by Dino Londis
Managers come in all shapes, sizes and levels of
competence. What makes some of them insecure is anyone’s guess, but an
incompetent boss is dangerous. They’ve got your job in their hands.
I’ve worked for some gifted managers and some true
nightmares. One was bi-polar, another a humorless zealot, another a paranoid
sneak. And this was all at the same company, one coming right on top of the
In your favorite bookstore or
library, you’ll find shelves of books for new managers, new techniques for old
managers, tips on handling difficult employees, turning management into
leadership, how to fire someone, and so on. But you’ll find few titles about
dealing with bad managers. The reason is simple: Managers hold all the cards.
We employees hold but one: We can leave. But how realistic is that?
At the time I made the transition
from mail clerk to network administrator, my boss by her own admission was
bi-polar. When I was trying to make heads or tails of IT, and spent a slow afternoon
adding a user to NDS while trying not to break anything, or sticking an RJ11
jack into an RJ45 port wondering what the difference was, she said, "Get
to work. I know your type." The next day she either didn’t recall or
didn’t believe it anymore. Several times, she nearly fired me on a whim. When
she left the firm, she was literally screaming and crying.
Her replacement trusted me until I
fell ill for a month. Like her predecessor, she needed daily nurturing. That is
I had to check in each day to make sure things were okay and nothing was festering.
When I was sick, she turned on me. The IT integrators – the guys who I replaced
when I took the position – returned to point out every mistake I made. From then on she made my life miserable,
until I quit.
When my new boss at a top-ten law
firm took me out, he said, "Don’t tell the others I took you to lunch."
That should have told me everything. He told me I’d been hired to improve our
group’s customer service by setting an example. When I tried this, it turned my
colleagues against me. When I turned to my boss for support, he balked.
I spent eleven months working
harder, but getting more isolated. I responded to accusations with what I
thought was professional silence, letting my work product prove my value. I
thought that as long as I worked hard, management would have no reason to fire
me. I found out that hard way that wasn’t true. My manager sent HR an e-mail
asking for my termination – but accidentally bcc’d me.
At that point, I went over his head
to HR to say I could no longer work in such conditions. I chose the date I
wanted to leave, offering a two month window. That’s a long time, but I knew HR
would rather see me depart on my own terms than dismiss me and risk litigation.
That was my only smart move in eleven months on that job. Had I engaged like
that earlier, I would have stood a better chance.
And that’s what I do now. When
pushed, I push back. I call it being sticky. Surviving in the workplace has as
much to do with personalities as the work. Because I thought I didn’t need to
respond, I was easy to push out because I was easy to push around. In that
first firm, I was scrambling to meet every whimsical demand by my manager,
putting out real or imagined fires.
Today, I am in a much more stable
environment, but I still apply the lessons I’ve learned. I document each
conversation, phone call, and e-mail. Just the bullets, no emotion. I can’t
emphasize this enough. It works for so many aspects of what I do in a day. I don’t
cut and paste from e-mail. Typing the materials forces me to remember the
details I would otherwise forget. It also creates a detailed timeline in case
my actions are called into question. I not only know when something was done,
but the mindset leading up to the decision.
So I can push back with accurate and winning information.
In my free moments, I review the
document for technical information, so that can be on the tip of my tongue. And
if I can’t remember something, I know right where to look.
Yes, it’s a lot of work, and it adds
a great deal of overhead to my day. But like anything proactive, it prevents
small fires from flaring out of control.
Dino Londis is an applications management engineer in New York.