My new boss is a jerk :(
February 23, 2017 6:15 AM   Subscribe

My new manager (let’s call him Kafka) is someone who is outright disrespectful and shows disdain to everybody - except his boss, with whom he is very kind and friendly. Help!

Despite having several problems with him in the past that I reported to our then boss (let’s call him Franz), Franz appointed Kafka as my manager. We’re several people to report him now, and all of us are in dismay. Our former, large team is also baffled by such a decision.
As soon as I learnt the new management organization, I explained Franz why it’s going to be problematic by describing several of Kafka's behaviors. Franz was in disbelief, said he knew Kafka wasn’t as cool as a cucumber but didn’t imagine he was that unprofessional and rude. I also met the HR. Both Franz and HR said they will have a one to one conversation with Kafka and keep an eye on him but have no intention to change the management organization for now.

I am angry, have lost faith and trust in my management and my work suffers (and it doesn't help Kafka is incompetent).
What are your survival tips? How can I make sure I am un-attackable? Kafka is probably going to be pretty angry to learn that Franz knows about his behaviors. How can I be a good employee (as I was till now) and keep strict boundaries with Kafka? I need verbatim examples of what I can say to Kafka that have a flavor of Aretha’s « R.E.S.P.E.C.T. » (metaphorically or not...) and also tips on what I must and mustn’t do that might give him even more power or that might be detrimental to me.

Some details that might be relevant : me = young cis-female, Kafka = male in his forties.

posted by OrangeCat to Human Relations (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should not engage Kafka around these behaviors. If he says or does something disrespectful or disdainful (I wish you had given examples!), correct any errors of fact, but do not respond to the emotional attack. Then document the heck out of the unprofessional part of his behavior. You can do this by keeping a journal or log, or by sending yourself emails (this is the approach I would suggest so that everything is dated).

Then you need to figure out where your boundaries are and stick to them. How much of this will you put up with? Do you have staff reporting to you that you need to look out for? How much will you allow them to take? When you hit that boundary, go to HR.

Finally, and sadly, I think you need to look for a new job. If your boss does not see this behavior and is not taking action on it based on your and others reports, I would not expect that to change, and Kafka might become vindictive. You need to get out and find a more professional work setting. Treating superiors one way and direct reports another is one of the worst things a manager can do, and is super toxic. As a director-level manager myself, I would find his behavior unacceptable, especially if it was reported to me by more than one person.
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:41 AM on February 23, 2017 [16 favorites]

Incompetent martinets gonna incompetent martinet. Let Kafka be Kafka until he screws up so badly Franz is forced to take notice. But you can make Kafka own the errors and outcomes while being scrupulously polite. Leverage his ego against him by introducing (even requesting!) tighter documentation practices "to make sure we understand your directives exactly" that will eventually hang him by revealing the incompetence. You can use his ascension as a "reason" to improve process matters while appearing to be a respectful team player rather than building a private dossier on him, which won't make you look good.

So always try to get Kafka to put his directives in writing. If he doesn't, send him emails after one-on-one meetings that say "Per our discussion today, you've asked me to start project X with task Y and provided the following directions: this, that and the other thing. Should Obvious Outcome occur, we discussed good ideas a and b and bad idea c, which is your preferred approach. Please confirm my understanding of the work by [time]. If I don't hear from you by then I will proceed as outlined above." Copy to file/others affected. Or end team meetings with a statement that you'll send minutes around to the participants memorializing the discussion, decisions and directions. Make that a standard practice, e.g., decide who will take minutes at the start of every meeting. Devise a minutes format others can copy when it's their turn that allows you to note which colleague had what good ideas and that Kafka shot them down and then dreamed up the bad ideas to which various teammates expressed concern. Copy to file. Your other teammates can take similar actions.

Can you transfer within the company or division? Good luck.
posted by carmicha at 8:22 AM on February 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

One other thing: you've already gone to HR and Fritz, so you may have already been labeled a troublemaker. That's all the more reason why you must behave scrupulously and use corporate tactics going forward. I would ignore the urge to commiserate in fun bitch sessions about Kafka with your colleagues; you don't know who will roll over and betray you or may one day be promoted over you.

