terrible bosses

‘My Boss and His Girlfriend Bullied Me!’

Photo: Photo-Illustration: Marcus Peabody; Photo: Getty Images

What makes a boss truly terrible — and how should you deal with it? Advice columnist Alison Green addresses the stories of your worst bosses ever, as part of a weeklong series about what makes a bad boss, and why we’re so tortured by them.

Dear Boss,

Bullying is a weird thing to experience when you’re an adult. I was hired by a medical-device company to be their content marketing manager. I was almost 30 and making a career transition. At first, my boss and I got along really well. I also became friendly with the receptionist, mainly because there was this very drinking-heavy work culture. It was a young company, and everyone would go to happy hour together. I would talk to her, and we got close. After a few months, something changed and she just started … hating me. When she was out drinking she’d tell anyone who would listen that she was convinced I was in love with my boss. It turns out they were dating. They never admitted it or told HR but we all knew. 

They would berate me, or make fun of me to other colleagues. My colleagues told me that he’d call them into his office and ask if they had problems with me. We all worked in an open-plan office and he’d come out from his office and yell at me, telling me my work was crap. Seeing them anywhere in the office was an ordeal. It was hard to hold it together when I had to be in a conference room with him for a meeting. I’d just hope that he wouldn’t tear me apart. We had a shared lunch space and I’d bring my lunch and if she was there with her best friend, it was like being in Mean Girls. They’d sneer at me and giggle. I think she felt unstoppable, like, “I’m dating someone in the C-suite. What’s going to happen to me?” I couldn’t believe I was being bullied at age 30. I should have quit, but it was a battle of wills. I didn’t want them to push me out. If I left I wanted it to be on my own terms. It was as if the one piece of control I had was to stay at my desk and torment them just by being there.

Whoa, that’s awful.

For what it’s worth, this company sounds like an absolute mess. It’s really common for young companies with drinking-heavy cultures to have incredible dysfunction like this. A primarily young staff means most of your co-workers don’t have a ton of experience with professional norms, and boundaries often get blurred (or in this case, demolished). Ideally, HR or someone above your manager would have stepped in and (a) ensured no one was dating anyone in their chain of command (It’s not clear if your boss supervised the receptionist, but if he did, that would be a serious policy violation at most established companies) and (b) put a stop to the bullying. Your boss, frankly, should have been moved out of a management role, and possibly fired; what he did was an abuse of his power and is clear evidence that he wasn’t equipped to manage anyone.

It sounds like you didn’t try going over your boss’s head or to HR, and either of those might have been worth a try. But given what the culture sounds like there, you were probably better off just getting out.

I’ve been a nanny for many years and I’ve dealt with all kinds of parents. The worst situation I’ve ever been put in as a nanny was when I nannied for this 12-year-old girl and for a whole week, all she could talk about was her music recital. The day of it, she was so excited, bouncing up and down, like “My dad’s going to come to the recital!” Her mom was out of town on a business trip and she was like, “Dad’s coming to the recital, Dad’s coming to the recital, it’s going to be great.” And literally 30 minutes before we had to leave, I got a phone call from her dad saying he’s not coming to the recital and I needed to tell her that. I had to tell her, you know, “Dad’s stuck in traffic.” That’s what he told me — he was stuck in traffic. “He’s not going to be able to get here, but I’m going to be here and it’s going to be great and you’re going to do a great job, so let’s go.” I had to go to a 12-year-old and crush her dreams. 

Nannying in general is isolating. It’s just an isolated job. Unless you have nanny friends, no one can really comprehend how much work you put into the family, and it’s not just physical work. It’s emotional work. You start really deeply caring about these kids and you want them to be better humans. There were plenty of days where I came home and I would say to my boyfriend, “Maybe I should just call it quits. Maybe I should just quit right now.” You get treated poorly and then you decide to stay because of the kids. You think, Well, the parents aren’t great parents and if I’m not here, who’s going to be there for the kids? And so you stay and you stick it out and then your quality of life goes down in the toilet. You’re like an indentured servant that gets paid well.

Nannying has some of the strangest, most difficult power dynamics of any job. You’re immersed in the family and get to know their private, intimate lives in a way you normally wouldn’t with an employer. If you’re doing your job well, you’re going to get emotionally entwined with the kids — while at the same time knowing that you could be let go any day. And in situations where you’d walk away if it were any other job, it’s far more complicated when you’re basically embedded with a family. The dynamics are really tough.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

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‘My Boss and His Girlfriend Bullied Me!’