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I have had very difficult situations with my boss recently, with whom I have worked almost for a year. The recent events made me realize that she had created a hostile work environment for me and demonstrated abusive behaviors for a long time.

Previously I thought it was just misaligned expectations and unmatched communication style. I was new to my function so I also thought maybe I wasn't able to perform well enough. She was recently promoted so maybe I should give her some benefits of doubt and provide specific feedback to help her grow as a manager as well.

So in the past 11 months I've tried my best to communicate with her, set better boundaries, document everything so that we could have fact-based conversations. Went to training sessions to learn how to give feedback. Also worked really hard to perform better and match her expectations. We have started plans towards a promotion for me over the past quarter, and the general feedback from my team has been positive for two quarters. But it doesn't seem her behavior is changing any time soon.

A few examples of her behavior:

  • It happens almost in every meeting with her that she'd make false accusations about me. "This update looks exactly like last time”, “Your team doesn't know what you are doing”, “You have only finished 1-2 things last quarter”. Those comments were made so suddenly, so off from the fact or my perception of what we had agreed on, with such a harsh accusatory tone, that it always threw me off balance a bit on the spot. It took me a while to know how to fight back and always keep things in a mental log as well as in writing. She never apologized unless I confronted her.
  • When I confronted her with above comments and stated very clearly the impact he behavior has made on me, she would listen, apologize, but then quickly turn the conversations around and blame me for having made her feel frustrated earlier for some other reasons. For me it should be a totally separate event and without specifics I couldn't even defend myself. Again, I was left feeling very rattled, worse than before the conversation. There was very little understanding or empathy and the conversation almost certainly would derail somewhere without having any real resolutions to the issue I raised at the end.
  • She would talk about the negative feedback other people gave her about me without specifics, impossible for me to defend myself or find out what's really happening. When we disagreed on something, instead of walking me through her thought process, she used to pressure me into agreement by telling me how other senior stakeholders had been frustrated or disappointed about my performance -- until I took those relationships in my own hands.

Working with her has really taken a toll on my mental health and my productivity. Especially this week after a few roller-coaster conversations with her, I found my whole body aches, I couldn't concentrate at work, my energy level and even my voice became much lower than before. I certainly cried more than I would want to admit. I have reached out to our company's employee assistance program and scheduled a therapy session as I didn't feel I could make past this week by myself.

Question: What should I do both immediately and in a 2-3 month range? What leverage and consequences I should be aware of if I haven't been already?

I have decided it's not acceptable for me to work like this. I would like to immediately stop working with her tomorrow if possible. Generally the company is pretty flexible in terms of rotation and changing teams. But I have a special situation where I might be moving to another office in another country in 2-3 months. The plan hasn't fixed yet, and there is a chance that I might stay here for another year. My concern about switching teams now is that I'll have to let the new team know this possibility of me leaving after such short time on-board and I'm not sure if any teams would take that. Also, I'm worried that it'd add much more work on my plate to switch to a new team right before the possible international relocation.

In the short term, I have a pretty full to do list that I just confirmed with my boss this week. Now dragged into this emotional black hole, I'm concerned I might not be able to deliver on time, which again gave her more reason to ridicule me. I could really try to work extra hours on the weekend, but I didn't feel it would be fair for me to do so. Also I dread on having more meetings with her next week. If possible, I'd like to keep some distance from her to recover first.

If I couldn't immediately terminate working with her, I might have a few other options to make my life easier:

  1. Give her feedback in writing in the official system that counts for her performance review. We have a 360 feedback system where direct reports are asked to give feedback about their managers. I think the reason she hasn't changed was she didn't feel the need to. My previous feedback was very gentle and didn't even scratch the surface of the issue. Like I said, I always thought it was solvable.
  2. Call in sick for a week preferably with the company therapist's recommendation. Give myself some space to rest and recover. My concern is that she might start a smear campaign behind my back, which has happened before.
  3. Meet her boss in person and request a change of manager or ask him to sit in my 1on1 meetings with her from now on. My concern here is that he might be on her side. After all, it's he who promoted her when her first report was me.
  4. File an HR report. I have never done this before and am not sure if any ramifications.

Some context that might be helpful:

  1. I have been recovering from an emotionally abusive relationship since last summer by working with a private therapist (paid out of my pocket). It's very difficult and shameful now for me to even admit that similar abuse is happening in my work environment.

