Being Undermined at Work?
June 1, 2016 3:56 PM   Subscribe

I am ostensibly the head of my department at work, which is a small startup. It’s also a small department, which is a subsection of, let’s say, Marketing. (It’s not Marketing.) Let’s call my department Widgets. My title is Head of Widgets. My team consists of one direct report whom I hired personally last summer and another direct report who was assigned to me from another department this past winter. I just found out that the VP of an entirely different section, say, Product, had an in-person interview with someone who would have the same title as my direct reports. I was not notified by my VP nor the other VP. I found out because one direct report saw it on the calendar and let me know. What now?

I'm freaking out a bit because I feel like one of the following is happening:

1) I'm going to be fired. (I'm actually okay with this because I have a final job interview lined up in July and I'm basically biding my time.) Why else would I not be informed with regards to adding a member to my team? Is this person my replacement? I have never been formally reprimanded.

2) I'm going to be replaced by the new applicant and demoted. WAY less fine with this option and I'm wondering if I shouldn't quit over this if that's the case.

3) One of my direct reports is going to be fired. I have not warned either of them for any behaviour. One of them is buddy-buddy with the VP of Product (and that's why he was transferred to my team, because he was unhappy on his other team, but he's challenging to manage) and the other is the one I personally hired and who is outstanding at his job.

4) The last possibility is that they're adding to my team. But why would they add to my team without even letting me know? Even when adding Direct Report 2, I was told ahead of time (two weeks' notice) and I've had the opportunity to give my feedback to my VP. I also haven't specifically asked for another direct report. If they offered me that opportunity, I would want to hire someone myself, because things worked out so well with Direct Report 1.

If it's important (and, knowing my VP and some of the culture at the company, it is), I'm a woman.

Also of note, there is a meeting scheduled for Friday between me, my team, VP Product, my VP, the CEO and another member of the company. The agenda is vague. It is also very unusual to have this group of people in a meeting.

What's really bothering me is that I wasn't consulted about any of this and I've now lost face with my direct reports. As if I wasn't having trouble asserting my position with Direct Report 2 (the one who's buddy-buddy with the other VP) already, he now sees that I'm just as out of the loop as he is, which cannot bode well for my managing him. (Seriously, he is the most difficult to manage employee in our company and I submit that the only reason he's not been fired is due to the existing friendship with that VP.)

My specific question is: should I confront my boss (who works remotely)? Should I confront the VP? Do I go in guns blazing about what a slap in the face tinkering with my team should be? Do I just keep my mouth shut? What questions should I ask at the meeting?

FWIW, I think we might be transferred as a team to the VP Product as our supervisor. That's my working theory right now. But it's clear that the VP Product is working to undermine me if that's the case, due to the lack of information I've gotten about a potential new hire. (Also, how can I point out the obvious conflict of interest in having Direct Report 2 under VP Product's supervision??) So my questions stand: what do I say? To whom? Guns blazing? More calmly?
posted by sockermas to Work & Money (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Option 5) seems most likely - there is a need for that job title in your department and the other department and hence, the company is hiring another person in that other department with that job title. There's no reason there can't be, say, technical writers in both the gizmo department and the widget department.

I feel like we're missing something here, as that is the most obvious explanation I can think of.
posted by saeculorum at 4:05 PM on June 1, 2016 [14 favorites]

I'm with saeculorum. Something is missing.

I just found out that the VP of an entirely different section, say, Product, had an in-person interview with someone who would have the same title as my direct reports.

Are the job titles of your direct reports so unique that there's no possibility that these interviewees are being considered for elsewhere in the company?
posted by John Borrowman at 4:06 PM on June 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

And no possibility for 5) That team is interviewing for someone to do something for their team and just happened to use the same job title and it doesn't affect you at all?

Is there a reason you can't just be like, "Hey VP, heard your interviewing for a ___, let me know if I can help since I know those jobs pretty well or if you want any insight on what type of candidate would be a good fit."
posted by magnetsphere at 4:08 PM on June 1, 2016 [11 favorites]

Guns blazing is almost never the best starting position at work. I don't think you can deduce the situation based on the info you have here. (My guess was "parallel team structure in different department," FWIW.)

