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I have a manager who is incredibly temperamental when it comes to criticism and what he views as unsatisfactory work. Oftentimes he will be very understanding and sympathetic when a problem arises, however, every now and then and seemingly without warning, he will become excessively critical.

This will usually escalate to the point where he belittles my colleagues and I while pointing out perceived flaws in our work. The catalyst is almost always either of little consequence and/or has a thought-out rationale behind it. I've spoken with the individuals on my team, and they have all attested that they have had these same conflicts with our manager and that they resent the aggressive nature of these encounters.

There are a myriad of factors at play, naturally. For me, the biggest kicker is that I see it happen to my colleagues, and I see it happen, again, when it does not seem remotely merited to be this combative. Whereas I thought if I "did a good enough job", I could avoid another of these confrontations, I now see that it very well could be a matter of time before another one arises whether or not I "step up to the plate," as it were.

I really like almost every aspect of my job, but experience a tremendous amount of stress solely related to this habit of my manager. I honestly think the next of these conflicts will have me quitting. As such, I have arranged a meeting with HR. This is partly to seek advice and partly to have a documented conversation about the issue. Mostly, though, it is to attempt to use the tools at my disposal to prevent a blowout akin to those that have already occurred. I've considered framing it in such a way that I'm advocating for my team's best interest, but I worry that may be an overreach.

What is the best way for me to have this meeting with HR and not place myself in the firing line?

  • Are you going alone to this HR meeting? is the meeting already going to happen or you are about to schedule it? – DarkCygnus Aug 20 at 20:57
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    @DarkCygnus Yes, unfortunately. None of my colleagues expressed enough of a concern to want to be directly involved, hence my main focus being "here's how what I've seen and heard affects me". – Inagnikai Aug 20 at 20:58
  • @DarkCygnus It's already in the books. I've committed to saying something, but I'm trying to refine what that something is. – Inagnikai Aug 20 at 21:00
  • Ok, thanks for clarifying. Working on an answer – DarkCygnus Aug 20 at 21:00
  • You need to decide if you are lodging an official complaint or not. – Gregory Currie Aug 20 at 23:06
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What is the best way for me to have this meeting with HR and not place myself in the firing line?

My first instinct is to suggest you don't have the meeting at all...

If your manager is most of the time nice and understanding, but sometimes he becomes excessively critical, it may be due that he/she is under a lot of stress, deadlines, etc..

This is not rare. Many managers I've had have at least sometimes behaved like that, and it's almost always when under stress (some people are better at handling it). IMHO, thinking of quitting solely because of this could be an over-reaction, and as a professional you should be able to cope with stress and other's reactions... but only you know the true extent of these episodes.

Instead of taking it personally or get offended, I suggest you take the higher ground: try to stay calm and professional, and politely ask your manager for pointers on where you could improve the project or your work.

This could even be a problem of communication. Perhaps when your boss is "nice and understanding" you and your colleagues are failing at grasping and documenting what you manager asks, and then, during moments of stress, those loose ends come to view and your manager doesn't like it. Try to make a self-analysis to see if you can improve your situation by working on this (i.e.: when boss asks for X, make sure you understand, write it down, send an email or similar to boss stating what was spoken so there is backup in case boss complains in the future).


Now, perhaps some or all of these things you already put in practice, but still your manager continues to get overly-critical.

Again, I sense that this could be a problem of communication, and also some lack of tolerance form you and your colleagues. Stressful situations will always happen in the workplace, and as a professional one has to try to keep calm, polite, work the problem and deliver.

If you decide to go on with the meeting with HR, the only way I see you can avoid to put yourself in the "firing line" is not going alone to the meeting. Have your colleagues come with you and have them also participate and express their thoughts.

Finally, you mention in comments that "None of my colleagues expressed enough of a concern to want to be directly involved". This seems to me like a strong sign that this could be a non-issue, or perhaps something that only bothers you but your colleagues tolerate it to a degree. Taking all these things in consideration, I again suggest you don't have the meeting and try to work on the things mentioned. If this meeting takes place, and you go alone, you will be getting into a situation where most likely you will end up in trouble and obtain few to none good from it.

  • First off, thank you for the well-thought out reply. I have spoken with him with regards to these incidents. I've treated every one as an opportunity to better myself, because I'm the only part of the equation that I have the ability to change. I forgot to mention that some of the criticisms are entirely unfounded. I'm talking him coming after me for not knowing an expectation that was literally never communicated to me, and likewise with co-workers. While that may not change your underlying answer, I hope it gives some more context to my position. If that's relevant, I can add it to the post. – Inagnikai Aug 20 at 21:28
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    In addition to all the good information in this answer, I also don't understand what the OP expects to gain from the meeting with HR-- there doesn't seem to be any upside potential here, and the only reliable outcome would seem to be placing themselves in the firing line (the very thing the OP wants to avoid). – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Aug 20 at 21:29
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    @Inagnikai I see. I understood from your post that the criticisms were mostly unfounded. However, my suggestion is that you try to increase your tolerance to this demands. Some people are better at coping with stress than others. Seems your manager is not the best at it, but like you said, you are the part of the equation that you can change. As long as you document what is asked of you there is no way you can be "punished" for doing something not specified. Like I said this seems to be communication problem, one perhaps when defining the requirements and tasks to be done. – DarkCygnus Aug 20 at 21:39
  • @Inagnikai furthermore, I agree with what Upper Case said: what are you seeking to gain with this meeting?. Is it only to express yourself and "vent out" in a peaceful way? Are you attempting to change the way your manager behaves or works? (you even said you are the part of the equation you can change). I also feel that there doesn't seem to be any upside to this, and the outcome most likely will be trouble for you. – DarkCygnus Aug 20 at 21:41
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    I see. Proceed at your own caution and risk, then. I think that the worst case scenario is you getting in trouble and harming your relationship with your boss. – DarkCygnus Aug 20 at 22:22
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The HR team is available to help you through a challenging conflict with your manager, both formally an informally. In your discussion, you should express a specific request of the HR team member you meet. You could ask for things like:

  • "I want help preparing and thinking about how to best approach my manager to keep the conversation civil and productive."
  • "I would like the HR team to look in to the behavior of my manager and intervene directly with him/her if it isn't appropriate."
  • "I want help finding ways to support my team when my manager is upset. Additionally, I'd like to be able to diffuse and avoid conversations that might upset my manager."
  • "I'd like to submit a formal complaint about my manager's behavior."

Anticipate that your conversation will not be confidential. Your manager may hear about your complaints and concerns shortly after you share them. This shouldn't be a reason to balk, but should be a factor that encourages you to stick to the facts. Ask the HR team member what you should do should your manager confront you.

Otherwise, the norms of professional discussions apply. Be honest about your rationale for calling the meeting and your fear of retaliation from your manager. There's no need to limit the details you share - you'll get the best outcome by being fully honest and transparent.


I'm sorry you're having this experience with your manager. The behavior you describe is not acceptable and you are doing the right thing to address it. I hope that your current environment improves quickly or that you might find an exciting opportunity that offers a greater level of respect and professionalism.

  • The point you make about being specific with HR about what you're trying to accomplish is good advice. HR is there to help resolve conflicts, but their role in doing that is mostly about protecting the employer from liability. They aren't going to come to the meeting as a truly independent third party arbitrator. Setting expectations can help guide the discussion. – dwizum Aug 21 at 13:33

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