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Dealing with an Inappropriate Boss

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

I’m a big fan of your column, and I’m having a work-related dilemma right now, so I thought I’d reach out for some advice. Here’s the deal: after graduating college and spending about six months substitute teaching during the worst time to be job searching EVER, I took my current position at a large non-profit organization. I had previous non-profit experience with grant-writing, fundraising, and communications, which are all areas I’m, looking to grow professionally in. Well, I believed that I would have the opportunity to grow a little more in these areas in this new position, while doing some typical entry-level admin stuff – which I have no problem with, and hey, I needed a job!

After a couple of months I realized this wasn’t the job for me — no opportunities for professional growth, a boss who is constantly disorganized and behind on her work, and basically looking for someone (ME) to do all of the things she can’t be bothered with. Like listen to her voicemails because she doesn’t feel like it. Or explain to frustrated colleagues why she doesn’t return their emails or meet deadlines. Or print documents for her, even though there is a printer sitting on her desk, because she doesn’t feel like getting up. At this rate, I have barely anything positive to add to my resume because of this job. She also feels free to comment on my personal life (my fiance is too old for me, I need to loosen up and be more fun, etc.) and told me one day while I was wearing a v-neck shirt (pretty standard, not too low) that people wouldn’t take me seriously if I dress like that.

Here’s the thing — at the same time I realized I wanted to leave this job, I found out I was pregnant. I wanted to leave but hated to go somewhere new and abandon a new job within six months, so I thought that I could stick it out for six months and then just not come back after the baby is born. However, my boss has gotten more and more inappropriate as my pregnancy progresses.

Yesterday she actually told me I “looked really fat” in a meeting and then tried to pass it off as a joke. WTF?! I didn’t have time to respond because a coworker jumped in and told me how great I look to cover the awkwardness, but what can I do in situations like that? This is the same male coworker that she has repeatedly asked “are you sure you’re not gay?” when he turns down cookies because he’s trying to watch his weight. I mean, this is not okay!! I’ve mentioned my frustrations to said coworker, but he says he’s used to it and just turns it into joke. However, she makes me uncomfortable.

My fiance has suggested that I put together a list of areas where I feel like she’s lacking as a manager and send it to her and try to talk to her about it, or if she doesn’t respond, pass those on to her supervisor or HR. He’s made the excellent point that after I leave, someone else will have to suffer under her supervision, and the organization deserves to know how she treats employees. I get this, but I have three months left, and I hate the idea of having to confront her – she makes me so uncomfortable as it is. I hate to say I’m afraid to confront her, but I’m so hormonal as it is, I really don’t want burst into tears in front of this lady!

Sorry for this super long email – it’s all to say – what should I do? What is the best way to handle this boss until I leave, and how can I do something about her inappropriate actions without making my life more miserable here than it is?


So it sounds like you actually have two problems here:
1) Your boss asks you to do menial grudgework and stifles your professional growth, and…
2) She’s socially a bit weird and inappropriate.

Two separate problems that require separate tactics.
The first problem does in fact require a face-to-face meeting with her, though it sounds like you’ve pretty much checked out of this job and given up hope that things could change enough to keep you there. But I wouldn’t say it requires a “confrontation.” Or you showing up with a list of her failings and your suggestions for improvement — that is not your job. Or your place.

Instead, you ask for a meeting to discuss your future post-baby plans. You keep it positive, but specific. “I would really like to return to this company afterthe baby is born, however I have a few concerns that are keeping me from committing to that plan 100%.” Then you talk about the lack of resume growth and long-term career options. Be specific and have ideas ready. You’d really like to work on projects like A, B and C. You’d like to take on more responsibility in areas like X, Y and Z. Don’t whine about the tasks that are “beneath” you, but instead say things like you’re “looking to be challenged” and “grow within the organization” and you’d appreciate her help and guidance in making that happen.

And even if she says no, this position is what it is and things are what they are…well, you’re basically no worse off than you are now: Biding your time at a dead-end job for a couple more months. (Remember, if you plan on not returning, you must disclose that fact ahead of time ANYWAY. It’s highly unethical to wait until after you’ve taken maternity leave benefits to quit. And the last thing you need after all this job has put you through already is to end up with a bad reference from them going forward. We have written a couple of times about this: When Should I Tell My Boss I’m Pregnant? & When Should I Tell My Boss I’m Pregnant? (The New Employee Edition))

Now, if you really don’t think this job is worth that, but continue to be unnerved by problem #2, the inappropriate comments/jokes/whatevers, you have a couple options. And while I disagree with your husband’s suggestion of confronting her yourself, I do agree with his point that SOMEONE is going to have to deal with her going forward, and she may be creating potential liability for the company (i.e. comments about people’s bodies and sexuality are, like you said, NOT OKAY).

