A reader writes:
I have a really messed up situation at work. Yesterday, I found a paper in the photocopier (which is in a public place). It was on the department director's letterhead (I report to the associate director). It was a handwritten list of errors I have made (relatively small and inconsequential), or things that annoy her about me. Among them are small errors from July 2008, my 6-month in advance request to use my vacation time + sick family leave to take care of a sick aunt. NONE of these have ever been brought to my attention as problems. I have a feeling the list was intended for my supervisor to put on my evaluation.
After finding the list, I brought it to my supervisor. He had a short meeting with the director and now we all have a meeting together on Monday. He is not one to support his employees, and rarely contradicts the director.
Should I request that an HR person be there? I feel like this is harassment. Am I being too sensitive?
My advice: Go and listen with an open mind.
It's normal to feel upset and defensive in this situation. Resist that impulse as much as you can. It will not do you any good, and it may escalate the situation.
The director seems to want to talk to you about things she is concerned about. It's almost beside the point whether you think these are small, inconsequential things or not, because she doesn't, and she's someone who you're going to need to satisfy in order to work there happily. The absolute worst thing you can do in this situation is be angry or defensive. Rather you need to listen to what her concerns are and figure out what you need to be doing differently.
Really, there are two possibilities here: (1) your director is being irrational, or (2) she's being reasonable. Either way, you need to hear what it would take to make her happy with your performance. If you hear her out and decide she's being irrational, nothing says you have to stay in that job forever. But you're still better off knowing where she's coming from.
Do the following:
* Really listen. Often in this situation, people immediately start thinking of how they should respond, which keeps them from hearing and processing the input. Maybe she has a reasonable point, which you'll never pick up on if you're focused on how to defend yourself.
* Use responses that indicate you're open to the feedback. For instance, saying something like, "I'm really glad you're telling me this. I didn't realize that this has been an issue, and I'm grateful to know" can dramatically change the nature of the meeting -- diffusing any adversarial feel and making it more collaborative.
* It's fine to present your side, of course, but do it in a non-defensive, unemotional way. For instance, you might say, "You're right that I didn't focus a lot of that project. I had thought that projects x and z were higher priorities and was more focused there. But am I looking at this wrong?" That last sentence makes you come across as open and non-adversarial.
* Try your best to be genuinely glad to get the feedback. It's far better to be made aware of concerns your boss has than to be blindsided by them one day when it's too late. Repeat as needed: "I hadn't realized it was coming across that way, so I'm glad to know."
* Know that it's not the end of the world to get critical feedback. I can't tell you how many meetings I've had where I've been the one talking to an employee about things I wanted them to do differently -- and only a very, very small percentage of those ended up with the employee losing their job. So don't freak out. Go, listen, be receptive, and try not to let your emotions get in the way.
By the way, after the meeting, talk to your immediate boss (the associate director) at some point on his own and let him know that you value feedback and ask if he'd bring you concerns directly in the future. It's possible that he shared these concerns himself all along and just isn't a good manager so didn't bring them up with you. That's bad -- you want a boss who will give you feedback as concerns arise so that you're not hit with them months later. Tell him you would welcome more immediate feedback in the future so things don't build up.
I think this will be okay. Good luck!