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Perspectives: When your boss feels threatened by you
Being amazing can come with career risk.
This week's Perspectives comes from Nia, an artist who’s been in the industry for 15 years, living on the East Coast of the U.S. Nia worked for an advertising agency until she was forced out of her job.
Nia shared her story with me via an interview. I opted to share her story via first-person narrative; however the interview has been edited for length and clarity. Details have also been changed to protect Nia's identity.
The first time I ever met someone who gaslighted was when it happened to me.
I'd been with my company for 18 months. My first manager was amazing. He was open to trying new things and really trusted my skills and talents. I held a director role and hired every person on my team, so I worked with really smart people who did great work.
But one thing I wasn't aware of was the political landscape behind the scenes. My manager didn't have support from leadership. I came in thinking I'd found the perfect role, because I didn't want to do the political stuff. I wanted to get assignments from my manager and help my team meet its goals.
Then Jake became my manager. He'd been with the company for five years but before he was promoted, he had a role below me. My team had been getting amazing feedback and my work was getting a lot of industry attention from the outside. I didn't realize that I was making Jake jealous.
I felt uneasy about him from the beginning. Something was off, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I remember him making a comment, "Oh, I want to be like Nia one day" and I thought it was weird. Every time I talked to him, I felt like he was pretending. Like a "fake it 'till you make it" type of person.
He didn't seem to understand our industry or the skills required. Like, I'd ask for a day off and he'd tell me that he'd cover for me. But when I returned, nothing would be done. Because he didn't know how to do the actual work.
Then an opportunity came up for me to go to a prestigious. I asked the company to pay for it since I was representing the company. They refused, and I decided that was fine; I'd pay for it myself because it was a great event. I didn't know what was brewing in the background.
After I got back, I was called into a meeting and told that I was being put on a performance improvement plan. I was completely taken aback and asked, "How did we get to this point? Because I assume that if I'd not been performing well, there would have been meetings to tell me to work on something."
I thought to myself, "This is not going to go well. Because I don't know what's going on."
I contacted a mentor and asked him for advice — because I didn't even know what a performance improvement plan was! He thought the whole thing was strange also, but told me to just "go with it" and try to get through the PIP. And I really respect him, so I moved forward.
I was told to work on communication with my team. I asked for really clear examples of how I could improve or what I'd done wrong. I wanted to reference them and understand what I needed to do.
I'm a highly organized person and wanted to get to work on "fixing" whatever I needed to do. But HR couldn't give me a definitive timeline for the PIP and how I was going to be evaluated. I was told to contact the twelve people on my team and ask them for feedback on my communication and if they felt supported. But I did what I was told. And all of the feedback was positive.
I was very stressed. And my team was so busy. I was also a highly billable employee, and this was taking away from my billable hours. I didn't trust Jake by this point, so I went to Finance and asked how to log my hours, to make it clear that I was working on the PIP. That made Jake mad.
Another meeting was scheduled with HR. I said that some of the language Jake was using was feeling like harassment, so I asked HR to mediate all of the PIP-related meetings. I kept asking questions, like, "How did we get here?" because nothing was making sense.
The company held some compliance training and diversity-inclusion meetings. And one training brought up an example with a high-performing woman accused by a male colleague of being too aggressive. I brought up this example in the PIP meeting.
I asked Jake how he could expect to manage me if he didn't understand my situation. I was the only Black woman on the team, in a company largely dominated by men. I was basically a unicorn in my role.
One time, I spoke up during a meeting and someone said, basically, "Who is she?" And I replied that I was the director of the brand, trying to establish that they could trust me. I know my stuff, but it's tough to establish my authority in a room that's so dominated by men. The example from the compliance training highlighted how Black women are usually scrutinized more. But Jake didn't get it.
Another two weeks went by. And then I got a call from HR and was told that I was being let go.
I was super busy that morning; I had a big presentation with a client. The meeting with HR took place only minutes before. I had to tell my team that it had been nice working with them, but that I no longer had a job. Jake emailed everyone and told them that if I reached out to them, they were to contact HR immediately, another strange thing. I'd never been allowed to talk about the PIP. I wasn't supposed to talk about anything.
Before that happened, I'd been told to gather up all of the work from my team for the past 18 months. I'm sure Jake was wanting to see what we'd worked on. But other directors were giving my team compliments and commenting on how amazing our work was. I was so proud of them. And that ended up working out for me, because I had this beautiful portfolio ready immediately to go. I also called my mentor and he told me to try to detach from what had happened. So I did that.
I spoke with a lawyer. She told me to write out, in detail, chronologically, what had happened. I sent everything to HR. I think it scared them, because it took a week to get back to me. I asked for a better severance package and they gave it to me. I probably should have asked for more.
Someone on my team told me later that Jake had been my biggest cheerleader. And I replied, "Are we talking about the same person?" I started reading books and listening to podcasts about gaslighting. I thought, "This is exactly what happened to me." Much earlier, before Jake had become my manager, someone from his team had asked to transfer to my team. And now I wonder if she was going through the same thing.
Going forward, I'm going to have to trust how I feel about people. Because I knew something was wrong from the very beginning.
I've been interviewing, but I'm comfortable freelancing. I'm always going to be passionate about the skills I have but I've never relied on a company to promote my work. My mindset there hasn't shifted at all. I still love what I do for people. I'm still trying to be kind to everyone, no matter who they are.
Companies try to say, "We're family" and I really want to reframe that. Because some families are not great. We're more like a community. I'm also always skeptical about teams and companies that have diversity efforts. Because I feel like if you have true diversity, the company doesn't have to be the one to champion it. The people who work there will champion diversity for you.
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