Should I stay or should I go? Work edition.
September 28, 2017 11:53 AM   Subscribe

I am the only woman on a team of engineers. Recently I got promoted to senior engineer. Previously there was only one senior engineer on the team and he had taken on an unofficial role of team lead. Now that I've been promoted, this "team lead" has gotten really jealous and is trying to get me pushed off the team. He has also said on a couple of occasions that I need to "stroke his ego" more. I don't know whether I should stay and fight or give up and go.

Our actual supervisor is lazy and was happy for this guy to act as team lead (other teams in our company don't have leads). I had a conversation with the team lead during which I told him he is not my boss and he needs to stop trying to assign work to me. He got really offended about this and also about the fact that I criticised a piece of work he had done (not in a nasty way - just that our supervisor asked my opinion and I said I thought it needed a little more work before going out the door). He is also jealous because I have people skills and he doesn't and because I am "a forceful person who is usually right which is annoying." Basically I have a lot of allies and I don't let him get away with his bullshit.

I have tried talking to the team lead and asking him what he thinks we need to do to try to get along before it upsets the team dynamics. He said he thinks we need a break from each other and that I should leave the team. The supervisor has also suggested that I might wish to leave the team and gain some broader experience so that I can be promoted again in future. I actually believe this is truly why he has offered for me to gain broader experience and not because of the team lead. But I really don't want to leave the team because:

1. I absolutely love the work our team does. I would do it for free if I had to. I want to spend the rest of my career doing this work, and no other department does it.
2. I really don't want any more promotions ever. I have enough money and prestige now and I don't want to keep climbing the ladder. Apart from "team lead" I am happy.
3. Team lead will be retiring in 2-3 years anyway.
4. I feel if team lead doesn't feel he can work with me then he's the one who should leave the team. I haven't done anything wrong.
5. We are getting two new young women graduates on the team. I want to be there to help them and make sure they don't have to put up with the nasty ego-stroking bullshit.
6. The work other departments do is way more stressful than what our team does, would require a lot more travel, and is just not the direction I want my career to go.
7. Getting back into the team once I leave would probably be extremely difficult.
8. I don't want this guy to "win."

By the way this is a guy I asked about previously who was getting me to do all his admin when I first started. I fought back against that and won. So what do I do? And what do I tell supervisor?
posted by hazyjane to Work & Money (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My previous question about this guy is here:
posted by hazyjane at 11:55 AM on September 28, 2017

Tell the supervisor you don't want to leave and that you plan to stay in this area of work etc. They will likely be very happy to hear that. I feel all of your opinions and requests are eminently reasonable, if he can't work with you he should go and your supervisor should do his job. However if this guy has been the de facto team lead for years and the real supervisor is ok with it you are probably stick with it for a couple years unless a) he's a screw up or b) the rest of the team also has issues with him and wants him gone.

Also consider that if he leaves the team leadership role will fall on you, do you really want that?

All in all I say this isn't your problem to solve and its typical that a man would think it is. Just keep pointing that out and advocating for yourself while building strong relationships with your team and it'll work out, although it may just be tolerable till he retires.
posted by fshgrl at 12:11 PM on September 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

After reading your list of reasons to stay, and as a fellow senior-level woman engineer: STAY! Definitely stay.

I would definitely discuss it with your supervisor and say that you want it understood that you and Acting-like-the-team-lead are actually at an equal level and that he should not be assigning work to you, which to me is the most egregious thing here. (If Acting-like-the-team-lead *is*, in fact, allowed to assign work to you, then that needs to be formalized and understood.)

As for Acting-like-the-team-lead being offended that you criticized his work - I like to come from a "we're all in this together, we are all trying to put out the best product" perspective for something like that. Honestly, if you're both at an equal level, it sounds like it might have been better to go to Acting-like-the-team-lead with criticisms or concerns first instead of your mutual supervisor. You can always escalate after that.

