What can I do about a manager who creates a toxic atmosphere in the workplace?
March 3, 2007 7:50 AM   Subscribe

What can I do about an emotionally toxic workplace environment and the manager that contributes to it?

I think a lot of what my manager does creates a hostile and toxic work environment in our office. We all work very hard and he generally does not. He's unable to regulate his moods, calls in sick fairly often, leaves early, freaks out at little things (we're all working quietly and he starts yelling about how slow the internet is going while we don't notice, then he yells at us for not noticing), tunes out teleconference meetings and generally doesn't know what's happening with any of the clients. He lashes out at us (individually and collectively) because he's in a bad mood. He refuses to offer clarification, won't read or respond to important emails and I think he tried to intimidate us.

I dread going to work now, which is a shame, because I really like the company and the actual work that I do. I just hate being around him. And I'm not allowed to close my office door, so I have to listen to him rant and rave about non work related things from across the hall.

I think this behavior is inappropriate in the workplace and somewhat abusive, but he thinks that is what management is. Is there anywhere I can look up how a manager can and can't talk to his employees?
posted by onepapertiger to Work & Money (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think what you can do is 1) leave, or 2) go over his head and try to get him fired. Obviously #2 could be an indirect route to #1.
posted by LarryC at 8:02 AM on March 3, 2007

I am sorry--that might have come off as unhelpful. But are you looking for work elsewhere?
posted by LarryC at 8:03 AM on March 3, 2007

Best answer: You can certainly find a number of books that tell you how to manage employees effectively (such as the One-Minute Manager) but I seriously doubt it would change his behavior, if that's your goal. If his behavior is making you unhappy, the only solution short of leaving the job is to find a way to not be bothered by it. That would be hard to do but possible. For example, if you can find a way to sincerely feel sorry for him, it can really put a damper on your anger towards him. You might think of him as an ADD child who needs a disproportionate amount of tolerance and support. This is obviously harder to do when he can make your life painful. Or perhaps forming a strong sympathetic bond with your co-workers could help.
posted by underwater at 8:04 AM on March 3, 2007

Do your co-workers feel the same way? Is there any chance you could go to either your boss, or the human resources department as a group, and explain what the situation is?

My thinking is that one person will likely be ignored, whereas there's both safety and a bigger impact in numbers.
posted by Solomon at 8:13 AM on March 3, 2007

IANAL. If, as your profile indicates, you work in NY state, outside of particularly limited forms of speech, such as those covered by Federal anti-discrimination law, or state or Federal law dealing with sexual harrassment in the workplace, a small employer who is neither a Federal or state contractor is generally free to say anything they like in the workplace, and to set whatever standards they want relating to how, where, and when work will be accomplished. You can check the NY Attorney General's Web site for Labor Law Obligations for some very limited regulations for employers, but there is nothing there which would seem to cover your issues.

Your normal remedy as an employee-at-will in such situations, is to find another job at a place you like better.
posted by paulsc at 8:13 AM on March 3, 2007

How big is your company? Is it so big that his boss doesn't know/care what's going or so small that there really isn't anyone to go to? Is he the only manager where you work or is the site large enough that there are other managers? Do you have an HR department?

Document everything you can. If he's abusive in emails, print them.

But since you asked "what can I do" you really only have the two options LarryC metioned, plus a third which is 3) deal with it.
posted by Cyrano at 8:13 AM on March 3, 2007

Sorry. That should have been "... NY Attorney General's Web site for Labor Law Obligations..."
posted by paulsc at 8:15 AM on March 3, 2007

I doubt there is anything you can do about the boss in general. However, I think you can make the situation a bit easier for youself if you are able to solve the door issue.

Is it your manager's rule or a company rule for employees to keep the door open? If it is the manager's rule, speak to him and let him know that the general noise in your area is making it difficult for you to concentrate (you don't have to be specific about where the noise is coming from) and you think it will help if you were able to keep the door closed. If he says no, then go over his head to HR, his superior, etc. and address the issue with specific information about where the noise is coming from. If it is a company rule, then start out discussing this with HR and keep working your way up till you are given permission to keep your door closed.

