Abusive business partner: should I walk?
October 5, 2007 6:04 PM   Subscribe

Should I stay with my company and see it through to success, dealing with an abusive partner along the way, or, walk and see it likely fail?

I'm one of four principles in a small tech startup. I do most of the technical work; the others handle support and business-related things.

Problem is, one of my partners is intensely abusive. The other partners are nothing like this guy, but have been friends with him for 20+ years.

He has a complete lack of consideration for anybody's personal circumstances. I live alone, take care of myself, and that takes time, but is all completely disregarded. If I'm in the bathroom or otherwise occupied, I can expect five or six phone calls, 5 minutes apart, each with vituperative voicemails of increasing severity.

IM's from him are never short on personal attacks ("you are a dabbler, you know nothing", "you take no pride in your work", "you're weak", and on and on, with plenty of curses interspersed). This happens only if I don't do something immediately, otherwise I am a "gifted person with incomparable skills".

He claims some credit for every piece of work I do, either as 'inspiration' or for 'forcing me' to do it.

Some arguments might quickly escalate to threats of violence or career sabotage.

And this behavior isn't exactly restricted to our company, or work generally. He seems to live life a few rungs shy of civil society -- like he's taken inspiration from the dominant male in a pride of lions.

I would've walked a long time ago if not for the fact that I do do all the technical work, and if I left, the company would be severely affected, growth delayed or halted, and, possibly, outright failure. I don't want that to happen after all I've personally invested (not financially, I can afford the loss on that).
The company doesn't have the cash flow to pay for someone to pick up my work. The other partners are already stretched for time and energy between their day jobs, family stresses, and the company itself, so despite their pronouncements I have no faith in their ability to take on the load.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you can't get rid of this dude, you need to split.

An abusive partner sounds even worse than an abusive boss.
posted by Netzapper at 6:10 PM on October 5, 2007

Sounds like you need to get together with the other partners and discuss dealing with it. The wisest thing you can do is to let them know that you want to seek a good resolution to this, but if no good resolution can be found, then one of you will have to go. Then it's their turn to decide who they want more. They might side with the old friend, but from what little you've given us, it sounds like they'd be stupid to do that, and if they're that stupid, then they're not worth it, either.

You're the only tech guy to speak of? You have leverage. Use it.

But, to answer your misgivings about leaving, you owe this company as much as it gives you. If it gives you abuse, you owe it a middle finger and a brief view of your backside as you walk out the front door.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:11 PM on October 5, 2007

What middleclasstool said, with one addendum: make sure that you are fully, emotionally committed to walking if the other partners decide to back the abusive guy instead of you.

What you cannot do is go to them, ask for resolution, and then back down from your position if they choose a course of action you don't like -- either by asking them to reconsider, making a scene, or by staying on after having threatened to leave.

There are a couple of situations in business where you can bluff and then back down, but this really doesn't sound like one of them.

Good luck! Do let us know what happens, if you can update one of the mods later; I've worked in similar situations and will be very interested to see how yours resolves.
posted by pineapple at 6:22 PM on October 5, 2007

Life is WAY too short and NO amount of success is worth being abused. I would try and get rid of him first, and have the 3 of you carry on. Otherwise, get out asap, and make SURE he and the others know exactly why you are leaving.
posted by The Deej at 6:24 PM on October 5, 2007

Leave. It's never worth it.
posted by blacklite at 6:39 PM on October 5, 2007

Well, okay, now that I've posted that, the "talk to the other partners" advice is how you should do it. Don't be a dick. (I speak from experience.) Just lay it out: you expect a certain amount of professionalism, you're not getting it, and it needs to change, now, or you're done.

It is a very respectable position to take.

Other options:
- next time he calls something his, forcefully inform him and everyone else that he is full of shit, and make this a habit. You can say things like this, you know, it's not discourteous to defend yourself. It's pretty much essential when dealing with people who are, as mentioned, full of shit. or...
- lay back and take it for the next few years. Doesn't sound fun.
posted by blacklite at 6:44 PM on October 5, 2007

Problem is, one of my partners is intensely abusive.

When a major player in any life situation is intensely abusive the rule is always to separate yourself completely from the person.

You can accomplish that either by (1) getting the hell out, or (2) making the abusive person get the hell out.

Since he is a partner, option (2) doesn't seem to be a possibility. So you have to get the hell out.
posted by jayder at 6:47 PM on October 5, 2007

I agree that you need to leave this place. If you are the main man, than you will have no problems finding a successful opportunity. The thing that you do need to think about though is the back lash. You are walking away, and potentially starting the downfall of the company. This guy is already a prick. What do you think he is going to be like after you leave? You can expect your friendship to be obliterated and he will most likely trash your name as much as he can. I don't know him though, he may not do these things or it may be 100x worse.

Just some things to think about.

Good Luck!
posted by B(oYo)BIES at 6:49 PM on October 5, 2007

I agree that it is him or you. You will not work together successfully. Ever. You could try just blocking his IMs and not returning his voicemail. Use GrandCentral and set up a special message for him that says not accepting calls or something like that.