Good luck.
posted by warble at 12:18 PM on September 28, 2017 [12 favorites]

Stay. I would consider going to HR. Your male colleague has a problem with you stating your opinions bluntly shortly after you were promoted to be his equal and has suggested to you that you leave? That sounds like a legal / PR nightmare to me. If I worked in HR I would make damn sure your job and position were untouchable.
posted by xammerboy at 12:33 PM on September 28, 2017 [11 favorites]

Please stay. Talk to HR, go up the chain to your supervisor or beyond if needed, whatever you need to make this come out right. The world desperately needs for this kind of bullshit to stop. Talented people who know what they want to do and love doing it are a precious thing, and just because some misogynistic bully can't cope with it shouldn't be your problem. Unfortunately, it IS your problem, but if you stand your ground, you help to disrupt this sort of thing, making things better for yourself and future generations.

Your last point is exactly it. You don't want this guy to "win." Please stay. Please don't let him "win."
posted by jgreco at 12:43 PM on September 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

He has also said on a couple of occasions that I need to "stroke his ego" more.
Gross. I'd consider reporting that if he keeps saying it. The actual meaning is ridiculous because his ego has nothing to do with your product. The implied meaning is just gross. 2-3 years until he retires - you can do that! You have tried working with him and he was unwilling. Work around him as much as you can. Others will end up going through you when they observe how much easier things go when you take care of them and he will slowly become obsolete.
posted by soelo at 1:03 PM on September 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

And you don't have to go into HR guns blazing. You can tell your boss you'd like to talk to HR to help you with your decision as a heads up.
posted by xammerboy at 1:16 PM on September 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

He has also said on a couple of occasions that I need to "stroke his ego" more.

I would say to him, in these exact words: "Go stroke your own ego".
posted by LauraJ at 1:41 PM on September 28, 2017 [17 favorites]

Did he really say you need to "stroke his ego"???

If I were your HR I would shitting bricks to hear this. Bricks.

Of course stay. Tell him to get bent. And have a nice chat with HR that is mostly about your career trajectory but also includes every detail of this tool's behavior.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:33 PM on September 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

I have so much rage on your behalf. You need to go to HR. Provide the background, let HR know that the supervisor doesn't have your back, and that this guy is creating a hostile work environment. He at least needs to be disciplined and sent to some training for workplace interactions, and possibly more than that. This should not be your problem to deal with.

HR should recognize that there's a problem, because at this point your interests are aligned with theirs. In this case protecting the company means cutting off this behavior now.
posted by fedward at 3:05 PM on September 28, 2017

He has also said on a couple of occasions that I need to "stroke his ego" more.
Blech. It's up to you whether you report things like this to HR or not, but it's a good idea to keep a record just in case.

As a fellow female senior engineer I strongly encourage you to stay with your team unless moving elsewhere represents a clear step up (however you define "up" for yourself). You are not doing anything wrong here and there is no reason that you should have to give up your place on a team where you are happy and performing well. Your recent promotion also demonstrates support from management. Don't give this jerk the satisfaction of forcing you out because he can't adapt to working with a woman at or above his level. You are also right to be concerned about the experience of the young women about to join your team, who will certainly benefit from your mentorship and support.

It might be worthwhile to talk with your supervisor about clarifying expectations for the team lead role and for your role as a senior member of the team. It's not wrong per se for an informal team lead to emerge from a group or for the longest-tenured team member to take that on. However, it sounds like there is (to give everyone the benefit of the doubt) some ambiguity around who gets to assign work and direct the day-to-day activities of the team.
posted by 4rtemis at 3:26 PM on September 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I would say to him, in these exact words: "Go stroke your own ego".

No, it's always best to be courteous, professional and firm. It's ok to be frustrated or to refuse to work with someone because they are incompetent or hostile, it's not ok to snipe at them or go to passive-aggressive town. And it's not because the OP is female, I manage a lot of people and this is a hard and fast rule that resolves a lot of issues that are "personality" based. Which are really the problem of bad behavior.

Model good leadership a d professionalism.
posted by fshgrl at 3:27 PM on September 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

A los I would not go to HR now. That is big guns. Is this the hill you want to die on for a guy who is leaving in 2 years anyway?
posted by fshgrl at 3:28 PM on September 28, 2017

This sounds like an office politics situation, and what you can and should do depends a lot on all the context involved, of which we have only a little here. Some questions:

- How good is this guy's work generally, and how is his contribution to the team perceived? How would your supervisor rate him vs. you? What value do the two of you bring, respectively, to the company and also specifically to your manager?

