Am I being bullied or am I not doing the job well?
September 8, 2020 12:06 PM   Subscribe

I work for the private office of the CEO of my company. I'm a mid-level employee dealing with very high level employees and it seems like a lot of times when things go wrong I end up being the scapegoat. However I'm not sure whether these things are my fault or not.

A couple of examples-

1. There is a series of jobs that need to be done (they are related to covid-19 and have never been done before). I worked out a process and got agreement from the CEO, then presented the process to the directors with the CEO present. They hated it and spoke to me very harshly about it. The CEO decided to change the process in line with what they wanted. He then rang me up and told me the way they had treated me was unacceptable and he would deal with it with them. However I'm not sure whether he ever told them that he and I had agreed the process before I presented it to them.

2. I take notes for their weekly meetings and disseminate the notes throughout the company. I included something in the notes today that they later said was sensitive information and one of the directors rang me up to say I had compromised a case by including it (I'm trying not to be too specific here). However during the meeting the person reporting the issue did not say it was not to be minuted and I cannot see how what I minuted, while sensitive, could compromise a case in any way. I did mark the minutes as sensitive. The CEO is on leave at the moment.

So my options are to stay in my role and keep trying to improve while growing a thicker skin, or ask to leave this role and go back to my specialist role in another department. If I went back to my old role I would feel like I was letting the CEO and my private office team down badly. But if I stay in my current role I feel if I keep getting told off in quite an unpleasant way by the directors it will affect my mental health. Please can I have some advice? I do have a history of being too sensitive. I am also a woman in a male-dominated workplace although one of the two directors I have an issue with is also a woman.
posted by hazyjane to Work & Money (25 answers total)
Shit happens. Maybe you made a mistake, maybe it's not your fault. Get over it. Move on. I work with high-level execs as both my colleagues and customers. One crucial skill needed to function at these levels is autonomy in ambiguous situations.

If this is difficult for you, it's very possible you need to move to a team where you won't have to deal with ambiguity like this. I've seen many, many high performing people fail when presented with ambiguitiy.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 12:15 PM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you have an ok relationship with your direct boss, the CEO, is this right? When he's back in the office schedule some 1:1 time and tell him what's going on, that this is affecting you in a way that makes this current role a poor fit for you, and you are very seriously considering requesting a return to your previous role. If he's not a douchebag, he will listen to your concerns and take action on them. If he is a douchebag he won't do this, and you can request a return to your previous role without anything weighing on your heart.

I would say just go back to your old role and not care about the CEO/private office team, except that it's not clear to me if you've had this conversation seriously and purposefully with your boss.

(And I will say from personal experience, if you are working for crappy people, then your job is literally to be their scapegoat. This is not the case if you're working for not-crappy people, but for crappy people that's more or less your entire job description. I have been there. If your boss can't improve things for you capably and immediately, then you need to get out.)
posted by phunniemee at 12:17 PM on September 8, 2020 [8 favorites]

1. This is on the CEO. As the “sponsor” of the process change they should have presented it to the directors, not you. It just sounds like you don’t have enough cache with the directors to be pushing a process change on them and “telling them what to do”. It’s shitty how they reacted but to be honest, I’m not surprised. So going forward, any projects like this that require the directors to adapt should come from their boss, the CEO, not you - even if you play a big role in formulating such changes (save it for your resume!)

2. Sounds like a policy hiccup to me. But what I would do in this situation would add an agenda item to the next meeting to propose how to avoid such an issue going forward. You’re right, the director should have noted that it was to be “off the record”. They are definitely passing the blame. But air it out as an agenda item and make them take ownership back in the future.

