Liz Ryan , Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
I’m the Senior Client Services Manager in our region. My boss is our company’s head of customer relations and sales support. He’s only had the job for less than a year, and he’s struggling in it.
My manager “Harvey” is floundering in his job and he knows it. All the metrics that Harvey is evaluated against are worse now than they were when he stepped into the role — and we went four months between Directors so that’s pretty bad.
I didn’t want his job and neither did any of my colleagues, but the company definitely under-hired for the size of the job. Harvey is way out of his depth.
Harvey used to ask me for advice a lot. Now he shuns me. He doesn’t want my advice. In fact, Harvey has started to blame me for things that go wrong in our region — even things that have nothing to do with my job.
We had a major shipment get screwed up last month. When we looked at the communication chain it was obvious where the project fell apart. New employees with little training were responsible for things they should never have been asked to do.
Harvey even fired his administrative assistant over the shipment issue, even though her only involvement was that she heard about the problem first and didn’t tell Harvey about it for two hours. She was a new employee herself. How would she know that Harvey expected her to pull him out of a meeting to deal with the crisis?
I talked to Harvey’s former admin “Nina” a week after she got fired. She told me that Harvey had never talked to her about what to do in a crisis situation. She said she’s glad she got fired because she’s getting unemployment now and she already has two job offers. She said working under Harvey was like a prison sentence.
Last night Harvey sent a four-paragraph email message to me and copied both HR and his boss on the message. He laid out a whole series of complaints about my job performance. It’s all nonsense. There’s not one factual statement in the whole message.
You might think Harvey would say something about “We should sit down and talk about this” but he didn’t. He just listed all the ways he thinks I’m not doing my job, and finished his message with “Please give these matters your immediate attention.”
Liz, I’ve had my job for five years. If Harvey still has enough support from the higher-up managers to be able to fire me, so be it. Let him fire me. I’ll collect unemployment and get another job. I know I’m employable.
Should I even respond to Harvey’s petty, unprofessional email rant? I don’t want to get down in the dirt and argue with him. For me it’s a matter of principle. I do my job well and our clients and employees know it. Harvey is just looking for someone to blame for his problems.
What do you recommend that I do next?
It sounds awful, but I’m glad to hear that you are ready to make a move if your company’s leadership is so out of touch that they allow Harvey to continue damaging the culture and driving good employees away.
As you say, if your higher-up leaders can’t tell that Harvey is out of his depth, and if they don’t trust you after five years, then they don’t deserve you any longer.
When a manager is in trouble and failing at their job, they will nearly always look around frantically for somebody else to blame. That person is often the most helpful, flexible soul in the group — because the fearful, floundering manager figures that an easy-going, friendly employee like you isn’t likely to fight back against his smear campaign.
You don’t have to fight back. There’s no benefit to doing so. If Harvey’s boss isn’t alarmed by the fact that Harvey is now dashing off threatening email messages to long-term, trusted employees, then Harvey’s boss is asleep at the wheel. It’s not your job to defend yourself against Harvey’s baseless ranting.
Instead, I recommend that you write back to Harvey and everybody else included in the email chain and say “Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Harvey. I’m looking forward to walking through each of these situations with you when it’s convenient for you, so I can update you on the status of each one and alleviate your concerns.” That’s all you need to say.
Let Harvey freak out, cast aspersions and make up facts to suit his narrative. You will sail above all of it.
Here are ten surefire signs your manager needs a scapegoat — and has selected you for that honor:
1. Your manager used to seek you out for advice, but that’s all over now. Now your boss behaves as though you’ve never been their confidante or coach. They only want to talk to you about your deliverables, dates and metrics.
2. Your boss starts communicating with you via email in place of voice or face-to-face communication. Their email messages are terse. You get the feeling the email messages might be blind-copied to HR and/or your boss’s boss.
3. Your manager gives you high-profile, high-risk projects and then won’t talk to you about them. They won’t give you guidance or feedback even when there are high-impact decisions to be made. They are setting you up to take the blame if the project fails.
4. Your boss gives you urgent priorities but they also give the same projects to other people — and doesn’t tell you or those other people about the duplication. You only find out about it when you bump into a co-worker doing the same thing the boss asked you to do.
5. You begin to get email messages from your boss about projects that have nothing to do with you. There are notes on these messages from your boss, like “Take care of this today!” Your boss is trying to tag you with missteps and problems that are completely unrelated to your job.
6. Your co-workers tell you that your manager has brought you up more than once in their presence — for example to say “Check with Melissa on the status of that issue — and if she doesn’t have a good answer, let me know!”
7. When you are in the same room with your boss, there’s tension in the air. You used to joke around and banter, but not anymore.
8. When you look ahead at the coming year, all you can see is more conflict, awkwardness and stress between you and your boss.
9. When you look back over the year you’ve spent working with your boss, you remember hours and hours of coaching and encouragement you gave your boss just because you are an encouraging person. Now your fearful manager regrets bringing you into the vault. They wish they could take back all the fears and worries they shared with you. They can’t take those conversations back — so they want you to disappear.
10. Your trusty gut tells you “I am being set up by my manager.”
It would be great if your higher-up leaders saw what was happening, intervened and put things right — but sadly, that is seldom how things play out in real life.
Be ready to get a new job, but also be ready to negotiate with Harvey if he tries to put you on probation or a PIP. Be ready to say “Harvey, it’s clear that another person in my role would work better for you and that’s absolutely fine. Let’s talk about my severance package.” If you get to that point, then by all means go over Harvey’s head to the higher-up leaders and tell them the whole story.
People in panicky-weenie mode don’t like conflict. That’s why they act so fearsome — so they can scare people into giving them what they want, without having to talk about it.
Don’t give Harvey that opportunity. Make him talk about firing you, if that’s what he plans to do. Get a good severance package and leave with your head held high. Mother Nature only throws us new lessons when she knows we are ready for them!
All the best,