How to get out of spiral of contempt from my boss?
February 8, 2021 1:58 PM   Subscribe

I love my job and I have a specialized skillset that means I would have to take a huge paycut and/or move if I quit. Unfortunately I have gotten into a spiral where my boss thinks I can do no right. None of it is related to work product - it's more about how I navigate or fail to navigate our toxic workspace.

My boss and I used to be legitimate friends - prior to me working for him - but this has gone way south. He doesn't do continuous feedback - we have yearly reviews where he lays out grievances from the past year as well as some golden oldies from prior years. They are all related to my seeming lack of respect for him, or a way I behaved wrong at one of our booze-soaked work or conference events, my new tattoo (???), etc. I feel stressed because I have been working really hard to show him respect and toe the line, but I think I'm at "bitch eating crackers" level with him. Not to pile on, but making matters a bit worse is that he is a gaslighter. He will simply state as fact something that we both know didn't happen (that I left early on such and such a day when I did not; that I lied about a work task when there is clear documentation that I did not) and I think it's a challenge - he's daring me to admit that we both know that he's lying.

This is especially frustrating because I have been in counseling and I've been working on being a much kinder person. I do my best to be super respectful and kind to my coworkers, offer to take on tasks, give credit, take blame, etc. It almost feels like this is frustrating him more.

Have you ever been in this situation? Is there a way to reset it or should I start looking? I'm honestly happy to hear suggestions that I might actually be the jerk in this situation but I really don't think I am and I get good feedback from my reports and coworkers.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I’ve been in the situation. I rage-quit without a job to go to; took my box of desk things in a box into a taxi: it did wonders for my self-esteem, and I often think of the moment. I’m not saying it’s what you should do, just that that’s what I did.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:05 PM on February 8, 2021 [25 favorites]

Hierarchy question:
Does your boss have a boss? Because depending on the workplace dynamic, it might be time to talk to someone higher up.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:08 PM on February 8, 2021 [12 favorites]

When I was in that situation I busted ass doing stuff I was good at until they tried to give me a project that played to all my weaknesses and was doomed for other reasons anyway, and I said "I don't want to do that, anything else" and they said "there's nothing else for you, you should resign", which sucked, but I did and I found another job, with a healthy environment and a boss who liked and supported me, and my main regret is I stayed at the old place as long as I did.
posted by aubilenon at 2:11 PM on February 8, 2021 [6 favorites]

my experience is that there's no way back from it and you would do well to start looking. If your boss hates you they'll find a reason to get rid of you eventually and your job search will be harder and your mental health will suffer a lot more than if you take the initiative yourself.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:15 PM on February 8, 2021 [16 favorites]

You can’t reset it. The answer is you either go above his head to your grandboss or you start looking for a new job.
posted by Jubey at 2:15 PM on February 8, 2021 [6 favorites]

Seconding what fingersandtoes posted. Once I hit this point with my old job, my mental health nosedived. COVID put the company in a bad spot financially, and I all but ordered my old boss to lay me off.

Getting out of that job sucked for my pocketbook, and the job search wasn’t easy. That said, a year later, I’m in a much better place mentally AND professionally.

You can’t fix a bad boss; you can only escape them.
posted by FallibleHuman at 2:21 PM on February 8, 2021 [8 favorites]

Sorry to pile on, but I have seen this dynamic play out enough times that I believe it's rarely possible to fix or reverse. As unfair as it is, it tends to be much harder to change a negative opinion of your performance than a positive one. In this situation, I would be putting all of my spare energy into finding a new job, even if it means a pay cut or relocation (which, believe me, I know can be very painful).
posted by primethyme at 2:24 PM on February 8, 2021 [6 favorites]

What happens when you do admit that you both know he's lying?
posted by inexorably_forward at 2:24 PM on February 8, 2021 [12 favorites]

Since you indicate that this has been going on for multiple years, I think that's a good indication that your boss is not going to change his behavior.