Depending on the field, their attitudes may be the norm. It doesn’t mean you have to take it. If you feel it really is wearing on your mental health, I think it’s entirely reasonable to find a better suited position for yourself. Don’t worry about letting the CEO down. If the office atmosphere is that tough they’ll get over it.
posted by like_neon at 12:20 PM on September 8, 2020 [21 favorites]

You have every right to be ticked off. If you are doing a job that had no predecessor how could you be properly informed of the duties and procedures? There is a hint of "an old boys network" in your post which makes it even more unbearable. While there are common sense issues that could be managed by just sitting you down privately I dont see this as something just glaringly obvious that you are overlooking. The company heads are not taught to have decorum and compassion when speaking with underlings. You have a job to do true enough but the work on your mental status is lost on these bullies. Take notes of your errors and their behavior. It will help you remember the proprietary rules as well as set up all your details in the event this office is rife with condescension. You can weigh your options after a good long week of growth vs. Harassment. P.S. I hope your boss gave you credit for revamping your idea instead of tweaking it and taking credit for it.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 12:21 PM on September 8, 2020

I do feel like part of working in admin involves eating a certain amount of shit just because it makes the executives look/feel good. How much shit that is will depend on the company culture, and yours sounds pretty bad.

My advice would depend on how long you expect your CEO to be away, and whether you realistically think they're actually planning to intervene in this over-the-top (and probably performative, for each other) behavior. If you only need to get through another week or two of this, and think you can steel yourself to perform groveling as necessary until they are back, it's probably worth pushing through to have a final conversation.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:22 PM on September 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

If this were me, I'd sit down with my boss and say that I felt like the expectations weren't clear and that the directors did not seem clear on my role, citing the two examples you give. The directors need to know that if something isn't supposed to be minuted they need either to provide you with a list of non-minute-able things, review the minutes before they go out or flag things in the meeting. Even if the person in this role is just supposed to know, you need more training. Is it possible for you to "clarify" (by which I really mean verify and write down) what your boss sees your role as? Is it possible for your boss to provide the directors with a description of what you'll be doing?

Also, if I need to present something (which I very occasionally do) I usually say that boss and I worked on this or boss and I prepared it for their feedback.

Did someone else have this job who had been there a long time, devoted their entire life to the work or arrived there in a way very different than you did? Sometimes rather self-absorbed bosses get so used to Super Secretary or Super Grant Manager that they can't adjust to a new person or a person who, eg, doesn't work a lot of unpaid overtime because they're a workaholic.
posted by Frowner at 12:25 PM on September 8, 2020 [12 favorites]

The old-school admins I work with frequently say that part of their job is taking the blame for the execs as cover when they fuck up. Is that right? Not in my opinion. But it's definitely a school of thought, and I have to wonder if that (unspoken) expectation is part of what's going on here.

Are there other people in similar roles to yours who you can discreetly ask about this? Because if taking the blame to make the CEO look better is an expected part of your job, then yes, you will likely need to learn how to handle it or seek a different role that's a better fit for you.

If this is part of your role (implicitly or explicitly), it may help to remind yourself that you and CEO know the truth, and CEO knows that it isn't on you.
posted by pie ninja at 12:28 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Thanks, all, this is really helping. I just wanted to clarify in case it makes a difference that I'm not actually an admin although I do have to take notes of this particular meeting. We have two admins that work for us but I am a mid-level scientist myself. The minutes are fairly technical as well as being political - because of the technical aspects the admins don't take them.
posted by hazyjane at 12:32 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

The CEO decided to change the process in line with what they wanted. He then rang me up and told me the way they had treated me was unacceptable and he would deal with it with them.

This sounds like your boss has your back. Do you trust him to have that "look, your concerns about the new covid plan had merit but you can't treat hazyjane that way" followup conversation with the directors? If so I would definitely stick it out till he's back and you can talk one-on-one like the replies above suggest. If you think he's more the 'placate whoever needs placating in the moment then sweep it under the rug' type then it might be time to reconsider the position.
posted by Flannery Culp at 12:38 PM on September 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

I agree with like_neon that in situation 1 the CEO should have presented.