Other than that, I think your options are pretty limited.
posted by necessitas at 8:37 AM on March 3, 2007

Response by poster: Sigh. I suppose I'll just try to cope as best I can and learn to tune him out.

The company I work for is global and we're a small satellite office. HR is located in Dallas. I don't want to get him fired or anything like that, of course, but I think he needs to stop screaming so much.

And I think he should go to a psychologist or psychiatrist. But mainly, I want him to know that he is not allowed to yell at me just because he feels like it.
posted by onepapertiger at 8:42 AM on March 3, 2007

I just realized that I didn't actually answer your question. The NY Labor Law site that paulsc linked to should provide answers. My mother once worked in a small office and her boss (the owner of the business) was very toxic. He'd rant and scream at her, he'd intimidate and insult her, reducing her to tears every day. He'd berate her for hours on end about lost files and when she'd point to them on his desk, he'd accuse her of secretly planting them there at some point in the conversation. To say he was out of touch with reality would be an understatement. There was nothing she could do because there is no protection from meanness in anti-harassment laws.

There are plenty of books, sites, etc. that would provide information on how a manager SHOULD and SHOULDN'T speak to his/her employees, but there is no guidance about how they CAN and CAN NOT speak to their employees.

Perhaps you should secretly put him on the mailing list for management & management communication seminars. Maybe he'll find an interesting one and sign up for it!
posted by necessitas at 8:43 AM on March 3, 2007

I've been in similar situations more than once in the last year and have seen what's worked and what hasn't. I know this might seem scary or like overkill, but I'm going to vote for the following:

1. Talk to your co-workers off-site and after hours. (If he's as bad as you say, they'll all be feeling the same effects and it should be no problem to get them on board.) Tell them that you need to take some action because your work environment has become stressful and unproductive, and that if they want to participate, great -- but that if not, you won't mention anyone else by name but that you hope they'll be honest if asked directly.

2. Call HR in Dallas. Go to your HR rep/line manager directly, by phone. Ask her what the company's whistleblower policies are, and to send you the latest version of the document digitally. (If they are global as you say, then there is certainly a documented policy on how you can report a problem) Asking for the docs in advance lets her know you're serious, and lets you see what the company's stand is.

3. Send a written complaint to HR, hopefully along with the names of your co-workers who've agreed to come on board. Be factual, impassionate, and relevant. Document the absences... the inattention to meetings and clients... leave out subjective language like hostile and toxic. Explain that you feel productivity and morale in the office are falling. Explain that it's been escalating.

Then, see what happens. Satellite offices are tricky and HQ can't always see what's happening... so they must trust the people in the field. If HR dismisses your complaint, or goes straight to the boss, and then he takes it out on you or the group... leave immediately. You shouldn't be with a company that abuses you and your team that way.

Hopefully, though, they will take the complaint seriously and will send someone out to do individual interviews.

You say you don't want the guy to get fired. That sounds like a personal thing. This is business and you can't let it be personal. From what you've said here, he's not a good leader, manager, or even employee -- he needs to move on. If you like the company and the work you do, you owe it to them, to your teammates, and to yourself to initiate a resolution.

If you can't be the ringleader, maybe someone else can. Get everyone but the boss out for drinks one night, and see who can maybe take the lead. (Don't let it become a slagfest though, try to keep the conversation dignified.)

Only you know if "suck it up and take it" is an acceptable option. But looking at the language you used in the OP, I can tell you it wouldn't be, for me. A bad manager happens; a bad manager allowed to remain in power is a symptom of a diseased company and I wouldn't want to wait for the next (worse) thing to happen.

Parting thought: how long do you think you will continue to like the company and the work after you've endured this abuse for another 3 months? 6 months? A year? If you do nothing at all here, I'm going to guess that your leaving is inevitable. Taking action might help you save the job you like.
posted by pineapple at 9:14 AM on March 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

I had a similar situation recently, and after several months of following the proper grievance procedures, my only recourse was, unfortunately, to resign (after finding another job).