Does he behave like this towards other direct reports or just you? Because there is a whiff of this being gender-based, in which case I'd start documenting if you haven't already.

And keep in mind that your boss is getting away with this behavior because the organizational culture supports him. There's no incentive for your boss to change because the organization doesn't care if they have toxic managers or they're willing to absorb the cost of toxic managers. Do you really want to take on an entire workplace culture? Your energy is probably better spent finding an organizations that has this more figured out.
posted by brookeb at 2:34 PM on February 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

You really can't reset it because they don't live in a reality based world. I correctly and with proof identified my company's head of accounts was sending fraudulent data, but all it took was that guy saying I sucked to the company owners for me to be an eternal black sheep, regardless of the quality of work or really great feedback from every other person I engage with. Now everyone knows I was right but it. doesn't. matter. at. all.

It really sucks, honestly. I have been trying to work on divorcing myself from wanting to be respected even by people I know are to me very bad actors. I have not been successful.

And yeah, culture usually comes from the top. If that is tolerated in your little neck of the woods, it probably would be handwaved away AT BEST or you would be punished at worst.

So yeah, guess we better find new jobs, eh?
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 2:37 PM on February 8, 2021 [5 favorites]

y i k e s to everything about this

Maybe I'm wrong but are you a woman and did you perhaps reject a pass he made at you way back once upon a time? Because I'm getting HELLA those kind of vibes from this. Document this shit. Even if I'm off base here, he's still commenting on your body (tat) and that's gross as hell coming from your boss.

I agree with others here:
1. Go to someone above him.
2. Quit.
posted by phunniemee at 2:37 PM on February 8, 2021 [12 favorites]

This happened to me once ... my boss had always low-key "friend-flirted" with me and once I got engaged I went from Golden Girl to person who could do no Right. It's crushing to your self-esteem. The sooner you flee, the better. Bonus if you can make him fire you and collect unemployment.
posted by cyndigo at 2:41 PM on February 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

I think you need to clarify your goals here. Your goal is not to reverse his opinion of you, or make him like you again, or even to make him stop acting out against you. Rather, your goal is to protect yourself from his unprofessional attacks by

(a) challenging his lies in an upbeat and non-confrontational tone,
(b) documenting everything, preferably via email to him/from him
(c) forcing him to write down his issues with you and getting him to agree to concrete work goals for you.

The eventual endgame would be to build enough documentation to take his ass to HR in case he escalates his attacks on you or, best case scenario, on your way out of the company.

we have yearly reviews where he lays out grievances from the past year as well as some golden oldies from prior years

You can handle this by requesting in writing that any suggestions he might have for how you should improve your performance at work be discussed with you on a more regular basis.

Send an email like, "Hey, [boss], thanks for taking the time to do that review with me. I must say I was taken by surprise when you listed a set of issues I didn't even realize were making you concerned. I am committed to remaining a high-performing team member. How about we touch base every week/fortnight/month to discuss my progress on the goals we set, and to address any new issues that may have come up. Thanks!"

See? Positive, upbeat, professional, non-blaming attitude which solves the problem. BTW if you don't come away from this kind of performance review with concrete goals, that needs to be the first thing you say in the email, like, "I'd like to use my first meeting with you to do some goal setting to benchmark my progress within the team," and then go in prepared with some SMART goals you can suggest which address his complains directly.

my seeming lack of respect for him, or a way I behaved wrong at one of our booze-soaked work or conference events

Okay, so this is 100% stuff that's under your control and has an easy fix: for as long as this guy is your boss, always be respectful towards him (NB: this does not mean you must let him walk all over you without saying a word), and always be the sober professional even at booze-soaked work and conference events. Them's the breaks, and even though it's unfair that you're being held to a different standard than everyone else, it's also not exactly an onerous expectation, considering this IS work.

my new tattoo (???)