- You said you have a lot of allies. How much sway do they have? What's his network like?

- Are your roles well defined? If not can you work on getting them (and the chain of command) better defined in a way that wouldn't cause war to break out? Basically, is there a way of approaching this kind of sideways, so that you can arrange for less work interaction between the two of you without it seeming explicitly like that's the cause? Can you start any project of your own with your own sub-team? Can you pretend like you're stroking his ego or making changes to his advantage when really the benefit will be yours? Do you understand his psychology well enough for this kind of approach?

- Is he the type to try to take a mile when given an inch? That is, if you feel that you don't have the political clout to take him on safely and still really want to stay, could you conceivably give him his required quota of flattery without going insane until he retires, or would he just take that as encouragement to be a greater ass?*

- If his work is actually good, is there any middle ground where you can praise the good stuff effusively but still keep having no patience for the bad stuff?*

* I realize that taking him up on the whole stroking his ego thing must be extremely distasteful and you absolutely should not need to do it. If, however, it comes down to either leaving/being made to leave the team or killing him strategically with kindness, the question is whether or would be doable and worth it. It's an obnoxious question to be faced with, but I think you have to decide what your ultimate priorities are (long-term career goals, staying in this group, having a work environment where you don't have to play emotional nanny to someone, etc.) and decide what kind of obstacles you're willing or unwilling to let get in the way of those priorities.
posted by trig at 3:47 PM on September 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

As someone who manages male and female engineers: I would want to know that this was going on. I know my HR department would want to know this was going on. This is a management problem, not an engineering problem, and if your manager won't own it, then they're in the wrong job.
posted by jenkinsEar at 4:15 PM on September 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yeah, this is a manager problem for sure. I'll defined roles and a tolerance for saying things like "stroke my ego" are exactly that.

However, without knowing how valued this guy is and with OPs desire to stay on the team I stand by my opinion that going straight to HR now is potentially going to hurt OP as much as it helps. I'd hold it in reserve and try being VERY firm with management about my expectations first.
posted by fshgrl at 4:54 PM on September 28, 2017

I would say to him, in these exact words: "Go stroke your own ego".

No, it's always best to be courteous, professional and firm.

"I Beg Your Pardon?"
is the default reply that I was taught to say when someone at work made an egregious comment and I was at a loss for words in the moment.
posted by ovvl at 5:07 PM on September 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Re: HR. Not all HR departments have your back. Some are more trouble than your department. Try to figure it out before you go there.

As to ego stroking, I think a better reply is "No, you need to be a real player."
posted by SemiSalt at 5:52 PM on September 28, 2017

You could leave, go someplace else, and there would be somebody like him, or 3 somebodies like him. You are highly competent, respected, valued. He is threatened and is trying to gain dominance. He's being an utter jackass.
posted by theora55 at 8:12 PM on September 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Please don't go. It sounds like you don't want to. And it sounds like you're winning the popularity contest as the more professional and gracious person. I assume that jerk honestly called you "a forceful person who is usually right which is annoying." I mean, FFS! No way is this guy going to win. You love what you are doing. So you can't control this guy but you can practice detachment. Which is being professional and not taking it personally when he acts like an asshole because assholes gonna asshole. That is a really, really, really hard thing to do. But I learned to do it with drunken relatives who supposedly loved me but did uber stupid shit and a job I loved wasn't hanging in the balance. BTW, detaching is not about sucking up or stroking his ego. It's about doing the next right thing, not taking his BS personally and ignoring it when you can because it's irrelevant to the team's goals, etc. You are a total inspiration to me, no kidding. Best of luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 8:27 PM on September 28, 2017

