In a previous post, I wrote about a friend whose boss blindsided him with a formal warning about his performance at work. I did my best to counsel my friend on how to handle this lemon his boss had handed to him.
My friend took my advice, which I outlined in the post, and he wrote his own formal response to the warning. He sent it to his HR department, and the vice president of HR set up a confidential meeting to discuss the situation with my friend.
Notably, the VP of HR told him that unfortunately, the rebuttal he wrote did appear to deflect blame. The VP added that my friend would be in a stronger position if he had approached HR about his problems with his boss before he received the warning.
The lesson from my friend's experience is that if you are having serious problems with your boss—if he's undermining your work, if his disorganization prevents you from meeting your deliverables, if he asks you to cover for his mistakes—document those problems early and often, and bring them to the attention of your HR department before they pose a direct threat to your job.
Readers weighed in with other lessons based on their experiences in similar situations:
• A government worker said that in any rebuttal to a formal performance warning, the employee defending his reputation should note whether his manager counseled him about his performance at any time. If the manager didn't give the employee any counsel about his performance, that puts the employee in a stronger position since managers are often responsible for showing that they tried to help a staff member before they fire anyone, even in at-will states.
• If you're having a problem with a boss who gives you menial tasks that divert your attention from more important work, send a weekly status report to your boss detailing your progress on the menial tasks and your lack of progress on the tasks you believe are important. The status report serves two purposes: to bolster your paper trail and to subtly criticize your boss's agenda. If the opportunity arises, copy your boss's boss on the e-mail.
• Keep a journal with details related to your project and activity and update it daily. Include notes from meetings, detailing people who attended, comments and results. Use this journal to document your boss's attempts to undermine you. Note dates, times and consequences of his actions. Keep the contents of this journal private, but take it with you to meetings and have it open so others can see it. They'll think you're just taking notes.
• If your boss tells you that you can't implement best practices because he's waiting for his boss to approve them, pursue your boss's boss on your own and ask him to sign off on them directly. Express to the VP that you're dedicated to the success of the project and ask the VP for his advice on other ways you might make the project a success. In this manner, you build a bridge with your boss's boss.
• Other readers suggested approaching your boss's boss in a more direct manner. Lay out the project plan along with all the facts surrounding the project's status and your boss's disorganization. Also send the memo you sent to HR to your boss's boss, and "let the chips fall where they may," wrote one reader. If your job is already in jeopardy, these readers argue, what do you have to lose?
• Another reader said to forget about defending your reputation and your job inside the company; just focus on leaving ASAP with your dignity intact. "No matter how you may save your skin in the short run, you have a target on your back," he wrote. "Going around the problem boss, taking it directly to him—these are all just plays that will either increase the target size or delay the inevitable. Get out in the best way possible for you."
Needless to say, my friend is working on all of the above recommendations, except for going to his boss's boss, who is a shark. He's putting the greatest effort into his job search.