You can push back on this in a non-confrontational, upbeat, professional manner by asking him to put his complaint in writing. In the same email where you address all of the performance review stuff, be sure to mention as one of your numbered items, "You also brought up an issue with my tattoo, IIRC, but I don't recall the details of that comment. Would you please refresh my memory about what your concern was and what you suggest I should do to address it? Thanks." If he ignores you, good. If he writes out his complaint, you save that email and don't bother to follow up with him. Your documented file on him which you are saving to show to HR just got that much fatter. Unless he does have some valid basis like company policy against your tattoo? In which case, take his advice and cover up your tattoo.

he's daring me to admit that we both know that he's lying.

Is there any reason why you don't correct him in those moments? You don't have to accuse him of lying. You can say, "No, I didn't leave early that day, you're probably thinking of someone else," or "Oh but I did communicate with you about that work task, hang on, I have the email right here," -- all in a friendly, upbeat tone.

Better yet, put this in writing. Send an email after each of these comments he makes, using the excuse that you're following up on whatever work issue it was that came up during the meeting when he said the gaslighty things. Like, "Hey, [boss], just to re-confirm the following from my meeting notes - my to-do's are to review Gina's report and get back to you about Ram's numbers. Hope I can get Ram on the phone when I call him, he can be a hard man to track down, haha. BTW did I hear you correctly when you said at the meeting that I left early on Thursday? I was actually here till 5:30 working with Gina on the slides! Anyways, wish me luck with Ram, cheers."

Bottomline is, document document document document document. Everything should be in writing, every single objectionable comment should be referenced in an email from you to him AND written down separately. Build up your file. If he ever escalates attacks against you, march yourself and that file to HR. In the meantime, network with his superiors, make yourself known to them as a friendly, professional and reliable member of the team, be on the alert for internal job openings for lateral moves, and also look for jobs on the side.
posted by MiraK at 2:50 PM on February 8, 2021 [24 favorites]

I have had this boss more than once. You cannot fix him. You cannot fix this situation. And in fact this situation is actively bad for your career, and you need to get away from it before more damage is done to you.
posted by bleep at 2:53 PM on February 8, 2021 [7 favorites]

Based on my own experiences with toxic management and coworkers, I don't think there's anything you can do to "fix" this situation. Getting out is the only thing that will change your situation.

And the longer you stay in this job, the more harm you'll experience. I had about a year of Job From Hell, after which I got a job with an amazingly supportive manager, and it still took at least five years for me to stop being hypervigilant and reactive in a work context.
posted by Lexica at 3:03 PM on February 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Bottomline is, document document document document document.

This, a thousand times. I defeated an asshole (but, fortunately, not detail-oriented) VP this way and it was utterly glorious.

...leaving a month and a half later was even more glorious, however, so do that too.
posted by aramaic at 3:13 PM on February 8, 2021 [5 favorites]

I have been in this situation. I tried for years to make it work, and only ended up making myself miserable. I wasted nearly a decade of my life. Don't make the same mistake I did. Life is *too short* to be miserable at your job. Start planning your exit now.
posted by signsofrain at 3:18 PM on February 8, 2021 [4 favorites]

Been there, small difference was that it was my job to QA oversee the "boss" (technically we're at the same org chart level), tried resetting it by letting him do bad things quality- and compliance- wise despite it killing me on the inside. Instead of resetting, it emboldened him to be an even bigger jerk, liar, and gaslighter. I had enough, did an internal whistleblow, and promptly got "fired" for it by grandboss.

I'm doing much better mentally and emotionally, despite not having a job and having a really hard time getting another one.

Give yourself the respect that you deserve and move on.
posted by porpoise at 3:37 PM on February 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

I was bullied by a boss, which led to being bullied by most of the office. It left a mark, to say the least. Bullies never respect the people they bully. Save money so you have a Fuck You fund; enough to cover basic living expenses until you find a new job. Then stand up to him, as sweetly and politely as possible. Do not use any confrontational words, body posture, etc. Saying, sweetly, Leave early? Boss, I was here till %endtime that day; working on %task. I remember because I got a late call from %client. aLet your comments be a reminder that there are records of phone use, and your claim is trivially easy to back up.