Ok, I've now spoken to the supervisor's boss. This big boss told me he thinks I'm doing a great job, I shouldn't have to put up with the type of bullying and harassment I've been dealing with, and that he will sort it out (his face was like thunder when I mentioned the ego stroking thing). I asked him to wait until I've had a chance to let supervisor know that I'd spoken to him. So in some ways in relieved but now what do I tell supervisor about what I've done and why??
posted by hazyjane at 12:44 AM on September 29, 2017 [8 favorites]

Honestly, you don't owe him an explanation. He knows why. You tried to talk to him, he didn't handle it, so you escalated. If he were a better manager, this wouldn't have happened, and it's his boss's job to address that.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:36 AM on September 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

Congratulations on the promotion! And for taking the step to talk to the big boss; that can be intimidating. I'm also a female engineer who's been around the block with this stuff. At this time, I'd just step back and wait for the behavior change - it can take a while; you may find that the other senior engineer stops talking to you or retaliates in other relatively minor ways for a while after getting coached on this. If your bosses are any good you won't know that he's been coached, although you'll probably be able to guess. Usually, though, after a few weeks they get over it and the overall behavior should get better. If a month goes by and it doesn't, then you should raise it again. Also raise it if the engineer retaliates in larger ways. Discreetly take notes on everything from here so you have a clear story if you need to discuss this with management again. I don't think you need to let your supervisor know, let them bring it up if they want to discuss more.

I have a two-part script for when not-my-boss tries to give me work to do. The first part is, "Oh, yeah, that's a good idea, you should add a story to the backlog!" (Or whatever tracking system you have for work.) If they press me on it, I say in a neutral voice, "Ah, Mary sets my priorities," (where Mary is the name of my boss.) Then I turn away to whatever I'm doing. It's a statement that can't be contested, and usually ends the conversation without creating more antagonism.

I'm sorry this engineer is giving you a hard time! It's good that you enjoy your work though; and are excited about the problems you get to work on - this is a valuable thing; I'm glad you're taking steps to protect it from the dynamic this guy is trying to create. It's really hard not to engage with that dynamic directly and can make you feel like you're "losing," (our industry has so much work to do) but whatever buffers you can create rather than engaging it directly will probably keep you sanest in the long run.
posted by ProtoStar at 10:20 AM on September 29, 2017

I talked to the supervisor and he reacted brilliantly. He said that he and the big boss are absolutely going to deal with it. I asked what would happen if he "team lead" and I just can't get along. He responded that in that case it would be the person who's at fault who would have to leave and that clearly that person is not me - and that of course I can stay with the team. He said I did the right thing going to him and the big boss and he only wishes I'd done it sooner as I shouldn't have had to put up with this behaviour for so long. He asked me if I wish to put in a formal grievance with HR and I said no not at this time, I just want it to be fixed. He reiterated that it would be and that if anything else happens to let him know immediately. I really underestimated the supervisor and I'm so happy about his reaction. I'm nervous about next week now but basically I feel that I gave the team lead so many chances that I can't blame myself that he chose not to take them.

I couldn't have done it without the support you've all given me. Thank you so, so much. I will update next week or so once I find out what the fallout will be.
posted by hazyjane at 11:35 AM on September 29, 2017 [15 favorites]

Awesome! This post brightened my day and gave me hope. Please do update next week!
posted by Vaike at 11:44 AM on October 2, 2017

We had a meeting with the supervisor moderating. It went pretty well. The "team lead" came across quite badly by admitting he was being competitive with me and blaming me for not doing things he never asked me to do. The supervisor told him he was being totally paranoid! The supervisor also pointed out that there is no need to be competitive with me because people are going to judge each of us by our own merits and that seemed to sink in. When it was my turn to speak I tried to be very calm, reasonable, and willing to work towards a solution. I apologised for my part in what had happened and said I value the team lead for all his positive qualities but needed to be able to express my views without fear of recrimination. When I gave examples of things the team lead had done to undermine me the supervisor was cringing and shaking his head. At the end the supervisor asked if we thought it could be fixed and we both said yes. We meet again in a month and I'm the meantime the supervisor gave us some tasks to do together "as the senior members of the team." I'm hopeful things can work out and I won't have to leave the team. Please cross your fingers for me! And thanks very much for all the great advice.
posted by hazyjane at 5:36 AM on October 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

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