How to kill it at work when my boss is trying to kill me
February 12, 2021 4:56 AM   Subscribe

Just over a year ago I posted this Ask about my boss's tendency to lash out with vague, angry criticism during tense situations. The solution was quite obviously to leave, but the pandemic made this impossible; now the situation, predictably, has deteriorated. I have begun the internal transfer process and do not think my boss has grounds to have me fired, but I find myself in a position where I have to succeed at my job despite a shitty, adversarial supervisor, and would love some advice and/or a reality check. Snowflakes and teal deer inside.

I actually was able to use some of the advice I got in that Ask to improve our one-on-one conversations, by focusing on validating her feelings rather than trying to force her to stick to facts and specific issues. At least it seemed to make her less angry. So, thank you MeFi!

2020 was a terrible year for my entire industry. (We are not in the US, in case that's relevant.) The only one of my projects which was not put on standby--which a now-impossible new hire that had been planned for Q1 2020 would have managed, or at least supported me on--was an unmitigated shitshow. I managed, despite various disasters including a last-minute copyright lawsuit and the sudden death of a subcontractor, the production of all deliverables for which I was responsible, on time, and they received written approval from the project director, to whom I was reporting, before delivery. When our client did a 180 and exploded at us over said deliverables, previously approved by them, the P.D. quit on the spot, after over 20 years in the profession, and claimed I and the other contributors had not done our jobs despite ample documentation to the contrary. Two other team members went on extended medical leave due to unmanageable stress as a direct result of the situation. The whole debacle quickly became a company-wide incident, and I and a few other colleagues were left holding the bag.

Needless to say, Boss blamed me for the entire thing. (I am, for the record, a low-ranking project manager for a narrow range of dossiers--my official classification is two steps above "entry level" on an eight-step scale.) I then spent two months working 60- and 70-hour weeks to try to pick up the pieces and restore our relationship with the client WHILE also doing my regular job. I consider this the minimum for a responsible employee--I helped make the mess and I accepted the workload consequences of helping to clean it up. I was acknowledged by the client, my boss, and the regional director for my dedication and contribution to helping stabilize the situation. Boss assured me that, while I would need to show significant improvement (on the same nebulous, ever-shifting kinds of axes she has always brought up in our exchanges), her priority was to move on to our 2021 objectives and let the matter rest.

LOL. Yesterday, despite her prior assurances to the contrary, to absolutely no one's surprise I had my first negative performance review in 6 years of professional life. Using the $project incident, Boss has essentially retconned her evaluation of my previous performance over the past 2.5 years, going back and constructing a pattern out of various minor/one-time complaints and mistakes ("was asked to proofread Internal Document, missed an out-of-date figure on page 42") to claim, contrary to my two previous reviews, that I am sloppy and completely incompetent, and to officially indicate on the eval form that I am a chronic underperformer.

To be clear, I had already indicated before my review that I wanted a transfer, and her recommendation is also that I find another role within our company, not that I be terminated. But obviously I cannot trust anything she says at this point, so I am proceeding as if she is looking for a way to actually have me fired, even though employment law in this country is such that it would be quite difficult to do so. (Yes, I will be speaking with a lawyer this month or in early March.) Furthermore, my 2021 objectives are numerous and include projects of strategic importance for our company, which *on the surface* also seems inconsistent with her claims that I am ineffective and incompetent.

TL;DR: I guess what I'm really seeking is a reality check on my understanding of the current situation, my perception of what my own flaws and this incident mean for my future, and advice on doing the absolute best bang-up job possible *and demonstrating this to people in my company* as I begin the internal transfer process.

My read on the situation is:
1. That project DID go badly, in a year that was already awful for us, and I DID make a real strategic error by not anticipating it would be a disaster and insisting Boss listen to my warnings (which I did give and she brushed off as me being "lazy").

