Boss who gaslights, stonewalls and bullies me & my coworkers.
June 20, 2015 12:41 PM   Subscribe

I work with a team of people (less than ten) under a supervisor who consistently uses insulting, bullying language and intimidation tactics that are so detrimental to team's morale and productivity that we have decided to take this to our company's anonymous hotline for reporting misconduct. How do we best phrase our concerns/strategize our approach so that the company takes these concerns seriously?


In an effort to proactively address some questions I think some of you may have about this:

1. Why are we first going to the anonymous hotline (part of HR) instead of our supervisor's manager?
Two reasons. We spoke with a trusted supervisor in another department who advised us that if we went to management, our manager would call a meeting with our entire team (supervisor excluded) to discuss the issue as a group. There is one "rogue" member of our team who, despite having an issue with our supervisor, is also quick to throw everyone else under the bus in an effort to deflect the fact that she herself is a low-performing team member with a major attitude problem. She is just as toxic as our supervisor and her presence at a group meeting with the manager would make most of us feel uncomfortable voicing our concerns, some of which involve her. (We have caught this person lying about doing work but then trying to erase proof that she didn't do the work - which we told our supervisor about. Our supervisor gave us lip service that he would address it but never did because it continues to this day. The "rogue" person in question has openly said she doesn't care if she gets caught or fired or not.) If we go through the hotline, we would instead be interviewed - individually - by HR. Even if that means the "rogue" member being interviewed on her own by HR as well, at least we would each be able to speak freely to HR without fear of judgment or sabotage by the rogue member. We can deal with whatever crap she says after HR has surveyed all of us individually.

2. Have any of you bothered to document dates, times and details of specific instances of these events, over a long enough period of time to demonstrate that this has been an ongoing problem?
Yes. I have documentation of written correspondence with mocking, abusive language about my intelligence, in response to honest questions that I should be going to my supervisor about (these are not things I am expected to make decisions about on my own). My other coworkers also have documentation of similar behavior that our supervisor has directed at each of them; one coworker who is expected to work directly with the "rogue" team member even has over a year's worth of documentation detailing consistently unethical behavior (again, deleting or covering up evidence of work not being done; as well as purposefully documenting things to make it look like something was done when it was not - and yes, we've found and have the evidence showing that numerous requests from clients were deleted and never addressed)

3. Why did you guys wait until now, if this has been going on for a year and a half?
Like most cycles of abuse and sick systems, we've been strung along into thinking that maybe it wasn't so bad that it was worth the trouble of filing a complaint. But we've had enough and reached the point where we know that we can no longer work effectively as a team if this supervisor continues to reject us if we come to him with questions or concerns.

4. Why don't you find another job or just wait it out until you find another job?
I'm working on it. Also, I'm sick of this person getting away with what should be considered unprofessional behavior.

5. Where are you located?


Our supervisor tells us all of the time that we're a team, and we need to work like a team. However, we never know which version of our "supervisor" we're going to get when we come to him with a team or client concern/question. If we come to his desk (no door, these are cubicles and his back faces us at the opening to the cubicle), he will not turn around or say anything to acknowledge us. If we say, "Is now a good time to ask a question?" he'll often remain silent, or say "What" or "No" in a flat but stern tone of voice. No reason is given and if we ask when a good time to later come to him might be, this is met with a gruff "I'll let you know" (and then he doesn't let us know). If we stand there and wait for him to address us, he'll eventually whip around and say, "Well, what do you want?!"

On semi-rare occasion, he will be in an okay mood and talk to us human being-to-human being. It's very distressing to the point that we are afraid to go with him because we don't know how he'll react to simple questions, and that fear - coupled with his refusal to answer our questions - slows down our productivity and ability to meet the company's goals.

Likewise, he ignores emails that we send him. Many emails are ignored for 1-2 weeks or more; some are never acknowledged. If we have a report that needs to go directly to his desk, we may not see it addressed for a month or longer (keep around, we're expected to get things completed and approved within a week, ideally within 1-2 days). Sometimes we won't see it again unless we remind him that we put it there. We are afraid to remind him because he will usually just snap that he'll get to it when he gets to it. Other supervisors are happy to move things ahead of other work they have to do, because they know it helps the team meet their goals. He doesn't care.

