How to deal with a negligent micromanager
January 27, 2014 8:05 AM   Subscribe

New job, restrictions that seem unreasonable. I love this job and I want to not get fired and not have to look for another job already. Hope me.

I just got my dream job, yay! I've been at it for a couple of months, but I am already feeling ragged from a superior.

The setting is sort of in-house counsel for a municipal government body. My employment contract obviously says that the body is my client, that I represent them and must act in their interests. The local ordinance creating my position has me reporting to the chair of the body.

The general counsel is a negligent micromanager. He is rarely in the office and when he is, he literally ignores me -- I've knocked on his door when I know he's there and he knows I'm the one knocking and he's just silent. He walks away when I'm midsentence asking about a project. In his prolonged and frequent absences, I attend meetings, talk to the members of the body and write projects for them. When he comes back, I usually get a long email or talking-to about how everything I'm doing is wrong, I'm not allowed to do any of it and I can only do what he tells me to do. Except he never gives me anything to do! The chair of the body and every single other member has approached me separately to thank me for my work, tell me I'm doing great and in more than one instance say it's nice to have someone finally doing this work. The chair specifically said he thinks it's ridiculous for me to run everything by this guy. He's told me that I cannot answer anyone's questions and always have to refer everything to him, but so far every single question I've had from the body comes after they knock on his door, get no answer and knock on my door next. I feel like it's a breach of my ethical obligation to a client to refuse to answer a question that I have the answer to -- and I certainly don't think it's in their best interest.

Over the weekend I got a sort of nasty email saying I have to detail everything I'm doing and, if it's approved by him, it is all I can do and I'm not allowed to talk to anyone else about anything at all, ever. This morning I got stranded ahead of a meeting, so I emailed him and copied the two board members who arranged the meeting to tell them I'd be late. I literally got an email back saying I'm not allowed to tell anyone else this and that I can only tell him if I'll be late. Is this reasonable?

I'm not sure what my options are. I am very tempted to decline detailing all my work, citing my employment contract that specifically does not limit me to his oversight as well as the ordinance controlling my position, and say that if there's a problem with my job performance to write me up to HR and let me challenge it from there. I don't want drama, I don't want politics, I just want to do my damn job and go home at the end of the day.

I'm not a new attorney, I've been practicing for several years, but I am new to both in-house and municipal positions. I've researched my state's bar resources and I can't find anything very helpful -- everything is sort of geared for either private practice or corporate in-house settings.

1. Is there a good resource for in-house government attorneys?
2. How do I assert what I believe is both my job as described in my contract and my ethical obligations without inciting nastiness and retaliation? Seriously, I just want to do this job and get stuff done.
3. Have you dealt with such a person, if so, how so?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately, as you seem to discern, this is a toxic, unworkable situation, and as the new guy it doesn't sound like you have a lot of leverage.

It's probably worth going around this guy to talk to his boss(es) about the situation. You have nothing to lose, since your only alternative is to quit.
posted by killdevil at 8:11 AM on January 27, 2014 [13 favorites]

Your contract says you report to the chair, who you say " specifically said he thinks it's ridiculous for me to run everything by this guy." Who told you that you have to report to him? Who has the power to do your reviews and fire you?
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:18 AM on January 27, 2014 [12 favorites]

It sounds like you have the support of the chair. Could you lay out the problem to him and see what he suggests. As killdevil suggests this is one of the few situations where it does seem worth going over your bosses head.
posted by crocomancer at 8:19 AM on January 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

I literally got an email back saying I'm not allowed to tell anyone else this and that I can only tell him if I'll be late. Is this reasonable?

I think you know it's not only not reasonable; it's insane. Go ahead and go to his boss (with your specific examples of feedback you've gotten from others, the projects you did that he objected to after the fact, etc.) You have little to lose because working for this guy is not going to work out.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:19 AM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with what everyone else has said and would add that you have the best thing possible in a bad situation which is that he has emailed you about this! Yay! You have WRITTEN DOCUMENTATION FROM HIM that he is doing this stuff! He can't deny it, it's not your word against his, you can show, calmly and unemotionally, exactly what he's doing.

When you have your meeting with someone above both you and him, don't complain (even though I get why you would! Stuff like this sucks!), make sure you have good representative samples of emails from him making unreasonable demands, and have a clear list of your questions and concerns. Make it about clarification of your role, not how much he sucks. It sounds like everyone already knows he sucks so make sure you come out looking awesome, professional, and devoted, which it sounds like you are.

Also, final thought: I've been there too, I think many of us have. It really, REALLY sucks when you have a good work ethic and want to do your job well and are impeded by a truculent obstructionist who's overwhelmed and non-productive. It sucks sucks sucks and I'm really sorry you have to deal with this.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:27 AM on January 27, 2014 [12 favorites]

I second Mrs. Pterodactyl's advice above: make this about clarifying your role and who you report to, not about how this guy sucks. When the Chair (or whoever is your actual supervisor) sees the types of crazy requests he's making, like not letting other attendees of meetings know you're running late, they will see for themselves that this guy sucks. You don't have to make that case, he's doing it well enough on his own.