When things under Kafka inevitably go south, you want Fritz and your colleagues (and HR, maybe) to think about how you were trying to shine a light on the problems and then responded professionally and showed herself to be a team player with management potential. That's the only scenario in which you come out of this debacle looking good; if they never see Kafka as you do, you're not going to recover unless this organization is less hierarchical than you've painted it and you're both very promising and very young. I'm sorry.
posted by carmicha at 8:46 AM on February 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

Carmicha above gives good advice for a manager like this, but if intensely documenting things brings confused or negative attention to you or your team, you need to have a brief group meet and agreement that you stand together on a single party line that is outward facing: "We know that Kafka has very high expectations of us, and we are using his promotion as our impetus to step up our game." It's very hard to argue against that without saying that Kafka does not have high expectations of you, or that he does not desire you to step up your game.

Document everything. Confirm directives in writing. You can make yourself unassailable by being very respectful to him, and appealing to his need for control. Say things about how it's your team's job to make him look good. Tell him that you respect rank, and believe as your own personal philosophy that he became a leader because upper management believes that he knows what is best for the company, and you will back him up on his decisions 100%.

For the record, that's how you make yourself unassailable in any job, not just jobs where your boss sucks.
posted by juniperesque at 8:51 AM on February 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

I am angry, have lost faith and trust in my management and my work suffers (and it doesn't help Kafka is incompetent).

It's hard to give concrete examples without specifics, but when I had a horrendous co-worker (she wasn't my boss, but attempted to act like she was) with indifferent management I focused on my job, which was working with clients. I know it's not always possible, but by focusing on being the best provider and tuning out office politics I was able to go home everyday knowing I was doing my job well regardless of some of the surrounding negativity.

As suggested above when I had the toxic co-worker I documented everything. I eventually took a hardline that virtually all communication needed to be by email. You probably can't do that, but you can follow and confirm everything via email. When given conflicting directives ask for clarification.

I eventually started pushing management more aggressively when the problem person began targeting a subordinate of mine. Things changed with management that eventually allowed the issue to resolve, but I never really felt comfortable there again.

Also, you may not be able to be unassailable and enforce boundaries. You may behave in an absolutely respectful manner but if you have a toxic boss they will always find something wrong. I will tell a boss when their desires/expectations for something are unrealistic and give them options. I.E: "Project X cannot be completed with our current available resources. If you're OK with project Y being delayed, we can shift resources and focus on getting X done first." Most of my bosses have appreciated this from me, even the ones who grumble a bit when told no. But a bad boss could label you as being uncooperative if you refuse to meet unrealistic expectations.

I'm also going to suggest you start looking for a new job if possible. You're already demoralized by management ignoring your concerns. As I said, I never really recovered from the burnout of dealing with the co-worker, and that's much easier than dealing with a bad boss. Even the major reorganization that occurred didn't really help me settle back in.
posted by ghost phoneme at 12:06 PM on February 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is from Mrs. Stewie:

Hi, I'm Franz and recently promoted someone who had multiple complaints from his new subordinates. The bottom line was I'd been trying to fill the position for 6 months and Kafka was the best option I had. None of his unhappy now-subordinates applied. I carefully reviewed the complaints prior to hiring Kafka and felt that while there was merit to some of the comments, they were addressable issues. I candidly talked to Kafka about my reservations, clearly outlined my expectations, and he's done a very decent job. I also spoke to the people who had complained, heard them out individually, explained that I would be closely supervising Kafka, and asked them to give him a fair shake - but to come to me if there was something serious that they could not address directly with Kafka.

All three said they would. Two of the three of them did, six months later, Kafka is doing a decent job. He's clearly trying to address the habits that led to issues with his colleagues (now subordinates) in the past. His subordinates are fine (but not great) with him. Complainant1 has turned into a Kafka supporter, and is impressed by the improvement Kafka has made. Complainant2 is fine with him (but not great), but has not raised further complaints. Complainant3 has been in my office nearly daily with complaints that range from "Kafka started the 9:00 meeting at 8:59 without me!" to "Kafka smells!"