He consistently fails to forward emails from management that management tells the supervisors (in the body of the email), "Please forward this information to your teams." One time when I asked him about why everyone else in the department knew about a new procedure, but our team had no idea, he said that if he allowed us to know about all the things management wants us to do that he doesn't agree with, we'd be more stressed out. He claims that if we're ever challenged for doing something that isn't per management's procedure because we don't know about it, he'll intervene. At the same time, he will yell at us for doing things a certain way when he has never told us how he wants it to be done, and we are left to rely upon our past experience and knowledge (from our time working under other supervisors, who were forthcoming about how we should be doing these particular things). He has often called us out very loudly and implied that we are stupid, loud enough that other supervisors or coworkers will later come us to us with a pitying look and ask if we're okay. This supervisor is known for arguing with management and doing things his own way, and other supervisors have told us that they too are intimidated by him. One supervisor whose team member was working with me on a project told me that there was "no point" in her speaking with my supervisor about how she thought he should be overseeing things differently, rather than even trying or going to management. People continue to enable his behavior by letting him get away with bullying.

We are frequently questioned and called out by other coworkers because they want to know why something isn't finished yet, and we have to keep referring back to our supervisor who has not approved work that was submitted to him weeks before. Most are sympathetic because they know his reputation, but some seem to think we're the problem. (Keep in mind that every other supervisor in our department gets to these things within 1-3 days at most. Please don't ask me how he gets away with this stuff. I really don't know. I also don't really know why the rogue coworker gets away with most of the stuff she does.)

I could have a field day getting into specifics, but to sum it up, here are the types of abuse he puts forth:

"Authoritarian style": In one example that a coworker documented, on her first day on the team he said to her "Here's all you need to know. I'm the best, I know my shit, and don't ever question me." In grave seriousness. This is actually hilarious to me because it really does summarize everything about him, his behavior, and his lack of true leadership.

"Stonewalling": See most of above, but refusal to negotiate a conflict in good faith, etc. sums it up really well.

"Gaslighting": Oftentimes, if we ask a question or challenge an idea he puts forth, he will start laughing uproariously, then turn around and ignore us. If we explain to him that we've been doing something one way because it's how another supervisor taught us and he never advised us to do it differently, he tells us to quit using other supervisors as an excuse and that common sense should tell us that we should be doing it his way and that if we had any common sense, we wouldn't have to ask him. These things are actually not common sense and have more to do with industry regulations and company regulations, both of which are frequently changing (and which he obviously doesn't update us on most of the time). He makes us out to be the crazy ones, almost every single time.

"Deflection": Similar to above. If we say, "I couldn't complete this on time because I did not hear back from you in response to my written request for approval," he'll tell us to quit using that as an excuse.

Unfortunately, none of these behaviors really seem to meet the definition of a "hostile work environment". He doesn't do anything that is discriminatory against a protected class, so I am not optimistic that this will be realistically addressed. This is where I'm confused about the best way to phrase and frame our concerns about him. So far, I've come up with, "He does not provide coaching, despite pointing out flaws" (our management is huge on supervisors providing proactive coaching!), "He does not forward information to us that other teams' supervisors are forwarding to them (all of our teams have the same goal and do the same type of work)", and "He ignores requests or turns us away when we come to him with questions, and never follows up with us despite telling us he'll come get us when he's ready to answer our question - this, in turn, makes it difficult to impossible to fulfill the requirements of our job".

Also of note: A former coworker of mine (now in another department) who used to have him as a supervisor said that she and her team members - this was about four years ago - went to management about him and that after this, he (the supervisor) pulled them into a room and was very open about asking everyone to get their concerns out on the table. She said things got better for a while, but that clearly that time has passed given how he behaves now. So, I suppose it's possible he'll open up to us, but I don't know.

Finally, I want to point out that some of my coworkers already sent in their complaints to the ethics hotline today. I haven't sent mine yet, because I'd like to get feedback from the Green first.

Thank you all in advance!

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
As with all situations like this one you have two options: put up with it or leave. Right now this whole situation has you spun up in lots of knots and drama and it's not healthy. You need to figure out a way to walk away from this either literally - by getting a new job as soon as humanly possible - or figuratively by learning to not care about this. You could have spent the time you spent stirring this all around and writing this question by applying to a few jobs instead. Why didn't you?

