The summer between high school and college (1975), I worked for a bank on the teller line. My first boss was decent, forthright, communicative, well respected by those above her, and a tough cookie to those she managed. You either loved Hazel or you hated her. She treated and taught me well. No ambiguity. I excelled. I remember actually having this thought, “Wow! If this is a snapshot of working as an adult then this is great!”
My naivety painfully and quickly melted as I gained professional experience and acumen. I have a favorite story about the most recent bad boss (2013). After many months of suffering through her erratic behavior, she asked me to merge some documents to help streamline the technical data package of a product line. No problem, except she put the wrong documents on the server, not to mention handing me a printed copy. I recognized the mistake immediately and attempted to communicate this to her. She had a screaming fit and told me that she would rip me a new asshole if I did not do what she asked. I was in her office, so I stood up and calmly said -“Gee, I like the asshole I have. Please stop yelling at me.” She escalated the yelling making derogatory remarks complete with expletives. I began to make my way to the door and then she really, really lost it and said “You do not have my permission to leave.” My reply as I continued to walk out of the office was this, “I was raised to take myself out of harmful situations. This tirade is an example of many I have endured from you – insulting, unprofessional, an attempt to demoralize me, and quite frankly not acceptable to a competent, intelligent, technically capable woman.” I met my breaking point. From that moment forward I would in no uncertain terms stand up for myself – and calmly while trying to diffuse the situation.
I was called into the Directors office the next morning and asked to relay my side of the insubordinate employee story. The Director asked my boss to examine the documents before I merged them and sure enough they were incorrect. They were replaced by other incorrect documents. After a few more attempts to locate the correct documents I thought to myself, “Screw it. Give her the merged document.” So I did. Two months later she called a meeting in the conference room with the Technical Program Manager, Quality Assurance Supervisor, the Director, and myself. I sat on one side of the table and they sat on the other side.
These were her opening words: “This document is wrong. You can’t make this shit up. How did we hire such incompetence? (on and on and on).” This particular tirade continued for about 20 minutes with documentation of many other infractions. In my defense, I had put together a packet of the entire transaction from day one to the day of the meeting. Twelve months of documentation: emails, copies of phone records (she would call my cell phone in a drunken stupor at night), documents she provided that were incorrect, substantiating documents and correspondence from other agencies with the correct documents, and the completed merged correct document approved by the other agencies. Everyone on the opposite side of the table from me sat in stunned silence as I articulated my defense and with precision reviewed the packet.
Yes. I had help. For about 18 months I was in communication with an attorney, and Human Resources in how to handle a situation that escalated out of control; could likely negatively impact me professionally, not to mention the personal intense stress of working with a nut case. I was guided through the grievance process. I was the seventh person that filed a grievance in ten years. I was one of two employees within three months of each other filing grievances for similar reasons.
The Director opted to keep her (each and every one of the seven times she had the option to fire her). Turns out the boss, who was my boss, no longer my boss, and the grievance results states will never be my boss again, is a raging alcoholic. When I look back at all the tirades, the insults, the ridiculous emails, poor direction, odd requests, repeated explanation of technical requirements, deranged phone calls, the lack of support from my colleagues, the attempt by HR to make another case against her – well I realize at the time those interactions took place she was in severe alcohol withdrawal. And no one else wanted the repercussion(s) of standing up to her.
After all was said and done, I managed to walk away in a better position with a better set of circumstances. A friend who coaches people in similar situations asked me how I found the resolve to file a grievance as most people he coached were too fearful of losing their jobs to stand up for themselves. My answer: “There are millions of jobs in the world. Money has come and gone throughout my life. I am talented, well connected, and I was right. No matter the result of the grievance, my integrity remains intact. I tolerated too much for too long for the sake of “professionalism” on my part. So when I did act I found a strength in myself I did not know existed.” (The backstory: my husband’s business went under; no one was hiring in my field at the time; filing a grievance was less effort than continued suffering).
Thank you Hazel for treating and teaching me well.