Table of contents
- What do to if you have a bad manager
- How to know in advance if the manager/team you’re joining is high risk
- Prevalence of bad managers & high risk companies
How to deal with a bad manager
Since you found this article there is a good chance you’re dealing with a bad manager. Everyone goes through it at some point in their career and while it sucks there are concrete things you can do to improve this situation.
Before diving in, there are varying degrees of bad managers. If you think your situation is bad enough to constitute harassment, that of course changes things. In that case, make sure you document everything and you’ll likely need to get advice from outside counsel (i.e. talk to a lawyer). From our experience, it is worth paying a few hundred dollars for a lawyer’s introductory assessment to get custom advice before take anything to HR. This is the best way to ensure you get a fair resolution and is almost always money well spent.
In most other cases, there is no need to get a lawyer involved, though it can still be a good idea to keep some light documentation, such as relevant emails, peer & manager feedback, and project scope documents.
By the time we start advising clients in bad manger situations, many have already made the decision to leave the team. That’s a completely fair reaction to the situation and if you feel the same way the most important thing to remember is that there is a proper way to approach leaving. The single most important rule is to tell NO ONE on potential new teams the real reason why you’re looking for a new role. If you feel you have to give a reason, just use the standard positive lines about looking to grow and expand your skill set + you have an interest in that team’s specific work area. This is true if you’re looking for roles within your company or have started recruiting for roles at other companies.
Additionally, unless you’re company requires it, you should also not mention to your manager that you are talking to other teams until you’ve found a team that is likely to be a mutual fit. Bringing it up to early often just leads to an even more difficult relationship with your current manager.
If you need approval from your manager to switch teams that can be a fairly tricky conversation to manage. We recommend trying to focus on the positives and offer to help as much as possible when leaving (wrapping up a project, documentation, onboarding replacement), but in truth each situation is different and we’d recommend seeking advice specific to your situation.
If you weren’t initially thinking of leaving and would prefer to resolve things with your current manager, that is also a completely viable path. However, we’d actually recommend you still spend some time looking for new teams sooner rather than later. This can either be at your current company or at a new company altogether. It’s tough to predict how the situation will evolve and having a backup plan makes everything much, much easier. The same rules mentioned above apply for the new role search.
When it comes to resolving the issues with your current manager there is no magic bullet. One thing that we’ve found helps a lot is talking through the situation with an advisor or a friend and really trying to honestly understand your manager’s perspective. They may be being unreasonable, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some underlying issue which could significantly improve the situation. If there is something like that and you take the initiative to change it and improve the situation, you’ll be in a much better position to ask for changes from your manager.
How to know in advance if a manager will be bad
As you can tell from the section above, having a bad manager isn’t a particularly fun situation to be in. The best thing you can do is avoid it altogether. Many of the cases we see are situations where someone took a role with minimal due diligence (often because of the money offered or company prestige). It’s actually pretty easy to tell in advance whether you are going to get along with your manager.
Step one is simple - you need to know what you like and dislike in a manager. Spend some time really thinking back on past experiences and try to stack rank some of the key elements (empathetic, WLB, great teacher, etc.). People often worry that they will need to have some big confrontational conversation with their potential manager before accepting offers, but half the time the information you’re looking for is shared openly during interviews if you’re a) paying attention b) honest with yourself when evaluating the offer.
That said, sometimes you will absolutely need to have a conversation with your potential manager before accepting an offer to determine if they will be a good manager for you. This is normal and almost never creates issues if approached properly. Look back at the list of most important factors you wrote before interviewing, determine which areas you need additional information, then jot down a few non-confrontational questions to get more information in those areas. Almost every salary negotiation we’ve supported (and we’ve done over a thousand) has involved a hiring manager conversation. Recruiters and hiring managers expect this so there is no need to feel like you are doing something wrong.
Lastly, I can’t stress enough how important it is to “backchannel”. This means finding other sources of information (often less biased) to give you a good perspective on the decision. Sometimes sites like Blind have the information you’re looking for. But when it comes to manager specific questions, it’s often better to speak directly with people at the company. There are two ways to do this. First, you can ask the recruiter / HM to speak with someone on the team. Again, this is a normal ask and most will be happy to accommodate (if not, that in itself is a bit of a red flag). Of course they will chose someone who likes the team, but it’s often easier to get the inside scoop from this person if you come prepared with the right questions. One of the key things here is to differentiate high level opinions (e.g. “this team is great”) from concrete facts specific to the criteria you care about. Second, if you have any friends or colleagues working at the company, it’s definitely worth sending them a message to get them to ask around about the manager you are considering working with. This is often the best information cause it’s completely unfiltered and doesn’t come from a biased source. This is why great hiring managers use this exact same approach when evaluating you as a candidate. They backchannel for “informal references” which often provide more information then the references you chose to provide.
How prevalent are bad managers in tech & which companies are high risk
One question we often get asked is how common bad managers are and whether there are specific companies to avoid. It’s hard to put an exact number on prevalence, but from exit surveys at top tech companies, bad managers are often mentioned as a reason for leaving. Which says a lot since many people are afraid to leave direct feedback. When you combine that with the high rate of employee turnover in tech and the recent wave of manager layoffs, it’s safe to say this is no small problem.
But perhaps more important is which companies are most susceptible to this. Unsurprisingly, we see the highest rate of issues at Amazon. Amazon is notorious for it’s PIP and that can create a culture that supports/enables bad managers. But it would also be foolish to paint Amazon with a broad brush. We’ve had dozens of clients accept offers at Amazon and genuinely enjoy the teams and managers they work with. The best approach isn’t to apply a company level filter but instead due diligence on individual managers and orgs.
If you’re in a tricky situation and want a second opinion, you can book a free consult with our team below.