Friday, July 15, 2005


Employment Advice: Advice on Dealing with a Difficult Supervisor

An employment advice columnist at, Holly English, fields the question "What can I do about working for a blowhard partner?" Because requires a subscription, I will reproduce the question and answer below and add my own response after that.

The Question:

What can I do about working for a blowhard partner? This guy drives me nuts. He brags constantly, is very verbose, wastes my time with his incessant chatter, has an absurdly high opinion of himself, and in general is a pompous jerk.

To his credit, he’s very smart and a great litigator, and in fact when he’s in a good mood he’s one of the few partners who actually thinks enough to hand out some compliments. But working with him is agony. He’s borderline abusive -- he gets very cranky when under pressure, and shoots the messenger when the news isn’t good, but then is all sweetness and light when he’s in a good mood. What can I do?

The Answer:

One of the most common problems I hear about is a difficult supervisor. On a daily basis it’s one of the main things that can affect a person’s opinion of their job the most, no matter what field they’re in.

You don’t include any information about whether there are other partners to work with, whether you are very deep into the area of litigation that this guy does, etc., so it’s hard to tell how much flexibility you would have to quietly shift away from him within the firm. So for now I’ll figure you’re stuck with him and suggest some coping mechanisms.

Repeat after me: it’s not you. One problem that people often have with abusive bosses is they internalize the strife and feel they are to blame, in some fashion. You have to minimize this tendency so you don’t start to feel beaten down, depressed and demoralized. Talk frequently with trusted friends, your spouse, or whomever, so that you don’t keep this stuff to yourself and lose perspective.

Figure out diplomatic and safe ways to rat on him. An abusive partner is a risk factor for the law firm. I’m not saying that anyone will necessarily do anything about the guy if they are clearly informed about his nasty behavior (especially if he’s a big business getter), but they should know. If HR is actually any help you can talk with them, on a confidential basis (but you must make sure that they can be trusted.) You may be able to discuss this with a trusted mentor; if so, make sure to link your personal concerns with those of the firm, such as: "Jim’s constant talking makes it difficult for me to get my work done, and therefore to make my billable hours." That keeps your comments on a professional level. If you’re not comfortable telling someone, like a mentor, what’s going on in a direct manner, instead drop the occasional hint, like "Well, you know Jim," with rolled eyes and a long-suffering smile, and then move on to another subject. That way you’ll get the message across that there’s a problem without being too obvious.

Learn all you can. If he’s good at his job, you can learn despite his stupid antics. Keep your eye on the ball and, in an opportunistic fashion, absorb all you can from him. And take advantage in other ways. If the guy is well connected, and can help you advance, make sure you take advantage. This is in the "silver lining" category.

Long term, if you can’t get away from him, you’ll have to leave. If you can’t avoid working with him, I strongly suggest leaving the firm. Life is short and there’s no reason to put up with such a stressful situation for too long.

Finally, my sympathies. A source of constant amazement to me is that the world is full of awful bosses, and nothing much seems to get done about them.

Lawgirl's Answer:

Dear Agonized Associate

I don't know much about your law firm, but if it is anything like most large firms, reporting a difficult partner or senior associate to an HR rep or a senior partner is about as effective as reporting to George Bush that Karl Rove leaked confidential information to a reporter.

Regardless of the lip service they pay to the principle of good employee relations, large firms could care less about the misery and suffering of junior associates. They know that most of you will be gone within a few years. Any incentive they have to enhance your job satisfaction is far outweighed by their desire to exploit your time, energy and talent as much as possible before you leave. You are expendable. Partners, on the other hand, are stuck with each other for life and they let each other get away with the most abusive and outrageous behavior.

Sorry to say, your situation sounds hopeless, especially since this abusive partner sounds as though he is one of the better of the bunch (considering he is the only one who bothers to hand out compliments - at least when he remembers to take his medication).

Your only option is to grit your teeth and bear it until you have put in your time at the large firm and are ready to move on to a healthier environment. Sorry to be so harsh but I find it's best not to sugar-coat this kind of thing.

Best of luck with your career.


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