Be aware of the timing of your "this town ain't big enough for the both of us" speech. They could side with you until you finish some project and then term you. If, and only if, they use you like that be prepared to withhold key code or something. Do not do this otherwise as it is a nuclear weapon only to be used in retaliation.

Or, try recording your calls with him and saving your IMs. Show them to your other partners. Maybe he is not like that to them and they do not even notice anymore after 20 years.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:57 PM on October 5, 2007

Yup, he goes or you go. And it's almost certainly going to be the latter. There are no rewards, loyalties or commitments that justify allowing anyone to subject you to verbal battery like this guy dishes out. He's a bully, and apparently nobody has been willing to call him on it, but you shouldn't tolerate it for one more minute.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:20 PM on October 5, 2007

Get the other 'partners' together.
Bring in your voicemail/audiotape. Play it for them.

Ask them how they handle it, and if they think it's appropriate. Explain to them that you're ready to walk over it. You feel your being demeaned (you are), a lack of credit (he's stealing it) and you're being abused. Ask them how much they'd like to get paid on top of their jobs for this abuse.

I'd suggest at a solution (with the partner's cooperation...)...that he's now 'persona non gratis'. No phone calls. No IM's. No emails. No exceptions. Play hardball. If they don't agree, fuck em. Leave.

You're clearly stating that this person is behaving inappropriately. The proper way to deal with this is by making it clear that acting like a spoiled 5 year old doesn't work.

Have him fined on a per outburst
posted by filmgeek at 7:27 PM on October 5, 2007

Document everything as if you were going to court. If you need to liquidate the partnership, you need to get your piece of the pie.

Document your successes as well as his failures.

When a convincing record is assembled, bring it to the other two partners, and explain the situation.

Hire a lawyer and find out your rights as a partner.

Good luck- life is too short for this crap!
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:18 PM on October 5, 2007

If you are a partner, then you can't rely on others to solve your interpersonal issue with this guy. It's your problem, deal with it.

Don't take the crap. Hang up the phone. Don't answer IMs. I've always been surprised how much a well-timed "Why are you always such an asshole" comment works (both as giver and receiver).

It also sounds like responsibilities are vague.. you say you are responsible for all the technical stuff.. but responsible to who? If you are a partner, then you should be answering to the group, not to one person who acts like your boss.

Lay out what you do clearly, communicate with your partners clearly, and if one person gets way out of line, put him back in his place. If you are partners, it's as much your responsibility as his to draw boundaries and create a successful company.
posted by TravellingDen at 9:54 PM on October 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

You can walk, but it sounds like you want to preserve your relationship with the other two partners.

You probably cannot expect them to dump this guy in favor of you, though. I wouldn't hope for that. If you are resolved to stay you need to figure out in advance what the conditions will be and fight to make sure those happen, e.g. the guy only contacts you through one of the other partners.

If they're truly desperate to retain your essential expertise in the project, they'll be motivated to make sure he behaves. But if they act like it's your problem, well, you know the answer.
posted by dhartung at 9:55 PM on October 5, 2007

Walk. Warn the others first and give them the opportunity of doing something about it. Have your walk plan in place and don't be afraid to use it at any time.

Go, Freebird! Good luck.
posted by cior at 10:43 PM on October 5, 2007

The thing is, no matter how awesome the product, his abusiveness is going to mess up other things. If he's in support or setting up business relationships, his interpersonal skills are going to be noticed. Take your back-end abilities to a company with a full suite of good front-end / business relationship folks, one without any liabilities like him.

Talk to the others and see who wants to split with you.
posted by salvia at 11:07 PM on October 5, 2007

Tell Dude-man that calls will be returned within 30min or so and that that's the way it's going to be. Put him on notice, he'll either learn or you'll (still) leave, which you're already prepared to do. In the meantime, don't worry about leaving them in the lurch. Don't worry about whether they'll deal with it OK, you have good reasons.
posted by rhizome at 12:24 AM on October 6, 2007

If you are a partner with power in the LLC (or other legal set-up), you have a couple of good options. I do not recommend walking. The first option is to mention that you have a stake in this company and as such you need to be able to build a constructive partnership. Have a meeting with the over partners with a chronicle of the abuse present. I hope you can save as many of your voicemails and IMs as possible because you don't want to come in with just word-of-mouth. If they defend him, then say that you are exploring the option of selling your stake. If you are the only content creator, then you are in a much better position to negotiate his exit. He is clearly a bad manager, and as peers, it should not be his job to meddle in your work unless he has been clearly assigned that role. You must be firm in your position that you have tried to solve the dilemma personally and the other partners must take action. If he will not sell his stake and the other partners are unable / will not buy him out, then walk. But be extremely vigilant about the act, because he sounds like the kind of cad who can follow a person out of the company and into your private life.


