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Are Happy Days Here Again?

Everyone has bad days. The Metro breaks down (in a tunnel). Coffee spills (on your keyboard). And errors are made (that the boss catches). So how do you bounce back when you know you’ve erred? Hill Navigator discusses.

Q. I’ve been on the Hill for almost six years. The first few years were smooth sailing. My boss and I had a decent (albeit not close) relationship, but he was pleased with me.

Two years ago, I made a mistake. I don’t think it was a major one, but he thought so. There was zero fallout from it, but he was very upset.

Since that time, my boss scrutinizes everything I say and do. I can’t have a conversation without my boss interrupting me with a million questions about information I haven’t given yet. He’s constantly challenging and second guessing me in nearly every discussion — even on the most mundane details. When I need to talk to him, I need multiple sources of proof before he’ll even look at me. My writing, which used to come back with minor edits, is now terrible, and everything I write must be rewritten. (He once returned something to me that the communications director wrote. He said it was terrible and wanted it redone. The communications director came over and claimed ownership. He looked shocked at the two of us and stomped off angrily. The item was never approved.)

Almost every conversation with my boss will come back to a hostile debate on whether or not I’m competent or if I care about my job. He has declared it open season on me.

If my boss can’t even trust me to know the location of a briefing I planned (and that did happen), I realize I can no longer work in this office. That’s a shame because I’ve dedicated so much to my job, but I’m literally exhausted. I’m also hurt that my own boss cannot grant me the latitude and flexibility he has given others.

In the meantime, how do I get through this very difficult situation? I fear I won’t get a good recommendation no matter what I do now, and I feel held hostage by this office. I cannot trust him or anyone else.

A. Yikes. Hill Navigator feels your pain. Even if your error was egregious — which you say it wasn’t — people should be able to make mistakes and move on. If the mistake was reprehensible, than the boss should have let you go, rather than stay there and wither under his thumb.  

It’s time to start looking for another office.  

Here is why: Your boss is not forgiving your past mistakes, his statement of forgiveness belies his actions. You feel “held hostage” and “cannot trust him or anyone else.” Neither of those bodes well for a good office environment where you can learn and grow professionally.  

As for the recommendation, find someone you work well with in the office and ask them to be a reference. If you’ve truly given your best effort despite previous mistakes, that shows a dedicated work ethic and perseverance, which a future employer can appreciate. If the entire office is in cahoots with the unforgiving boss, see if a former co-worker can serve as the reference. If that still turns up nothing, then find people elsewhere who can vouch for your good work. It’s helpful to have a reference from a current job, but not necessary.  

And whatever you do, leave on the best terms possible. Even if everyone is happy to see you go, continue to keep your head down and do good work. This way, at least you’ll give them a reason to miss you.  

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