I have always really liked my job even though the workload is oversized and the hours are long. I provide expert advice and coaching around diet and weight management in a community medical clinic. I have a master’s degree in nutrition and am a registered dietitian. We are government funded and located in an under-resourced community so I know I am providing a much-needed service, which makes me feel good.
About nine months ago I got a new boss. Her voice is weirdly high pitched and grating and all she does is find fault, but I thought I would give her a chance. To be fair, under my last boss (who was super nice) things weren’t very well run, so I thought it would be good to get a fresh perspective.
I have very high professional standards. I am always up on the latest research, always on time, and go the extra mile. I have taken classes that I have paid for myself to get better at communicating. (People get defensive about health and weight—it is a tricky topic.) I complete all of my paperwork on time and have never had a complaint.
My new boss criticizes everything I do and seems to try to make me feel terrible in small and large ways. If I arrive early or work late, she says something like “well, I guess you have no life.” If I help a patient apply for extra services (which they always need), she dings me for putting extra pressure on the system or hogging resources.
She comments on my looks, my clothes, and the age of my car. I am always neat and clean and have tried to always look professional but not overdo it. (This isn’t hard—I have no discretionary cash in this job and am a single mom of two.) I know I am petite and have been told I’m pretty. She calls me a “beauty queen” if I wear a little bit of a heel, and a “preppie” if I wear a button-down shirt.
I find myself second-guessing my perfectly reasonable work clothes and feeling panicky when I get dressed in the morning. It feels personal—except she pretty much does the same thing to everyone else.
I have tried asking her if she is unsatisfied with my work and how I might improve, to which she replies that I am too needy for always seeking positive feedback. I wish I were the kind of person who could draw a boundary, but the way she behaves is so erratic, and sometimes outlandish, that the only thing I can think of to say is “leave me alone!”
I am shy, introverted, and would pretty much rather die than confront anyone. I live in a state of dread and I hate going to work now. This bullying combined with the low pay and long hours is making me think it isn’t worth it. I am at a loss. Is it me? Help!
Dread Going to Work
Dear Dread Going to Work,
Yuck. What a bummer. I can feel your dread.
One has to wonder, does your new boss want you to quit? Or is she simply oblivious to how her petty, nasty, mean-spirited way of going about her day affects people? She is probably one of those people who tells their children they are stupid, bad, and ugly. In my years living in New York City and riding the subway everywhere, I was astonished at the way people talked to each other and corrected their kids. One can only assume she was raised in a family of people for whom it was normal to belittle and criticize.
It is possible she is tough and thinks she is funny, and what feel like jabs to you are her idea of relating. I actually know someone—a smart, competent guy who runs his own business—and his way of connecting to his employees is to walk around flicking them on the arm, on the back, on their heads. I really do mean flicking, as in he uses his thumb as resistance to propel his index finger to produce a sharp little tap. He told me that is how he connects to his people at work!
My point here is that you just can’t really know what people are thinking unless you raise the issue. It’ll be hard, but I encourage you to draw a boundary. To do that, you would have to think through all of the things she does that are out of bounds and prepare for the next time she pokes you verbally. Practice saying things out loud so you are ready. Examples might be:
- Please don’t comment on the way I dress, it makes me feel self-conscious.
- Please don’t tease me about my car, it runs well, and a new one isn’t in the budget.
- It is my understanding that part of my job is to help patients access the resources they need. If that isn’t the case, please help me understand how the policy has changed.
- Please don’t speak to me that way.
Of course, when you feel ready for anything she might do, she will probably do something unexpected—or she might just pile on the meanness. So this may not be your best option.
You might think about escalating. Maybe chat with your co-workers and bring a formal complaint as a group to your boss’s boss. Best case scenario, she hears the feedback and tries to improve or gets fired. Worst case scenario, she gets a reprimand and then comes back and is way worse.
If you really feel that you can’t take it anymore, and you don’t feel you have it in you to defend yourself, your next option is to get out. With your qualifications, I’ll bet you could get a job coaching for one of the many online weight loss/wellness companies that are popping up like crazy. And they all need qualified professionals. All the coaches work from home, so you wouldn’t have to worry about what to wear or anyone paying attention to your car. It’s a thought. There are also, I’m sure, many other clinics where you might do the kind of work you are doing now. It does sound like you get a great deal of satisfaction helping the underserved who so need your care.
I think dread, like many of the uncomfortable feelings, is a great gift in that it tells you something or someone is more awful than you have admitted to yourself. So your facing this situation head-on is a good first step. Now you are going to have to decide just what you will do to take care of yourself.
You wouldn’t be the first person to leave a job because of a hideous boss. It happens all the time. You can tell who the worst bosses are because they are always complaining about how hard it is to keep good employees.
It is up to you, DGtW. It sounds to me like there may be a really nice boss out there who will feel lucky to have you.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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