  2. A few reasons for me to stay in this office and not move internationally: 1) that I might have a better chance finding a better company in this country due to more flexible visa policies: 2) I thought I'd need more stability to recover and a big move certainly will disrupt my life

closed as off-topic by Jay, gnat, Sandra K, IDrinkandIKnowThings, mcknz Jul 6 '18 at 17:45

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "Questions asking for advice on a specific choice, such as what job to take or what skills to learn, are difficult to answer objectively and are rarely useful for anyone else. Instead of asking which decision to make, try asking how to make the decision, or for more specific details about one element of the decision. (More information)" – Jay, gnat, Sandra K, IDrinkandIKnowThings, mcknz
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 6
    Hello Storm, please consider reducing the length of your post, as it is quite extensive to read. Consider including only the relevant details for the question/problem you have. – DarkCygnus Jul 5 '18 at 16:21
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    Could you also add a country tag to the question? Dealing with this problem could well differ between cultures. – berry120 Jul 5 '18 at 16:52
  • I'd suggest editing the title to focus on the actual question, which is not "is this abuse" (we're not in a position to determine that) but "How can I deal with abuse by my boss?" – V2Blast Jul 6 '18 at 3:38
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Based on your description of this being a long standing pattern of behavior that hasn't changed despite you discussing it with your boss, you have a situation that is really unlikely to be solved as long as you are working with this boss. If it is possible to solve, it definitely isn't work you staying there long term unless it is solved, so don't hold back in your efforts to solve the problem based on some potential future with the company:

  • Don't refrain from doing things that will be good for you based on your future at the company. File an official complain with HR, meet with her boss if necessary, and generally do everything that your company allows that might solve the problem or improve your situation.
  • Look into every option you have for changing jobs within your company and or leaving the company. Get the resume ready, check with your network, and start searching for a new job.
  • In the mean time, make sure you are using your allotted sick days and paid time off. I don't believe you should fake sick, but if a therapist recommends you call in sick due to the stress of the job, then follow that. Certainly don't go into work sick to go deal with this person (that's a bad idea even at a normal job).

Give her feedback in writing in the official system that counts for her performance review. We have a 360 feedback system where direct reports are asked to give feedback about their managers. I think the reason she hasn't changed was she didn't feel the need to. My previous feedback was very gentle and didn't even scratch the surface of the issue. Like I said, I always thought it was solvable.

I wanted to address this one specifically: always give honest feedback on these reviews. Companies aren't always the best at incorporating feedback, but often people get away with unprofessional practices for years because others neglect to speak up. No one has to be unnecessarily brutal in the reviews, but if someone is being unprofessional, making personal attacks, etc. etc. you should be honest in your feedback.

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Is my boss abusive?

...is a very difficult questions for strangers on the internet to answer decisively, because there's a lot of factors that come into play here (the tone, situation, context, frequency, as well as the words that were said.)

That being said, if you need therapy to continue working in that environment, then that's definitely at the point HR should know about it. So my advice would be to contact HR stating (broadly) what you have here. You can certainly state that you're open to moving locations, teams or roles, but that your mental health has suffered by working under x to the point that you need therapy, and you feel that is unacceptable.

They should follow up with a suggested plan of action, and at that point you can liaise with them about a potential solution, whatever that might involve.

  • Frankly I think this is a bad idea. The moment the asker brings her own mental health into question with people within the company, she's likely to be seen as the cause of the problem. That's unfortunately how stigma works. At best I would just talk about "morale lowering". – Fizz Jul 5 '18 at 23:40
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    Yeah, rather than bringing up his(?) own mental health in a conversation with HR, it might be more worthwhile to point out that it is substantially harming his productivity at work. Mental health is important to you, and the company should care about it if they value you as an employee, but that doesn't mean they will. – V2Blast Jul 6 '18 at 3:37
  • I'd usually agree, but the fact they have a company program that provides therapy sessions would seem to indicate that they take it with at least a degree of sincerity. – berry120 Jul 6 '18 at 9:59
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Is my boss abusive?

Based on the points you made, particularly your boss making vague accusations that have no detail so you can't defend yourself, yes, your boss is abusive. Your boss is saying whatever is necessary to make you feel bad about yourself. I've run into that myself with a higher-up (fortunately not my direct boss), and it was the same pattern of unfounded accusations just to make me and my co-workers feel lousy.

What should I do?

One thing that can help is to try to talk directly to these other "senior stakeholders". Sounds like you are already doing that to some extent. That doesn't solve the problem, but it does at least give you some reassurance that your boss isn't correct.

  • That solution only works if they not of the same ilk as her direct superior. But sometimes they are... so it's probably better to try an suss the situation beforehand. – Fizz Jul 5 '18 at 23:44
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    @Fizz It sounded like her boss was trying to attack her without giving any specifics. It's a pattern I recognize from my own experience, where a senior exec would tell us how bad we were and how far ahead the other teams were, and how dumb we were to ask for information about what we were supposed to implement. That all turned out to be lies once we talked to folks from the other teams. – DaveG Jul 6 '18 at 10:40

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