Start being conspicuously on time and creating documentation with a phone call from your office phone, an email (IP address), etc. Take your lead from Southern women, sugar sweet and no bullshit. One temp boss I had made a lot of demands, but would act surprised when we did as asked, so i took to using the email with the demand, and replying to it, cheerfully. Then I started cc:ing her boss and some of the wackier snotty comments she made to staff ended her stay.

leave as soon as you can.
posted by theora55 at 3:40 PM on February 8, 2021 [7 favorites]

we have yearly reviews where he lays out grievances from the past year as well as some golden oldies from prior years. They are all related to my seeming lack of respect for him, or a way I behaved wrong at one of our booze-soaked work or conference events, my new tattoo (???), etc.

Does he do this IN WRITING? Or does he just take a yearly opportunity to verbally abuse you and call that a review?

If it's in writing, you should show it to a lawyer. If it's not, are you allowed to record a conversation without notifying the other party where you live?

He's either trying to neg you into sleeping with him or is punishing you for not sleeping with him.

I think it's worth discussing this in therapy, because trying to be kinder is nice but having and enforcing boundaries is critical, and occasionally life-or-death. You've been gaslit to the point you're trying to figure out how you're the problem when even if you were a terrible employee this would still not be the appropriate way for a manager to deal with it.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:53 PM on February 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh, buddy, you are NOT a Bitch Eating Crackers in this situation, you are someone who is being abused by their boss. It's not about his irrational dislike of you in an armchair sort of way, it's about him using his authority over you to put your mental health and livelihood in danger because he can.

Others above have covered this far better than I can, but please, know that you are not at fault and there's nothing you could do or could have done to fix this. He's a bad dude. When you are gone, there will be someone else, just as I am sure there has been someone else in the past. If you can take him out with you, great, but if not, cut your losses and get out of there.
posted by urbanlenny at 4:08 PM on February 8, 2021 [4 favorites]

Well, I've experienced similar. Most likely there is no fixing of this and you should probably try to leave if you can. But one thing occurs to me that nobody else has said: how motivated is your boss to actually fire you? Is he actively trying to do so or are you just getting chewed out/blamed/bad reviews all the time but nobody has put you on a PIP yet?
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:15 PM on February 8, 2021

Heartache. Can you secure good references from your coworkers and then use those to get another job? I say that as someone trying to rescue a coworker from the contempt spiral, apparently unsuccessfully. We can tell what's going on and are rooting for him.
posted by michaelh at 6:07 PM on February 8, 2021

From observation, this is much harder to "win" than it sounds, and even winning requires spending months or years in this dynamic and ending up with self esteem issues and twitchy hypervigilance. To say nothing of what it does to you to live with this kind of
financial precarity. I recommend leaving or at least transferring teams if at all possible.
posted by slidell at 7:21 PM on February 8, 2021 [7 favorites]

Man, I am watching this kind of thing play out in my workplace, though it sounds like this is even worse. This person is a much more effective and committed employee than most of our team but they got off on the wrong foot somehow with our boss and just cannot ever catch a break. They'll never get fired, ever! Because they're a completely integral part of the team. But they'll also never get groomed for management and just sort of get a constant hum of criticism that isn't ever leveled at other people who do the same things (e.g., using a fake background on zoom instead of their real office, asking for new software licenses, etc.).

I hope my coworker is constantly job hunting and that soon you are too. In the meantime what I have observed is that my coworker just keeps on doing a very good job, BUT, has very thoroughly detached themselves from the job. Since our boss will never ever like them, they're also taking advantage of that to push back on some of the more ridiculous shit that goes on at our workplace. If you're going to be disliked no matter what, you can stop worrying about being likeable and just get. shit. done. Don't bother working extra hours or coming in on holidays or doing a bunch of ass-kissing.

