Hostile Work Environment: Am I Being Harassed?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a critical boss: I am trying so hard to do things the way she is asking of me, and I always manage to still be in the wrong. At this point I feel like this is harassment.

I have been working at an after-school program for the past seven months now. I am a very friendly and non-confrontational person by nature. I work with a class of about 20-25 students every weekday after-school. I had a really great boss that I was working with before the holidays last year, but she had to leave due to medical reasons.

My new boss only became a permanent at my site about a little over 2 months now. She was a little difficult to deal with at first, but now that she has become a permanent at my site she is unbearable to work with. She never really says anything positive about what I do, and only says what I am doing wrong and threatens me afterwards with write-ups. She says she is holding me ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’ for what I am doing.

Every week she has been reviewing my performance, watching me and telling me what I do wrong then saying that it is only to “help guide me to grow in the program”. I believe she plays favoritism with my other coworkers because she tells me what they are doing right and praises them openly in front of everyone, praising everyone openly except me. She has already told me on a personal level she thinks I do not like her and always justifies telling me what I do wrong as helping me to grow in the company. My coworkers never smile, they are very pessimistic for working with children, and one of them likes to tell me what to do every so often.

I have been threatened with write-ups at least six to seven times already. My boss does not try to work with me, understand that sometimes kids are not always in the right, and is always questioning me and my teaching methods. She tells me what I do wrong and doesn’t help me until after she tells me what I do wrong. I cannot interact with my class the way that I would like because I am being held accountable to do things exactly her way.The list of demands seems to grow every day, and the threat of write ups always occur over the smallest of things: from taking students to the bathroom too much, to not solving small spats between kids the right way, to being marked down in my grading scale for forgetting to put up some signs in the classroom because I was dealing with the children’s homework; the list can go on and on.

I have already been written up once because I didn’t make sure a student notified another coworker about an accident that student had in the restroom, even after that student was no longer in my care. I understand what things I can do better to help improve my job that is not the issue.The problem I am having is dealing with constant conversations with my boss about what I am doing wrong, mostly on a weekly basis if not daily sometimes, and the constant threat of write-ups and being watched and reviewed every week makes me so nervous, I forget about the basic needs of the kids because I always worry about losing my job. Having to do things in such a specific way and not being able to handle the kids the way I would like to makes life at work that much harder. I am trying so hard to do things the way she is asking of me, and I always manage to still be in the wrong. At this point I feel like this is harassment, I have explained to my boss just how hard I am trying to do things her way and I still don’t feel like she will understand me. I am not sure what to do anymore.

Signed, Frustrated & Overwhelmed

Dear Frustrated & Overwhelmed:

You title this question as Am I being harassed? Being criticized, written up and threatened you will be fired is not harassment, except in its broadest definition. It is stressful and disagreeable but not harassment in any legal sense. You have made a case of a bad boss; one to points out the things you do wrong and threatens with write ups so frequently that you worry more about losing your job that working with the children. You perceive your boss as harassing rather than as coaching. Unfortunately, some bosses have a pattern of bossing by threatening rather than praising. Can you change her? Probably not. So what are your options? Working harder and trying to do things her way is what you are currently doing. Turn that around and what do you have; working less hard and trying not to do things her way or ignoring your boss? That is not an option.

Seeing her as your enemy who is out to harass also is where you currently are; that is not a constructive option. To go home spilling your frustration to your family and seeing yourself as a victim likely is the way you feel. Coming to work scared you will do something that will be criticized day after day confounds attention to assisting your 20-25 kids. That is no way to work.

Are there any other ways you might cope? Maybe not, but here are a couple of approaches for you to consider; some of them are overlapping and others might strike you as ridiculous:Befriend your coworkers. Greet and chat with all there–the receptionist, janitor, others who teach in the after-school program. You say they never smile. Could it be that they see you the same way? I don’t know but possibly your frustration shows up on you face and demeanor. Become proactive. Rather than waiting and worrying about your boss coming to you, check in with her frequently.

Ask for advice. Change the way you see her criticisms from “demands” to “quality improvement suggestions.” Refer to her as coach rather than as boss. Come with ideas and ask for ways to better manage your class. Invite her to observe and to help you teach. Ask her to demonstrate how to better manage your class for a couple of periods. Tell her that you don’t just want her to get her off your back; what you really want is to make her job easier and for her to be seen as the best boss possible.

Ask for a performance review. Candidly ask if she wants you to quit or be fired. Talk about talk. Admit that you are stressed by her criticism and threats and ask if there is a way to communicate better with her. Tell her what in her remarks stresses you and what you rather would like to hear from her. To prepare for this you might spell out several do and don’t examples of what you mean.

Toughen up. I don’t know your job experience and training for this kind of work. But you might say, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, I’m just as good as them all.” Then come to work determined to knock out anyone or anything that is in the way of making those kids excited about learning.

Get a second job. That might take your mind off of being fired from this one.Make a career plan. Possibly you might enroll for a related or different occupation. Get a personal trainer; one that shapes you up physically and emotionally for whatever might come. Possibly that will entail working out, pampering yourself, singing in a choir, visiting the elderly, etc.

Keep a log of her criticisms and negative talk. Decide you will no longer walk on eggs and fear you will be fired. If you are written up again and threatened take that in stride as that’s just the way “she is”. Don’t quit. Make her fire you. Realize that a boss has to justify an action as major as firing. Go over her head to her boss with your complaints and request an investigation of her performance. Are these enough options to prompt you to see this frustrating job situation as a problem that can be solved or at least that can be approached differently? I hope so. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and is not that what you want; for you to survive negative bossing and for your boss to feel good about herself and her program?

William Gorden