How can I fix this relationship?


I recently started at a new place of employment and everything was going well until about two weeks ago. There are only three of us who work at this location, I am the only girl, and for the most part we all get along. We've each had grumpy days, sure, but nothing that has ever been taken out on each other.

I was the last to join the crew, so after a week of me being there my manager suggested we all go out for dinner one night, to celebrate the new store opening and to catch up with each other (we all knew each other previously from different shops). That never happened.

Then my manager asked me to go out for a drink - just him and me. This never felt "right" so I always brushed him off. (Note, I am not one to ever worry about sexual harassment and the like. I work in a very male dominated industry and dirty jokes, etc, go with the territory. I join in whole heartedly)

Over the last couple weeks he has gotten angry, snippy and short with me at various times. They all seem to have one thing in common; I mention a name of any male friend, or one may stop by to drop something off for me, or a male customer I have known for years is friendly, or whatever.

No probationary period was ever stated, but I am reminded weekly, sometimes even daily and in front of customers, that I can be fired for no reason within three months. So I go to work every day wondering if this will be the day he decides to fire me.

I have considered going to the owner of the company (who actually hired me) to explain the situation and ask if I should be looking for a new job. But I am worried that if he is happy with my performance and goes to my manager and tells him to knock it off, that my life will become a living hell.

Should I bite the bullet and talk to the owner, and if so how should I go about doing that without sounding like a tattle tale?

Ellen, Canada

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Peter Vajda's Answer:

What a tough situation to be in. Managers, like yours, who are verbally threatening and bullying can poison a workplace, make life uncomfortable and adversely affect productivity and morale. I applaud your proactive move to meet and move beyond this challenge.

First, some general thoughts. From a coaching perspective, a first question to ask yourself is, "Why is this experience happening FOR me (not TO me)?" "What is the lesson or learning for me I can take away from this experience?"

One reason to ask these questions is to move from a potential "victim" role where you may blame your manager, or become passive and into a role of empowerment where you take back your power and assume responsibility for responding to the challenge facing you.

Second, while going directly to your boss seems like a logical first option, it may be a "nuclear option," which you indirectly allude to.

Even if your boss speaks to your manager and you manager changes his tone and behavior, there' s a better than average chance your manager will become passive aggressive, perhaps even vindictive in other ways, for your having gone "back door" on him. Not a pleasant resolution to this issue.

So, on a practical level it might be worthwhile considering going directly to your manager and that's the approach I will speak to.

Here are some thoughts to consider:

First, three questions:

(1) What do you want?

(2) What do you want for your manager?

(3) What do you want for your relationship?

Your answers will tutor your response. I'm going to assume your manager is not going anywhere, so you'll continue to work for him, that you want his verbal abuse to stop and that you want to have a respectful working relationship.

So, in this case, when you speak with your manager directly, it's important for you to create a safe (not confrontational or threatening) conversational environment. If you make it safe, he is more apt to listen than become reactive or defensive where he may try to shut you down and move into a "power" play. You're more apt to be able to express your concerns and be heard in a "safe" and respectful environment.

Next, when you speak with him, it's critical to come from a place of facts, not emotion - that is, what happened, specifically, and what you want to happen in the future. It may not change anything, you'll see, but it's better to have a clear uncomfortable relationship than a murky, vague uncomfortable relationship. Your goal here is to make things better.

So, how to do this.

First, invite your manager to have a conversation. As he seems to be passively and actively defensive (based on your previous rejections of his invitations), he needs a reason to speak with you. And, be clear about your motives.

Are you sincerely motivated to want your working relationship to improve so you'll both feel comfortable around one another? Again, I'm assuming that's your goal.

If so, you might say something like, "Can we meet here at work for twenty minutes (this morning, this afternoon, tomorrow morning…)? I'd like to speak with you about our working relationship to see if there's a better way we can improve our way of communicating with one another. Would this be OK?"

This is only a suggestion (you know better than I what you want to say) but you must make the invitation sound professional friendly, inviting and limited. "here at work" and "twenty minutes" set the boundaries and reduces risk.

When you meet, start "softly." Restate your reason for asking for the conversation, and with facts), (see below), clearly outline the reasons you feel there's a problem with the way he speaks to you. Communicate your positive intentions and mutual purpose; do not be attacking or defensive.

For example:

"Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me. Here's what's on my mind. We've been working together cordially since (when?). However in the past few weeks, you've been rather negative, even hostile towards me. For example, (Here you list specific dates, times, and words/phrases he used - even write them down on a card and bring it with you, but, above all, be specific, e.g., "Last Friday, when I was working with a customer you came up to me and, in front of the three of us, you said…"; include the language, tone of voice, body posture, etc.

Describe the specific words and expressions he aimed at you). And I find this language to be humiliating, disrespectful, insulting, embarrassing and threatening. I want us to be good working colleagues and have a mutually-respective working relationship."

"So, I'm wondering, from your perspective, what happened in the last few weeks to change the way you relate to me? Did I do something wrong? Did I say something wrong? Have I done something that bothered you? I want to improve the way we relate to one another at work."

Don't focus so much on my words here as on the ideas you want to get across. Again, your goal here is to improve your relationship, not blame or accuse.

Then, explain what you would like to see happen, for example

  • That he provide you with immediate feedback as soon as possible (and in private; in a safe place) if/when you are not performing up to standard
  • That he speak with language that is respectful
  • That he be specific about what, in fact, constitutes appropriate firing and why he's raising that policy in every instance he does so
  • That he not threaten you
  • That you both agree on how he will and won't treat you, speak to you, in the future
  • That you both agree on how you will respond if he goes against these agreements and the way you'll hold him accountable for breaking his agreements (e.g. speak to him, go to his boss, go to HR…)

Allow him to respond.

Before you speak to him it's imperative that you prepare and practice. After you've decided what you'll say, find someone with whom you have a safe and trusting relationship and practice. Be sure this person understands the situation and then both of you role play the conversation, with varied scenarios.

If, in your role play, your "manager" is non-responsive, says it's "not a big deal," rejects what you have said, or becomes emotional, practice what you'll say or do, so you'll be prepared, not flustered, in real time as you speak with your manager.

Finally, consider what you'll do if your conversation doesn't work out as you planned. What will you do? Another conversation? Ask a third party to mediate? Go to your boss? HR? Quit? Anticipate and plan for such eventualities.

After all is said and done, I suggest you return to the initial questions I offered and see what answers arise (arose). Why do you think this experience happened FOR you? What lessons about you and the world of work (not about your manager or others) did you learn? Is there anything you might do (or might/could have done) differently as a result of this exploration?

I wish you well as go forward with this challenge.

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About our Expert

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.