How to handle the boss from hell


I work at a local university, having recently started a full-time administrative position managing a small department after over fifteen years of part-time teaching for the same department. My new boss, let's call him "the Dean," was familiar to me from my teaching assignments around campus. The Dean had always been welcoming and pleasant, that is, until I began to work with him on a daily basis.

The Dean refuses to let me see the budget for my program and I cannot get access through the university without his approval. I tried! The Dean then complains in public that I am not meeting my student quota. How can I meet it, if I am not given the revenue formula used to determine it?

The Dean changes the quota requirements every few months and advises me of my failure after the change without having alerted me that the change was forthcoming. The Dean has told me I am not allowed to speak with university personnel above my level; that is his job.

When I made an appointment to share some good academic news about my department with the VP, it had to be cancelled. The Dean has 'punished' me by forcing me into a shared office, providing no support staff and refusing to back me up with others in the university.

The Dean does not understand the academic requirements of my department, but feels free to answer questions and make decisions without asking me for an opinion. Often, the information provided is wrong; I have to do damage control.

The Dean likes to have an answer to every question and loves to come to the rescue when there is a real or imagined campus emergency. Whenever I face the Dean with this, I am told that I just don't understand how things work at a university. Huh? The Dean also feels free to go through, sort and clean out desk drawers and file cabinets whenever an employee is out sick or on vacation. Often these purges involve moving personal items.

To make matters worse, the Dean overtly favors two female workers to the exclusion of others. For example, his assistant, a high school graduate, works a part time week (significantly less than 40 hours) receives a full time salary that is higher than mine despite my having an advanced degree. (I found this out after taking the job.)

The Dean also ferrets out personal information from people under his Deanship and then shares it with co-workers when the other party is absent. I know, for example, that a co-worker has a psychological problem and parent issues, I also know what another co-worker is spending on her wedding and I have been told about another co-worker's sleeping arrangements. I do not want to know these things and certainly not have them told to me by the Dean.

The Dean sees nothing wrong with closing the door with his favored employees in his office to have a gossip session about people on university staff and faculty, students and university donors. The Dean is also fond of making double entendre sexually based comments and when I raise an eyebrow, laughs it off by saying "I should report that. It could be sexual harassment".

My biggest issue is that in the university chain of command I have nowhere to go if I have a complaint. The next person up from the Dean is the Vice President who should not be bothered with these departmental issues. Anyway, the Dean and the VP have drinks together every week.

I love my work, and am successful at it, but I am disturbed by the actions of the Dean. I have asked colleagues at other universities if what I am experiencing is the norm and have been answered a resounding no. How can I make this job work?

Nathan, OH

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Charles Helliwell's Answer:

This is indeed an extraordinary set of events that you describe. Was anyone running this department before you were appointed, or was the Dean solely responsible ? I suspect it was the latter, and this being the case, there is nowhere for you to go than straight to the top - to the Chancellor of the University. You have no other option.

However, before you do so, you must first accumulate sufficient evidence of the Dean's behaviour and inappropriate conduct, to present your case. Heresay and innuendo count for nothing. You have to hand write the conversations you have with the Dean in a paper notebook, which must be your property and then date and time each conversation you have, no matter how trite or inconsequential.

In addition, you must try and restrict your conversations with the Dean to a minimum and keep your interactions with him on a strictly 'in writing' basis.

This is going to be tedious, time consuming, laborious and unpleasant, however, this is the only way that you are going to be able to protect yourself in the short-term and retain your sanity and integrity.

Sadly for you, there is no future for you in trying to engage with the Dean. From your description, it appears to be beyond recovery. He seems to be completely out-of-control and intoxicated with the power he chooses to wield over those who work for him. That he favours two other female members of staff seems to suggest something even more sinister and incriminating. So, you will have to deal with him, as you have to deal with all those who bully, harass and intimidate others, by providing evidence of their actions.

The VP may well be an innocent party in all of this, but because of the positive impression that the Dean gives the VP, it is not worth the risk in talking to him or taking your evidence to him.

Just remember that once you 'blow the whistle' on the Dean, you are exposed and vulnerable, so you might as well blow the whistle to the highest authority available; and that's the Chancellor. The Chancellor has to be told, because what you have to report is potentially a threat to the reputation and integrity of the University.

Be prepared for the unpleasantness which will undoubtedly follow, because no one is going to thank you for it, and last but by no means least, please make sure that you have another post lined up to go to, because it is unlikely that you will be asked to remain in situ.

Having said that, employment law in some countries protects 'whistleblowers', so you may find that you are protected; whilst in other countries, public sector workers are protected by their union, so that too, is a possible route for you to pursue.

However, in the end, Nathan, you will realise that the working world is filled with people like the Dean, and that you will probably encounter a similar personality at some future point in your working career. So it's always best to learn how to deal with them sooner than later. Yes, you could just walk away and leave someone else to sort it out, but you don't strike me as that sort of person.

About our Expert

Charles Helliwell
Charles Helliwell

For almost 20 years, Charles Helliwell has been enjoying a lifestyle and making a living as a behavioural and relationship mentor specialising in the personal and professional development of individuals and teams in the workplace.