The Washington Post

@Work Advice: Managing the manager

Karla L. Miller, the Magazine's @Work Advice columnist. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Reader: I have an “old school” manager who manages via threats, intimidating e-mails and general bullying. Most of the time, he does this before a holiday weekend or a scheduled vacation. He seems to nitpick at someone whenever he needs a new target. We are field employees who work from our homes and travel within our region.

I have received good reviews, according to human resources, but I wouldn’t have known otherwise because my manager has not taken more than half a day to get to know me or discuss my performance. I have spent many sleepless nights with my gut rumbling in fear. I love my job, and, as they are not easy to find these days, I don’t want to leave my company. I have sent some of his intimidating e-mails to HR and have asked for help in resolving the issue. Everything I have read regarding intimidation, hostile work environment and harassment is focused on protected status such as race, age, gender, religion, etc. Is there anything to protect those who deal with otherwise hostile situations at work?

Karla: In the best case, he’s an equal-opportunity ogre: His attacks aren’t personal, and you’re at no more risk of losing your job than anyone else. (Yay?) That also makes it hard to build a legal case against him, since he’s not targeting a protected class. But that doesn’t mean he’s not doing real damage to employee morale and well-being. The carrot-to-stick ratio sounds way out of whack here.

Your boss appears to be trying to assert control over far-flung staff he can’t directly monitor. It’s a classic dance of futility: Controller clamps down, causing targets to pull away and withhold information, causing controller to clamp harder. The pre-vacation, pre-holiday ramp-up in tantrums suggests he’s concerned about gaps in coverage. Maybe his bosses are hounding him, too.

If that’s the case, it might help relax his control-freak tendencies if you and your fellow telecommuters were to volunteer status updates via regular conference calls or e-mails. You could also lay out contingency plans explaining how any gaps will be covered during holidays and vacations.

If that doesn’t help, you may have to decide whether you can live with the certainty of random blowups that have little to do with your performance. Some people develop a talent for compartmentalizing and shedding external stressors. If that’s not possible for you, well, just because jobs aren’t easy to find doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The best time to look is while you still have a job — especially one that allows you unsupervised time away from the office.

Thanks to Sharon Snyder of Ober|Kaler.

Next week: Buffering those below you from bullies.

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. Miller, of South Riding, Va., was the winner of the 2011 @Work Advice Contest. E-mail your questions to Karla at
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