Do you have anyone around who can see what is happening and at least keep confirming for you that it's real, it's bullshit, and you don't deserve it? I try to be this person for my coworker and also defend them to our boss (or more pointedly, defend them in front of other people, since I agree our boss will never care), and just exist as a witness and a reference. You have to find someone you trust hardcore, though.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:28 PM on February 8, 2021 [9 favorites]

I think We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese (above) co-worker has the best approach. Keep working hard, detach yourself emotionally, and make your work speak for you. The going the extra hours thing should end.

The way to end this with this company is to outlast your boss. If they leave or get promoted, you get a clean slate. I personally would not want to play the outlast them game, but if it financially works for you and you can handle the mental strain, go for it.

I am an old guy. I am about to sound like my father and every stereotypical father, but life is too short to hate your job this much for the money. Money can overcome many obstacles, but you will look back and say that it was not worth it. You may or may not realize how much this is affecting your entire life. Knowing what I know now, I would rather be a happy poor person than a miserable person who can buy shit or pay their cable bill. When people ask me about my favorite times in my life, my answer is never "I was making a boat load of money in my mid-30s and partying like a rock star." It is always a memory with a loved one just hanging out or doing something special with them that rarely entailed the spending of money" Watching Yankees games with my daughter EVERY night as a ritual was a great time in my life. The Yankees were fun, but really an excuse to hang with my daughter every night talking and laughing and discussing life.

Work hard. Ignore asshole boss. Plan out and start executing your next move. When interviewing for next job, try to get a sense of the corporate culture. Take a good culture over the money. Money will work out in the long run.

When you get the next job, especially if it is in another city, on the way out, tell your boss something harsh like Adios Motherfucker. You'll feel better for it.
posted by AugustWest at 10:19 PM on February 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Yep, bleep and AugustWest and many others are absolutely correct: your relationship with your boss is irreparable.

Like others here, I've seen this dynamic IDK, dozens of times, and it only ends when one of the two people leaves the organization. So if I were you, I'd be watching your boss and trying to assess the likelihood of them leaving. Like, how long have they been with your company so far? Are they a job-hopper? What's turnover like in your industry & in your company? What are the odds of them being forced out in some kind of management reshuffle? The more likely it is that they will stick around, the more energy you should put into job-hunting.

You should also try to assess how likely they are to actually fire you. With most bosses, the way your boss is acting would mean they're actively preparing to fire you, within say 1-6 months. But some people who behave this way are totally comfortable with this dynamic, and can stay in it happily for years. You might want to try to figure out which type your boss is, because it'll help you figure out whether there's any urgency here.
posted by Susan PG at 6:41 AM on February 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

If works sucks then get the heck out, or they fire you.

I got out of a pretty sucky environment just over a year ago... not voluntarily, as I put up with a LOT of crap. But they decided to get rid of me even though I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who actively tries to improve the system by bringing in my own equipment to improve my throughput. Sometimes I was finished super-early, and I come back and get off, the clock, instead of taking my time and make it a full 8-hour day. I lasted 18 months when the company did all sorts of things unilaterally making our jobs more difficult with almost zero notice, and without any input from us doing the work, while moving the responsibility of our department around, that no less than THREE supervisors went on to bigger and better things elsewhere. I was sorta promised a move up but it never happened. In the end, they fired me after ONE warning, which I thought I corrected, but apparently it wasn't good enough for them. So next day, poof. You're fired.

It was not as toxic as your place, as my job requires me out in the field 95% of the day, but I don't "hang around the office" after hours to shoot the breeze and butter up the office staff, so apparently I'm not a "team player", even though there is no 'team" as a delivery driver.

Regarding your situation... Clearly none of the criticism is about your work... So all of this is personal. You're dealing with a narcissist who keeps a ledger of your "transgressions" that can be leveraged against you. If there is no going over him or her (i.e. the whole place is like Game of Thrones) then it's best to leave and not look back. If your skillset is valuable, you'll be recruited by one of the competitors in no time. In fact, you may as well start doing outreach now. Maybe one of your clients is hiring.
posted by kschang at 11:57 AM on February 10, 2021

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