Charming asshole bosses

Have you ever known someone who’s irritable or even downright nasty, but suddenly able to rein themselves in when someone who has power over them, or whom they want to impress, is around? Kissing up and kicking down is common, but also human nature.

You hear the same story often enough – someone on their way to a job interview rudely cuts off someone in traffic or steals their parking spot or talks down to the person staffing the front desk – only to find out that the person they were rude to is conducting their interview. Some companies check back with the front desk staff to see how potential employees treated them, because treating everyone well should be an important factor in hiring (and in life).

When someone like this makes it into middle management, it’s a morale killer for those beneath them, but can be hard to identify and deal with outside of that team. Why? This person is buddy-buddy with upper management, super charming, always has an explanation for why their direct reports don’t look so happy or are complaining about bad treatment. The direct reports must be jealous, or too sensitive, or gunning for the manager’s own position, or just not a good fit for the company, or – the excuses are legion.

So how do you as a direct report of this asshole deal with it?

  • Push back directly
  • Document
  • Report as a group

If you have the capital to spend and the ability to do so, push back directly. “Please don’t speak to me that way,” said calmly, every time, might work. Some bullies deflate more easily than others.

You should document the behavior in a notebook that goes home with you, with dates, times, and specific behavior or quotes. Your manager may be too smart to put shitty behavior in writing, but if they do, forward it to your own personal email or take a photo with your cell phone camera. (Make sure you’re not breaking any company rules about confidential information.) If the abuse is verbal, check if you are in a place which allows for recording with one-party consent. This documentation helps you to establish that your boss’s behavior is habitual and pervasive, not just a one-time occurrence.

The next step is to talk with colleagues who are also experiencing this behavior and, armed with your documentation, approach your boss’s boss or your human resources department as a group. There is power in numbers; you are a lot harder to ignore as a group, since the chances of all of you being power-hungry, sensitive, and jealous are far lower than if you were alone. After you have raised the issue, if they say they will address it, be patient. Change often doesn’t happen in a day, and whether the approach is coaching your boss, replacing them, or moving them into a position without direct reports, it may take time.

But if nothing changes within a couple months: jump ship. Life is too short to work for an ass if you have other options.

And if you are the boss of a charming asshole, how do you find out about it and take it seriously? (For the purposes of this exercise I’m assuming you are a person who wouldn’t put up with it if you knew about it. If not, you’re on the wrong blog.)

  • Be approachable
  • Create organizational structures that allow this to safely be reported
  • Verify, then act

No one who needs their job to survive is going to formally complain about their boss if they fear that they could lose their job instead, or if they believe that similar complaints in the past have been ignored or led to retaliation. Leadership needs to create an atmosphere in the organization that allows for complaints to be made safely and taken seriously: employees need to have seen that leadership or HR has at the very least not handled such things terribly; since disciplinary procedures are usually confidential, it can be hard to conclusively show that they have been handled well.

What does this specifically mean for you as a manager of managers?

Be approachable. Make the effort to have contact with people further down the hierarchy so that if they need to approach you about something serious, it won’t be the first time they’re talking to you. A skip-level meeting every six months (where the direct report meets with their boss’s boss) is a structured way to do this, but chatting around the coffee machine can work just as well. If the mid-level boss attempts to prevent such contact in any way, that’s a major red flag.

Aside from skip-level meetings, peer or 360° anonymous (or confidential) feedback can give management a heads-up that something might be going on. This is tricky, because many people are (rightfully) skeptical that this feedback is anonymous, and so will choose not to participate or give bland, meaningless answers. A manager acting in bad faith, given a collection of negative anonymous feedback, will go straight into figuring out who said what and making those people pay for it.

If your form includes required input about what department and job title someone has, it is not very anonymous, especially if that input narrows the possible submitter of the form down to only a few people. If you feel you must collect this input, use it only for statistical/analytical purposes; do not connect it to actual answers and do not make it available to the person being reviewed. Likewise, if your employee receives a personalized link to the form via email, they are right to be skeptical that this form is anonymous. The wording you are looking for is ‘we will keep the identity of the submitter confidential’.

Aside: If you as an employee are filling out such a form about such a manager and worry about retaliation, run your text through an online translator into a foreign language and then back through a different translator into English. This helps to strip out identifying habits in your phrasing. If requested information about your job title would be identifying, it may be worth pushing back and pointing that out.

If you receive this type of complaint, resist reacting in a knee-jerk fashion in either direction. Consider how you can verify that the manager is behaving inappropriately. If the reporter has not documented occurrences, ask them to do so; if they have witnesses for any of the behavior, speak to the witnesses. Someone reporting their own boss is likely to be nervous and worried about retaliation; it’s your job to figure out how to keep them safe throughout the process, especially if a small team size means it will be impossible to handle the problem without naming which employee was the reporter.

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