Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Taming Tyrants, or Fanning the Flames?

There is a column in today's Globe and Mail with suggestions as to how to "Tame an Office Tyrant".  Some of the suggestions aren't bad, but they presuppose a certain type of demeanour in the first place, and moreover they ignore the fact that the office tyrant does have a lot of control over both your day-to-day conditions and your long-term career prospects.

Having dealt with office tyrants, seen office tyrants professionally, and read dozens of judicial decisions arising from the actions of office tyrants, I'm going to suggest that there is a certain element of naïveté in the approach. I'm going to go through the suggestions one by one, before offering my own input, which is admittedly more of a lawyer's perspective on it.

(1)  Don't let them see you sweat.  In some situations, this will escalate things.  Now, I absolutely agree that you shouldn't get angry or emotional or lash out at the boss, but to remain a "sea of calm" tends to aggravate people who are furious.  I'm not entirely sure of the psychological reasons for this - my lay theory is that a person throwing a tantrum wants to make everyone else as miserable as they are, and when it isn't working, it only makes them act out more.  Being a "sea of calm" when the world is falling apart makes the people who are upset think that you really don't get what they're saying, or perhaps don't care about the gravity of the situation. #7 is a better way of approaching this.

(2)  Listen actively.  Hmm.  When your boss is talking to you, should you listen?  I'm going to file this one away under "s" for "self-evident".  Even though three quarters of what they're saying is nothing but personal insults, if there are instructions buried in the other quarter, you need to know what they are.  Easier said than done, however.

(3)  Be a role model.  Acting respectfully, honestly, and diplomatically is always a good idea, but I think it's a little naïve to expect to be able to teach your boss how to behave more professionally.  They're not looking to you for life advice.

(4)  Be a problem solver.  Try to proactively prevent situations from arising that will cause your boss to freak out.  Either, these actions are part of your job, in which case it gets filed under "s", or they aren't, in which case in some situations you're taking a risk by being seen as meddling in things that aren't your affair.

(5)  Harness strengths and weaknesses.  I actually kind of like this one.  The subtext is fun:  If your boss behaves himself when clients are around, then keep clients around.  (Actually, this isn't an uncommon feature of the office tyrant.  Being great at schmoozing is how people with no HR skills get into positions of authority.)  But it isn't really a solution.

(6)  Use humour.  See my objections to #1.  If you're joking about a situation that your office tyrant thinks is serious...duck.

(7)  Show empathy.  Good idea, if you can pull it off.  Bringing the boss down by getting him/her to realize that you're on the same page is prudent.  But on the same note, this won't always work:  Your boss isn't looking for a friend or sounding board, but is trying to vent, and might react badly to any attempt to take control of the situation.


You might be picking up a theme from my critiques:  In most cases, I don't think a subordinate is in any position to 'fix' an office tyrant; you either have to live with it or end it.

If you're in a larger company, there's a tendency to accept that managers come and go.  Occasionally you get a bad one, but if you can put up with it for a couple years, then hopefully one of you will move elsewhere.  In a smaller company, where your manager doesn't answer to anyone, it is a much more difficult situation, but people still like to think, especially in a tough economy, that they can just deal with it for as long as they need to.

Sometimes, you can find ways of living with it.  I once worked with an office tyrant who used a subordinate as a verbal punching bag, but in the form of an abusive relationship, would come back with bonuses after bad episodes.  If you really want to live with it, then actively listening to your boss when he's fuming with anger isn't going to do it; you need to go back to the boss once he's calmed down to figure out how he really wants you to move forward.

The difficulty with a strict 'tolerance' approach is that, if it really starts to go downhill for one reason or another, you don't have good records of why it started downhill.  I'm a big advocate of case-building, on a 'just in case' basis.

When your boss flips out, document it.  Keep a record.  Don't let the record-keeping interfere with your duties, because in fact the record-keeping needs to reflect that you have been completing your duties in an exemplary fashion, but make notes on your lunches, on your breaks, or in the evening on the day of any unprofessional conduct by the boss.

If the boss gives you instructions verbally which are new, or which you think will conflict with other expectations, then confirm the instructions by email.  If you have articulable concerns about the consequences of these instructions, put them in the email.  Email is awesome for case-building.  In many cases, I consider it wise to bcc your own home email account, or print off a copy of the email for your own records, redacting any confidential information.  (Remember that the records you keep should be kept at home, not in your work desk or on your work computer.  You never know when you might no longer have access to either.)