May I suggest that you consider the excellent advice upthread? If you think you can stand to work with Kafka, try it out. Document the hell out of things (using OrangeDisk's great advice) making it appear that you're documenting things to help Kafka. If there is ANY issue with inappropriate behavior, document this (with an email to yourself, so you can prove when it was sent -include dates and times and relevant information) and immediately go to HR. Beyond that - while documenting things, just continue do your job.

If you think you cannot stand to work with Kafka at all, and there is no way you can be anything but miserable, start job hunting.

Good luck! Also, a proviso - I really have no idea what your beefs with Kafka are. Since you didn't identify precisely what they are it is hard to calibrate my response since I'm not sure if this is on the level of inappropriate remarks/touch or on the level of lackluster work and poor communication skills. If this is more the former than the latter, I definitely say look for a new job - maybe a new organization since HR allowed Franz to hire someone with that kind of conduct into a leadership role.
posted by stewiethegreat at 8:36 PM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

From the bottom of my heart, thank you. It's tremendously helpful to have POVs similar to Franz and of managers in general. Your advice is spot on, I'll go back to this thread every time I'll need guidance, encouragement and reassurance.
You've asked for examples of Franz behaviour : blatantly saying (insert each and everyone of us, team member's name) work is shit (no exception), that Y didn't deserve the raise, see how early X leaves, etc. I have a sensory disability and he outright dismisses requests linked to my disability (like, if I were in a wheelchair he wouldn't hold the door for me despite me asking him, stating that it's not his job to do it or that it isn't important I pass through the door). Work wise he doesn't follow the company processes, which hinders all of us, doesn't say hello nor answers emails nor even replies if you talk to him.
posted by OrangeCat at 1:47 AM on February 24, 2017

If management knew about those specific examples (it sounds like maybe they didn't have specifics?) and still promoted him without taking Mrs. Stewie's proactive approach, and you want to keep this job the safest bet is probably to document and not react to his outbursts. Some example scripts if you still wanted some:

If he says X work is shit, "We'll be happy to make changes, do you have specific recommendations now, or will you get them to us later?" If he gives you verbal instructions, send a follow-up email to him confirming the plan of action.

When he complains that something isn't done and the cause is he didn't follow procedure, don't point fingers, "Right now procedure says we do X, how would you like us to do it in the future?" Privately document both the discussion and how his poor communication caused the problem in the first place. Send a follow-up email confirming the new procedure.

Even if management moved without the specific information about his previous behavior, this is probably the safest option as it shows you're able to work with "difficult" people (Kafka sounds more toxic than difficult). If your workplace has any sense, that will be seen as a huge asset. It is possible that he will be more careful with his words now that he's in charge, but I suspect he'll remain the same or become worse.

If enforcing boundaries is more important, you could push back a bit more assertively (and still document everything). This is personally the approach I would take, as I take no pride from working well with toxic people or putting up with a toxic work place. Yes, putting up with shit can be a great and useful skill to have, especially if you're ambitious, but that's just not me (I like to do my job and be left alone). This will not endear you to many employers, so only do the following if you're looking for a new job (or can manage the gap in between positions).

When he calls something shit: "That is an unhelpful criticism. After you've had time to fully review the project, email us specific details you would like changed, we will implement them."

If he speaks poorly of someone else, especially if they're lower on the ladder, I would personally push back on the narrative: "In my experience, Sam is a conscientious and dilligent worker. He always responds well to constructive feedback/works from home at night/comes in early."

Procedural problems: "As I noted in my email last week, we needed you to do X to keep the project on track. Once X is completed, we can move on to the next steps. If you want a different process in place, you need to communicate that to us. If you know what changes you want, send me a draft of the new protocol and I can make sure the team gets trained on it." If he asks for impossible changes, respond that X isn't possible right now, he may be able to have upper management change it though. Until then, you will continue with X.

Do not escalate situations. Remain calm and detached. Remind yourself you are a professional and he is not worth an emotional response.

Even if you remain calm, you may be accused of being emotional and uncooperative. Especially if this conversation involves upper management, this is a sign to start job hunting if you haven't already. 1) He will likely want you fired and 2) Even if they don't fire you, it's now a toxic work place. Jobs that expect you to put up with toxic people indefinitely, in my experience, place a higher value on employee compliance than employee competence and that can be disastrous in the long term.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:09 AM on February 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

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