2. However, this is my first disappointing result and first negative review in my tenure at this company and indeed my entire time in our industry; I also think that my illness and the general chaos of 2020 are relevant, though not exculpatory, factors here.

3. God knows I have LOTS of room for improvement on many criteria, but I simply do not agree that I'm an incompetent idiot who brings nothing to the organization. I have done good work in the past; incidents like this have happened to many, many of my co-workers, who were often more experienced than myself at the time of those incidents, who are still around and doing good work 5, 10, 15 years afterwards.

4. My boss wants to be rid of me for interpersonal and budgetary reasons, and to make it look like she bears no responsibility for $projectdebacle because I am an unmanageable and dishonest idiot.

5. She still wants, however, to extract the maximum amount of work from me while she searches for a pretext to fire me or simply waits for the internal transfer, which she is also hoping leads to me being fired because of my "serious flaws and lack of critical thinking skills".

6. Giving me a full workload with relatively significant projects is a win-win for her: either I succeed and deliver the results she needs OR the workload sets me up to fail and provides her with the necessary ammo to dismiss me, deflecting all blame for the problem onto me by having previously constructed a narrative that paints me as incompetent and stupid.

7. None of this is surprising in the current economic context, especially given her personality. But I also don't think it *in and of itself* indicates that I am so terrible that I need to give up on my profession, which is deeply important to me and wherein I have been reasonably successful in the past (albeit not on a rockstar, industry-changing scale). I do however need to get way more adept politically, and fast, in order to protect myself and to demonstrate my value to the company.

8. I intend to spend this year killing it in order to move past this and salvage my reputation and position within the company, though obviously not my current department.

Am I being hyperdefensive/paranoid on #1-6? Are #7 and #8 delusional? My plan at this point is to work around her machinations, which are pretty obvious, in order to do the best job humanly possible so as to 1) make myself an attractive internal candidate for other departments, 2) demonstrate value to everyone else on my team and in our division, so that when she inevitably badmouths me as a POS there will at least be some evidence to the contrary. How can I best attempt this, knowing that she's going to be undermining me every step of the way? Thanks in advance to anyone who waded through this saga.
posted by TinyChicken to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Gosh. I do not think you are being paranoid and I would read the situation in the same way. I don’t think you’re being delusional about #7, either. I have no idea about #8, though. Are others in the company aware that your boss is a problem? If they are, if she’s the missing stair everybody knows about but finds easier to tolerate than to fix, I think you could find a path out of this. If she’s actually managed to snow other people, though, you might have a tougher road, so I’m glad you’re consulting a lawyer. She doesn’t sound like a particularly smooth operator from your description, so I’d be surprised if none of her superiors know about this. But if it’s hard to fire you I expect it’ll be even harder to fire her.

You said:
I was acknowledged by the client, my boss, and the regional director for my dedication and contribution to helping stabilize the situation.

Do you happen to have this documented? And is there a mechanism for contesting the negative performance evaluation?

Here’s a question you didn’t ask yourself but maybe should. If you’re in an industry that’s been particularly badly hurt by the pandemic, what are your long term prospects if this *waves hands vaguely but frantically* drags on? Are the conditions that make it difficult to find another job now going to persist? And if so, what’s your best move, and what do you need to be doing now to prepare for it? Hopefully some of that will dovetail nicely with a couple months of dedicated hard work, but if not, I think maybe you should save some of your energy for those other things, as a hedge.
posted by eirias at 5:32 AM on February 12, 2021 [6 favorites]

My experience in this comes from media but...when you’re in a declining industry sometimes I think it goes like this: first the less stellar performers are actually cut. Then you start to have to lose good people. As you approach the end you kind of have two sets of people left (I was one so no shade here!) - people who put their noses to the grindstone no matter what, often cause we dealt with shit as kids, and people who are kind of...super good at keeping the grindstone going.

