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Dealing With an Oppressive Boss

DILEMMA:

I have what seems like an ethical issue to me, though there is nothing illegal about what is going on. I am a mid-level executive who has built a very innovative and creative organization in a large company. We have great support from most of our internal customers that our work is appreciated and valued. We have external review verification that our work is outstanding technically. We have achieved this level of performance through the outstanding technical people we have recruited, and through the innovative, collaborative workplace environment we have established. But now the dilemma.

About a year ago, we were assigned to report in the company to someone with little knowledge of the technical work that we do. By itself, that is not a problem. We are paid to know the technology. But this boss is extremely insecure, and combines that with a top-down management style that is intimidating to many of our people. This is creating morale problems in the organization and will certainly lead to attrition and loss of productivity. I am doing all I can to stand between my boss and the organization, trying to maintain our environment internally while taking the brunt of the demands myself, but his insecurity is now interfering with our relationships with our customers. I thought this would pass after we demonstrated we wanted him to succeed, but it hasn’t. I could leave, but I am concerned about what would happen to the people and the organization, and the impact on the company. Any suggestions?

A frustrated mid-level executive

RESPONSE:

Thanks for writing. Your particular situation, while unfortunate, is not at all uncommon. Nor is the broader situation of deciding whether or not to change positions. Many, perhaps most, people would not consider this an ethical problem at all. “Look after yourself,” they might say. However, ethics clearly includes our duties to others (in your case, the other employees), so kudos to you for recognizing another dimension to this problem.

At one level, you may be taking too much onto your own shoulders. Certainly, senior management bears most of the burden in terms of the future of the company, internal organization, and the other employees. By continuing to allow a toxic leadership style to destroy a high-performing organization, they are primarily responsible for the future.

Therefore, do they know your assessment of the situation? If it is true that your new supervisor is ruining relationships with talented employees and customers, senior management should be informed of it. If they know what’s going on and are reluctant to act, then it is simply a matter of time before you (and the other employees) move on anyway, either through voluntary attrition or layoffs (if the performance of the organization suffers).

Looking after the interests of others is highly commendable. You should exhaust all possible internal options. If these fail, however, I don’t think that you are duty bound to stay. Senior management will determine the fate of the company and talented employees will likely land in a good place.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
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Ethix along with our diagnosis.

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