Dealing with an Inappropriate Boss
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.