In college, when I was working on my Master’s, supervising students of my own, I had a horrible supervisor. I found out years later that my peers and other supervisors in my workplace all had the same problems with him. At the time though, I thought it was all about me. He was erratic, underhanded and prone to blame his underlings for his personal and professional failings.
I was three months in to a direct reporting relationship with him when I finally pieced together that he would change my reporting due dates after he first asked me to turn something in. He would lie about not receiving things that I had turned in. We even had a very odd conversation in which he accused me of accusing him of sexual harassment.
It was a time in early technology when our email system would allow the sender of an email to delete the original from ALL inboxes it was sent to. I would receive a largely unprofessional email from this supervisor, reaming me out for something that I was not responsible for and then the email would disappear the next day, leaving me no evidence to pass on to a higher up.
After those first few months of thinking I was going crazy; that my missing dates and deadlines was a sudden decrease in general intelligence, I realized this man was manipulating me to feel that way.
I started a file. I started a notebook. Every email that I received I immediately printed and put in the file. When I turned in a project I had his secretary initial a dated sheet in my notebook with the time I had turned something in. I made copies. Every meeting and interaction with this man I catalogued and documented with detail of time date and specific quotes from the conversation.
It was an academic position, so my purgatory with him as a supervisor was September through June with a thankful month long break in the middle. By the time May rolled around I was used to flinching and then writing it down. I lived in the same building where I worked and was thankful for a chain on my door that meant even with a skeleton key you couldn’t get into my apartment. If I could have further locked the outside when I was gone with an additional padlock, I would have. I was that worried this man might do something in my home while I was at class or in a meeting with one of my students.
I never took this behavior to our high ups. In fact, I was pretty sure his golfing and dinner going relationships would mean that my concerns would be passed off. I was worried that reports of my missed dates and irresponsible “made up” behavior had already been passed upward.
But I had my notebook and file.
In May this supervisor was in my apartment. I had gotten permission in January to make a small adjustment to the furniture and paint in the apartment. I had written that conversation down. Now, in May, this man started talking about large fines for my change in paint color to the walls of my apartment. Further, he was insisting that to avoid the fines a repaint would need to happen in this same few weeks of finals preparation and hall clean up.
It was time to show my cards.
I had the signed paint permission form in my folder. I pulled out my notebook and showed him the documented conversation about my being able to paint, and paint that specific color. The conversation was dated, timed and included a quote by him. By looking at my notebook he could see that it contained further documentation. He stuttered.
This cruel conniving man stuttered an apology, said he had forgotten all about it.
After that, I had three weeks of bliss. He left me alone, finally, to get things done and study and get some better grades in the end. Yes it all had suffered during his status as my supervisor. I had a year of anxiety, depression, weight gain, grades dipping. Sure, in the end I was empowered. The year of ducking for cover, though, had certainly impacted every other aspect of my life. It took a few years to really relax in the workplace again. I kept flinching even when I had extraordinary bosses who were nothing less than stellar.
The long term battering from that horrible boss gave me symptoms akin to post traumatic stress disorder. I kept a notebook for years. I still embrace post documentation when I have weird interactions with bosses or employees. I find myself reminding my husband to send himself an email that is dated with a summary of some odd employee or employer interaction.
I could have lived without the horrible boss. I could have lived without the years of being anxiety ridden over small things in the workplace because of those few months when my words and actions were manipulated to make me feel small. I’m certainly not alone in having had these experiences.
I am amazed at how many people really hate their jobs. I think that real feelings of dislike must come from crazy supervisors or a whacked overall company philosophy that twists with cruelty and forgets the human side of employment. I’ve talked to so many people over the years who generally suffer from some kind of work place stress disorder. I tell them all to start taking notes, weather the storm and get a new job.
“Our careers are longer than one supervisor or workplace.”