I worked for a great organization for nearly 10 years, and it was the first job I'd ever had that I actually liked. That is, until "Mrs. X" was appointed to be the new boss. Mrs. X is outrageously unqualified in every conceivable way, but is the wife of Mr. X, who had the right connections within the organization's upper crust. It is my belief that Mrs. X is well aware of her intellectual & managerial limitations, and because of that insecurity, she created a hostile work environment, using the politics of fear, to keep the employees "in line." That may be the mind-set of your boss, too; he knows he's disliked, unfit, and unqualified, which makes him insecure. His day-to-day battle with his insecurity causes him a lot of stress (and fear), which manifests itself as anger & cruelty toward others... Or maybe he has a mental illness. Or maybe he's just an asshole.

What can you do? Well, I'm not an attorney, but I do know that the level & type of harassment dictates your recourse. If the harassment is against a "protected class," you have the law on your side. If, however, it's more of a general, over-all harassment, it's not ilegal, so you need to handle it internally. From my own recent experiences, internal investigations are geared more toward protecting "the company," not the individual, so don't expect much help, unless you have conclusive evidence of serious transgressions, and even then, you may not get very far (again, I'm speaking of my own recent experiences, so I'm probably biased toward the cynical side).

On the other hand, I found some great resources online (links below). The single most important thing for you to to right now is to document EVERYTHING. Keep all pertinent email, voice mail, faxes, memos, etc., and write down all examples of your boss' transgressions, including the date & time. Keep track of his abuse of time & attendance, his poor performance with clients, and anything else that shows his actions & inactions are not only detrimental to you & your coworkers, but to the organization's "bottom line." Also, remember that your mental/physical health is on the line here, too. If the harassment & bullying is causing significant health problems for you, see your doctor, and if he/she beleives you need some time off from work, seek information about Family Medical Leave Act (which, by the way, will put you into a "protected class," shielding you [legally] from retaliation). Seriously, from what you've said, it sounds like your health is at risk...

Links to information about illegal harassment are easy to find, but from what you've written, it sounds like you're experiencing "bullying," not illegal harassment. With that in mind, take a look at these informative sites:

Workplace Bullying: What Can You Do?
Workplace Bullying Institute
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety: Bullying in the Workplace

Best of luck!!
posted by NYScott at 9:16 AM on March 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Are you in a position to suggest bringing in some sort of consultant? It would probably help if you were a manager yourself; being able to say, "I feel like I don't have all the skills necessary to motivate my employees, and I found this great consultant willing to come in and help all of us with these issues; can we bring her in?" might be worthwhile?

Though I suppose that would mostly be dependent on finding a great consultant of this sort.
posted by occhiblu at 9:30 AM on March 3, 2007

One more link, specific to my state & yours, New York:

New York Healthy Workplace Advocates
posted by NYScott at 9:34 AM on March 3, 2007

You're not allowed to close your door?
I think you need to start sabotaging him. If he's that much of an oaf, and that crazy and negligent, he probably wouldn't recognize fiendish manipulation if it bit his nuts off.

Short of treachery, you could adopt active listening, which I heartily endorse as a communications tool (there's just a boatload of this stuff if you google it up), and it sounds like you may need to build an assertiveness technique that will lower your stress level, and may very effectively address the difficult topic of your boss' behavior.
Using these techniques will serve you well anywhere you go. Don't go over his head, it's a bad move when not called for, and in this case, unfortunately, it isn't called for.
posted by nj_subgenius at 9:49 AM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seconding pineapple's plan. I was in a similar situation several years ago and that's the basic approach my coworkers and I had started to put into play. Once it became clear that our own toxic tantrum-throwing manager was planning on leaving anyway (planning on leaving for new marriage/job on the other side of the country), though, we wound up just waiting it out by closing our doors and ignoring the fireworks until the sweet, blessed day in which pleasant, grownup behavior returned to the office.
posted by scody at 10:04 AM on March 3, 2007

I had a boss who sounds exactly like the one you're describing. In fact, did I work with you?

