Manager Belittles a New Employee: What Should She Do?

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Reader Question:

My boss told me off for not doing a task like I was a child. I was really shocked and stated the task was on my to-do list, however, I got bogged down doing something else.

I have just started the job but she does not show me how to do things. When I say I don't know how to do a task she says, ask other staff questions. I said, I do but they don't show me, and I think she shares what she does with another manager, as when I walk into a room there is an atmosphere.

One good thing, though: I really get on with the clients and they always ask for my help.

Response:

Honestly, this question is hard to answer without knowing both of you personally. It's wrong and unprofessional of your boss to tell you off like you're a child. But, then again, generally it's wrong to treat a child rudely (which is what I'm assuming happened here). There are a whole bunch of things going on here.

First, you feel like you're unfairly picked on, untrained, and that you're not receiving support. She feels like you need your hand held and you don't prioritize your work. I have no idea which one of you is in the right.

It may well be that you are completely fabulous and she's a horrible manager. On the other hand, you may be a nightmare of neediness and she's tried every management trick in the book before she chewed you out.

I suspect the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

You do best when someone demonstrates how to do a task. She and the other staff don't have time to do so. It seems like a management style clash. She prefers employees who figure things out on their own. You prefer a more hands-on approach from your manager. Neither one is bad. They are just different.

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So, what can you do about this? A few things. Try these:

Let the lecture go. She behaved inappropriately when she belittled you. It's not illegal, though, and since you wrote “told me off” and not “tells me off” it sounds like a one-time thing. We all make mistakes from time to time. It's probably best to consider this as a one time mistake and to let it go and move on.

Ask for a formal sit-down meeting. The formal nature of this request makes it more serious. If you grab her in the hallway and say, “Hey, Jane, I need more guidance!” it won't change things. If you have regular one on one meetings, this is something to bring up there.

If you don't, then ask for a formal meeting. In this meeting say, “I'm unclear on how I can prioritize my work load. I want to make sure I'm doing the most important things first.”

Listen to what she has to say. If she gives you vague responses like, “Do the most important things first.” then you need to push further. Try one of the following:

  • Can I have 15 minutes of your time on Friday afternoons to go over my tasks for the next week?
  • I'm having trouble figuring out what the most important thing is. Can you give me some insight into your goals for the department?
  • Sometimes I get too focused on details and miss the big picture. Can you recommend a training class that will help me get over this?

Notice that what you're not doing is saying, “You never showed me how to do that.” Even if it's true, managers don't respond well to things like that — and she'll feel like you're attacking her. This won’t improve the situation, and may make it worse.

Follow up. While managers should be responsible for following up, in a situation like this where she values independence and you value guidance, you'll have to be the one who does the following up.

If you can get her to help you prioritize your work according to what she wants (which may or may not be logical), then you'll be able to pull off the follow ups. But, until you're confidently able to predict what she thinks is the most important, you'll need to double check.

Stand up to your boss. This is not advice to confront your boss. This is advice to stand up for yourself. If she starts to belittle you again say, “Jane. I apologize for my error.” That might stop her in her tracks.

If it doesn't, then you can add to it, “I've apologized for my error. Can you please lower your voice?” and then the third step is to stand up and walk away. The last step takes a lot of guts and, I'll speak honestly with you, it may end poorly.

If your manager is truly a horrible person who loves to yell, this won't go over well. But, if she's generally a good person who occasionally loses her temper, this will cut it off. You'll have to judge that.

The key thing in handling any confrontation like this is admitting your own weaknesses and approaching it from a position of “what can I do better?” rather than “you need to change what you're doing.” You'll experience much more success when you make issues about something that you can control.

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