Crucial Conversations QA

Looking for a Way Out

Dear Crucial Skills,

I love my job but would like to transfer out of the department due to my manager, “Bob.” He used to be an ok coworker until our then-manager retired and as the most senior of our team, he got promoted.

I was on maternity leave at the time, and when I returned, I found that the helpful coworker had turned into a power-hungry and controlling maniac of a manager and the team was shell-shocked.

I have spoken to Bob several times regarding my performance appraisal, to my HR rep for guidance, and finally to Bob’s manager in exasperation–who, to my relief, agreed with my assessment of Bob, but whose hands are tied. It seems the next-level manager is Bob’s long-time friend and our department is profitable.

How do I tell Bob I’d like to move on without him getting angry? How do I manage the transition? Should I just try to find another job while trying to do my old job ducking bombshells? How do I make objective comments on my boss in upcoming interviews? Is trying to obtain a positive reference letter out of the question?


Desperate Housewife

Dear Desperate,

Once you’ve decided that you’ve exhausted all methods for remedying your current situation and that it makes sense to move to a new company, you can be at great risk. Many people under these circumstances figure that they need to fix their boss before they move on. Don’t even think about it. It hasn’t worked yet and it’s not going to get better as you leave.

If people become particularly angry as they prepare to exit, many figure that it’s safe to do and say whatever they like–after all, they’re leaving. And since they’ve been raked over the coals along the way, it’s now time to get even. Once they take this attitude they often adopt many of the very behaviors that they found so despicable in their boss. They become intractable, sarcastic, unresponsive, and pretty much do what they want. They’ve become their own worst nightmare.

Obviously, you’re not thinking of such tactics, but you do need to guard against any feelings of revenge that can crop up under these circumstances. You’d be shocked to see how many people not only leave a company in anger (often deserved) but then burn bridges along the way.

Never burn bridges. You don’t want to be that kind of person, and you don’t want to suffer the consequences that often follow. Instead, quietly continue to do your job as well as possible while seeking new employment. Only approach your boss once you have an offer in your pocket. Explain that a great opportunity came up and that you’ll be taking it. Offer to make the transition as easy as possible. If your current boss needs you to stay and train the next person, see if you can arrange this with your new employer. Your job is to remain the picture of professionalism–despite how others are behaving around you. And yes, if you’re doing a good job, you should expect a positive reference.

When it comes to talking about your boss in upcoming discussions–possible employers, your replacement, friends and family, etc.–it never helps to badmouth people behind their backs. In this case, either talk with your boss directly or let it go and move on. Since you’ve decided to move on, let it go. Focus on the benefits of your new job and leave any information about your former boss a private matter.

Now for the tricky part. What if the person you’re talking with about a new job wants to talk with your current boss? If he or she calls without knowing your circumstances, your boss learns that that you’re looking for a new job–and then if you don’t get the new job . . . oops.

I’ve actually interviewed people who faced these circumstances and two that I can recall handled the challenge quite nicely. Both were up front with me about the fact that they didn’t have a very good relationship with their boss (as was the case with their entire department), and they were choosing to move on. These two didn’t give details, but did give me a warning. Both hoped that they’d get a job offer on the basis of their resume and the interview and not on the basis of what their current boss had to say. When I decided that I wanted to hire one of them, I asked him if it would be okay to give the boss a call, in order to make a final check. He gave me permission, I made the call, and it worked out just fine.

Now, let me add one final element–and this deals with your former coworkers. As long as people in authority (in this case, your boss’s boss) remain in the dark about Bob, he’ll be allowed to continue his reign of terror. So, do you make an effort to inform senior executives about the horrific manager, even though it will do nothing for you, but might benefit the majority?

As outside consultants, we often encourage HR professionals and senior managers to go out of their way to conduct exit interviews with people who are leaving. That way they can learn from people firsthand why they’re moving on. Is their pay out of whack? Are the jobs noxious? Is there a manager who’s driving people away?

With this in mind, you might ask for an exit interview with both the HR manager and a senior leader. Explain your motives–you want to see the organization improve. Then during the interviews, explain that you’re exiting because of your boss. Don’t be angry, just frank. Describe a few specific examples of what your manager routinely did. Avoid using caustic terms–stick with examples. Also point out that you’ve voiced your concerns and nobody has the will or ability to do anything and that you’re now leaving because of it.

Should you choose this additional step, take comfort in knowing that you’ve shared valuable information and that if others do the same, eventually the problem will be solved.

Best of luck,
Kerry Patterson