Toxic Department Head And Weak Director!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about toxic manager:

I work in a non-profit, service organization where I get a lot of personal meaning and gratification from the contribution I am able to make to the community. Of course, there are problems – and the one that makes me craziest is a toxic co-worker. We’re both department heads, and for years I’ve stayed professionally civil but out of her way, and watched as she picks “targets” and systematically tears employees and volunteers down. I’ve put a lot of energy into trying to shield the people who report to me from her dept’s dysfunction and malcontent. Unfortunately, our director is a “peace at any cost” kind of guy.

She spends hours in his office whining, ranting, and even crying about her crisis-du-jour. It wears him down until he either can’t see issues from any other perspective than hers or else he doesn’t care what’s real, just wants her to be happy. Over the years her pattern has cost us a number of wonderful employees, and her latest target is our current volunteer coordinator. Now the mess is going to impact my department’s success, and I feel obliged to wade in. However – the last person who challenged her and brought evidence to the director ended up with a reprimand for dishonesty. Despite written evidence and collaborating witnesses, it deteriorated to a she said/she said level, and the director chose to believe the drama queen.I desperately don’t want to lose the best volunteer coordinator we’ve ever had. I’m sick of watching this woman poison an organization I feel passionately about and have given my life to build. We don’t have an HR department as such, and I have no faith in our spine-less administrator. Please help me see other options besides abandoning clients and employees that I care about, by ditching the past 20 years for new job.

Signed, Caught in a No-Win Situation

Dear Caught in a No-Win Situation:

Thank you for sharing your concerns. Let me see if I can give you some thoughts that might help you develop your plan of action.

1. You have a decision to make: Tolerate TC (Toxic Co-Worker)–which is essentially what most others have done. Or, express your feelings and concerns. If you decide to express your feelings and concerns you have another decision to make: Focus on this one situation about the negative impact on the coordinator of volunteers or include all of the things that TC has done and continues to do. There are arguments both ways on that. I suggest focusing on this one thing and build on it the next time something comes up. This will be the first time you’ve gotten directly involved, apparently, so you will be starting fresh in your efforts. If you were her supervisor (the director) you could build on the history, but I think you should keep a narrow focus–the one that effects you most right now. And the focus should link to an impact on effectiveness of work. The director will care more about that than how someone feels, because his job is tied to the effectiveness of volunteers and others. It isn’t easy to show that connection because often, no matter how bad things are, people who work hard will see to it that work doesn’t suffer. But if someone in an important role quits there will obviously be issues–so you could warn about those. If the coordinator is distracted by the things that are happening, you can surmise that it might have an impact. If anyone at anytime has commented on the situation you can point out that the focus is being taken away from work and put on this interpersonal issue. You can point out that YOUR focus is being distracted by all that is happening that seems unfair. You want to be able to focus on work, not on other issues. So, that is a link as well. Use those to help convince the director that you’re talking about more than personality issues–you’re talking about organizational effectiveness. Hammer that home. Is there ever a management audit of your agency? That is often the case with non-profit groups. You may want to mention how bad it would look for such things to be included in the audit.

2. Evaluate the situation completely to ensure that you are on the right track. Are there others you respect who support the person who seems toxic to you? Could it be that her style is so offensive to you that everything she does seems wrong? Is the volunteer coordinator about whom you’re concerned, absolutely blameless in any of the matters TC seems to be picking on–or are there elements of things that TC may be correct about? I ask that to ensure that you don’t take on the wrong battle. In an office with which I am familiar a supervisor was thoroughly disliked by everyone because she was mean and nasty and truly an unpleasant person. The frequent response of her boss was, “That’s just the way she is.” Then, she seemed to start targeting a well-liked employee, because she was finding fault with many things that the employee did and hinting to the boss that the employee might be sabotaging the work of others–certainly something that employee wouldn’t do.

The employee left work one day crying about the stress under which she was being placed. That did it! Everything the supervisor had ever done was amassed against her and she quit to avoid being fired. After she left and a new supervisor was in place, it was discovered that the disliked supervisor had been right about the employee and the employee was dismissed! That didn’t mitigate the supervisor’s nasty behavior to everyone–or the poor way she communicated with the employee involved. But action should have been taken on the other matters when they happened, not gunny-sacked into a case that she was essentially correct about. So, work through that first step, no matter how obvious you think it all is. Decide what it is you want to take action about and decide if you can clearly state it, prove it and have others who will verify the truth of what you say. That means everything has to be based on something she has specifically said, expressions on her face, actions she’s taken–and how others have been effected by all of that in an unreasonably negative way.

Essentially you’re thinking about it as if you were the boss, trying to do an analysis of what you have versus what you want, in her behavior.I wasn’t clear on the organizational placement of the coordinator of volunteers. If she or he reports to you, you have a very clear vested interest. Otherwise the people who are being harmed should speak up for themselves, with your support. I am never in favor of someone being the “voice” of people who won’t speak for themselves. I’ve seen it happen over and over where, when they are asked about it, the so-called victims weasel out, leaving their rescuer in the cold. Don’t let that happen to you. The experience in the past should indicate that whatever is done has to be based on the absolute truth, not exaggerations. I’ve also seen THAT happen many times—where someone so desperately wants to show the boss how bad a co-worker is, that he or she resorts to exaggerating or extrapolating. At some point they have to out-right lie to cover up the statement they made that they know wasn’t exactly true. They end up looking bad and the problem person is vindicated. If they had told the exact truth there would have been enough to take action about anyway.

3. Consider your table of organization: Who else with organizational status is concerned? Could you link with those people in some way? If others are aware of the nature of TC, perhaps there are other things going on now that could be combined. Do any of these people have support that would be valuable for putting pressure on the director to take care of this problematic person?

4. Think about your own status. Are you well thought of? Do you have good evaluations? Does the director value your work? If you have a solid foundation you don’t need to fear that you’ll be fired because you speak up. If you’re telling the truth and not trying to covertly undermine TC, you won’t be violating any organizational policies so you won’t be punished. But let’s say you are. Could you handle not being supported by the director over this matter, or being considered in the wrong? Would that impact your salary or your job? If you find you do not want to risk the potential result, you should likely back off. If you think you could weather the storm, move forward.

5. Once you are clear about what situation concerns you most, who is most effected and what they can verify, you can decide what action to take. Do you have staff meetings where, in an open setting, you could express support for the volunteer coordinator and concerns about anything specific you could relate? Decide how and when you want to meet with the director. You can’t avoid mentioning that this has gone on before, but there’s no point in mentioning the past to such an extent that it appears to be an indictment of his leadership. Focus on this one thing if you have proof that unfairness is taking place–whatever the nature of that is. Could you ask for a meeting with the director and the volunteer coordinator, so she would have support to talk about her own concerns? Keep in mind that the director knows he hasn’t been effective about handling this–or he thinks he HAS been. So, your remarks should have the tone of wanting to help him keep from having problems–without sounding phony about it. The director has bosses–the board of directors–and likely doesn’t want them to think he can’t control things. That’s probably why he has the peace at any cost philosophy.

6. Let’s discuss your director’s issues. The reason all of this has happened may truly be because the director wants peace at any cost–and the only one who won’t give him peace unless they are treated with kid gloves, is TC. So, he has learned to keep her happy above all others. You and the others give him plenty of peace, no matter how upset you are. Think about that: He has learned from experience that he can easily placate everyone and keep the peace–but the one he really has to be careful about is TC–who will be in his office complaining, dramatizing and disrupting his peace.

The only way–the ONLY way–you will achieve something with that kind of person is to make it impossible for him to find peace until he takes care of your concern. If you allow him to say he’ll do something, but then TC continues her behavior, you’ve let both of them roll over you and others again. That’s another decision you have to make: How far are YOU willing to go with this? I used to have a colleague with a western drawl, who would say, “It’s like dealin’ with a wild dog: If you can’t kill’em, don’t kick’em.” That is something good to keep in mind as you take on this challenge. I should also note that your director may simply be trying to be fair about things–and he sees some good qualities in TC that you don’t see. Accept that and focus instead on the qualities that are being disruptive. You aren’t trying to get her fired–you’re trying to get the work environment to change and improve.

That may involve many things other than eliminating TC. It may involve reorganization, training, conflict resolution skills, counseling or other things. You may want to be clear about this, so you aren’t seen as wanting to fire someone–that would really make your director nervous. Give him some options that you think might help. If you were the director and not wanting to fire anyone, what would you do? Suggest those things to him in an appropriate way. Maybe TC needs to be talked to about tone of voice or about how to deal with conflict. Maybe she needs to be re-directed in what she thinks is important for her to be doing. Give the director an out. If he can think of something he could do without causing him a lot of discomfort, he may be more willing to listen.

7. When you talk to the director, you may want to start by pointing out your history of hard work and willingness to work with everyone. Then say that this current situation concerns you so much that you simply can’t be still about it. You might want to say that you were tempted to bring up the entire history of how unpleasant and unprofessional TC is, but you decided to focus on this one issue for now. That way you make a point at least. After the meeting, follow-up with an email that thanks him for listening and expresses your confidence that he would not want the volunteer coordinator to be made ineffective or to leave, because of the actions of one person. That provides you with documentation. Be careful how you word that follow-up, so that it is sincere, but still has the essence of your conversation included. If the director wasn’t supportive in your meeting, make the email one that says you hope he will at think about your concerns because you sincerely believe the effectiveness of the organization is being harmed more every day that it continues. Be adamant about that in a courteous way.

8. If something else occurs, point it out immediately and bring in witnesses. But during all of that, watch yourself to ensure you don’t seem to be obsessing about TC. Keep your own backyard cleaned up, so to speak, and don’t allow yourself to become vulnerable. Focus on developing alliances that you can depend upon if needed. Keep doing your own good work. Try to avoid gossiping with others about it, except in a serious problem-solving kind of way. When people come to you to complain about her, tell them you want to write it out and be willing to stand by it. You’ll find that 9 out of 10 will back down because they know they haven’t been exactly truthful about what was said or done. But one might stand fast.

9. Something will come of your complaint or it won’t. If nothing happens and you have tried and tried again, you will need to decide if you want to put your information together and instead of focusing on TC, focus on the real cause of the problem right now—the apparently weak director. Moving on may be an answer one day, but before that, let someone at some level know why you feel it is necessary. I don’t envy you this challenge! However, it appears from your message that you have a clear thought process and the ability to express your concerns when you need to. Best wishes with this. If you have the time and care to do it, keep us informed about what happens. Creating a WEGO workplace takes courage.

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.