What Can I Do About A Problem Boss?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about bully boss: She tells us we are a team and we must work together to get the job done, then she tells us not to help the person she has over loaded with work

I work in a school cafeteria. I have been here for 3 years. There are 10 other women who work with us. Our boss is unpredictable and I’m beginning to believe she is a bully also. She picks a person on our staff to be mad at, then gives them more work than can be done in the given time frame. She tells us we are a team and we must work together to get the job done, then she tells us not to help the person she has over loaded with work. She has done this with 7 women in the last 3 years and all 7 women have quit, over the pressure. Another girl told me in the 5 years 30 people have quit. She has often replaced these women with her friends and once she even hired one of her sisters. She tells us all the time she will be there long after the rest of us are gone, because they the school will back her up.

Last year a few of us decided we would go together and complain to our principal; I think she found out because she held a meeting the next day she told us to stop talking about her and the school system we worked for. Several of us have begun keeping a notebook with what has happened each day. With the start of a new year, we know this abuse is just going to continue. Is there any thing we can do? The principal and the school system don’t seem to be interested in helping us. Is there some where else we can get help?

Signed, Our Boss Gets An F

DearĀ Our Boss Gets An F:

You and a few of your coworkers by-passed your boss to complain to the principal about your cafeteria boss. Saw no results and now are worried that you will be targeted by your boss– being given heavy assignments or fired. You have the feeling that the school system isn’t interested in dealing with your complaints about an unpredictable bully boss. What can you do? Is there someone other than the principal to whom you can turn?

Here are two approaches to consider: Talk-back/Speak-up and/or By-pass. Talk-back/Speak-up. Apparently, you and your coworkers have not confronted your boss. Rather you have talked about your boss with each other and you see her as an enemy. In short, she gives orders and probably you and your coworkers mumble and complain about her to each other. Now some of you are logging what goes on each day that you find unfair and bullying.You don’t describe instances when those of you who are bossed talk-back to her about assignments.

Communication is downward from her to you all and none is upward between the boss and you who are bossed. Of course it is a boss’ job to organize and make assignments. A boss creates structures meant to get the job done. In your workplace, the job is to prepare and deliver food to students and staff; to do so within budget providing nutrition and good taste. Most likely your boss has satisfied those above her and she does what she does because it works for her. And that is the traditional way bosses boss. They make assignments and those given do what is assigned.Smart bosses give orders that are do not overwork their subordinates and they monitor to see if assignments are performed well. Smart bosses frequently confer with those they boss about how well it is going. Ideally boss-bossed communication is pleasant, constructive, and collaborative. Talk-back is normal and not adversarial. Boss and bossed speak to each other on a first-names basis and they think and talk about how their goods and service might be delivered to internal and external customers with high quality.

In your cafeteria what would that entail? You say she, “tells us we are a team and we must work together to get the job done, then she tells us not to help the person she has over loaded with work.” Of course this is a mixed and counter-productive message. This kind of situation especially is a time for talk-back. Both the over-worked one and you on the team should confront the boss rather than to bite your tongues or “bitch” about it to one another. Can you visualize how that would affect her if you coworkers said, “Sally, or whatever is her name, we need to talk. You might not have intended to order us not to cooperate, but you have. Dottie has too much to do and do it well and you told us not to help her. You might have a reason for saying that; perhaps you think Dottie isn’t making enough effort, but she’s doing the best she can. That assignment is just too much. We appreciate that you want us to work as a team. But if we are to work as a team we all must pitch in to help get the job done and done well.”

No one of you would make that long a speech, but in a time-out talk-back as a team, in your own words, you all could help your “coach” know what was not working.Supervisors too often don’t think of or know what it means when they say, you “are a team and we must work together to get the job done.” Team work is learned; it doesn’t just happen with an order to work together.

If you have read other Q&As in our archive, particularly those in the section on teamwork, I have concluded my advice with the sentence: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. By that I mean a team comes to think and act as a team both its own self-interest and in the interest of the organization. In your case, the organization is the cafeteria, and your customers are students, teachers and community. To think and act as a team involves skull sessions and a coach that encourages all team members to speak up. Most importantly, the questions that a team asks, and asks frequently, is: How well are we working together as a team? What deserves applause and what might we do better? A complaint to your boss, I predict would be more effective if you prefaced it with a proposal to get training on how to work as a team. Talk-back and speak-up is what should be natural in an effective boss/bossed relationship. Then if that doesn’t work, you can say to your boss that you want to take the matter up the chain of command.

By-pass reluctantly. You say you complained to the principal of the school and that nothing has improved. The aftermath of that was that your boss, “told us to stop talking about her and the school system we worked for” and also that “She tells us all the time she will be there long after the rest of us are gone, because they the school will back her up.”And you ask, “Is there some where else we can get help?” I’m sure there is. You school has a chain of command. For you it might be the principal, but probably the principal is not the sole superior of Sally, your supervisor. Check to learn who is Sally’s boss and the boss of Sally’s boss. When I descried your question to Gene Kelly, a friend of mine who has been a principal for many years, he said: “While the principal is responsible for the general building, the cafeteria situation is a strange animal. In a large school system, the cafeteria personnel are evaluated by and report to the District food service supervisor. That person reports to and is evaluated by the district’s business manager. While the principal would probably want to know that this situation is transpiring and attempt to intervene, the principal would have to work within this described chain of command. It seems to me that the person who might make the biggest impact in the described situation would be the District’s food service supervisor. If that person does not want to be involved, then there is always the filing of a grievance by respective union representative, etc. I believe that any district supervisor who really wants their organization to perform at optimum proficiency would want to help the cafeteria supervisor to manage in a more humane manner and therefore work with that person to change their approach , leading to a possible win=win.”

In short, you need to make your complaint to your supervisor’s boss or work though your union if you have one. Obviously you and your coworkers group did not make your complaint forcefully enough and you didn’t follow through. If you are going to complain, you need to know how that should be made. Was in writing? Did you back it up with specific examples? Did you ask for an investigation and a report back? Did you meet a second time with the principal? Get my point? If you are going to complain, it should made in keeping with the protocols for how and to whom a complaint should be made and it should be done forcefully. You ask: Is there some where else we can get help? Yes, there is and that begins with you. You can become sour and work scared, or you can think through how Talk-back and/or By-pass would apply as you start your new school year. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

William Gorden