Toxic manager tolerated despite ‘healthy culture’ being a ‘top priority’

How can employees effectively combat harassment from a superior in a context of poor HR management?

What happened?

I had been working as a Sales Representative for a mid-stage tech startup for about a year and half when our new Sales Manager, M, joined the team. He suggested that our first meeting take place over dinner while he was in the area where I managed regional sales remotely. Before the first course even arrived, he drilled me with invasive questions about my family, religious beliefs, political beliefs etc. I laughed nervously and made a joke about whether he had heard the etiquette around bringing up religion or politics over a meal. He plowed ahead despite my obvious discomfort. “Based on what your father does, I can assume a lot about you,” he said. He had looked up my father online. I then made the mistake of responding to a question about my then-fiancé, a tech company CEO, who he proceeded to look up online on his phone as we were talking. He asked me if we were thinking about starting a family soon, how much longer I thought I would stay with the company, and if having children would impact my work. I tried to veer back on topic, discussing my strategy for the region and asking how his existing network could be leveraged. The dinner ended on friendly terms, but it left me uneasy about the working relationship.

Our company CEO had emphasized multiple times that culture was a high priority for her, and everyone should feel comfortable and respected. I figured that M would not last long, especially after I started to hear reports from coworkers of similarly negative experiences with him. Just one example, M told a coworker picking him up from the airport that his new car was a “shit box.” Other of M’s direct reports started grumbling about talking to HR, but no one took action. I decided to keep my head down. As a regional remote employee, I didn’t have a strong personal rapport with the team at our headquarters.

Six months later, we were debriefing a customer meeting over dinner. This was during the election, and the television in the background flashed an interview with Senator Clinton. “GET THAT FAGGOT OFF THE TV!”, he screamed.  My jaw dropped, people in the restaurant were staring and I was intensely embarrassed.  I reminded him that we had colleagues with a broad array of political and sexual orientations. I also told him I was personally offended by his use of the word and threatened to leave dinner if he continued to behave inappropriately. He toned down but did not apologize or acknowledge my feelings.

The longer I worked with M, the more I lost confidence in his managerial abilities. He never made the client introductions that he had promised, and I didn’t feel I was learning or benefiting from his leadership. I asked repeatedly for more 1:1 meetings so we could improve our communication and coordination of accounts. He would agree but then cancel most of our meetings last minute. A few times, he also failed to show up for in-person meetings I had traveled to attend. I was frustrated with our poor communication and his lack of professionalism.

Against my expectations, M was still at the company at the end of the first year. Our group of direct reports, with the exception of two people M hired directly, had all exchanged stories of bad interpersonal experiences with M. We resolved to bring these issues forth on our anonymous annual reviews of M, but no one heard anything back from his manager or HR.

How did you respond?

M continued to behave in ways that made me uncomfortable. I finally went to HR but only asked to be transferred to a different team. They kept promising to move when the opportunity arose. When they finally moved me, it was to a brand new territory with zero existing sales where I would still report to M.

After several months, I went to HR again and finally shared that I was uncomfortable working for M, relaying a few of the worst encounters. They didn’t seem to take my concerns seriously, and hanging up the phone I felt a sense of dread that nothing would change.

Meanwhile, I was in a strange position because I didn’t want to be alone with M and stopped arranging dinner meetings with him. This compounded his erratic attendance of our 1:1 meetings and our communication worsened.

That month, I was fired in a round of layoffs with no performance plan, warning, or explanation. M texted me right away on my personal phone saying that he was sorry and had no control over the decision. He rushed on, saying he was going to make it up to me and had already started referring me to other jobs. There were two other sales people laid off with me. Informally, I heard they were cutting territories based on revenue.  I had had less than two quarters opening a new region, and my former region was doing quite well prior to my transfer. The rationale for my layoff didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Meanwhile, the company shut me out of all my accounts even though they had promised I could first close out my business and client accounts. After sending multiple emails expressing my concerns at the abrupt changes from the client perspective, our HR Director emailed apologizing that they had not off-boarded me professionally. A week later I received a separation agreement. The whole experience was so jarring that I delayed signing for several weeks as I processed what had happened. The HR department sent frequent emails anxiously asking when I was going to sign.

I ultimately signed the agreement and severance package, and soon thereafter received a job offer from another company. Later I found out that M had finally been fired from the company.

The experience left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. After assuring us that healthy culture was a top priority, company leadership tolerated an obviously toxic person for over a year despite getting direct feedback about inappropriate behavior from other employees.

Reflections in hindsight?

It is difficult for me to understand what really happened. Did M see our ‘anonymous’ reviews of him or hear I was complaining to HR? Did he retaliate by including me in layoffs? Did HR fire me because they flagged me as a “problem employee?” These questions nagged at me as I only received positive feedback from M in his emails and he never suggested areas for improvement.

Situations like this make me very uncomfortable, I just want to do my job! If a company doesn’t think I’m a good fit or my boss is playing politics, I’d rather just not be there. The company had a great product that I felt passionate about selling and I had colleagues I cared about, but the situation left me emotionally drained and I just wanted to get on with my life and not be distracted.

Looking back, I wish I was more proactive in documenting things and presenting a stronger case to HR. I tried to take a conciliatory low-key approach at first and was not taken seriously.

After a lot of soul searching, I decided not to escalate the situation even though I would have liked there to be clarity and accountability.  I didn’t want to risk being labeled as a litigious or difficult employee. The tech community is small, and reputation is everything.

In the end, the thing that bothered me most is that I just wanted to be heard, but neither my manager nor HR ever acknowledged the inappropriate behavior. In any future leadership positions, it will be doubly important to me to be sensitive to employee concerns and not let toxic behavior slide under the radar.

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