Step one: Keep a journal or log of every inappropriate comment she makes to you. Be specific. And keep the stuff from problem #1 out of it. Make sure you aren’t reading into things too much because of your Other Feelings about her as a boss, but if something makes you genuinely uncomfortable, write it down.

Step two: Meet with Human Resources. This is what they are there for. You can ask to keep the meeting confidential. (You can also invite your male coworker. He may genuinely not be bothered by her comments anymore…or he might just need a little nudge in the direction of “enough is enough.”) Give HR all your specific examples of her inappropriate office banter and exactly how she makes you feel uncomfortable. You don’t have to sound like you’re trying to get her in major trouble here: You’re just tired of it and unsure of what to say to her, or need some advice on how to keep things at a more professional level.

I had to do this exact. Same. Thing. By the way. I don’t really want to go into a lot of detail, but I too showed up in my company’s Human Resources department, pregnant and hormonal and FED UP with a male coworker’s inability to keep things even vaguely in the realm of appropriate. (Seriously, people: Do. Not. Make. Fat. Jokes. About. Pregnant. Coworkers. It’s not funny, and we don’t like it.) We were friends, which made it really, really hard to do…and yet…no. NO. I couldn’t take it anymore. It turned out I wasn’t the first one to log a complaint. You may find that to be true in your case as well, or at least find that HR sort of…”knows” about this woman and her big mouth but have nothing “on the record” to actually go and talk to her about. A reason to give her a little refresher course on what you say (and don’t say) to people who work with you and for you.

Now, you may have one other option: An exit interview. Some companies require one, whenever someone quits, and most companies are happy to grant you one, if you request it. Ideally it should be with HR, or someone above whoever you directly report to. This is — again — only if you really choose to give up and abandon ship at the end of your pregnancy. You can really let it all hang out at an exit interview — the crazy pointless tasks, the inappropriate comments, the fact that you are not really leaving because of the baby, you are leaving because of her. The company DOES need to know…though I’m guessing they will probably wonder — and may even ask — why the hell you didn’t try to do anything about any of it beforehand.

Published February 22, 2010. Last updated October 12, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • NGS

    February 22, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    What do we do when there is no HR? I worked in a small non-profit (20 of us total in two separate offices) and when there was a problem of professionalism, there was no one to turn to except the big boss, who was the problem. Do we go straight to the board of directors without letting the person know there’s a problem first? That kind of feels like jumping rank unnecessarily… Do we just complain to our peers and other coworkers? That kind of feels like it’s counterproductive at best.

  • Olivia

    February 22, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    I second the meeting with HR. And add to this Do. Not. Make. Fat. Jokes. About. Pregnant. Coworkers. Just don’t make fat jokes EVER. They aren’t funny about anybody under any circumstances.

  • Alyssa

    February 22, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Re: NGS, I had a similar problem about 3 years ago at a small start-up company. No HR department and my boss was unorganized and ineffective, inappropriate and manipulative. As it turned out some of the higher-ups, including the CEO, were already scratching their heads about him. If I had known that I would have gone to them much earlier; however, I didn’t end up talking to them until my exit interview (not standard procedure for this company, but I think they were really hoping for some dirt on this guy). And at that point they offered to put me in any other department I wanted in order to keep me around. Unfortunately I had let it get to the point that, for my mental health, I never even wanted to see that building again. In my experience, the higher-ups want to know if anyone, including the boss, is making the environment difficult for people to tolerate.
    I LOVE Amy’s idea about keeping a record of the things the boss says, though. I wish I had done that all along. I ended up having a lot to say about his poor work habits, but on the spot couldn’t think of nearly as many examples of his inappropriateness as there really were.

  • B

    February 22, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Not using my site or name for this for obvious reasons, but you poor thing. I was in that same situation only, I wasn’t as smart and just let it go thinking that if I kept trying I’d get to do the better work the company said that project managers gave to good project assistants and I just kept mum about how my manager would give contradictory directions and get pissed that I didn’t find some way to follow both. I told my supervisor that I wanted to work for other managers, but she never did anything about it other than telling me to try harder and make sure MR had no excuse to complain–except that she complained about everything, even if it was perfect, she’d say that I hadn’t “anticipated” her wanting it in a format we had used once 3 months ago for a completely different sort of document.
    As a result, the two girls hired the same time as me who worked for different project managers 2 years ago were promoted and got great raises last year and I got “cost-of-living ($500) because it’s required here, and placed on a 6 month probation 6 months ago. Thankfully, as a result of the probation I finally was allowed to work for another manager. I like the projects I’m working on now and all my managers now say great things about me, but because of that probation I likely won’t get a raise or promotion this year either. I keep hitting my head on walls and wishing I’d spoken up sooner before wasting so much time in something so dead end that now I’m afraid that anyone looking at my resume would wonder how I’m so pathetic as to still be in an entry level job after 2 years at a company known to promote quickly.
    So, kudos to you for at least not being a total doormat like I was.