I find it interesting that the clear idea here is that you are not always in communication face-to-face. Could this be part of the problem? Are all the partners able to meet in conference on the phone or in person at least twice each week to discuss strategy. If your partners are further in the loop about your work and his tactics then he will become polarized. If you continue to accept the little contact you already have with the other then you will continue to open yourself up for his abuse.
posted by parmanparman at 1:28 AM on October 6, 2007

So much information is missing... how long has this been going on? If he's been abusing you for a significant period of time and you haven't stopped it, no one there, especially him, has had any reason to change things. If you've never made a serious complaint about this before, I think it would be odd to put up with it day in and day out, and then just suddenly walk. If you demand that the abuse stop, and it does, then there's no reason to leave.

But perhaps you have complained and your partners are unwilling to interfere with him? ... Is that why you say "despite their pronouncements I have no faith in their ability to take on the load"? Have they said that if you leave they'll do the work themselves? If so, it doesn't sound like there's room for negotiation, and yes, you should leave the insanity behind. ASAP.

On the other hand, if you haven't remonstrated strongly, or if promises have been made that things will change, yet they don't, I would tell them this: Every abusive phone call/IM gets a hang-up. Every abusive email/SMS/voice mail gets deleted without reading/listening; if it contains important information, it will have to be re-sent using civil language. Every time he enters your space and is abusive to your face, you leave the office for the rest of that day, and whatever work you would have done will have to be late. You WILL NOT be working later hours/weekends to make up for that lost time. And, if this doesn't change his approach, you will leave for good.

It goes without saying (but I'ma gonna say it anyways) that you must then follow up on these threats. To the letter. He sounds like the sort of guy who will behave just as badly as he is allowed to. You mustn't allow it. At all.
posted by taz at 2:54 AM on October 6, 2007

If it was me I'd offer the other partners the following compromise: You never deal with abusive-partner again. They are the only two that contact you. You never get another IM or voicemail from dickhead.

If they don't agree (which seems likely) then I'd walk.

Life's too short.
posted by Bonzai at 10:10 AM on October 6, 2007

You seriously need to stop permitting this behavior. Answer IMs and VM when reasonable. Stay calm. The more he froths at the mouth, the calmer you stay. Stick to formal stock replies to avoid letting him drag you down into the muck. "I understand your concerns." I will see to this at my earliest convenience." "Thank you for informing me of this issue." "Sorry, I can't understand you...I'll be hanging up now."

Inform the partners that you won't put up with unprofessional behavior.

If there is any company equipment or shared files, keep backup copies of EVERYTHING that you would want in case things go south in a hurry.

What parmanparman said about your options as a partner in an LLC.

This will all require you to have steely self control and probably some sort of creative/physical outlet in order for you to stay sane, but I would encourage you to get this situation under control.
posted by desuetude at 2:21 PM on October 6, 2007

Nthing that you must discuss with it the other two partners, who are his friends. If they don't think that their pal's abusive personality is a liability, then you probably have no choice but to walk. If they agree that the guy's a complete bucketful, and agree that you are key to the company's success, then its time for a come-to-Jesus. Not just you and him—that won't work with the kind of bully you describe—but you, with the backing and support of the other two partners, confronting him.

You seem prepared to sacrifice your own happiness for the good of the company. This company is not a child, and you don't have an obligation to support and nurture it until it can stand on its own two feet. It's a business opportunity that you opted to participate in, and it sounds like so far it's costing you far more than it's worth, in terms of quality of life. Obviously the way you've structured the company will determine what it takes to disentangle yourself from your obligations as a partner, but it's not till-death-do-us-part.

It's not just about how he treats you, though. Even if he were nice to me, I wouldn't want that guy as a business partner, because I know that someday he'd lose his shit on a customer/client/strategic partner/whatever your business has and cost you an important deal. He needs to chill the fuck out. If that means selling his quarter to you three, or becoming a non-voting partner, maybe that's the route you three take. If you can't work it out to your satisfaction, though, then pull the ripcord. You've just got the one life to live, and it'll be a much longer, happier one without the stress it sounds like you're taking-on now.
posted by mumkin at 3:35 PM on October 6, 2007

I think that the best course of action would be to sit down with the other partners in your business and to see what their thoughts are on the situation. Are others also feeling abused? Or, is it perhaps just a personality conflict between you and this person?

I'm trying to think of what I would do if I were in your situation, and I'm split. If you think that there's a chance that it is just a simple personality conflict between you and him, it might be worth sitting down to discuss things. Maybe he doesn't realize his behaviors and would be willing to change if you, and possibly the other partners confronted him. Another thing to think about is how much he's actually doing for the company and whether he's critical. For example, if he is the one handling all of the sales and he basically owns the customer relationships, you'll need to be very careful.

If he's not doing something critical, is not willing to change his behaviors, and it's not a simple personality conflict, you might consider replacing him with a different business partner, or seeing if the three of you can pick up his workload.

If you decide that you can't make things work and you're looking for a new business partner to replace him, I would suggest possibly checking out PartnerUp, which is a free site that lets you search for business partners with specific skills and experience. You could then search for a business partner that is serving his functional roles in your area. Or, if you know someone personally, you could also try that.
posted by EntreJeff at 11:13 AM on October 8, 2007

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