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.
I worked for the local affiliate of an internationally known nonprofit that builds homes for those in need. On the surface, my boss was very Ned Flanders. Gentle and friendly and outwardly quite kind. But behind closed doors he was judgmental and manipulative, willing to say or do anything if he could rationalize it as being “what Jesus would want.” He made it abundantly clear that my upward mobility within the organization was contingent on my receptivity to “the Good News.” He would keep me after meetings, so that we’d be alone in his office or a conference room, and try and share his “testimony” with me. I was raised with Evangelical relatives, so I knew his game plan and could usually shut him down or deflect it fairly easily but I’d be trapped in the room with him for the length of his effort.
These conversations would last 20 minutes, upward of an hour at times. I rarely pushed back or overtly said no. I just asked questions I knew he couldn’t answer, or offered platitudes like “that makes perfect sense, within your tradition.” I am very, very Jewish and often felt like he was saying anti-Semitic or supersessionist things, trying to convince me to convert. My “favorite” example was when he told me “The Crusades were basically Zionist, you know.” Ummm … Crusaders killed Jews. Burned them alive as heretics. No, the death of my people was not “basically Zionist.”
After nearly two years of enduring his active evangelism, and his increasing intrusion into our private lives (he and his wife would invite my husband and me to church with him; at one point he came to our synagogue’s Purim carnival … and left tracts!) without any change in my belief systems, he started to become punitive. Our church relations coordinator and I shared a work space and I looked at him, tears running down my face, and asked, “If I just went to lunch and didn’t come back, would you hate me?” He took my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I’d be so proud of you for lasting as long as you did.” I put my coat back on and I walked out.
In the workplace, evangelizing at people after they’ve indicated it’s unwelcome is considered religious harassment and it’s illegal under federal law. There could be some wiggle room here if you never overtly told him to stop or indicated it was unwelcome, and ideally you would have done that — but this sounds so persistent and aggressive that it’s easy to understand why the power dynamics made you feel trapped.
If we could go back in time, I’d say to tell him very clearly, “I’m not interested in discussing religion at work.” If you felt awkward saying that after allowing months of religious talk, you could say, “I should have said this earlier, but I prefer not to talk about religion at work at all.”
Your workplace has a legal obligation to prevent employees from harassing other employees about religion, so if it continued after that point, you’d escalate it to your HR department, who should know the rules around this. You’d say something to them like, “I’ve repeatedly asked Bob to stop proselytizing to me about religion, but it’s continuing. I know there’s legal liability for the company if it continues, so I wanted to report this to you and ask that you get him to stop.”
Power dynamics can complicate all of this, of course, and some organizations have no HR or anyone with real authority over the offender. Since this was a nonprofit, in theory you could escalate it to the board of directors, but you’d need to look at their track record to know how responsive they might be and how much risk to yourself might be involved.
My job was basically to head up the sales and partnership department for this company that my boss founded. The company was dedicated to helping female entrepreneurs get paid for what they do, so it was supposed to be this really empowering place and the service they provide is honestly great. So when I was applying for work there it was very appealing because I’m all about empowering women and equal pay. But she paid me a third of what I should have been getting (according to some research I did). When I asked about it, she was like, “We’re a start-up and after you prove yourself, we’ll renegotiate your salary.”
So I worked hard, I busted my ass for them, I exceeded their sales goals, my colleagues named me the closer. They were like, if you need anyone to close, go to her. I brought in a ton of new partnerships and built relationships with major brands. They strung me along for about another month after Q1. They kept postponing our meeting and I was like, “Look, I’ve been working my butt off, I’m not going to work under these conditions for much longer.” I did a lot of research. I laid out what I should have been getting paid based on industry research and based on being a contractor, and it was almost quadruple what they were paying me. One day she was like, “Okay great, we’re finally ready to have the meeting,” and when we met I was told that my position had been eliminated. You better believe that I’m going back there and saying, “You guys owe me for all of the months of work I did for you under the pretense that I was going to be getting paid more.” She was quoted in a major publication recently, and she said, “I’m all about women getting paid.” I took a screenshot of it because I was like, you’re such a liar.
It’s so tempting to trust a new employer that makes promises about how they’ll increase your compensation in the future. You’re excited about the job, they’ve seemed great so far, and who would flagrantly lie about something as important as what you’ll be paid? A surprising number of people, it turns out. My mail is full of letters from people who had experiences similar to yours, where an employer promises to renegotiate pay after the person has been there for a while and has proven what they could do, but then never follows through on the agreement. It’s pretty abhorrent.
The best thing to do to protect yourself is to get any promises you’re relying on in writing before you commit to the job. The wording that you put in writing matters because something like “we’ll revisit your salary in six months” doesn’t actually commit them to changing your pay. You want language saying your salary will increase to $X within six months — not “may,” not “might,” not “we’ll talk about it.” If they’re not willing to commit to that in writing, it’s because they’re not willing to commit to it, period. At that point you can decide if you want to move forward knowing that there’s really no solid agreement on their side to increase your pay down the road.
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 email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.