Managing up

My boss is a dick.

I realize this isn’t descriptive so let me clarify:

  • my boss has the interpersonal sensitivity of gravel;
  • he has no sense of professional boundaries in that he seems to want us to all be friends, something I believe it’s not possible to be with your direct supervisor (yes, you can have a good working relationship, even one that seems friend-like, but there must always be that semi-visible membrane between you that acknowledges that one of you in the relationship has the ability to drastically affect the livelihood of the other);
  • my boss can not distinguish between important and urgent which makes everything a crisis;
  • my boss only thinks through decisions far enough to get to the point of considering “how will I defend this decision to my boss” which leads to a lot of short term, anti-strategic thinking;
  • my boss refuses to acknowledge that as Director of Communications one of his fundamental responsibilities is to set communications policies and procedures and enforce them;
  • and, lastly, my boss is conflict avoidant with people he believes have more political clout in The Organization than he does and inappropriately confrontational with people he believes he has less political clout than he does.

His inability to think passed having to defend a decision to his boss and his inappropriate approach to conflict explain his unwillingness to enforce policies that are well within the purview of our department. They also explain why he made yesterday the stupidest mistake he’s ever made: he screamed at me.

See, my boss and I have a fundamental disagreement about policy and procedure. I am a one-person shop with upwards of 60 internal clients. The people I work with have next to no communications training which means thinking about outreach to our supporters is usually step 9 of an 8 step process; it is the boil stuck on to the butt end of any project planning. This is why our web site is usually stale and why I’ve had to set up a process and make actual forms for work requests.

To be more explicit, I web geek for a environmental non-profit that engages its supporters in online citizen advocacy (aka: the online action). Every day I work with a piece of software that requires certain pieces of information to build these online actions and send out the blast e-mails asking our supporters to participate by sending a message to their state legislators about this issue or their Congressional legislators about that issue. And every day I get requests on unreasonable deadlines.

To ameliorate this I’ve set out some really simple procedures. Mostly people follow them but it’s always tight. I ask for two working days to process requests which functionally ends up being a day and a half because people don’t understand that two working days’ notice means they get their finished product on the third day after they submit their request not the second day. Half the time I don’t get the forms I need and have to chase people down to get the information out of them to do what they’ve asked.

Multiply that by 60 plus clients and you’ll understand why I’m often frustrated and why I tend to insist that people follow the extraordinarily simple rules and time lines I’ve asked them to plan for.

Now that we have a content management system in place, it’s time to start training other people to post content, which opens up an entirely different can of worms. We spent a good chunk of time, money, and organizational effort to design our new(ish) web site and come up with a visual brand. Letting other people into the system means that someone is going to have to follow along behind them like the clean-up crew follows the elephant in the circus parade correcting their mistakes and making sure we don’t get headings that are the wrong color, links that blink, and other atrocities still available to the dangerous person who knows a little bit about HTML. And yes, one of the people most excited about getting trained and getting access to the system to post content is highly likely to need special attention in this area as for the past two years I’ve been correcting her code, and about a year ago I stopped explaining why (well, do you like talking to a rock?).

Last week I sent out a memo to a moderately large group of mixed staff and supervisors announcing this training, what it means, what the implications are for their work going forward, when the first set of training would be starting (the week of the 9th), and asking if they would please follow a link and fill out a simple sign-up form. Filling out the form takes less than a minute. Filling out the form gives me vital information – who is interested – and provides me with an essential tool – a centralized, trackable way to contact all the people who are in this role.

The people in our problem office didn’t bother to do this, and they didn’t bother to meet my boss’ reminder deadline. So yesterday when I sent out the training memo, their staffer wasn’t on it. My boss wanted to know why. Because they didn’t fill out the form. Go ahead and send them the materials. I’ll be happy to when they fill out the form which I’ve already asked them again today to do.

Now, I’m a fan of heated discussion. Voices get raised when people get passionate but there’s a tone, an indescribable aural shift between heated discussion and inappropriate conversation. It’s a little bit like the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of pornography: virtually impossible to describe but you know it when you come across it.

Perhaps my mistake was telling my boss that I thought he was conflict avoidant. Perhaps it was responding to his shouting by raising my own voice (a difficult thing not to do for any human being). Regardless, when I raise my voice it is both insubordinate and unprofessional but when he raises his, because he is in a position of influence over my employment status it is abusive.

I don’t do abusive.

We have a strain of OCD in my family. Mine, fortunately, manifests itself in problem solving; I will pick and pick and pick at a problem until I find a solution that I think is viable. The only solution I can come up with for this is to walk into my boss’ office this morning and say, calmly, the following:

We need to find a way to move forward in our working relationship. My basic ground rule for doing that is this: You will never again speak to me in the tone of voice you used yesterday afternoon.

When I raise my voice to you it is insubordinate and unprofessional which I am willing to admit, take responsibility for, and offer my apologies. But when you raise your voice to me not only is it unprofessional it is, because you hold power over my employment status, abusive.

I don’t do abusive.

Now, if you can accept that ground rule we can move on. If you can’t, we have a problem.

The only good thing to come out of yesterday is that I finally managed to engage my brain quickly enough to come up with a comeback.

I left the office early and walked to the farther subway stop because, well, the subway aggrivates me anyway and I figured I needed to let go of some of my anger before engaging in the hell that is the evening commute otherwise I’d be posting bail at DC Jail.

