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I am a software engineer in an obscure office of the American government. We have serious staff retention and hiring issues, and HR has started a "talk about it" campaign. They send out allegedly-anonymous surveys and encourage staff to talk to their supervisor about the reasons no one wants to work here. However, when I try to talk to my boss about even the most superficial and controllable cultural factors (i.e. spending majority of day in pointless meetings) he always says something like "Yeah well, you could be cleaning toilets for a living" or "You could be a long haul trucker instead of an engineer and THIS is what you choose to complain about?"

I find this unprofessional, insulting and classist, and frankly part of the reason no one wants to work here. I'm stuck in this position for a few years due to external factors. How can I professionally explain to my boss that these factors and his response to them is hurting team morale, or else get the point across to HR? I am a top performer, it took the office over a year to fill my position and we have not been fully-staffed in five year, so I think I have a bit of leverage.

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    can you approach HR directly and share your experience when talking to the manager?
    – depperm
    Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 22:48
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    @depperm I've considered it but only if I could do so anonymously. I've had little interaction with HR up to this point and distrust them. We don't have an anonymous line or anything so I would have to find some other way to send a message anonymously. Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 22:57
  • Given the aphorism, "People don't leave jobs, they leave bad managers", an attempted patch of "talk to your manager about it" seems pretty moronic. Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 2:26
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    I've worked as a manger in a large public organisation, and in my experience, it is highly likely that the HR 'talk about it' campaign is just a box-ticking exercise - nothing good will come of it, regardless of any input you give. The only way to improve your situation is to be promoted into a managerial role, then you can carve out a niche of excellence with your team. You can probably organise the workload to still do some programming yourself, so you get the best of both worlds; you do the interesting creative tasks, and delegate the day-to-day work to your staff.
    – jayben
    Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 12:46
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    The manager's comments are that way BECAUSE this is how government jobs are. You think that "pointless" meetings are not part of the job, but they really are. You are being paid a good rate and have a wonderful retirement package to compensate for having a job that is not that professional and has a lot of "unnecessary" aspects. But government jobs are there to support politicians, not to get X done. Thus, the job is badly structured and results are not rewarded. That is the nature of a government job.
    – David R
    Commented Apr 16, 2022 at 16:12

4 Answers 4

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Things which are nearly impossible to change by an employee:

  • Company Culture
  • Bad Managers

So if you have one or both, this is something you aren't likely to change.

What you can do: Tackle the day to day madness. Don't just complain to your boss "I don't like to be stuck in endless meetings all day". Do the thinking for him. If you get a meeting invitation, reply back:

Hey manager,

Is my attendance neccessary? I'm currently working on the Z Project. If I'm needed in that meeting Task Y will be delayed.

When already sitting in meetings and you realize your input is not needed, interrupt and ask if you can leave. Even if the manager decides that you need to stay, it raises awareness that your time is valuable, and may be better used.

Depending on your calendar allocation processes, you also can "block" your calendar with "focus sessions". Of course your manager can force you to attend meetings, but if he gets "busy" messages when creating a new calendar entry, he may stop to think at least a little.

School your manager on the consequences of his leadership style. If he is used to have you sit in meetings AND meet your deadlines, why should something change?

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When you are stuck in a bad situation, and you are willing to work to make it better, you have to consider not just the likelihood that what you are planning on trying won't work, but also whether it will make your situation worse. Being stuck in a toxic work environment without an easy exit to another job is awful. It's admirable that you want to help change the situation, but you have to look out for your own interests first.

Here are some tactics that might help you contribute toward trying to make things better without making your own situation worse.

  1. Don't complain, suggest. The reasons why your work environment sucks are less important than how to make it not suck. There are things you can't control (bad bosses who don't value the people who report to them). There are things you may be able to affect. (Maybe ask for a policy that sets aside blocks of time where no meetings should be scheduled to allow people uninterrupted blocks of time to get work done.)

  2. The tallest nail gets hammered down first. Start informally building consensus with your coworkers about what sorts of things would make your work environment better. Try to stay focused on suggesting solutions instead of complaining (it's going to be hard). If you can bring solutions to your management as a group, it's harder for them to tear you down individually.

  3. Start small. Toxic work environments didn't get that way in a single year. You won't be able to fix everything that sucks about it at once. Start with something that has a good chance of success, then use that success to get more people on-board and take the next step. Letting your management take credit for some of that success would be a smart move. If your boss gets some positive attention from their management for improving the work environment of your team, they may be more willing to try additional improvements.

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Generally in situations like this you just make vague, nice noises.

You don't have a problem. Your bosses do. You have a steady job and that's all that matters. You have zero need to be getting into conflicts with people under pressure. So save whatever leverage you think you have for something important.

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    Yeah, I do have a problem: the company culture sucks. A steady job isn't "all that matters"; how about a stable job that doesn't wear me down with arbitrary BS and toxic behavior? Are you a manager yourself, out of curiosity? Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 22:55
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    Go find one while you're making nice noises. I've held several positions including manager. In this case your boss is under a lot of pressure because they need to explain whats happening. Nothing will come out of you adding to it except putting you in some peoples target sights
    – Kilisi
    Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 22:55
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    Why does this website exist when every question is answered with "just get a new job"? Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 22:58
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    Because quite often that IS the best recourse. But you get other answers as well. It depends on what sort of leverage you actually have to affect change rather than just rock the boat a bit. In your case I don't see any.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 22:59
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    @fas09dn09ime-23 You said you are bound to this job by external factors. Any course other than this answer will make you risk your job getting worse for you, or even worse, disappear on you with no notice. The only real answer is getting out of it on your terms, not rocking the boat and losing it on theirs. Now if you had said you were not bound to this job and you are willing to take risks including losing it, the answers might look different. But we don't have magic bullets. Sometimes "get out of it on your own terms" is the answer.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 9:41
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It sounds like the best way to go is to contact HR. If you don't trust them, type up a note, perhaps at home, fold it and slip it under the HR door. HR always has doors so they can talk to employees privately. Tell them how your manager reacts to your suggestions, and state that he is the reason no one wants to work there. There is risk depending on how they raise the issue with the boss, but you will never get the boss to change because you tell him to. It has to come from above.

Meanwhile do you have any sort of software design process, such as Agile/Scrum? Start including the cost of useless meetings in your reports and plans. This might be especially useful if your manager is not a participant and you have a useful Product Manager. Frequent reports like "I spent 2 hours yesterday in a meeting about a future project that another team might be working on" should get the PM interested in improving your efficiency by getting you excluded from such meetings. "I spent all day yesterday listening to my boss expound on the department direction" should also get interest. Spend a week or two tracking the meetings, and differentiate the somewhat or thoroughly useful from the completely useless, but count both sides. At your next sprint planning include those values in your schedule before taking on any story points. Make sure you are clear that your lack of velocity is largely attributable to "Meetings, Bloody Meetings". (See John Cleese - here) Have your teammates do the same and hopefully the PM will choose to act. If your manager is the PM you should still do this, just be more careful of the wording.

Is it possible for you to attend even a few of these meetings remotely? Call in to them from your desk, so that you can nominally pay attention, but continue getting at least a little work done? If the boss doesn't currently accept that, wait until you have a deadline that he's pushing you on and try the approach. "Gee boss, I'd like to attend your meeting to 'talk about it' but I have that deadline you want me to meet for project X, so would it be okay if I call into the meeting and keep working on the project? I can still listen to your sparkling dissertation."

Be gentle, take it slowly, get the whole team trying to do these things, and maybe you can start to make a difference.

"Remember, I'm pulling for you. We're all in this together." - Red Green

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