This situation isn't your fault, but your level of involvement is something over which you have control. This is a whole stew of drama. I am reminded of a similar drama-stew that happened at my job a few years back. Everyone that turned their backs to the drama did a hell of a lot better in the long run than the people who got involved. This is NOT because of the way the drama reflected on them; it is because the people who were super involved were also involved because they liked the drama and being in it was somehow enjoyable to them. Don't be like those people. Figure out how to bow out of the gossip and discussions about this, take all the time and energy you're saving and spend it on looking for a new job. Don't engage with this any more than is absolutely necessary. I know you don't "want him to get away with it" but seriously it is not worth your energy.
posted by sockermom at 1:06 PM on June 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also of note: A former coworker of mine (now in another department) who used to have him as a supervisor said that she and her team members - this was about four years ago - went to management about him and that after this, he (the supervisor) pulled them into a room and was very open about asking everyone to get their concerns out on the table. She said things got better for a while, but that clearly that time has passed given how he behaves now. ...

Finally, I want to point out that some of my coworkers already sent in their complaints to the ethics hotline today. I haven't sent mine yet, because I'd like to get feedback from the Green first.

It sounds like you're pretty determined to use channels, so I'm not answering your exact question. But I am concerned about your situation.

So... the people above your supervisor know about his bad behavior, and have known for quite a while, but he still works there and he's still managing people.

My feeling is that the people at the top don't really care about how he's treating people. Maybe he knows where some bodies are buried. I'm not sure using channels is in your best interest or will do anyone any good ... and it could wind up blowing back in your face. The ethics folks are now on notice because of your other coworkers' actions. That's enough.

People get away with bad behavior all the time, sadly. You deserve better and you know it. My advice: Keep your head down and get out of there ASAP, as you've stated you're trying to do.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 1:10 PM on June 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

To address your actual question:
I would focus on actions that interfere with the team's performance rather than personality. So, the list might be -
- failure to pass down information to the team
- failure to respond in timely manner to requests
- the group's failure to meet the needs of other teams because of the above
- discouraging necessary communication by his abrupt, dismissive manner
- lack of responsibility for the way his performance impacts the team and company (deflection)
- failure of past attempts to engage directly with him on any of these issues

Clearly there is an issue of hostile work environment but I think you have more impact if you focus on how his behavior is affecting performance, not how it affects you
posted by metahawk at 1:21 PM on June 20, 2015 [11 favorites]

The topic I'd focus on is the thing that affects the company directly: project approval turnaround time. The other things are not good for you and the rest of the team but this one is the one that should be easiest to show in a simple chart. Just show a plot of time elapsed between submission and approval. Get as many data points as humanly possible. Make this primarily about the work, not about the person. (I'm not saying that he isn't a jerk, I just think that it is easier for people to ignore behavioral stuff than it is for them to ignore clear data showing that this person is hurting the company)

The behavioral issues can be brought up in the one-on-one meeting. Do mention that you're aware of previous similar problems with him. Do bring printed out documentation and encourage your other team members to do the same.

The rogue team member may have to wait until later.
posted by sciencegeek at 1:23 PM on June 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I totally get how this guy would be a serious pain in the ass to work with, but if you contact upper management about him, you would be best served by providing - in as objective a manner as possible - a list of specific instances where his improper behavior resulted in damage to the business. Because, like it or not, it's not illegal to be a jerk. A jerkwad manager who manages to consistently deliver to his management is considered "a manager who delivers".
posted by doctor tough love at 1:58 PM on June 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

Clearly there is an issue of hostile work environment

IANYL, but actually, as you note, no. Legally, " hostile work environment" is a term of art and means something very specific -- namely, an environment where members of a protected class are subject to pervasive discrimination specifically because they're black, women, gay, etc. It doesn't mean that a supervisor or manager is a hostile asshole and treats people badly (very badly, in this case).

Having said that, I agree with the assessment that if you report this guy, you need to give specific examples of how his behavior harms the business, not just say that morale is bad or what have you. The sad fact is that companies don't usually give a damn if one of their managers treats people like shit; as long as they don't see an actual, measurable connection between his behavior and the bottom line, they'll turn a blind eye.
posted by holborne at 7:07 AM on June 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't know if anything you're describing counts as "misconduct". Terrible, terrible management, absolutely. But when I think "misconduct" I think illegal activity, having affairs with coworkers, inaccurate time reporting, stuff like that. I mean, your boss's behavior is probably actually more destructive to the company than stealing from the petty cash or taking kickbacks from a vendor, but it's probably not actual misconduct.

Others have given good advice on how to phrase you report; I would add that you should keep your expectations low and try not to take anything personally to the extent that you can avoid it.
posted by mskyle at 3:41 PM on June 21, 2015

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