I think you’re doing everything right. Document, off site. Consult a lawyer. Look to transfer. And finally, get set for a move. everything you can to limit meetings with her, use email to follow everything up. If you can, play music you love in headphones all day. Take your breaks and go outside. Be kind to yourself.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:01 AM on February 12, 2021 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: *whoops, cut a phrase I meant to leave in: the "illness" in point no. 2 is a chronic illness with which I was diagnosed right before COVID hit, which has documented consequences for physical and cognitive abilities. It did not stop me from doing my job but made me less talkative/cheerful than usual for a while. It has since been brought under control with the right combination of meds, but Boss unfortunately is aware of the condition (because she was constantly complaining I was showing up looking tired and not talking enough), which I think is also coming into play here.
posted by TinyChicken at 6:10 AM on February 12, 2021

Focus on yourself and getting a transfer, and less on her. I don't think its going to matter too much even if you deliver the proverbial 110% - she's demonstrating a pattern of abusing you, maybe trying to get rid of you. You can't fix that.

Document everything, talk to a lawyer, limit your exposure to the abusive boss and gray rock as much as you can, talk to allies and potential allies in the organization, and get that transfer.
posted by RajahKing at 8:32 AM on February 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've never worked in a healthy org that would put a proofreading mistake on a review. That's supposed to be a multiple layer process and if it fails it's a team failure.

You're not a bad person, you did not wreck this project, there is never (at least within normal professional behavior like not doing sexual harassment or taking a shit on a conference table) ONE PERSON who tanks a project, and probably 60% of projects anytime anywhere are tanked from the start because of shitty sales and onboarding OR customer politics that doomed it from miles before the starting line. You don't have to "take responsibility" for this in beatings you seem to think you at least partially deserve. You got left holding the bag, that's all. This person is trying to turn you into the door they can float on for a while before sinking.

Focus on the transfer. Stop worrying about things you cannot control, like her shit-talking you. Because yes that can sour the well, but only so far as they are credible in the first place, and your manager I'm going to guess is likely a bit difficult for anybody to work with. I've worked in places where certain managers' low opinions of people are considered glowing endorsements by everyone else. Your destination department may be fully aware they're rescuing you from the depths, it's just not something anybody can say out loud.

Document everything. Move on as soon as you can. Stop beating yourself up. Get trauma counseling as soon as you're able.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:50 AM on February 12, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I would query elements of point 1.

1. That project DID go badly, in a year that was already awful for us, and I DID make a real strategic error by not anticipating it would be a disaster and insisting Boss listen to my warnings (which I did give and she brushed off as me being "lazy").

It sounds like the project went badly, yes. I am not convinced you could have convinced your boss to listen to your warnings regardless of whether you anticipated it would be a disaster or not. You are left holding the bag, but that doesn't really mean you could have reasonably changed the outcome. But, your fundamental conclusion on this seems sound: that regardless you have done good work in the past and your company can expect you will do so in the future.

I don't know where exactly you are located, but on the off chance that you are in the UK, IME here a boss can get rid of a subordinate reasonably easily despite employment protections as long as they are prepared to do the documentation and HR don't rein them in. This is true for both genuine underperformers and for people trying to force someone out.

So, with that experience I'm not convinced that 8 is the right conclusion.

8. I intend to spend this year killing it in order to move past this and salvage my reputation and position within the company, though obviously not my current department.

I think you need to spend this year focusing on getting a new job - either in your current company or elsewhere. I'm not sure whether I'd go as far as to say that you should do the minimum in your current role, but I don't think working extra hard will save you. Either no one listens to your boss, in which case you just need to perform ordinarily, or people do, in which case it doesn't matter how much extra work you do, the boss is still going to badmouth you.
posted by plonkee at 9:38 AM on February 12, 2021 [12 favorites]

You probably need to focus on getting a new job, either within or outside your organization, more than you need to focus on killing it at work. I don't mean let it all go to pot, but your boss has clearly reached Bitch Eating Crackers mode and will likely find a way to undermine even the most successful outcomes. Do your job, don't put any extra effort in, and move on.

