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Let me just state that I know I am in a toxic work environment. I'm in a small town with my wife who is studying at the university. There is only so much software engineering work. Most of my co-workers are similarly trapped, either through spouses or visas.I also haven't done a tech interview in 6 years, so I doubt I could pass one today. The last out of towner she hired lasted a week, quit without notice, and sent the boss a nasty email referencing farm animals.

I'm the senior dev at a manufacturing facility. I work for someone we refer to as "Witch" within the team. For the sake of professionalism on here, we shall call her Wanda. Wanda is a terrible boss. She yells profanity at people, accuses them of slacking constantly, has been known to throw things at them, calls our children "vermin", etc.

This has taken its toll on our team. One member ended up in a mental hospital ward for self harm. Many of us have grown to resent our spouses and try to avoid them. I admittedly considered divorce so I could leave without breaking my wife's dreams. I've lashed out at my kids.

About 6 months ago we got a new dev, a relatively recent grad who moved back to be with his parents because of a family illness. He wasn't willing to tolerate Wanda's yelling at him, but didn't want to engage her directly as "that's not how you handle people with hard power", so he just started lying.

Wanda could be screaming about X not being done, and he would just confidently say that while it was discussed, instead Y was prioritized (when it wasn't at all true). He then points to our issue tracking software which is what we use to handle stories/tasks.

We use an ancient tracking software which just uses flat files to store data. Normally, an issue shows when it was last modified and who did the modification. He just goes onto the server and edits that flat file, so it seems like Wanda was the one who did it. She believes him.

One of his tactics to distract from an obvious failure he cannot erase is to pull another trivial item off the backlog, complete it, and then hype it up as a major technical achievement.

I'm stunned at his gall, but life has dramatically improved. Workloads are reasonable, she has stopped yelling and throwing things (it was bad to be a potted plant for a period when one dev was in hospital and work had to slow down) at random developers, and she no longer has confidence in what she wants, so she lets Max tell her what should be done. She doesn't interrogate or question him angrily (or if she does, he just talks over her until she stops), she always think that the sprint was a success (as Max just edits the sprint until everything on the list has been completed).

And I get to love my wife again. I am just afraid that this might backfire in the year and 4 months my wife has left. What are my risks here?

This is in the USA.

To clarify, I am technically this developer's boss. But Wanda doesn't give me much authority other than team management.

  • 5
    Why don't you look for a remote job? – dan-klasson Feb 22 at 8:34
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    The third paragraph is deeply concerning. You've taken it as a given that the work environment is causing a strain on your marriage and even your relationship with your kids, and that the only answer is to improve the work environment. You've even implied that work has stopped you loving your wife? YOU have a problem beyond your work life that needs working out. – Sam Feb 22 at 11:33
  • The question is "what are not your risks?" . – Cap Barracudas Feb 22 at 11:41
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    Is this a serious or a joke question? – guest Feb 22 at 15:41
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    Edit your post to remove the employee's name, unless it's an alias. – AleksandrH Feb 22 at 16:29
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She yells profanity at people, accuses them of slacking constantly, has been known to throw things at them, calls our children "vermin", etc.

Buy a copy of Cracking the Coding Interview and prioritize learning so you can jump to remote work for the duration of your wife's degree. You have been given a respite. Don't waste it. You will need to do this anyway as presumably you will move once she is done.

Edit: I have been asked to explicitly identify the risks, but you have already done a good job of that.

Let me just state that I know I am in a toxic work environment. I'm in a small town with my wife who is studying at the university. There is only so much software engineering work. Most of my co-workers are similarly trapped, either through spouses or visas. I also haven't done a tech interview in 6 years, so I doubt I could pass one today.

If this guy is caught, you may be abused again or fired, which I think you already know. This risk is heightened because you cannot pass a tech interview as if fired, you can't get another job.

If you stop the guy, you risk your relationship, your happiness, and your mental health. This risk is heightened because you cannot pass a tech interview, so you can't escape, forcing you to take the hit to your relationship and happiness for finances.

Either way, the clearest way to manage your risk is by re-learning how to pass a tech interview.

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  • 1
    While this is good advice, it does not answer his question about risks. – xander Feb 22 at 6:19
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    @zmike which do you consider more helpful? A list of risks or the answer given? That is should we only ever answer the question precisely as asked or should we “read between the lines” and give the OP what they really need? Plus 1 from me. – Solar Mike Feb 22 at 7:39
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    @zmike A consultant who gives their clients what they ask for rather than what they need will not survive long. – David Schwartz Feb 22 at 8:03
  • @zmike Added something on risk, but I thought OP already did a good job of that. – Matthew Gaiser Feb 22 at 8:35
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Ironically enough, your biggest risk may be that new developer. Great skill in manipulating people, combined with the absence of scruples to use those skills... that is to my (non-professional!) knowledge a telltale sign of a psychopath.

