Dear ReWorker: My Manager Is Creating a Toxic Company Culture

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

Dear ReWorker,

I just started working as the HR manager for a non-profit that I really support. But, the director and her two best friends are unorganized, mean, micromanagers. They will chew out an employee for going to the dentist for an hour, but then expect everyone to stay late because they forgot a project was due.

The staff has been begging me for team building, but honestly I'm not sure it would do anything. It's not the team, it's the bosses.

What's my best path here?


Blindsided by Bad Bosses


Dear Blindsided,

If this wasn't an organization with a mission you support, I might tell you to focus on finding a new job and forget about this disaster. But, I suspect you want the organization to succeed even if you aren't a part of it.

Unfortunately, though, the help it needs will be difficult because HR is never in charge. But, you're in luck, because the director isn't in charge either—the board is. Be warned: the board should be your last resort, because going over the director's head will damage your relationship with your manager (and her friends, who I assume are also employees).

When the problem is with the boss, but the boss has proven herself to be a good leader, you can be straightforward. Since this doesn't seem to be the case, you'll have to work strategically for a good result. The key is making her think that she has thought of the solution and you're just helping her. Here's how:

Make It an Employee Problem, Not a Manager Problem

Your boss will be more receptive to feedback if she doesn't think the problem originated with her. No, you're not throwing the employees under the bus—you're rescuing. Start with:

"I've noticed that this team gets a lot of management and oversight. They will be much more effective if we can increase their independence."

Now, let's break this down. It's not "how can you stop micromanaging," but how can "we" (we're in this together) "increase the employees' independence?" The idea here is that you want the director to think that the employees need to do something rather than she needs to change.

Next, offer to help coach the employees on how to be more independent and track the results. If the director doesn't back off, try again. Tell her: "The employees will never learn unless you give them a chance to challenge themselves. Let's give them a project and let them run with it."

You can solve disorganization in a similar manner. Tell the director: "We miss deadlines because people are disorganized. What would you think about putting Jenna (the most organized person in the office) in charge of timelines?" Remember, your focus is on doing the director favors, not telling her she's doing it wrong.

Demonstrate the Benefits

When you approach the director, demonstrate how changing her problematic behavior is an opportunity to get ahead, but be subtle. Do your research to find out what benefits your competitors offer their employees.

For example, I'm positive that many of your direct competitors offer flexible schedules and wouldn't freak out about an employee going to a dentist appointment. Then, present these benefits as a way your company can compete for talent with other organizations in your space without overtly criticizing your director's behavior.

Don't Forget the Law

As long as the boss is simply complaining about people taking an hour off to go to the dentist, it's legal, but if the employees are exempt, she can't dock their pay. Double check that this is not happening. If it is, prepare your "we" statement and be very clear:

"I've learned that Steve had his pay docked for taking time off for a medical appointment. We could get in a lot of trouble if anyone reported that, as he's an exempt employee. I went ahead and told payroll to fix it, but thought you would want to know so we can stay compliant with the law in the future."

If your quiet leadership tips and coaching don't make a difference, then you're obligated to give the board a heads up. All of these things are a real obstacle standing in the way of the success of the non-profit and the board should be aware of them. But, hopefully, you'll be able to make real change to the organization without having to overstep your boss.

Your ReWorker,

Suzanne Lucas, Evil HR Lady

Photo: Creative Commons

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