How Managers Make Unwanted Employees Go Away
When You're a Target on the Boss' Radar
Perhaps you've had personal conflicts with various co-workers or you've spoken your mind once too often. Maybe you're a negative nelly, perpetually late, resistant to change, struggling with job performance, or all of the above. You could also be the victim of dirty office politics (I cast no judgments here). Whatever it is, your boss just wants you gone—as in, "out of the picture."
If you get the sinking feeling that your manager is simply tired of dealing with you, then you need to know what will likely come your way before it smacks you right in the middle of your cubicle. I can help to clue you in.
2 Ways to Go: Make It Quick or Make It Painful
Having been an HR representative for two Fortune 500 companies, I can tell you on a practical level that there are two ways your boss can facilitate your exit.
- He (or she) can take the direct approach, firing you quickly and decisively. Examples include discharging you for violating a company rule, strategically eliminating your job, or firing you for poor performance.
- More often, however, a manager opts for the passive-aggressive approach, wherein you (the unwanted employee) unwittingly participate in your own termination. The manager will subtly make you feel so unwelcome that you eventually fire yourself by quitting or moving to a different department.
Either way, you lose your job. If you're among your boss' least favorite employees, consider that what you thought was managerial incompetence may actually be something else entirely! (Take a moment to let that sink in.)
Signs You Have a Sneaky Smart Manager
The task of managing others is difficult work. A good manager does the following:
- sets reasonable goals and work objectives
- motivates workers
- measures an employee's progress against goals
- communicates success and shortfalls
- rewards accordingly
- provides ongoing training and development
- offers timely, fair, candid performance feedback
- affords opportunity for improvement.1
In contrast, the sneaky smart manager is a lazy person who would rather short-circuit the performance management process than do the more challenging aspects of his (or her) job. Faced with a disliked or low-performing employee, he/she, instead, invests in strategies to get rid of the "problem" employee.
He/she is often poorly skilled at addressing subordinates' training and developmental needs or at managing altogether. Thus, it's easier for him/her to blame the employee than double down on managing.
Conflict and Consequence Avoidance
He/she is also too cowardly and ill-prepared to fire the employee directly. This would likely involve defending his/her decision to HR, company lawyers, upper management, and/or a government agency (i.e., should the employee file for unemployment or wrongful discharge).
The sneaky smart manager wants to save face and avoid conflict (and the inevitable consequences of managerial decisions) so s/he takes the passive-aggressive way out by attempting to make the employee miserable enough to quit. But this, too, has its risks—especially if the reason the employee is "unwanted" has anything to do with unlawful discrimination, retaliation, whistle-blowing, etc.
An employee who feels they have been "forced" to quit may complain of constructive discharge, meaning it was not their free and voluntary choice to resign, but because the employer deliberately made working conditions so intolerable that any reasonable person would have felt obligated to make such a change.2 Constructive discharge is often challenging to prove, however.
Important Note: If you have questions about your particular situation, always consult an attorney in your jurisdiction—preferably before you quit.
Have you ever gotten on your manager's "bad side" and become his or her "unwanted" employee?
Are You Being Targeted?
Below are 12 ways that sneaky smart managers typically use to target unwanted employees. They cleverly wear down disliked and low-performing employees until they shout "mercy" with a resignation letter. Chances are, if you truly are an unwanted employee, then you'll recognize more than a few techniques.
As you review the list, concentrate on the overall pattern of how you and your boss interact. Then, compare your experience with that of co-workers. If the treatment is substantially different, that's a big clue about your future.
12 Methods Used to Get Rid of Employees
Strategy 1: Death by Overwork
Do all the assignments seem to land on your desk while teammates kick back and watch funny YouTube videos?
The sneaky manager can turn up the heat using disproportionately high workloads. Then, he'll add tight or unreasonable deadlines. These techniques are meant to increase your stress levels. Even if you adjust to the high-octane work demands, you'll pay a hefty price in terms of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion.
Strategy 2: Resource Limitation
Leave it to the sneaky manager to discreetly limit your resources, therefore, making it harder for you to do your job efficiently. If you speak up, he tries to convince you that it's really not an objective problem. You're just overreacting (probably from being overworked). He urges you to "get creative" or "do the best with what you have" because his "hands are tied."
Strategy 3: "Go Solve It Yourself"
In this innovative lead-from-behind strategy, you ask your boss for help with a significant problem. However, the sneaky boss shoves it back on you by saying that a good employee does not present problems to the boss. The good employee presents solutions. (Nice deflection!)
While that sounds cute, managers are supposed to provide problem-solving assistance when an employee is stumped. Instead, the sneaky boss instructs you to generate x number of solutions to your problem, often on-the-spot. Usually, none of the solutions is sufficient. That's why you sought assistance from the manager in the first place! It feels like a dog chasing its own tail.
Strategy 4: Assigning Tasks That Don't Fit the Employee's Competency Level
The sneaky boss opts for one of two extremes. He assigns either
- unchallenging tasks that are substantially below your skill level or
- tasks that are far too difficult and, thus, guarantee failure.
While everyone must perform some mundane tasks as a part of their job, getting stuck with too many can be boring, frustrating, and growth-suffocating. And, unless you have appropriate guidance and support, tasks that are too challenging can lead to anger and embarrassing public failure.
Strategy 5: Perpetual Distraction
When the sneaky boss is with the unwanted employee, he mentally checks out by texting, answering phone calls, or avoiding eye contact. He tries to rush the conversation along by saying things like, "Yep, yep, yep." And, if he consistently cannot bother to turn your way when you're trying to talk to him, then he's giving you the proverbial cold shoulder.