I'd go in calm but firm. You seem to have a firm grip on your options and boundaries, and I think that's the most critical for coming out of this scenario a winner.
posted by instamatic at 4:09 PM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

HR may have had the job description from your hires on hand, and decided to re-use it in this situation.
posted by yesster at 4:16 PM on June 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

Any chance they actually think your department is so successful that they want to emulate your structure in other teams?
posted by samthemander at 4:22 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I think we might be transferred as a team to the VP Product as our supervisor.

there is a meeting scheduled for Friday between me, my team, VP Product, my VP, the CEO and another member of the company. The agenda is vague. It is also very unusual to have this group of people in a meeting.

If you plural will be transferred to VP Product's team, wouldn't he be the hiring authority for any Widget Department new hires? And you personally would lose a bit of your (hiring and other) authority if your team were moved under his umbrella? That seems like the likeliest and most benign scenario to me, reading this.

Keep in mind that when I say 'most benign' it definitely still sucks and is undoubtedly undermine-y but I think if in your mind you try to frame it structurally, rather than personally, you'll have better luck with any conversations you decide to have about it. I don't doubt you at all that there's likely some gross bro stuff going on, and that undermining is a definite thing for women in leadership roles--I've been there (and unfortunately still am sometimes). I've been most successful in getting what I want when I can work through my emotional response first, privately, decide what my desired outcomes and boundaries are, and then negotiate from there, using as many quantitative measures as I can about how doing it my way will either save them money or make them money.
posted by stellaluna at 4:25 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would check in your boss and just be very casual like "Oh hey I see the product team is hiring a widget describer, will this have any effect on the widget describer role for my team?" I have had this experience where I find out second-hand that higher-ups are taking some bizarre action that feels completely malicious and undermining and I'm like WTF and then it turns out it wasn't malicious because nobody put any thought into it all. Going in with an innocent inquiry is best because then they either have to give up what they know or lie, but either way you get some information without looking petty or insecure.
posted by bleep at 4:26 PM on June 1, 2016 [33 favorites]

As for what to do, I'd be inclined to wait until the meeting when you have more information. It's a Friday so you'll only have to keep your mouth shut that day, then you can use the weekend to scream/vent/rage and develop a plan going forward depending on what information you received.
posted by stellaluna at 4:28 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Even if your assumptions are correct, and I'm not entirely certain they are, "confronting" anyone or going into any meeting "guns blazing" should not be a part of your plan going forward. I think you can ask whoever you report to (your VP?) whether there are any current plans to add to or restructure your team.

Is it possible that your company knows that you've been interviewing elsewhere?
posted by sm1tten at 4:45 PM on June 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

I sort of had this happen to me.

My boss was, as he described it, "enthralled" with this person who applied for a different job at my company. Also a small company. Anyway, she turned down the job she applied for because of the travel. This was a job that did not report to my boss FYI. Apparently, he started having lunches with her and keeping in touch. None of this was known to me, because it did not involve my department. At the time. One day he calls me to tell me that he had someone for the open position that I had and would I want to have lunch with her. I agreed, having no idea who this person was. He told me to bring one of my other employees, and also my peer, a manager of a similar department. Fine. Her experience was not at all what would fit in my department and she only wanted part time. I start to get suspicious when the other manager (who is not a wonderful person) starts mentioning how she thought this girl was great, would be a great fit. I asked her how she knew, and it turns out she had met her a few months ago AT A LUNCH MY BOSS SET UP. The prospective employee was fine. Not a fit but nothing wrong other than that and the part time hours. My boss wants to discuss her with us. We go in and my employee immediately states that she isn't a good fit and would never hire her. Turns out that my boss had already hired her. Without me knowing. So now I'm stuck with an employee that I don't want, she's part time and she isn't right for the job. Fast forward 3 months and I get laid off. My department wasn't doing what it needed to financially. We were an experiment. This new employee is telling everyone that she was hired to replace me. Three months before they laid me off. They ended up letting my original employees go as soon as they completed a project.

I don't know if it helps but it felt good to get off of my back. Get your stuff in order.
posted by bodgy at 4:52 PM on June 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I wouldn't automatically assume dire shit. (and I'm the FIRST one to get paranoid.) I'm a lot more likely to assume someone likes the titles of your direct reports and thought they'd like one on their team.

OTOH, if I smelled something weird in the air, I'd for sure call my boss and ask, straight up, "Sylvia, some weird stuff's going on and that meeting on Friday seems really unusual, is there something I should know?"

One thing you might want to do is look up the interviewee on Linked In to see if it seems like someone for your group, or for a different group entirely.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:53 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Could it be possible that one of your direct reports is being promoted, and this interviewee is his/her replacement?
posted by kevinbelt at 5:13 PM on June 1, 2016

I would play it straight and ask the boss about it, in a non-confrontational way. Just lay out the facts of the story as you have here, eg "hey, one of my reports brought to my attention that VP is hiring a widget-fiddler, and since that job title normally reports to me, I am wondering if there is anything I should know? And is this related to Friday's meeting? If so, how should I prepare?"