While I was working with this manager, most of the employees -- and even other managers who worked with him -- agreed there were major problems. But his manager was unwilling to address those problems, and going to HR seemed too scary. I think if we had gone to HR as a group it might have made a difference, but there was a definite fear factor there.

When I left, I had an exit interview with the HR manager. He was shocked to hear all the things I told him about, and he had apparently never heard them before. It was this group fear mentality, and I feel like the only way to overcome it would be to unite as a group -- but you may find that your co-workers are as frightened as I and mine were.

The advice to document, document, document is super-important. Keep notes on every abusive behavior and when it occurs. Keep all e-mails and responses. Keep your own records of your workplace successes and failings, so that those can't be used against you later on.

But really? Start looking for another job.
posted by brina at 10:30 AM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

(You may also want to check out some articles and books on "managing up," which generally deal with how to handle various personality types in management positions.)
posted by brina at 10:32 AM on March 3, 2007

I've been in a similar situation, and before I left I tried to change the situation. If you decide to follow pineapple's advice, be prepared to discover that some colleagues might not think the boss is that bad. In other words, don't assume - have factual answers ready for their doubts. If you keep it factual, they won't feel like they are backstabbing someone who doesn't deserve it.
posted by mediaddict at 1:00 PM on March 3, 2007

Response by poster: Pineapple: I just could not ever, ever try to get someone fired. He is really unwell, unable to cope with stress and ought to be seeking professional help. I also need to learn to deal with his yelling and general toxicity, or find another job, as other posters have suggested. But I could never do that to someone. I spent more than fifty hours a week at work and he is obviously suffering from some mental illness or personality disorder that inspires him to act this way.

Aside from firing him, I'd like to get HR or someone to urge him to seek help or a inform him that he is not allowed to be disrespectful to subordinates (he is my boss).

I saw in one of the bullying institute links that the US doesn't have a policy on how managers can talk to employees, so I'm going to try to learn to either cope with it or look for another place of employment.

Thank you, all, for all of your suggestions.
posted by onepapertiger at 1:44 PM on March 3, 2007

To clarify: I'm definitely not suggesting you try to get him fired -- I'm suggesting that something needs to change, and how the company decides to handle that is their problem, and ultimately up to them. You don't have to assume responsibility or guilt for their decision. Maybe they relocate him to a position less stressful. Maybe they bring in a co-manager to offset his crazy. There are lots of possible outcomes that don't involve the man getting sacked.

Unfortunately, HR won't ask him to see a psychiatrist. It doesn't work that way. It's unethical and improper for the company to imply that he has a mental problem and needs to seek help; he could likely sue them for suggesting it, and then also could sue if ever fired for any reason after, even if for cause.

Don't go over his head, it's a bad move when not called for, and in this case, unfortunately, it isn't called for.

I respectfully disagree. A behavior doesn't have to be against local employment law to be considered actionable by the employer. Plenty of companies have policies prohibiting the bullying and bad management that onepapertiger is experiencing. The HR managers I've known would say that this is the exact sort of scenario where it's appropriate and important to make a report.

Like brina pointed out, HR isn't psychic or magical. They can't know what's going on in the trenches if they aren't told. If this manager is as bad as we're hearing, he is a liability to the company and they have a business interest in fixing the problem.

onepapertiger, I hope this works out to your satisfaction in some way. You're in a tough spot and it's even harder when it's a job you like. There's nothing worse than liking the people you work with but hating the people you work for, and sticking it out takes mettle.
posted by pineapple at 4:12 PM on March 3, 2007

I highly recommend Bill Sutton's "The No Asshole Rule". He has a great post at his blog up about how and why to document your particular asshole up at his blog. If you're serious about getting this guy to change his behavior, creating an "asshole diary" seems like the way to go.
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:13 PM on March 3, 2007

Send his resume to a slew of headhunters. If things work out, you keep the job you like, and he inflicts himself on a wholly different workplace.
posted by sardonista at 9:39 AM on March 4, 2007

Response by poster: You guys are awesome! Great ideas, everybody!
posted by onepapertiger at 11:10 AM on March 4, 2007

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