What To Do When Your Boss Hates You

Last Updated Sep 21, 2011 7:40 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,
I don't think I've seen this topic covered since I started subscribing to you. I'm curious what should I do when I realize that my manager is trying to use old information, and solicit my co-workers' opinions about me to use it against me? Luckily, I've done my job well, and have earned awards for my office. On top of that, my coworkers are fair and all expressed that while we all run into disagreement, they all know that I am a good worker and do my job right.
On top of that, he loves his assistant even though she's useless, helpless, and just a total waste of oxygen. She will stroke his ego and go along with his crude jokes at work. He will take her out shopping for alcohol and made sure everyone knows. He is a name dropper, and talk about himself a lot; she caters to his ego more than his wife would.
So, am I doomed here? Is there anything I can do to protect myself?
This doesn't seem like a random personality conflict. This appears as if he enjoys being a manager because he likes people saying how wonderful he is. Hence, the assistant is favored because she tells him he's wonderful.

As to what you can do to protect yourself, that depends on how high you are up the food chain, how high he is on the food chain, how big the business is, and what type of person his boss is and how you react to all of this.

The first step in any conflict is to examine your own behavior. You said that your coworkers expressed that you run into disagreement. This may well indicate that they do have a problem with you. Conflict is normal. Disagreements are normal. However, if that's the first thing people mention when asked about you, your relationship is not a good one. Most people are hesitant to say something negative about someone else in a formal setting where the other person may get in trouble. (Most people are willing to say negative things about other people when among friends, however.) So, it depends on how it was asked and what was asked. Think about this conversation:
Boss: Tell me what it's like working with Karen.

Coworker: Well, we run into disagreement from time to time, but she's a hard worker!

Interpretation: Karen's a pain in the rear end to work with.
Now compare with this:
Boss: Do you have disagreements with Karen?

Coworker: Not really.
Boss: What about over that vendor selection process?

Coworker: Yeah, I guess we disagreed on that, but that was 6 months ago.

Interpretation: Coworker has no problem working with Karen.
The question is, under which circumstance was the question asked? Because if it's the former, you probably are difficult to work with and should evaluate what it is that you're doing. If it's the latter, the boss is fishing for bad behavior. Just because the dingbat assistant is sucking up to him doesn't mean you're not difficult to work with. Plenty of very smart, very productive people are difficult to work with and sometimes their performance isn't worth the pain of getting along with them.

But, after you've examined your own behavior and made necessary changes here are things to consider.

Boss is the owner/relative of owner: Forget it. Be as nice as possible and work hard, but realize this is not the place for you and start seriously doing a job search.

Boss is very high level and you are not: HR is generally predisposed to believe the guy making $300k than they are the guy making $60k. Unfair? Sure. Logical? Also, sure. The VP has years and years of being rewarded for good work (whether it was or not is a different story), so it's easy to rely on his side of the story. The lower level employee doesn't have such a record. However, large companies frequently have long programs with strict requirements before terminating someone for performance. It takes a lot of hard work to gain credibility if your high level boss doesn't like you.

Boss and you are high level: He's a Sr. VP and you're a VP, well, then you can appeal to your peer (the other VPs) and his boss. You have credibility because of the title and your performance--until you lose it, which can happen very quickly. People at this level are actually fired more quickly because the impact of a bad performer is wide-reaching, but you're more likely to get severance.

Big business with a dedicated employee relations department: Go. Ask for help in working with your boss. The key is, even if your boss is totally irrational, to present it as, "Can you help me figure out how to work with him?" and not, "my boss is a big jerk and I want him GONE!" Don't be surprised if they already have an eye on him. Be honest in your assessment. (If you want to try to get him fired, you can take this route: How to Get Your Boss Fired.)

An approachable Boss's boss: If she's an approachable sort, you can go to her and ask for help in dealing with your boss. Again, the approach needs to be, I need help not he needs to change. If she's not approachable or liable to report back every word to your boss, this won't be helpful.

After thinking about these things here are some things to try:
  • Ask your boss what you need to do to perform better. I know you think he's incompetent, but he's still your boss.
  • Listen to what he says. So many people skip this part. They ask, and then defend themselves. Shut up and listen!
  • Decide if you want to make those changes. I can't guarantee that even if you do precisely what he asks, your job and reputation will be preserved. If he's irrationally out to get you, he's, well, irrational. But, you can make an informed decision on whether you do or do not want to make the changes.
  • Document, document, document. This won't necessarily save your job, but it might and it's worth doing.
  • Look for opportunities to transfer within the company. If you are a good, strong performer (as you said), other departments may be thrilled to have you. It's possible to move to a different department and still do the same job. (In fact, it happens all the time--it's called a reorganization.)
  • Suck up just a little. Your boss likes this. So, compliment him on his ideas. Laugh at his jokes. It won't kill you. Now, there is one caveat-if his jokes are inappropriate, then don't laugh. If they violate discrimination laws/policies, report them. But he's shown that he likes this and if you want to be successful in this department, compliment away.
At the end of the day, though, if he just doesn't like you, it may be difficult to overcome. Doesn't mean you shouldn't try, but make sure you keep your resume up to date and out there.

For further reading:
Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.
Photo by 1uk3, Flickr cc 2.0.

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