As such, I had to walk by the worst McDonalds in the city. The sidewalk is huge next to this McDonalds which is good because it allows people to successfully dodge the population of drunkards and stoners that seem to congregate there. One of said denizens was weaving, hand raised like he was waiting for the teacher to call on him so he could ask for a bathroom pass, in the middle of the sidewalk yesterday as I was getting ready to stalk passed.

I dodged right to avoid him. He stepped in front of me. I dodged left to avoid him. He stepped in front of me again. Right as I approached I jigged to the left and as I did that he slapped me on the shoulder to which I said, “You need to get the fuck out of my way, asshole.” And then I crossed the street.

New York Avenue is six lane divided road for most of its length. Not entirely easy to cross all the time but jaywalkable if you know how. This guy followed me across the street at what I can only assume was a jog because he caught up with me on the other corner demanding “What did you say to me?”

I looked him dead in the eye and said, “I don’t care if you’re drunk, or high, or just plain stupid, but you don’t fucking touch me.”

He had to the good sense to back off.

Not my finest moment but in an otherwise really shitty day (oh, did I forget to mention we got news yesterday that one of our former coworkers, a really nice man who, yes, was in his 70s, died unexpectedly Wednesday night because he was having chest pains, called 911, but the EMTs were unable to reach him because his front door was locked and between making the call and when they arrived he’d collapsed and become unconsious?), I consider it an achievement that managed to come up with something more articulate than “fuck you, asshole” and didn’t just burst into tears.

Maybe today will be better. Maybe I’ll come home unemployed tonight. We shall see.

Later that same day…

So the speech was a little softer than I wanted. Less Ripley in Aliens act 3 (a little less “get away from her you bitch”) and a little more Ripley in Aliens act 1 (a little more “All this…all this paper won’t mean a damn thing.”)

Me: After yesterday we need to find a way to forge a working relationship going forward. I admit that raising my voice to you is insubordinate, inappropriate, and unprofessional and I’m sorry I did that. But when you raise your voice to me it’s not only is it inappropriate and unprofessional but because you hold power over my employment status it’s also abuse. I don’t do abuse. I won’t tolerate it, or brook it, or let it slide. So if we’re going to continue to work together we need to agree that it will never happen again.

BossMan: I’m hearing something new in what you just said which is that I raised my voice yesterday. I don’t think I raised my voice. I don’t recall doing that.

For the record, I checked with our office manager who sits at a desk just outside his office and overheard our entire conversation. She agrees: he screamed at me.

And what I learned from this was that my boss is not only a dick for all the aforementioned reasons he also engages, for better or worse, in classic abuser behavior.

See, an abusive relationship goes through several easily identifiable stages and features several identifiable behaviors. The isolation piece, usually the first stage, doesn’t really apply in a work relationship. But with the next stage the abusive partner will then engage in abusive behavior of a low level, usually emotional or verbal, and if confronted maintain innocence so the abused partner starts to question her recollection of the events. The next stage, of course, is the “well if you didn’t provoke me I wouldn’t…” and that usually comes with physical abuse, also not really applicable in a working relationship.

I also learned that even though he’s a director of communications he’s virtually incapable of communicating and will attempt twist into any shape so that he can convince himself he’s right.

During our “conversation” he “invited me” to explain to BigBoss why there would be a delay in doing what was being asked. After I calmed down last night I wrote an e-mail that included the following:

We are having a disagreement regarding the application of policies and procedures. [BossMan] has stated that he believes standing on form will cause trouble and that enforcing policy is not our job; I believe that policies and procedures bring structure and ensure quality and allowing people to circumvent them both degrades quality and undermines the reasons the policies and procedures were developed in the first place. I also believe that ignoring instructions, policy, and procedure should have ramifications.

Now, today, BossMan stated that in this e-mail I told BigBoss that he didn’t believe that we should be enforcing policy and that was inaccurate. To which I replied, “you directly said ‘it’s not our job to enforce policy.’ There is no other way to interpret that.”

To which he replied, “Well, I’m taking enforce literally to mean ‘compel compliance.’ We have no authority to do that.”

Again…there is no other meaning of enforce. And not there is a very important and not at all subtle distinction between “not our job” (ie: not our responsibility) and “don’t have the authority” to do something.

Here is where I mentally beat my head against the wall.

The end result is: I still have a job. Some part of him has to know he’s on warning. And what I need to do now is concentrate all my efforts into not letting him push my buttons ever again.

Oh, yes, and start looking for another job.


  1. Hmmm – happy days. I did once have a boss with whom I was friends – and I consider that a credit to her. We also shouted at each other, had some of the problems that you describe, but she was never abusive – never misused her power – well, not too much.

    Your Bossman’s inability to ‘remember’ raising his voice is definitely a huge red flag, and as you say, typical of abusers.

    On another topic – in your previous post you mention Chef Flay – are you aware that his wife will reprise her old TV role for six episodes, starting tonight – 3/10?

  2. This needs a larger audience. I am going to link to this and hope it is okay with you (not that I get a large audience mind you!)

    What you described here goes on in most companies. No, every boss isn’t a dick, but far too many of them are and all for the reasons you cited.

    I so enjoy reading you, even if I don’t come here often.

    Good luck with the job search!



Speak Your Mind