Employees are often encouraged to ask HR for help with a difficult manager. But what happens when that manager is an HR executive? As one beleaguered HR coordinator lamented, "There's no HR for HR."
"There's a lot of secrecy or silence when these problems occur in the HR department," said Jennifer Lewis (not her real name). "People are more likely to leave than to vocalize their concerns because of the sensitive nature of being embedded in those teams."
Lewis has suffered through a parade of bad bosses, each one difficult in a unique way. The worst was an HR director at a Midwestern advertising agency. Lewis reported directly to her. The director was constantly making inappropriate comments to staff, employees and job candidates.
"She had no filter," Lewis said. "She told one candidate that he had a 'cute butt' and another one that she must be Chinese because her parents were from China."
During a panel discussion on diversity, held at the organization, the director asked the only black panelist, "Why don't black people want to work for our company?"
"I don't know why she was asking him," Lewis said. "He didn't even work for our company."
Two employees complained to Lewis about the incident. That put her in the uncomfortable position of figuring out whether to apologize for her boss's insensitivity, confront her boss directly, or report the incident to other senior-level people in the organization.
Lewis quickly ruled out going to her boss's boss. The two executives were close allies, and she assumed that he knew what the HR director was like and that it must not have bothered him. Instead, she contacted an employee assistance program counselor, who encouraged her to talk to her boss about the incident.
Lewis recruited an HR co-worker to go with her to give her more credibility and avoid being scapegoated.
The conversation bombed.
"She got defensive and laughed it off, saying that people were being too sensitive," said Lewis. "Then she started guessing which employees had complained."
Lewis let the matter drop. But her boss continued to make inappropriate comments, which led to additional problems.
How to Start the Tough Conversation
Jill Panall, SHRM-SCP, recommends that HR professionals focus on the legal problems the boss's behavior may cause.
"I beat the drum of risk a lot," said Panall, chief consultant at 21Oak HR Consulting in Newburyport, Mass. "If you have an HR boss who is doing something [or asking you to do something] that is unethical, illegal or immoral, you have to make people aware of the risk to the business."
She suggested going to the company's legal department for guidance about how to handle the situation.
"You can bring that information back to your boss," said Panall, "and present it as, 'This might open up some red flags for us.' "
Julie Jansen, an executive coach and author of You Want Me to Work with Who? (Penguin, 2006), recommends trying to deal directly with the problematic relationship on your own before considering whether to go over (or around) your boss.
"You should be able to sit down with your boss and have a conversation about how their behavior is impacting your work," Jansen said. "If they aren't responsive, then you have to assess the gravity of the situation and whether it makes sense to go over their head."
Jansen questioned Lewis' decision to bring a co-worker into the conversation. While the impulse is understandable, it can make your boss feel like she's being ambushed.
She also questioned Lewis' assumption that the director's boss must have known what the director was like and that his silence on the subject signaled complicity. "Some people are very crafty about hiding behaviors that they know their bosses would not approve of."
If you decide to go to your boss's boss, Jansen recommends bringing detailed documentation to back up your assertions. And if other people in the department are aware of the bad behavior, encourage them to do the same.
When each person takes the initiative to go over the boss's head and present similar stories and documentation, that makes it harder for company leaders to ignore the situation, Jansen said. It also makes it more difficult for the toxic boss to retaliate against any one individual.
Oregon-based career coach Lea McLeod encourages employees build a good relationship with their boss so that when difficulties arise, there is a foundation of trust to build upon.
"Why leave the quality of that relationship solely in your manager's hands? Instead, you should have a strategic plan to 'manage up' and figure out how to work with your manager more effectively."
Panall distinguishes between bad HR bosses who are bad people (or bad managers) and those who are inexperienced in HR.
"HR leaders sometimes get shoehorned into the role from other functions like finance, operations or accounting," Panall said. "They don't really understand what it is or how it works. But if you can position yourself as an HR expert, you can become a real asset to your boss."
Tone-deaf question aside, Lewis's boss was genuinely confused about why the company was having trouble recruiting diverse candidates. Rather than focusing on her boss's interpersonal skills, or lack thereof, Lewis could have offered to develop a diversity and inclusion strategy, preferably one that included unconscious-bias training, for hiring managers and talent acquisition professionals. This would add a marketable skill to her resume, improve the company culture and help her boss be more successful in that part of her role.
Mary Abbajay offers the following approach to dealing with a bad boss, regardless of type. She is the president and co-founder of Careerstone Group LLC, an organizational and professional development company in Washington, D.C., and author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work and Succeed with Any Type of Boss (Wiley, 2018).
- De-escalate your anger and replace it with empathy, compassion and humor. Try to see things from your boss's point of view.
- Diagnose the incompetence. Inexperience? Poor decision-making skills? Low emotional intelligence? "If you can pinpoint and prioritize the problem, you can create targeted strategies to address the deficiency."
- Compensate and cover. Develop strategies to compensate for those deficiencies, and look for opportunities to shine and be an asset.
- Take the long view. Don't worry about a boss who takes credit for your accomplishments. "Make your boss and your team look good, and you will look good as well."
- Learn what you can from the boss you have.
Grit or Quit?
Helping her boss become a better manager may have required more of a commitment to the organization than Lewis was willing to make, especially after this incident:
When Lewis's boss sent an e-mail referring to another director as a "train wreck," she inadvertently copied the director on the e-mail. The director stormed into Lewis' office to complain. Once again, Lewis was put in the uncomfortable position of apologizing and trying to figure out what to do about her boss's bad behavior. Instead of confronting her boss yet again, she referred the director to corporate HR for resolution and then resigned the following week.
"Enough is enough," Lewis said. "I was tired of cleaning up her messes."
"If your manager is so bad that your self-worth is crumbling, if you're overwhelmed or even afraid, or if you find yourself crying in the parking lot," Abbajay said, "your only option is to get away from that person pronto."
The decision to quit is personal. But if you're spending more time trying to manage your boss than doing the work you were hired to do, your physical or mental health is suffering, and you've really tried without success to fix the situation, it's probably time to move on.
Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago.