Bully Bosses and Women

As I journey through this incredibly hard time in my industry, I want to make sure people have an opportunity to see what bullying behavior looks like, how it gets received by women and what little options we have.

Using Performance as a Weapon

This is an email I wrote to my HR rep after being bullied for close to 8 months. I couldn’t make decisions that drove the business forward, I had no direction, and was rendered ineffective. Imagine having a boss that doesn’t respond to you, as a leader, for 6 months. When he does respond, because its a public forum, its aggressive and degrading. This email had zero response as well. After months of being frozen in my role and asking for status, their solution was to take me out of situation. No action, No follow up, No apology, just put baby in the corner.

Dear <-INSERT ANY HR LEADER->,

Today I had a 1:1 with where he told me he was working with you and <BULLY BOSS's LEADER> on what future I have at . I've heard that he's "working on it" for over two months. At that time was when he informed me that my role all of a sudden has different requirements now and that I was going to fail to meet these new expectations.

I’ve expressed my concerns about , and his behavior towards me briefly with you and I've tried to give him an opportunity to fix it before it became a thing. However, at this point I'm beyond that and I don't feel represented at all. I feel isolated, unable to drive anything forward, and scared.

So at this point I feel like I’m waiting around to be fired. I emailed him six weeks ago that I had no choice but to look for another job since he gives me no insight and he hasn’t acknowledged that note since. Its been 3 months since I’ve had a 1:1 or a single response to any email.

I made a score card as you suggested, to use to talk through with but after an hour long discussion and over a month of "processing time" has asked for, there has been no feedback. This conversation also turned into a full deep dive, as if I was writing a PiP rather than something to drive a conversation. It wasn't collaborative in any way. What started as a document of talking points turned into something much different.

So, short of me resigning, my only next steps is to talk with you and <BULLY BOSS’s LEADER>. Since you are no longer my HR rep, I’m not sure who I should work with. I’d rather not work with someone who has no understanding of this history. So please let me know if I should talk to someone else.

I’ve repeatedly asked for information and next steps from since earlier this fall. I asked him to meet with me while I was in <-BULLY BOSS HOME OFFICE LOCATION-> recently and beyond our remote 1:1s. He had no priority to meet with me to discuss anything and I was there for a full week. I saw him once that entire time and it was more of a sighting than anything. The only feedback I've gotten from him is that I have to work harder at making our lack of alignment not so visible. He hasn't made any attempt to make the alignment better.

I tried to give feedback on what more I needed from in my self review, but I was told to change the section around my feedback for him, so I just retracted it. I kid you not, his exact instructions were 'You need to change this now'.

I’m not comfortable in 1:1s or his staff meetings. He’s aggressive and argumentative towards me consistently. It has made my peers extremely uncomfortable. It’s at a point where I’m physically ill trying to deal with this. I asked him today was his intention to let me go? His only response was what I mentioned, he was working with you and <BULLY BOSS’s LEADER> since August. And again, I have no clue what that means or looks like.

What Does This Mean?

This email that I wrote was a cry for help. What happens to many women, especially in a litigious state like California, the only action is in-action. HR is not a safe space for anyone who becomes involved in something considered harassment. They will always be, company first. Many men think we simply can ‘speak up’ and tell someone. The response after you do, seldom works in your favor. What I have often seen is a response of ‘in-action’. The hopes that you will ‘go away’ and leave. If you do not leave or change roles, the next step, is to facilitate you out the door. One of the most effective methods is to create a PIP or Performance Improvement Plan. While the initial idea of this plan is to get the employee back on track with the leader, it has commonly become weaponized.

PIPs should be mutually agreed upon plans that have a clear pathway to success and putting everyone back on track. Managers use the self-protective behavior of denial to avoid taking responsibility for an employee’s failure and their own. It is almost never the employee that just all of a sudden derailed. Poor performance is a result from dysfunction in the relationship between the two individuals. It can also happen when you failed to right size the employee to begin with. Therefore, in order for the PIP to be effective it has to be attainable, clear, mutually drafted and agreed upon.

What I have frequently seen for women, is to use performance as a reason to get rid of a female worker or to blame her after she leaves. Keep in mind, most bully’s often speak up and claim employee ideas, methods, and work as their own. Therefore, it becomes harder to see the impact the employee has made. Avoidance, Denial, and Blame are key responses to look for from leader(s) when this happens. This is particularly true when the female employee disagrees or isn’t elevating her male leader’s position any more.

Where is the Action?

If women don’t have an ally in the company, employees have to become the ally. Too often, people are afraid of going against a bully or speaking up. They don’t want to burn bridges in this tiny tech community. So people feel powerless and often times, just look away. This I believe is key to how sexual harassment is allowed to flourish. We have to protect our women and minorities in the work place ourselves. You can simply do this by offering to be a safe person to talk to. Show that you have a commitment to discretion and to help guide the employee from your POV. Second, to create action, is to speak up. We have to stop with self protective behavior. Too often do we see HR poll the company to turn up ‘no one else is saying this is happening’. This is so isolating when it happens.

If you truly want to help women in technology, than help them by being honest when you see bullying behavior. The bully, in my story, didn’t just bully women. While he had MANY issues with other females, he wasn’t discriminatory in his behavior.

In my current job, the Infrastructure leader holds a roundtable with his female leaders to get their perspective, input, and advice on how to make the environment safe. This is a great start and a good sign that there is a place for a voice. The next step, I encourage any company to take, is to form an employee ran safe space. While it may sound like a ‘union’ it is not. This should just be a group of individuals who have no ties to protecting the business. Who are trusted advisors and individuals that can speak up without fear of ruining their reputation. Who could, if needed, submit anonymous feedback that was collected outside of the feedback cycle.

Many days I want to just form a vetted collaborative list of known bully’s in this industry, but thats not helpful. Instead, I propose we focus on the people in the time they need it and give them a voice when they feel no one is listening. For HR, trust your leaders when they feel a PIP is needed, but spend time making sure you see both sides in the lens of the employee and of the business.

Written on July 9, 2017