Strategy 6: Clamming up on Small Talk
Do you feel like you're in a social desert?
Having made it clear that your purpose for being there is to work, the sneaky manager eliminates all unnecessary conversation. Chit-chat is gone. He doesn't ask you friendly questions about your vacation or weekend, how your family is, etc. He doesn't care.
All of that non-work-related social interaction would just make you seem more like a person to him, and that would be ... well, awkward. Co-workers take note and they may stop engaging with you, too.
Cold Shoulder Got You Down?
Strategy 7: Formalizing Communication Channels
Claiming he's extraordinarily busy, the sneaky manager is personally inaccessible — at least to you, anyway. You must communicate with him primarily via email rather than through quick phone calls or by dropping by his office (as his door is always shut).
You may notice, too, that you have been excluded from certain meetings and have been left off key emails. If you inquire, he'll provide a reasonable rationale (e.g., an oversight).
Strategy 8: Stifling Creativity With Bureaucracy
Don't you go getting all creative! The sneaky boss is an enthusiasm and creativity killer. His favorite mantras include:
- "We don't do it that way."
- "We've tried that before, and it was a disaster."
- "We don't have time for that."
- "There's no way the ___ department would approve that."
Strategy 9: Limiting Rewards and Recognition
Everyone makes mistakes, but the sneaky smart boss ensures that everyone knows about yours. Be prepared for criticism in front of an audience. He may also email you criticism in lieu of a conversation or as a recap of a tongue-lashing you had 20 minutes ago. That's called "papering the file," and it's a bad sign.
On the flip side, when you make a praiseworthy contribution, don't expect the sneaky manager to high-five you. He'll instead take credit for your work by saving your creative ideas and presenting them as his own. He'll also give accolades to someone else or downplay your achievement altogether. That's just how it works.
Do You Give Up Yet?
Strategy 10: Aggression by Micromanagement
Micromanagers have serious control and trust issues, thus, they monitor and regulate the minutiae of their subordinate's job. Micromanagement is mismanagement, and, unfortunately, the tendency becomes especially brutal when there is an employee on the micromanager's radar.
Such bosses are often sneaky smart, and they typically engage in the following behaviors that drive their employees crazy:
- requesting constant revisions
- issuing frequent report requests
- asking for documentation rather than trusting your word
- making sure you know you're being watched
Do you feel anxious yet?
Strategy 11: Performance Management by the Book
When you're on the sneaky manager's radar, be prepared to be performance managed closely. You'll hear "accountability" and "deliverables" constantly. Your punctuality and how you're spending your time become very important. Your mistakes are magnified and documented. Expect to be counseled on minor rule violations that might otherwise go unnoticed.
In case you decide not to quit, your performance review rapidly becomes Plan B.
Strategy 12: No Room for Advancement
There's no better motivation buster than learning you work in a career graveyard. The sneaky manager bypasses you for promotions but always has "reasons." He informs you that there's no way you can realistically meet your career goals, and you have limited opportunities to learn new things. Read between the lines: he's inviting you to work elsewhere. What's it going to take?
Tips: Stay Smart, Stay Strong
It's important to be realistic with yourself if you're a disliked or are a low-performing employee. Anticipate that a sneaky smart boss who has not managed you well may engage in some of these 12 strategies to get rid of you. As you prepare for your exit, keep these tips in mind:
- Turbo charge your performance if it's an issue. Perceptions sometimes change!
- Stay calm and avoid outbursts. You don't want to provide a legitimate reason for them to fire you. Also avoid emotional venting to coworkers. It'll get back to your boss, and he'll know his efforts are working.
- Consider whether you want to complain to HR or upper management.
- Read and understand any company policies that affect you.
- Look for allies. They may be your support now and your references later.
- Take care of yourself emotionally, mentally, and physically. Consult a counselor to talk through your options as you move forward.
- Don't make rash decisions (e.g., quitting in anger).
- Double down on your job search. Revise your resume and practice your interview skills. A lot has changed since you last looked for a job.
7 Points to Consider When Quitting Your Job
Your Next Job
Do you have your next job lined up? It's easier to get another job if you're already employed.
How are your finances? Do you have a 6-8 month emergency fund? Quitting typically makes you ineligible for unemployment benefits. And once you hand in a resignation letter, all bets are probably off for severance.
The Resignation Letter
If you're going to file an unemployment or discrimination claim, that resignation letter will certainly be Exhibit A. Regardless, make it brief. You don't need to give specific reasons for moving on.
The Exit Interview
Typically, nothing useful comes out of exit interviews for the departing employee. Unless you are lodging a formal complaint, it's just water under a burned bridge.
Anticipate negative reactions from co-workers, especially if team workload is high. Try to share the news with them personally. As much as you want to, don't gloat or bad mouth your boss or the company on the way out.
Before turning in your resignation, obtain key information you'll need (e.g., examples of your work, copies of performance reviews, contact information for boss/co-workers).
Amount of Notice to Give
Two weeks' notice is a common business courtesy. Companies sometimes appreciate longer notices (e.g., 3-4 weeks).
1Wall Street Journal. (n.d.). What do Managers do? Retrieved August 8, 2014, from http://guides.wsj.com/management/developing-a-leadership-style/what-do-managers-do/.
2Duhaime, L. (n.d.). Constructive Discharge Legal Definition. Retrieved August 8, 2014, from http://www.duhaime.org/LegalDictionary/C/ConstructiveDischarge.aspx.
Questions & Answers
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