On situation 2 - surely the minutes should be reviewed before they get wider distribution? It seems like the CEO, or someone they designate, should sign off on them. So it's a fault in the process, not your fault.
posted by Pink Frost at 12:38 PM on September 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

I just left a company as a "Chief of Staff" - which is basically a mid level role that reports to the CEO, and does things like note taking/process implementation/ etc. Very similar to what you are doing.

The challenge is with the role itself. Frequently you end up as a political scapegoat and the person blamed for new process that is not even your idea. After that experience, I left quite not keen on the role because ultimately the CEO needs to take ownership for their ideas, and it's not very fun for anyone to carry out someone else's bidding.

I would encourage you to redefine this role, or apply to a different one in the company - after a honest conversation with the CEO.
posted by treetop89 at 12:41 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

1. Kind of similar to pie ninja but a little differently, I wonder if there was a political gambit where what the CEO wanted was what the final outcome actually was but needed to present something to be shot down first.

Assuming it wasn't something like that, have the directors treated you that way since then (other than incident 2)?

2. If you sending out minutes is a standard thing, it's 100% on them to specify if something needs to be excluded, particularly if this is the only time anything's been deemed that sensitive.
posted by Candleman at 12:43 PM on September 8, 2020

For 1, what worries me is the CEO apparently didn't know or didn't communicate to you the broad outline of what the board would approve before you started your process. This says to me either the CEO didn't realize how important this issue was to the board, didn't care, or most uncharitably set you up to fail. It's a waste of your time and the boards time to have you work on something they wouldn't approve. It's a big lesson learned for you too - it's important to have all of the stakeholders involved as early as possible, and go very slowly if it sounds like whoever is directing your work isn't getting them involved.

For 2, minutes typically need to be reviewed and approved by attendees before going out, for this reason among others. Sounds like a process problem not something you personally messed up, unless attendee review is something you are supposed to be doing and didn't do.

I don't know, I have a pretty thick skin and both these incidents would bother me a lot but not make me quit my job or anything. I try to decouple my ego from my work and tell myself it's not personal even if people try to make it personal. I am not my job.
posted by muddgirl at 12:47 PM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

After posting I mean "proceed cautiously" not literally work slowly :)
posted by muddgirl at 12:59 PM on September 8, 2020

I'm also a Chief of Staff (hi treetop89!) and I deal with these issues very often.

In the first example - unfortunately, that happens a lot. My boss, the COO, frequently has me propose a plan or approach and present it to the leadership team and then they sometimes tear it apart. She rarely jumps in to say that the plan was based on her idea. Honestly, that part sucks and if I'm ever in the COO's position I will make it a point to figure out a way to do it better. I think part of it is that she wants me to be seen as having my own authority - that may also be the CEO's perspective for you? - but it is not a good way to do it at all.

Re the second point, that is definitely something that comes with experience. I would also ask the CEO to review your minutes before sending them - I ALWAYS do this, just for the reason you mentioned. I usually say something like 'lmk if you have any edits - will send by xx time unless I hear differently from you'. That way it's a little bit of CYA for you as well.

I hope you will stay in the role if you like it. Don't let the assholes get you down. There's always going to be politics and unfortunately, in this role, you'll probably be exposed to them more often. That's one of the downsides, but the upside is that it's usually a very visible role with opportunity to grow, and you're usually privy to senior and interesting discussions.

Good luck!
posted by widdershins at 1:40 PM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

The more heat you can take for the CEO, the more valuable you are to them.

The downside to this is that your ultimate value will be realized only if they need to sacrifice you to keep their job.
posted by jamjam at 2:12 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Do you have standing to push back? In the first case, something like "Calm down - listen, I've got buy-in from the CEO to proceed in this way. We can keep going or we can wait until we can get him in the room again. Your call."

In the second case, something like "I get it, you gotta call it out for me to keep it off record, if it sounds like it might be going that way I'll bring it up first."

