Subordinate and Boss Turn On Me

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about feeling betrayed by subordinate and boss:

I am the manager of a department and I have one supervisor who reports directly to me – She supervises a subordinate support staff. She is a hard-worker. However, she sometimes says things that are inappropriate (of a sexual nature) to both staff and customers. She also dresses inappropriately at times. I recently addressed the above with her and informed her of the ramifications of joking around in a sexual manner could lead to sexual harassment complaints that we don’t need. She became defensive and said “don’t I work hard for you?!?!” and I reiterated that her work ethic was not at all in question – In fact it was very much appreciated but the role of supervisor also requires one to be professional at all times.

Management and supervision set the tone. As far as I was concerned, the issue was addressed and we moved on. However, I found out today from MY boss (One week later) that my subordinate wrote her a lengthy email after my talk with her threatening to quit and informing her that she is overwhelmed and that I don’t help her and that I said, “I am sorry I ever promoted you” (When in fact I said, “No one is more disappointed in you right now than me”)

I feel betrayed by someone I mentored – and I feel betrayed by my boss who said “well I have an open door policy” but I feel that her “open door policy” is contradicting the already established chain of command and essentially undermining my authority. I feel like I have to prove myself all over again to my boss (I have worked for the company for 15 years and have worked for this boss for over a year with no problems – In fact my professional reputation and integrity are of utmost importance and I do everything fairly and by the book) – Under my management and guidance the department is running better and has less complaints from employees and customers. I want to tell them both how I feel but am not sure how to approach it. Help!

Signed, Feeling betrayed

DearĀ Feeling betrayed:

Before you tell your boss and the person you supervise how you feel, give yourself some time to determine what part of your feelings you want to express. Right now you feel angry, hurt and betrayed. The degree to which you feel that way will subside once the initial discomfort is over. So, take a moment or two to put this in perspective and decide what you want to achieve from it. Your job does not appear to be at stake–and from what you describe, you have contributed a lot to the group and the business. So, from that perspective this is a bump in the road that can be gotten around, if you don’t over-react to it.

Consider the following and adapt it to your situation if needed:
1. How do you want to be seen when this is done? This situation will pass, one way or the other. How do you want to be seen by the person you supervise? What image of your reactions and responses do you want her to have? How do you want your boss to think of you? How do you want her to think of your reactions to conflict or criticism?I would imagine you want both of them to see you as someone who can smile at human nature and accept that the job of a manager and supervisor is never a trouble-free one. You want to be seen as a someone who has integrity and who will deal with work issues, as well as being prepared to work through the conflicts that are inevitable.You do NOT want to be seen as someone who, like the supervisor, sees questions or negative comments as so upsetting it stops you and creates a personal and professional crisis.You, the supervisor and your boss will still be working together next week and the next and next year–so it will be to your advantage to keep in mind that positive image you want others to have and live up to it all the time. Be the example of how to respond in these kind of situations.
2. First, start with the person who is most significant in this: Your boss. You’ve found, as most have, that “an open door policy” nearly always ends up being a “open ear to gripes” policy. However, it doesn’t appear your boss countermanded your statements or told you to retract them. So really, all she did was listen and let you know about it.You don’t say that your boss knew of your plans to talk to the supervisor. It would be a good policy to always let her know in advance about plans to counsel the supervisor. Had she known she could have given you input about how she felt and if she agreed, and she wouldn’t have heard about it for the first time from the supervisor.It would have helped to have an agreement from your boss that the supervisor’s comments and attire were inappropriate in the setting. And, that matter is serious enough, as you point out, that you likely SHOULD have talked to your boss first. If she did know, and hasn’t suggested you handled it wrongly, she hasn’t betrayed you–she let you know what was being said. In your work setting, the supervisor had a right to go over your head if she feels she is being mistreated. She did it, no action was taken and you were told. That isn’t a bad thing. But, whatever the result, I don’t see why this one thing would make you feel you have to prove yourself all over again to your boss, after fifteen years of good work. Compare this to you and the person you supervise. When you talked to her about a problem you perceived, did you think she should feel that she had to prove herself to you all over again? I doubt it. So, why would it be different for your boss and you?Unless you were reprimanded by your boss, I think you should say nothing extreme about your feelings. If you WERE reprimanded, you might want to clarify how she thinks you could have handled things differently. If not, leave it at saying you were taken aback at first and were concerned that your boss might not think you had done a good job. Make it more of a request for feedback, than a complaint about her actions toward you. That’s what you would have wanted from the person you supervise. Apply the “Is this like her?” rule. Is it like your boss to be negative about you and to purposely create bad feelings? If so, you have a long-term issue to deal with, not related to this one. If she isn’t like that,this shouldn’t cause a negative reaction from you, but instead can be a source of increased communication and a way to build an even more positive relationship.
3. The next person to consider is the person you supervise. She likely felt as hurt and angered by your conversation with her as you felt by the conversation with your boss. She may have felt embarrassed or she may have not agreed that she had done anything wrong. She likely felt that her hard work should overcome in other issues you might have. Most people who work hard thing they should be given a little leeway in other things. So, in reaction to that hurt, she wanted to get you in trouble and perhaps to reaffirm, from someone higher up, that she is valued and not viewed as being offensive in her conversations or appearance. So, she went to the one person she could talk to–YOUR boss.Before you talk to her about that, I suggest you discuss your intentions with your boss and ask for her advice. Let your boss know you want to use this to develop more open communications with the supervisor, and to be a role-model for how you want the supervisor to deal with the other employees. When you talk to the supervisor, take the focus away from a rehash of the previous conversation. Your real concern is that she seems to feel her hard work isn’t recognized and she feels that since she works hard nothing else should matter. You wouldn’t want her to have that attitude about the employees she supervises, so it’s important to clarify that issue: Someone can work very hard and be appreciated for that, but still improve in other areas.