I would spend the extra time you're not using for work on networking and looking for a new role.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 11:34 AM on February 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

I would make sure that you can get a job inside your company with a bad review on the record as your most recent review. Maybe it isn't true where you are, but in many companies one of the pre-requisites for transferring internally is reviews that indicated expectations are being met or exceeded.

I would encourage you to look externally as well as internally. If I'm wrong, no problem, you find a new thing internally and move. But if I'm not wrong, you'll have a head-start on getting out. Given that you're not in the US things could work much differently there than they do here. But it sounds like your relationship with your current boss is beyond saving, so finding your next thing is absolutely the thing to do. And don't be too hard on yourself about the past year, you are not a bad person, and you know that you are talented, work hard, and add value. Some other company will be very lucky to have you on their team.
posted by ch1x0r at 11:48 AM on February 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

You probably need to focus on getting a new job, either within or outside your organization, more than you need to focus on killing it at work. I don't mean let it all go to pot, but your boss has clearly reached Bitch Eating Crackers mode and will likely find a way to undermine even the most successful outcomes.

This is basically what I was going to say, that #8 seems a bit trusting and optimistic given the context. I would expect that the good results go unnoticed and the minor flubs get blown out of proportion. And even aside from projects' success or failure, she is abusive, so successful performance won't protect you (as you've pointed out).

Overall, it seems like you're doing great. My only feedback is that in your shoes, I'd probably be almost completely preoccupied with the organizational politics -- including the extent to which I was protected, the possibility of her being fired, and the likelihood of being transferred. That may reflect the lesser protections I have in the US, or maybe you are underreacting just a bit.

Here is a quick brainstorm of some concrete steps:
- Meet with a bunch of people at your level and your boss's level inside the organization to ask for their advice / mentorship. Vary and delicately calibrate how you mention the current situation based on your relationship and their perceptions. But just meeting with them should help. And you can provide your own narrative of the past year as a lead in to a question. Part of the goal here is to counter misinformation (e.g., she may be acting like you were the person originally in charge of the project that ran into trouble) and establish relationships with them so that they're learning about you directly and not just through her. You'll also get a sense of how much support you have within the organization.
- Send messages to all previous coworkers who think you do good work to reestablish your connection, remind yourself that many people think you're great, and let them know you're on the market.
- Consider asking those who used to work for her and quit to let her boss know about how things were. How well-known are her abusive and irrational tendencies?
- Apply to many jobs both inside and outside of your organization.
- Try to take on projects that will bring you in touch with other people on her level, so that someone else in the organization has experience partially supervising your work.
- Identify problems as far out on the horizon as possible and start documenting them loudly. Don't just do your best to meet expectations -- think about where circumstances may prevent complete perfection, and start notifying her in sight of other people, especially people at her level or higher. Basically, when something goes wrong, you want everyone to know that you had warned that the project was understaffed or whatever.

In general, you come across as admirably stable, confident yet open to improvement, constructive, and non-defensive, and a great writer. I am hopeful that your reputation precedes you, or worst case, that you can quickly become more well known as "the totally normal guy/gal that nobody knows how they've managed to deal with Boss for so long." But at a certain point, you could get associated with her dysfunction and / or the team's failures. Being (discretely and diplomatically) open about wanting to transfer will reassure people that you're normal and want to work on a healthy and high-performing team.
posted by slidell at 1:44 PM on February 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I would ask you: is your time better spend killing it at this job for a year, or killing it at your next job for a year?

Everything you have said so far about your boss is that it won't matter how well you perform because history can be rewritten, nor how blameless you are because blame can always be placed regardless of evidence to the contrary.

I wouldn't down tools, that never seems to help - but I would be spending that extra energy finding some other position where my talents and hard work were valued and not dismissed, not doing the work equivalent of throwing good money after bad.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 8:36 PM on February 12, 2021 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Hey all, thank you so much for taking the time to read this whole thing and for your advice.

