pick up.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:13 PM on March 26, 2013

I think that you are underselling yourself if he is the competition. You present yourself as an "average fiddler," but then mention how this guy can't play well with others, is disorganized, lies, and if the warning and his bragging are any indication, creepy.

Spend time approaching every.single.establishment with your services, starting with the band or group that doesn't want to work with him. Mediocre/does the job but is a pleasant person is often times better to work with than creepy/doesn't do what he says he will do.

Go for it.
posted by Dances with sock puppets at 1:40 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Oh, Sean, I'm so sorry if anyone's misled you about my history! Though I like to hope I'm getting better all the time. Mr. Blevins, I only *wish* I'd played the Ciorneglaugh Festival and Maeniwich Competition. No, I'm just you're run-of-the-mill fancy violin player; studied music in school and kept at it. My talent can be communicated best in the listening, not a fancy résumé."
posted by amtho at 1:46 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

This guy is not well respected. People who are disrespectful, unable to get their shit together, waste the time of erverybody they are in contact with, were thrown out by the competition and generally behave in a way that causes 3rd parties to warn you about them are not well respected. Do the gigs and fade away as quickly and quietly as you can.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:53 PM on March 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

If this guy is as much of a bragging blowhard as you make him out to be, I'd doubt that he really is this Celtic music scene gatekeeper that he puffs himself up to be.

Seconding the move to that other big band. You might hear similar stories if you do.
posted by dr_dank at 1:53 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, I think I see three possibilities.

1) You go along with everything he says and you seem to believe that will ensure future gigs and networking opportunities in your niche. But you will be unhappy and frustrated about it.

2) You tell him to fuck off, or you at least just politely stop working with him, and you seem to believe that will limit your opportunity for future gigs and networking. But you won't have to put up with his crap and will be relieved.

3) You continue to work with him, but you set clear boundaries and expectations. "No, I can't do Monday. I already told you I can't. It doesn't matter what I am doing. If the drummer can have a prior commitment Sunday, I can have one on Monday. If you don't like it, rehearse without me." The net result is either he will reverse #2 and tell you to fuck off and you will end up with #2 anyway. Or you will get reverse #1 and he will actually listen to you.

Maybe these aren't really your options, but this guy sounds like a scatterbrain and a dick. It's not your problem. He sounds combative and bossy and I think if he can dish it then he can take it. Put your foot down when you need to. And if you can, try to schedule things and work things out with the other band members. Does this guy really need to coordinate everything? It sounds like he is being a middle man where he doesn't need to be. If you need him for finding gigs, use him for finding gigs, but once he's done that, you should try to take the reins of put together a good show.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:16 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hi, my husband is a musician. Many many towns have a dearth of fiddlers. Bands that use fiddles, Celtic or non, get a GREAT response. People love them some fiddle. My husband has put up with some seriously obnoxious people because he needed their fiddle skills.

What I'm saying is, I seriously doubt avoiding this douchebag will hurt you gigwise. And if it does, if your town is overstocked with fiddlers, there are a million fiddle-loving towns that would love to have you.

Non-musically, it is not safe for you personally to be working with a guy who is such a creepster rapey type. Do you really think he won't try something? Guys like him always try something. He s abusive and doesn't respect you or women or boundaries in general. Not safe.

Get out, get a better situation, maybe move on if you have to. Don't put up with him another minute.
posted by emjaybee at 5:04 PM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

The TL;DR version. It doesn't sound like either of you are communicating as clearly as you may think you are. You're assuming that if he respected you he would behave differently towards you. There are other ways to frame what's going on.

If he says he needs you at rehearsal despite notice of a previous commitment, he's essentially saying ..."you need to choose, commitment or gig." It would be nice if he could just up and say "hey, if you want to play I need to you to be available on short notice and be willing to accommodate last minute changes." For whatever reason he isn't making this explicitly clear, but the message is pretty least to me.

If you tell him you can't work because you have X commitment and then go ahead and work, you're essentially saying that at the end of the day work takes priority. In this case what you are doing (working) is sending a stronger message than what you are saying (can't work).

The good news is that you're both mostly responding accurately to the messages you're both sending and you're both making decisions based on your needs and priorities. He's saying you need to accommodate the band's schedule in order to play, you're accommodating the bands schedule because for you work is a high priority.

Same with the charts. If you do your job without getting the charts when you asked for them, you're sending the message that getting the charts on your schedule isn't vital to doing your job. I don't know why you want them when you want them. Maybe they make your job easier. Maybe you can do your job better with them. Who knows? You could always say why you need them and spin it in such a way as to make it sounds like it's in his best interest to do so. If he still doesn't get you the damn charts, he's essentially saying "I'm not going to be able to get you the charts when you want them, you'll have to work around that." Again, it would be nice if he could just up and say so. But he probably won't.

He likes to touch women and it's creepy....but it hasn't been much of a problem for you. It sounds like you've been successful at sending the message you don't want to be touched and he's not touching you. You did this without alienating him. No reason to think you can't keep finessing the other stuff.

In the long run it will be easier and likely more effective if you can respond to each behavior individually as you did with the touching than if you try to have A Talk about everything.
posted by space_cookie at 11:25 AM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

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