The first (and thankfully only) time I had a “bad boss,” I was two years out of school and I was pretty much clueless about how to manage a toxic situation. After taking on an initial role that I was ok with, but not completely excited about, I jumped at the opportunity to join the team that I desperately wanted to be on. I had done work with the team in the past and knew everyone well. Midway through the interview process, the hiring manager was promoted into another role off of the team. I had impressed the team sufficiently but they decided to fill the leadership role first before making a decision on the junior employee and my process was put on hold.
Pretty quickly they hired a really impressive person and she began to interview me. I was excited about her. She had a great background and seemed really smart about the business. Our interviews went well and time passed and no offer came. I was on the floor visiting the old department and the team, who seemed pretty excited about me potentially joining, asked me for updates. I casually mentioned I was waiting to hear back and didn’t think much of it. Within a week, I received a voicemail from her asking me to call her. The tone of the voicemail was irate. I called back and she pretty much went off on me. She told me that my communication to other members of the team made it sound like she wasn’t doing her job and that I should keep her name out of her mouth. I was speechless and was sure that my chances at that job were in the toilet.
Luckily, I was interviewing other places and landed a cool role on the West Coast that offered me a $15K jump from where I was. I was preparing to accept and pack my things, when she called back, asking me to join, and with an even higher salary offer. She sounded excited. I was as delighted as I was baffled. This role was what I wanted. While that phone call during the interview process struck me as a red flag, I was blinded by higher numbers and my opportunity on my dream team. I took the role with the manager I knew was potentially a case of cuckoo.
It started out well. She was friendly, funny, as smart as I thought, and I managed to catch on pretty quickly. We were a team of strategists that served sales clients and I got to work producing for my clients. Somehow, as the positive notes came in from my clients, she was convinced I was terrible. In the first 6 weeks, I was threatened with termination 3 times and I could not figure out what exactly I was doing wrong.
Working with a manager who tells you that you are incompetent can affect your day-to-day confidence. I began to second-guess myself on all projects. While I was normally outgoing, I began to question if I should speak up in meetings. I spent a lot of time asking other employees for help on tasks I knew I could do out of fear. Am I missing something? Did I do it right? Am I smart enough to be here? I was consumed with constant doubt.
She agreed that we didn’t have a great rapport and sought to remedy that with a daily 30-minute meeting. I was used to autonomy and managing my own schedule. The daily meetings felt pointless and became frustrating. I had to make an agenda to find things to fill the time and I hated that I was spending so much time on building this relationship when I wanted to work on my deliverables. She then demanded I print out my calendar every day and share it with her so she could see who I was meeting with and know where I was at all times. I started declining coffee invites from colleagues because I worried about what she would say if I wasn’t at my desk. I was unhappy. I struggled to understand and meet her odd demands, but continued to impress my sales teams, our relationship became more tense and awkward. I pressed on and sought advice from family and mentors. I was encouraged to keep quiet and put my all into making the relationship work. And so I put my effort there.
I wish I could say that my efforts made it all better. But nothing seemed to help. I was on edge, in fear of making a mistake and rightfully so. She was pretty harsh and unreasonable and even showed up uninvited for a very uncomfortable visit in my hotel room while we were traveling on business. Major HR no-no. She raised her voice with me, told me I wasn’t deferential enough, and once again threatened to fire me, this time over a joke I’d made at dinner. At one point, I was concerned for my actual safety.
She started to move our daily meetings to after work hours and my job started to feel like jail. At one point, when I asked in advance if our meeting could be during work hours so I could leave on time (not early) to attend my great-grandmother's birthday dinner, she refused. My patience was running thin. Nonetheless, I suffered in silence, for fear of how it would look if I spoke negatively about my manager.
That was not the solution. After many more battles at work, I felt so drained. It wore me down emotionally and even though I continued to get great reviews from clients, I was miserable. I would go home sometimes and cry and eventually found myself ready to quit with no job lined up. At that point, I decided to speak up. I had guilt about speaking “badly” about my boss. She was also a woman, and a woman of color like me. Was I tearing down another woman by speaking up? I cared about her career, but I had to prioritize mine. I felt like I had nothing else to lose and I was either going to quit or need work to make arrangements so I could be happier again. I told her boss and learned many of her policies were violating company policies. And while I waited so long to speak up, other people already had. Our team was restructured shortly thereafter. I was given a new manager who was amazing and skilled at developing people. It was a process to rebuild my confidence at work and feel like a normal employee again, but he helped me get there.
If I had more work experience at the time of the bad boss, I might have handled it all more gracefully and been less sensitive to all the bullying treatment. I struggled through that time, but am so glad I didn’t quit and found a solution. More importantly, I learned how to pretty quickly get a good idea of who is a good manager and who isn’t and I’ve stopped interviewing when I could identify traits in a manager that didn’t work for me. I’ve learned to pay attention to red flags and find managers who I can have a healthy relationship with.