For those who asked: Boss is well-known and in many cases disliked/feared in our division for her tendency to be hypercritical and her habit of publicly berating/embarrassing her direct reports and others who rank lower than herself in the corporate hierarchy. Turnover has been intense, with 3 of 4 team members present when I arrived quitting in frustration or terror an average of 1.5 years in, which already makes me an outlier at 2+ years with her. (Consultants and interns offered permanent roles have consistently turned them down after a few months with us, and in at least two cases told me explicitly it was because they couldn't cope with her.) A particularly terrifying incident occurred this summer when, while shooting the shit with people from another department after an emergency meeting, they told me, unprompted, an anecdote from YEARS ago when Boss was in another role, wherein she informed a woman she was being booted off her team by telling her she could leave in the middle of a staff meeting. None of the people who told me that story have ever worked directly with Boss, so to me the fact they're aware of it indicates she's pretty infamous company-wide.

That said, she's been with the company for many years and clearly feels she can act this way with impunity, so while people elsewhere in the org may be sympathetic to my situation I doubt she will ever be dismissed or demoted (we are not in the UK, fwiw, though plonkee's point is still well-taken). This is someone who told me to my face I was too stupid to work for a major company and informed a former coworker she didn't look feminine enough to be taken seriously. She clearly dgaf about being reported, which tells me she is either protected by someone higher up or is just too deep into the deep end to care.

After reading all the responses and doing some reflection, I agree that "killing it on my current projects" is not the point at this stage and I need to just get out to another role. What I do now is pretty specialised and I worked very hard and waded through a lot of shit just to get here, so it's hard to let go and feels like letting this woman blow my career off course. But I think I have to take surviving even this long as the victory, and reconcile myself to riding off into the sunset before she can impact my mental health any further. This ain't no way to live.

Thank you again!!
posted by TinyChicken at 4:21 AM on February 14, 2021

Response by poster: Ah, and yes, I do have written acknowledgment from the client and regional director involved in $project, and it was the only positive remark which made it into my boss's evaluation. The eval form includes both the employee's and the manager's answers to set questions about objectives, performance, and career trajectory, and both parties have to sign before it is formally submitted to HR. I will be asking the lawyer about formally registering my disagreement with her overall assessment before I sign anything, since I do not trust HR to advise me here. As anyone reading this has probably guessed I am not originally from the country where I work, so I'm trying to tread extremely carefully from here on out.
posted by TinyChicken at 5:09 AM on February 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with plonkee, I think you are 100% being set up for a constructive dismissal. What you call retconning is exactly what I would expect to set up an employee to be let go, possibly with low/no severance or to avoid a union fight.

In fact, one way to interpret your boss’s cranky behavior was that she was told in 2020 to prepare to get rid of 25+% of staff, and so she’s dealing with the cognitive dissonance of knowing you’re on the chopping block by deciding you’re a problem. (Managers are not always kind and reflexive, unfortunately.)

Personally I would find that situation intolerable and quit like your PD if I could afford it. Now, I don’t know if you can afford it, but if so, there was a recent question about what to say in interviews after quitting a job that is a bad fit that has some good ideas about what to say in interviews.

In your case, I might also try try to go directly to the regional director who recognized you to see if you can speed the internal transfer process, but honestly, with this bad review on the record and what is likely to be organization-wide downsizing, I wouldn’t hold your breath on that.

If you are facing a visa situation as your update implies, maybe it’s time to go back to school or into a training program... plus even if schools in North America have started, there are summer programs. If you aren’t having visa issues, you have many more online options. For example, here in Australia, we don’t begin until March and many universities do a July (“mid-year”) intake for postgraduate programs. Australian will be online for overseas students until the borders open and with the convenience, possibly with permanent online options.

TLDR quit if you can, ASAP.
posted by ec2y at 4:24 PM on February 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

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