You might be underestimating your standing here. Working closely with the CEO might get you seen as exec-level potential. If I were you I'd hang in there.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 2:16 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

This would be in line with feedback in my current, high-paying role (think more than $200k a year). If you're making less than $150k a year, fuck this nonsense. If you're making around that or more, I'd say you're being oversensitive -- part of the job at that level is taking direct feedback without taking it personally. If they'd called you stupid or something I'd think otherwise. But just telling you you made a mistake -- that's expected at that level of salary and responsibility because you have to act autonomously. That's how you learn.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 3:13 PM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

So everyone above is saying this is a very visible role where you can grow and and advance. They are NOT WRONG AT ALL. This role has all of trappings of a good stepping stone to some thing big.

However, you should know that outside of trying to manage this stress better, it only gets worse. I personally have never been able to handle this. I would think very hard if this is what you want to do.
posted by sandmanwv at 4:57 PM on September 8, 2020

Your role isn't just to problem-solve here. It is also to persuade. Have you been including the pros and cons for alternative but "less effective" ideas in the presentations you have given to date? (Phrases like "less effective" are a great way to tell folks like this they are wrong.) For example, rather than just confining yourself to saying, "We think the cars should now be parked in the front of the building," you should also include information like, "We considered adding additional parking on the side of the building but parking in that section has historically blah, blah, blah..... We are not suggesting that we continue using the back lot because best practice public health recommendations state that ... " This way you shut down the guy about to talk about x, and the woman who pipes up about y, and the fellow with ideas about z.

I've often been brought into meetings where *a lot* of group dissension was expected. My role was to gently, and inoffensively, shut them down, and make them feel as though the course I am suggesting is well thought through — which it is.

If you haven't been making presentations like that, I would start. It's important to remember that most folks, most of the time speak off the top of their heads. Chances are, even if you just spent an hour on the proposal, you'll have spent more sustained time thinking about potential solutions then they will off the cuff in a meeting. Use that to your advantage. You will earn the committee's respect that way, and make life easier for your boss and yourself in the process.
posted by Violet Blue at 7:15 PM on September 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

I don't think you have a performance problem, per se, I think you have a relationship-building problem. (Which okay could be framed as a performance problem but you know what I mean.) You and your CEO get along great, and you seem to be relying on the CEO to get you out of several difficult interactions you have had with the rest of the directors. And now that the CEO is on vacation, it seems like you're unprotected from the baying mob of directors who are out for your blood. I mean this is obviously an exaggeration but I'm doing it so I can illustrate the dynamics more clearly for you!

Build better relationships with the directors. This means asking for their input on everything you currently don't think to ask their input on. Don't JUST get your CEO's okay on anything that the rest of the directors could even have an opinion on. You don't have to be super formal about it, you can just poke your head into their office and ask informally, or run into them at lunch or at the coffee station and say, "Oh, hey, Brenda, what do you think of taking the ____ approach to the ____ brief?" Make it a habit of shooting an email to the directors whenever you're working on presentations and briefs to say, "Hey, y'all, I'm working on this, these are my highlights that I am hoping to hit, if anyone has input email me," and then a couple of days before presentation say, email the whole lot again saying, "Here's a draft of the presentation which I'm doing on Monday, lmk if you have any last minute thoughts."

These directors are your internal stakeholders and you should be treating them as such. Keep them in the loop. Ask their input and do your job in collaboration with them rather than treat them like outsiders and non-stakeholders. Clearly your CEO is not the only ally you need, especially since they are also laboring under the same misapprehension as you are that the CEO is the only stakeholders who matters in your job!
posted by MiraK at 5:34 AM on September 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thank you again for these responses, I am finding them very helpful. I do have a relationship problem with three out of the five directors I work with... but then again so does just about everyone in the company. I was the only person to volunteer for my role because these three are so widely disliked. The last person who was in my role was told to step down after three months as it wasn't working out, and the person before that was disliked by five out of five directors. In a way I'm doing well to only have a problem with three of them! And I have excellent relationships for the most part with the folks above and below these directors and throughout the rest of the company.

