At My Wits End–Leaving This Job

Question:

I have held my position in upper management at a small company for over a year now. Since that time, the situation between the owner and me has become more and more bad. This person is absent or unavailable most of the time, yet demands we wait for approval on every little issue. If we (meaning to include the other manager) make decisions on our own because it is priority and she is not available, the owner is upset. If we wait for approval, the owner is upset because we should have been able to make the decision ourselves and now it’s too late. Simple discussion on the scope of authority has never come to anything with her, so this isn’t an option at this point.

When she is in town, she is all smiles and compliments. She is generous. She makes promises. There has been an ongoing issue with productivity and staff utilization. We have grown in the time I have been manager. We are unable to accommodate clients in a timely manner. Staff is not being utilized to full potential. Things do not get finished on time and attempts to correct this situation have been very unsuccessful. We are losing quite a bit of money as projects are delayed and prospects are not cultivated.

She will exclaim she understands why certain things do not get done, that she sees how busy we are, etc. She promises to allow us to hire more staff, etc, but then it does not happen. My co manager and I routinely have to work over 50 hours a week and are not compensated, as we are salary employees. We work without breaks or food. Our employees tend to have to work without breaks as well. There simply are not enough hours in the day. The newest challenge is keeping sales up in a poor economic climate. We cannot sell product we do not have, and are not allowed to order. We cannot cultivate leads if no one is around to answer the phone. We will not get referrals if client relationships are damaged due to poor turn around time on orders.

The owner says she understands, and then reneges on promises, leaving us in the lurch. She says we have “time management” issues, yet thinks nothing of sending us on personal errands for her. She does not read her emails thoroughly, or responds to half of a question. She will get angry about something she told us to do, and then say she never told us to do that. The more she travels, the worse it gets. We are losing huge amounts of money, yet every month the goals get higher. This is also a person that expects we come in on our days off, stay late, come in early, whatever. There is no “thanks” for it, it is expected. We all work extremely long hours. We are made to feel guilty for taking scheduled vacations or sick days. Now things are getting more catty and abusive. I believe her constant traveling and mismanagement have cost her dearly monetarily. She is becoming more passive aggressive, sometimes downright abusive. I absolutely refuse to work any more hours, and I refuse to take any more responsibility for failings that are in no way related to me or under my control.

So I am going to leave. This lady has gone nuts. The big question is: what do I tell a prospective employer about my experience at this company? And what if she gives a bad reference? I have actually stayed at this job because I fear what she will do if I leave. I have tried everything to help make this a success, and both my service and managerial record are very good. However, I cannot make a person see what she is not around to witness, and I can’t make her change her mind about something even if it is grossly inaccurate. I have sent this person emails about challenges and possible solutions, which are ignored. It wouldn’t be so bad if she would just either be here and rule all, or go away and leave the people she hired to do their jobs.

I know she will see how much we contribute when I (and/or my co manager) am gone, but then it will be too late. I hate to leave something unfinished and unsuccessful. I hate to give up, but I’m done with this place. It isn’t worth it. I am wondering if this situation is salvageable, and if not, how can I leave gracefully, without looking like a pushover? I don’t want to sound like sour grapes either, but I am concerned about what she will have to say about me. I want to leave with plenty of notice, and train a replacement, but I am afraid she will terminate immediately when I tell her I’m leaving, and then say I left her in a lurch. What do I do? I’ve never had this toxic situation!

Signed,

Leaving Gracefully???


Answer:

Dear Leaving Gracefully???:

You paint a sad picture; the portrait of an owner of your workplace with whom you have been unable to negotiate a clear scope of authority, one who is inconsiderate and much of the time out of touch, and of a company that is losing business. You have regrettably, yet fearfully, come to the conclusion that you will quit. You ask is the situation salvageable? You want to give ample notice of your departure, to leave gracefully but you fear that she will send a negative assessment to a prospective employer and that if she learns you are quitting that she will fire you immediately.

Salvageable? Probably not if your description is accurate. Can you exit without the vengeful acts of this owner? Is there any hope? It is evident that you are sensitive to wanting to leave in a responsible manner yet you wonder if you should try scheduling as mutually accommodating exit as possible or should you stay mum until you have a firm job offer in hand? These are practical and ethical questions.

Assuming just for argument that you want a last ditch effort to make the best of a bad situation, you would need to make the case with the numbers; what the business is losing, what is needed to make it work, what hurdles must be circumvented. All of this would have to be confronted in a no-holds barred contractual manner, job description, authority clarification for you and your co-manager. Possibly you would need to schedule a time-out meeting with this owner and request the facilitating presence an attorney or small-business expert. Assuming that you truly have determined there is no hope for your role in this company, you will have to think through what are the ethical and practical matters of your exit. The crucial ethical issue is you want to not leave this owner, however inconsiderate she has been and might be, in the lurch, nor to be accused of doing that. You want to do what you can to leave this business in the best shape possible? To resolve the ethical question you might suppose for the moment that you owned this small company. What would you like to have a manager do to help find and prepare a replacement? How honest would you want him/her to be in telling you why he/she is seeking employment elsewhere and when is leaving?

Practically, you will want to balance the answers you have to these ethical questions against your fears that your owner will dice you should she learn of your plans to quit. How did you get this job? Was it on the recommendation of someone? Do you have contacts in your field of other leads? Is there an out-placement firm; such as Challenger, Gray and Christmas http://www.challengergray.com/,”with whom you might work? It seems to me that you are at the job exploring stage and whether and when you inform the owner hinges on your answers to the ethical questions.

Because your on-going knowledge and guidance of this small business is essential to its survival, I expect that a head-to-head encounter with the owner, informing her of your decision to depart, should not be to her advantage to fire you immediately. Would it not seem more reasonable to have a “divorce” and trained replacement? Could she not see this? Since you are the one who is “leaving”, you will need to initiate; orally and in writing; responsibilities expected and timeline for your exit. It is always possible that one’s boss or owner of a company can say or imply that your tenure has been less than stellar, even though such is not in keeping with legal guidelines of what an employer might say. But you had the resume that got you hired for this position and that is still good. Should you inform a prospective employer that your current year as manager was a bust? Probably you can make a far more positive case than you have made in this exchange with us. Surely you can update your resume with projects accomplished and find recommendations other than the owner from those who know how hard you have tried to make this small company successful.

Do these thoughts help? Possibly my associate Workplace Doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe, will add to these remarks. You will survive. You know that managers are valued and that you have learned much before and in spite of this unhappy relationship. You don’t need to see leaving as an undercover CIA operation. There is no neat or foolproof way to say goodbye to a spiteful employer, but assuming the worse might not work out as well as assuming good intentions; her wanting the best for you as you move on and you wanting the best for this workplace you have decided you had best leave. If nothing else, I’m sure you will be wiser interviewing and seeking your next job at a good place to work in and for in. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. Will you keep us posted on what you choose to do and how it works out these next several months?

William Gorden