You assume that he is doing this just to make his and your team's life better. And you assume that he will not use his skills on anybody else. It might be equally true that he saw a situation where he could entertain himself and at the same time build a loyal power-base (you and your team). This is not problematic now. But sooner or later your new dev might either get bored (especially when Wanda stops being in the picture) or he might decide that his power-base is strong enough for the next step of his personal advancement.

So:

  • Get some information about functional psychopaths. There are a few TED-talks on Youtube - perhaps you want to ask a professional though.

  • When/if Wanda leaves, be careful.

  • As soon as you notice individuals in your team distancing themselves from that new dev, become very careful. Especially if you trust that guy a lot by then - as his superior, you are a likely target for manipulation.

  • Do note that the way of manipulating you might be very different from the way he manipulated Wanda.

Note: I am not a professional psychiatrist. So my suspicion might be wrong - and this guy might be the best guy in the world. But please be careful.

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    Re: Function Psychopaths, I've found Snakes in Suits to be very good. It's also available in audio. – BryanH Feb 25 at 17:29
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1) That last paragraph is interesting. Wanda is your boss? So you, the technical lead of a development team, and by transitivity your entire team, is managed by someone who does not know jack about technology? How are they supposed to know if you are performing well, poorly, or at all? That seems like a recipe for disaster in itself. Project leads should work together with technical leads to build a project and negotiate on what needs to get done when, but neither should be the other's boss, they are usually in separate but cooperative departments, from what I've seen.

2) Does Wanda's boss know about Wanda's abusive behaviour and do they tolerate her? Throwing things is, at the very least, a safety hazard to the employees, and could very quickly and easily lead the company into a large and costly court battle if someone were to get seriously injured. That aside from the verbal abuse, which could also probably be used in court against both Wanda personally and the company as a whole, in some kind of class action suit (I am not a lawyer but you should speak to one). You should probably speak to the highest person up the chain of command about this as soon as possible, and frame it in legal terms. Don't outright threaten a lawsuit, but frame it in terms the company can't help but understand to be a legal liability: "This could create a legal problem for the company if someone were to get hurt". Then begin to collect whatever proof you can of Wanda's actions, and when you have enough, consult a legal authority. You may find that your are able to get out of this company and also have enough money to support you and your wife through the remainder of your wife's studies in short order.

3) Treat Max with thanks, but also with skepticism. He knows what he's doing. Right now, he's using his abilities to help you, but the time may come when he doesn't. Allow him to continue what he is doing for now, but keep a close watch on him to make sure he doesn't overstep his boundaries.

4) You have the wrong impression about technical interviews. Technical interviews are meant to assess if you can do the job, not to assess if you can pass the interview. The skill of passing an interview is not good on the job, so interviews built to test one's ability to pass the interview are not good interviews for either side. Just go out and take some interviews, it can't possibly hurt. The worst you can do is to realize that you need to brush up on your interviewing and ask for help. Surely, as a team lead, you have conducted interviews, so surely as an interviewer you know what interviewers look for, so just do that, but from the other side of the table.

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    +1 for this "Don't outright threaten a lawsuit, but frame it in terms the company can't help but understand to be a legal liability: "This could create a legal problem for the company if someone were to get hurt" You need to get the powers that be on your side and this is the way - clear documentary proof that the company is at risk due to Wanda's actions escalated to the appropriate level. – Alan Dev Feb 25 at 16:55
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Your risks are multiple and varied.

  • You could become the next target of Max's machinations if you get on his bad side (or if he decides that he should be the one leading the team, etc.)
  • You could be fired if his lying is found out and it's obvious that as his superior you knew about and failed to correct (or even condoned) his behavior
  • Max might leave or stop 'cooking the books' and Wanda might abuse you again leading to further misery
  • Your wife might find out that your willingness to stay married to her is basically based on your coworker continuing to gaslight your boss and be really hurt by that

You have some options. I agree with some other answers that taking this reprieve to brush up on interview skills (either to look for remote work or to be ready to split the second your wife is done her study) is really important. You can also consider if temporarily taking a lower paid job, even in another field, is worth it for the sake of your mental health.

You should also document any instances of Wanda's abuse, including date and time, what happened, and who else witnessed it. Don't keep this on your work computer, or in a format that anyone at work would have possible access to. Make sure it's something password protected or if you use a pad of paper, don't leave it on your desk.

If Wanda returns to assaulting her subordinates, and throwing potted plants definitely qualifies, you would be within your rights to report that and even try to press charges if it happens to you.

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I think you have this the round the wrong way. You shouldn't have to put up with this kind of behavior, nor should you let Max hold over you the same the magic power he clearly has over Wanda. In my opinion, this carries a huge risk of blowing up in everyone's face.

Surely the desired result should be to get rid of Wanda, not crossing your fingers and hoping Max isn't found out, or leaves of his own accord. Either quit and get yourself some remote gig for a different employer, or persuade Wanda's manager to fire her. You could perhaps start by writing down some of Wanda's more alarming behaviors. Make an official complaint to senior management that having potted plants thrown at your head is a major safety issue. Suggest that Wanda's behavior is seriously eroding the team's effectiveness and costing the company money.

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