Keep this conversation focused on what is needed for effectiveness for work. I wasn’t there so don’t know the context of your remark to her the first time, that no one was more disappointed in her actions than you. But it seems to me that is not an effective approach. (And apparently didn’t work well with her either.) Her motivation for doing well shouldn’t be to keep you from being disappointed, but rather to do what helps the company succeed, because that’s the way she can be most successful.Reaffirm that she is valued but that you have an obligation to correct matters of concern just as she does. (A suggestion: Don’t ask her what she would do in the same situation with an employee she supervises. You’ll only end up arguing again, because she’ll create a fictional situation where she handles it perfectly.)

Consider using the One Minute Manager concept discussed by Blanchard and Johnson in their book by that name. Or, create your own brief format. “Brief” is the important word. Keep it to the point and move on. You can bet the supervisor knows you know she talked to your boss and is waiting for a reaction. She may already regret talking to the boss or may hope you over-react. Be the example of how every effective person should react to unfair criticism. Acknowledge it, state your case, express confidence that this can be gotten through without negative feelings over the long-term, then go back to a work focus. In fact, one of the best ways to smooth over discomfort is to find something both of you agree on and can make as a project. Don’t let this put a communication barrier between you two. If you allow it to chill your relationship, the next thing you know you won’t have a relationship at all.

Make plenty of opportunities for positive conversations about work. Avoid the reaction by some supervisors, to be overly effusive in praise to make up for the negative encounter. You had a job to do and you did it as well as you could. If you see you could have done better, work toward that for next time, or admit what you regret. Otherwise, show by your actions that it’s over as far as you are concerned.That makes the assumption that the employee’s behavior has improved. If it hasn’t, write a memo to your boss and get her advice before going further with it this time.My final thought: You will feel awkward and hurt about this for awhile, but do your best to overshadow that with renewed energy for work, for home activities you enjoy and anything else that focuses your mind on more uplifting things. You’ve had a long, successful career thus far and many more years of being able to show how effective you are. This will only be an anecdote one day, and you might not even remember all the details by then.

When you tell the story in another two or three years, you’ll probably shake your head and smile at it. Get yourself to that place right now and you’ll feel better.These thoughts may not be perfect for your situation, but perhaps you can adapt them or they might trigger other thoughts of your own.Best wishes as you move through this situation and continue down your personal path. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what results.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.