Who's at fault if your boss is on your case?

Posted3/4/2012 5:32 AM
  • Sometimes it's difficult to tell if you're being defensive or if a critical boss really is being unfair.

    Sometimes it's difficult to tell if you're being defensive or if a critical boss really is being unfair.

Q: I have a job I like and am good at, that pays me reasonably well, with good hours and benefits and co-workers that I love. All "yea!" but my manager is a nightmare. She targets the successful, outgoing females in our office. There was one she ran off in the time I have been here, and she has now set her sights on me. Despite my above-average performance review last year, she has now decided that I need a "performance improvement plan" and has taken me off more high-profile projects. She is basing these decisions on minutiae and is flat-out wrong on many details but is obviously in a position of authority over me. I fear repercussions if I take this to her supervisor or HR but am worried for my job security. and, frankly, my life happiness if things continue as they are. Thoughts?

A: Speak up, clam up or pack it up? The bad news is, all three could mean dusting off your resume.

It's hard for me to advise you without knowing (1) how accurate your portrayal is, (2) how effective your HR system is and (3) how hard you want to fight for this job. So please read on with your hackles down and salt shaker at the ready.

There's a lot of x factor in this tale of XX chromosomes, so read on with your hackles down. Why do you think this is all about your being successful, outgoing and female? Is it possible that your "minutiae" are crucial details when managing a high-profile project? Is defensiveness deafening you to constructive criticism?

More important, have you tried talking with your boss before making an end run to HR? "I was surprised and disappointed at being taken off the Hudsucker project because my last review was so positive. What do you need to see from me to show you I'm ready for more challenging projects?" That's a heaping helping of humble pie, but it might go down better if you keep your ears and mind open to her response.

Let's say the nightmare continues despite your best efforts, and it's clearly personality-driven -- maybe even discriminatory. Start gathering covert intel inside and outside the company, as follows:

• Privately contact the woman who left your company before. Find out her story, whether she talked to HR and what response she got, if any. See how it jibes with your experience.

• Study your co-workers. Are female co-workers other women complaining of similar treatment from this boss? Is she equally hard on men?

Finally, see if HR is willing to confidentially discuss ways to improve your interactions with the boss. But bear in mind that if you say, "I'm being targeted because I'm female," a good HR team will take it seriously -- so before you play that card, you'll want to have had at least one in-depth consult with an employment lawyer. (You can find one through www.findlegalhelp.org, the American Bar Association's listing of state and local legal referral services.)

You may decide that keeping the job is not worth all this effort. No shame in that. But at least you won't have tucked tail and run without exploring your options. And if you (and your lawyer) are convinced there's a pattern of discriminatory behavior but you choose not to take it to court, you might still want to report your concerns in your exit interview. It probably won't help you, but a good HR team will take notice when enough outgoing, successful women lodge the same complaints about a manager on their way out the door.

Thanks to Sharon Snyder of Ober Kaler for helping me map out the legal land mines. Any explosive missteps are mine.

Next week: The flip side.

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