There is one other person who does the same job as me and he has been doing it for several years and is well-respected. He makes mistakes too but they pretty much never come back to bite him. I want to learn to be more like him but it's difficult as he is a large male extrovert and I'm a small female introvert so I can't really just copy his style.

A few people have mentioned getting over it, moving on, and not letting it bother me. I think I need to do that... But how? One thing is certain which is that I am not going to get fired due to the labour laws in my country so at least I don't have that to worry about. I need to grow a thicker skin and not take things to heart but find that difficult.
posted by hazyjane at 2:01 PM on September 9, 2020

he is a large male extrovert and I'm a small female introvert so I can't really just copy his style

You've seen the "carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man" meme? This is the time for that! Not that your coworker is mediocre, but you don't have to be a super charismatic extrovert to walk like you assume you belong in the room or at the table, and to receive criticism with an acknowledging nod of yeah, sometimes things happen, at least you won't make that mistake again. It may take awhile, you'll feel like a fake, and it will probably drain a lot of your energy (said the fellow introvert), but eventually you can dial it back once it's established that you do belong there and deserve respect if for no other reason than the CEO believes in you and they want to stay in good standing with him. They don't have to love you, just accept that you know what you're doing and aren't leaving anytime soon.

(That update sounds like you're actually doing fine and if you can hang in there will look like a rockstar, so imagine me cheering you on from afar. Honestly they sound like a bunch of kids who miss their old teacher and are trying to make the new one miserable enough to quit.)
posted by Flannery Culp at 4:25 PM on September 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

I would say you're both being bullied and that's built in to your job. Part of the "fun" of a high-level position is that you get to deal with high-ranking people and their egos. A lot of times, important people are So Very Important, and aren't used to being checked or having to be considerate, so they will act out in somewhat surprising ways. (Of course, sometimes, they will also demonstrate decisiveness or brilliance or some other quality that's explains how they got where they are, but that's not what we're talking about here).

In terms of dealing with challenging feedback, I'd encourage you to develop what I would call a mental "filter" and run the feedback through it. Don't immediately assume, "you should have know" or that you're a bad person. There's no way you could have known what the preferred process was from either example you gave.

So, for the first example, instead of thinking, "Oh, wow, I blew that. I did a bad job," work on thinking, "How should we develop and present processes going forward? Should I assume that everything is just a draft?" Your process may be perfectly fine from your point of view, but, a lot of time, leadership involves letting people get together and fight it out. Sometimes, decisions that appear otherwise dumb are made that way.

In the second example, there's no way you could have known that that that information should be handled differently than you were told. I would ask something like, "What's the appropriate way of handling that sort of information going forward?"

It complicates matters, because I've found a lot of senior executives really enjoy rough-and-tumble dominance games - it seems, just for the sake of playing. After awhile, you'll start to recognize patterns and you can even make a game of it to yourself. (Bill is going to complain about cost... here we go... and now Marcia will go into a ten-minute riff about compliance - right on schedule!)

Working and succeeding at that level is useful skill to have, if you think you can get through without undue stress. It's definitely not everyone's cup of tea, though, and there's nothing wrong if you don't like it and want to go back to a less dramatic work environment.
posted by dancing_angel at 8:33 AM on September 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

The three people here don't like anyone so why should they like you? It's a good habit to get into to not take other people's issues onto you.

Really, when you think about it, don't try to "solve" it. The opposite of much of this advice! Just do your thing and focus on your life and what is important to you. Surely the feelings of these three people are very low on your list, yes? Think about your life, your loved ones, your community, the meaning of your job that makes it worthwhile. Focus on improving and enjoying those.

In other words, put your energy, effort, and love where you want to put it.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 8:36 AM on September 10, 2020

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