What are you building a case for?  Well, three things.  The first is that you're building a case for future in-house dealings with the employer.  If the employer wants to hold you responsible, by way of discipline or the withdrawal of discretionary bonuses, etc., for something that's gone wrong, having records establishing that you were following express directions from your manager...can be helpful.  The second is that, if your conflict with your manager ultimately leads to you being fired in spite of your best efforts, a solid record of unprofessional conduct by your manager will help to defuse any case for just cause they might try to make, and further enhance a pitch you might make for moral damages in a wrongful dismissal suit.  Put simply, having records puts you into a better negotiating position.  The third is that, if you reach the point that you simply have to quit, those records may in some circumstances allow you to seek recourse for constructive dismissal.  Without detailed records, your evidence at trial ends up being something like, "He was always yelling at me.  One time, he did this.  Another time, he did that."  And the Court ends up having to look at the small handful of specific allegations you're making.  With detailed records, you can list off the dates and particulars of every temper tantrum your boss ever threw, right down to which names he called you on which occasions.  This is far more compelling.  (Normally, Courts like to draw adverse inferences from the fact that you're not raising these issues with the other party as they go along.  In employment relationships, however, the Courts tend to understand an employee's reluctance to put the employer on notice.)

In my own dealings with office tyrants, I put virtually everything into emails.  Firstly, it lays a clear record of communications.  If I tell my boss that a client is upset and wants to talk to him, and he resolves to call the client back but promptly forgets, then two weeks later when the client totally freaks out, the boss is half-likely to come back on me, accusing me of not telling him.  If I send an email to my boss that a client is upset and wants to talk to him, then not only does it make it less likely that the boss will forget, but it also covers my own behind in case he does.

Remember that your boss is the one in charge.  If the office tyrant tells you to do something, then subject to certain limitations, you should do it.  If you've been doing it one way for thirty years, and your boss comes in with a new approach that you think will be catastrophic, then you should respectfully voice your concerns (by email, ideally), but if your boss insists that he wants it done his way, then do it his way, to the best of your abilities.  If you were right that the results are catastrophic, avoid saying "I told you so" - you've got your back covered by the fact that you recommended against the strategy in writing; no need to rub it in - but if you're wrong and the strategy works, all the better.

And the other thing to keep in mind is Bill 168.  If you can't tolerate the office tyrant's unprofessional conduct, then your workplace should have a mechanism in place for making complaints of harassment.  As a practical matter, I'd be reluctant to use that mechanism in a small workplace until it is becoming absolutely intolerable...but as it approaches the threshold of intolerability, then the phrase "nothing to lose" comes to mind.


I once had an office tyrant come into my office for an unscheduled meeting on a file I had had some minimal involvement on months earlier, and she thoroughly reamed me out for allegedly having dropped the ball when I was working on it.  After she left, I reviewed my own personal records of the emails we had exchanged at the time, and the story the emails told was that she had instructed me to do exactly what she was now upset at me for doing, and I had done exactly as I had been told.

I went out on a limb there, and sent an email confirming the contents of our 'discussion', referring her to the prior emails, retracting the apology that I had prematurely proffered, and explaining how upset I was at both the false allegations of misconduct and the inappropriate manner in which they had been made.

Now, there may be situations in which talking about my feelings may open up a productive discussion.  Maybe, in some situations, a boss would respond to such an email with an apology.  I knew my boss well enough, though, to know that this wasn't one of those situations.  Tyrants don't like being told they're wrong, and this is especially true when they actually are wrong.  And while she actually completely ignored my email (and in fact ignored me completely for a week afterward, which was difficult in such a small environment), I didn't send that email without already being willing to start looking for another job.

The reason I sent that email was two-fold.  Firstly, I had wrongly offered the apology, and I couldn't leave it standing out there, largely as a matter of pride.  There's no question that pride is counter-productive in these situations - do as I say, not as I do.  Secondly, I was very careful in framing the email so that there was not even the slightest hint of insubordination.  No name-calling, no unsubstantiated allegations, nothing improper or disciplinable...so that if we ever ended up litigating over conduct in the course of the employment relationship, I could put that email before the Court, putting on the record my own contemporaneous characterization of her treatment of me, without giving the Court any reason to think worse of me.  Yes, while the reasonable thing for a manager to do in response to that email would be to apologize, I knew full well that my boss would not, and to some extent I was counting on that.  I had "won that round", so to speak, and would be an important victory in the event that the threat of litigation ever arose.

Word of wisdom for employers:  You really can't ignore an email like that.  If it's right, apologize.  Nothing takes the wind out of a well-documented incident of mistreatment like a voluntary apology.  If it's wrong, put on the record the reasons it's wrong.  If the employee ventures into insubordination in the course of the email, then discipline them for it.  (Yes, that's right, if I air a legitimate grievance, and then start into the name-calling, you should apologize to me for your actions that upset me in the first place, and at the same time impose discipline for my own inappropriate conduct.)


This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.

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