[Also, be careful to cover your ass so he can't sabotage you. I wouldn't be surprised if the reason he wanted you to only email him about being late was so that he could tell the board members "Oh, I don't know where s/he is, s/he's always doing this, running late and missing meetings and not telling anyone where s/he is." It's probably a good idea to never rely on this person to communicate anything for you or about you with accuracy.]
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 8:38 AM on January 27, 2014 [17 favorites]

The local ordinance creating my position has me reporting to the chair of the body.

It sounds like you and the chair need to work on a memo clarifying your reporting structure to everyone involved, and a private meeting with this person to re-clarify it. After that point, you can start ignoring whatever fantasy management is coming from that office.

I mean, it sounds like you can start ignoring it now, but it seems like you guys need some help with momentum. I don't understand why you and your contractually-mandated supervisor are tiptoeing around this guy.

If this guy must be appeased, your choices are 1) leave, 2) pretend-report to him while actually going about your daily business, including doing all the things he's told you not to do, and just saying "okay!" and ignoring him every time he keeps telling you to do it. Eventually one of you will start to seem seriously unhinged, and if you have the support of the chair it probably won't be you.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:46 AM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Honestly, he sounds like a child who didn't get his way. In other words, he probably campaigned against creating your position, either in general or specifically as it was written (as general counsel he probably wanted completely control over everything law-related, or at least oversight, which it seems he doesn't actually have).

I would take your written evidence and go to your chair. Explain (don't complain) what's been happening and ask how you should resolve this conflict. It may need to go pretty far up the ladder before you see results.

In the meantime, if your contract says you don't report to him, then don't. Ignore him as much as he ignores you (or at least as much as you reasonably can). BUT - only do work that's within the scope of your contract. It seems like this guy is a bit of a slacker (which may be why they created your position in the first place), but if you are advising clients in ways that technically fall under his umbrella and not yours, he will undoubtedly use it against you.

In the long run - perhaps if enough people see how effective you are, and how ineffective he is, they will complain and he will be forced to either shape up or ship out!
posted by trivia genius at 9:21 AM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sounds like time the three of you sit down and specify your duties and reporting structure.

Set aside about 90 minutes and come with an agenda.

Let these two guys hash it out between them, and then come up with a plan you can live with.

Just because you don't like your boss and you do like the Chair, don't make the mistake of ignoring him, because that can bite you in the ass, big time.

I'm willing to be that the Chair and the Boss LOATHE each other and are doing their power posturing through you.

Take yourself out of the equation.

If it comes between doing what the chair wants and doing what your boss what the guy who signs your paycheck wants.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:24 AM on January 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

Start saving emails.

The way I'd do this - if he is actually gone for long stretches and not checking his email, etc., start running EVERYTHING by him - flood him with (relevant) emails asking for permission to do various things, just put a time limit on it.

Things like,

"Boss, this morning I received a request from XXX to help with the YYYY. It seems like ZZZ might be a good approach. Please let me know if you'd like me to pursue an alternative course by REASONABLE DATE. Thanks!! Anon"

And if he doesn't reply, move forward with it. If he complains, forward your previous message and say,

"Boss, Sorry you're upset - when DATE passed and I hadn't heard from you, I moved forward with ZZZ per my email of DATE."

Save everything. Talk to the chair of the board.
posted by arnicae at 10:37 AM on January 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry to be pessimistic, but I had a situation so much like this when I was a first year associate, and it did not work out well. Okay, it DID work out well because I got a much better job, but it didn't work out well in that position. I did everything I could. I went to the head of the department to ask his help. I documented everything. When I was told by the partner in question that I absolutely must not do anything he didn't tell me to do, I asked if I could therefore have what he wanted me to do in writing. He said no, that it was insulting to ask him for that and that I was being insolent (at the time, I'm not sure I even knew how to be insolent). I tried the thing of emailing him to say, "let me know if this is NOT okay with you" and he went through the roof. The head of the department sided with the partner, of course, because he was a rainmaker and I was a measly biller. I think it was the most difficult working environment I've ever been in.

When you are stymied at every turn, there comes a moment when you just have to give up. You can't fix everything. Especially the things that don't want to be fixed.
posted by janey47 at 11:35 AM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Agree with arnicae. The way I got around this sort of absentee micromanager in the past was to email "I am going to do [stuff] for [situation] unless I hear from you by [date/time] to do otherwise" for everything. That way I was still running stuff by him but not left hanging. In my case, those little updates satisfied his need to "supervise" but he never actually countermanded my proposed actions (I hope you are so lucky).
posted by Jacqueline at 2:18 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

In government? Yeah, you got the guy who has a pretty sweet deal doing mostly nothing, and doesn't want you to blow it for him by doing something. It happens. They get what's coming to them, but not fast enough and you can't really speed it up.

He sounds dumb though, in that he's emailing these things to you. Keep accumulating those as much as you can. Make him tell you twice, or at least very strongly. Now when people ask you for things, you can tell them what you would like to do for them, but that he has expressly forbid it. Show the emails. He can't very well deny it.

The quickest way out is to bump your position out from under him. Maybe the chair would like a "special projects" counsel, outside the normal organization? Reporting only to the chair? (To "take some of the light work" off of the general counsel, of course, so he can "focus on more important things.") If you can pull that off, you'll have his job in a year or two.
posted by ctmf at 8:02 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

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