  • BaltimoreGal

    February 22, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Can I also say thank you so much for this:
    “Remember, if you plan on not returning, you must disclose that fact ahead of time ANYWAY. It’s highly unethical to wait until after you’ve taken maternity leave benefits to quit.”
    I could NOT believe that people did this as a matter of habit when I first started working in the “real world.” You can’t expect ethics on one end and not give them on the other.
    Amy’s advice is spot-on from what I’ve seen in my nonprofit-working world. Best of luck out there.

  • Olivia

    February 22, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    NGS: I think the board of directors is the next appropriate step in your case. Perhaps if you are comfortable with on member, you can talk to that person before bringing it before the entire board.

  • Suzy Q

    February 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    I have never understood why people refer to pregnant women as “fat.” It also really irks me when pregnant women refer to themselves as fat. WTF?

  • Amanda

    February 22, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    First-time commenter here, you guys. I’m usually a lurker (single, no kids, so don’t usually have a lot to contribute!), but I work in HR in a not-for-profit so I thought I’d drop in my two cents.
    I completely agree with going to HR about this manager’s inappropriate comments – like Amy said, HR may already “know” but lack the actual evidence to do anything about it, which they do need. It’s often surprising how many other people will come forward to back the first person up, once one person has taken that first step. The people in HR are nice! We want to help! I’m sure that your HR department would be horrified to hear how upsetting this is being for you, and will want to make it stop. If I can be trifle cynical, they could also see it as possibly a pre-cursor to a workplace bullying or harrassment issue, and that is DEFINITELY something they’ll want to nip in the bud.
    I also have a second point, and I know that this isn’t really what your question is about, but I might as well throw it out there. I don’t 100% agree that you should tell your employer that you’re thinking of not returning before you take maternity leave benefits. My view is that you’ve worked there, and if their policy is to provide maternity leave benefits and you meet all their criteria, then you have earned those maternity leave benefits and you should absolutely take them. I’m not saying leave them in the lurch at the last minute – if you decide not to return, then you should resign before you’re due to come back and give the amount of notice that it says in your employment contract. They’ll be covering you while you’re on maternity leave anyway, and I find that because of this it’s actually easier to replace someone who resigns while on maternity leave than someone who resigns when they’re not.
    (Note: I am in the UK, completely different laws and norms, please ignore me if this is making you clutch your pearls and reach for the smelling salts)

  • Katherine

    February 22, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    I really like Amalah’s advice here and I also wonder if you’ve considered asking this question to Ask a Manager, who is a nonprofit manager who runs a blog specializing in answering exactly this kind of question — . I would try her too.

  • Cal

    February 22, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    As someone who works in HR for a public health/nfp organisation, I just want to say that we WANT to know! It is true that without accurate and specific examples of behaviour that conflicts with the organisation’s code of conduct, it is really hard to confront performance/behavioural or decision-making issues.
    Ideally, speak up before your exit interview, because these things can be easily dismissed once you’ve left as too difficult, and the org may take it’s chances that a new employee will just let things slide.
    This is what your HR team is there for.

  • A

    February 23, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Interesting that you say they may know about her already. When I switched offices, our commander (I’m a civilian but I work for a military organization) held and exit interview with me. In the week prior my coworkers begged me to tell him about our boss and although I felt uncomfortable doing it, I did because they couldn’t risk repercussions. When I finished he looked me right in the eye and said, “What makes you think I don’t know all of this.” I think I stammered out something about assuming that if he knew something would have been done – but suffice it to say I was shocked that he seemed to know how we were being treated and wasn’t doing anything. I’m just glad that I got out. Oh, and I hear from my former coworkers that they’re envious that I moved because nothing has changed.

  • kakaty

    February 24, 2010 at 9:34 am

    As someone who has worked for 15 years in various-sized non-profits I have to comment to NGS: Do NOT go to the Board! That is highly unprofessional and will likely follow you if you leave that non-profit. NO NP wants someone who will go to the board with HR issues. It’s not their job to deal with that.
    However, if you have a persoanl and strong friendship with a Board member (which often happens at small non-profits) then making a comment or two during other coversation MAY prompt him/her to look into it on their own. It’s a fine line, but it may help and may just get you fired.
    But just like any other company – if you don’t like working for the CEO and they aren’t breaking any actual laws (sexual harrassment, etc.) then just start looking for another job.