If there is anything weird going on, you will probably get an indication from the way your boss replies.
posted by rpfields at 5:13 PM on June 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: So sorry -- there is absolutely no question this position the other VP interviewed for is not for my department. The name of my department is in the job title and it's not something any other department would ever use.

Also, while conceivably Direct Report 1 could be promoted, he would be promoted into my role. Direct Report 2 would not be promoted. Transferred, perhaps.

Also, no HR department at the company.
posted by sockermas at 5:35 PM on June 1, 2016

Sounds like you're going to have some free time between now and July. My last layoff was handled similarly and my reports absorbed into other departments.
posted by tilde at 5:52 PM on June 1, 2016

My workplace is not so formal that I couldn't call someone up one level above me and straight up ask. "Hey, what's the Friday meeting about? The agenda is kind of vague."
posted by ctmf at 7:31 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

1) I'm going to be fired. (I'm actually okay with this because I have a final job interview lined up in July and I'm basically biding my time.)

Could your current employers have gotten wind of this?
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:20 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Not to threadsit, but since this was asked a couple of times, the chances of my current employers knowing that I'm looking elsewhere is slim to none. I haven't posted my resume on any public sites. None of the places I've been applying to (much less the one where I have my final interview) have ties to my current company. I haven't used my company laptop to do any of my job searching, not even while at home. Anything I've done on my personal phone during the day has been done while on the cell network, not the wifi.

I've applied directly to other companies (no job boards, nothing public, all through my personal email) and haven't been asked for references yet. When asked, I'll have a former employee I worked with closely to be the reference for this company.
posted by sockermas at 8:30 PM on June 1, 2016

Your gut that shenanigans are afoot is probably spot on. My guess is you'll find out on Friday what is up. If you still have a job on Monday, and this meeting doesn't explain the meeting, I'd ask my boss what is up. But I'd wait until the vague meeting is over. My guess is you're going to get answers there that they won't be able to answer tomorrow, and it will just frustrate and infuriate you trying to get info in advance. Good thing you have a solid lead on another job!
posted by pazazygeek at 9:38 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Email your boss and ask what the meeting is about. Just say that it's unusual for him, the VP Product, you and your team and the CEO to all meet together, and that whatever you'll be doing, you'd like to be prepared so you can handle it well. Afterwards, tell your boss that your direct report saw on the calendar that the VP Product had an interview the other day for a Widgetmaker, and ask if he knows anything about that.

This is all completely reasonable for you to ask, so try to keep your tone open and neutral rather than anxious or angry. There could be some totally innocent explanation.

If the Friday meeting turns out like you suspect, stay calm and professional. If you're all meeting together, the decisions have already been made and they're telling you, not asking for your input. That means you'll gain nothing by arguing or seeming hostile, and in fact it will only make you look weak in front of your direct reports. Just listen, and maybe reflect back what you're hearing and ask some clarification questions, like 'so you're saying that as of Monday my team and I are moving to the Product VP' or 'so you're saying that the reason we're making this change is X and we are hoping to achieve Y.'

Truth is, if your suspicions are correct then your bosses are amateurs and you may indeed want to quit. It's fine for them to restructure/whatever, but they should tell you privately beforehand, not roll it out simultaneously to you and your direct reports. But still, hold your fire in the meeting: preserve your dignity and your options. You can always quit afterwards.

Good luck.
posted by Susan PG at 12:21 AM on June 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

Given your updates, I'd be prepared to be fired, if you're not, it'll be a pleasant surprise.

1. Start taking home your shit now! There is nothing worse than cleaning out your work space while reeling from being let go. Do it on the sly. The only thing left on your desk should be a picture of your pet.

2. Wipe your computer of any personal stuff. If there's nothing there, good for you!

3. Clear browser history etc.

4. Adopt a 'straight out of fucks to give' attitude. Get the work done, but don't invest in anything long-term.

5. Leave your open items easy to understand and to pick up and deal with. Be classy that way.

Maybe it comes with a good separation package! You can take a nice vacation before starting your new gig!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:03 AM on June 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

And please keep us posted, because you are obviously awesome
posted by cyndigo at 11:59 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, please come back and tell us what happened.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:49 PM on June 3, 2016

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