Dr. A came into the break room in tears.
“What happened?” I said. We had worked together for over 6 years. She was a close colleague, a fellow seasoned forensic pathologist who could in the course of her working day autopsy devastating injuries in tragic, sudden deaths — including on children — and maintain an even keel emotionally. I had never seen her cry.
“The chief accused me of cheating on my time card. She said I bugged out early yesterday — that I left at 2, when I was here until 4. You saw me! She just wouldn’t believe me. I can’t believe she would accuse me of cheating! She threatened to write me up…”
I was flabbergasted. Our boss, the county’s chief medical examiner, was mercurial and arbitrary, but she had never accused anyone of fraud. I helped my colleague gather evidence of her work — screenshots of the reports she had written after 2 p.m. the day before, with the computer time stamps — and told her I would vouch for her, too.
She gathered the evidence, wiped her tears away, and returned to the chief’s office to make her case.
Later on, I talked to another colleague, a medicolegal death investigator. He had poked his head into the chief’s office to check that everything was okay after seeing Dr. A leaving the office in tears.
“Tough day?” he asked the chief.
“Not for me,” the chief answered — and smiled.
For years in that office I had personally suffered under the chief’s incompetence, micromanagement, and arbitrary decisions, but this was the first time I had directly witnessed her cruelty. Dr. A and I did not stay at that job much longer. We each secured work elsewhere, and resigned within a year of each other.
So I recognized the sense of liberation I saw on the face of Anthony Fauci, MD, when he spoke to the press this week, unfettered by the petty and vindictive constraints of the last presidential administration. His interview with the New York Times, in which he described the public humiliation, retaliation, and death threats that he and his family had withstood, based on lies spread about him by colleagues and by the President of the United States during Fauci’s tenure on the White House coronavirus task force, was shocking.
No one should have faced that level of abuse, especially in such a role. The Twittersphere exploded with “#FreeFauci,” with comments on how relieved and happy he looked, like a giddy schoolboy chosen to lead the class.
I know how he feels. After my own 9-year experience working under the gaze of an inept manager with sociopathic tendencies, I have distilled what I believe you need to do when you find yourself in an abusive and toxic work relationship with a supervisor. Take it in three basic steps.
Toxic people are vindictive. They will lie about your competence in order to keep you under their control, and to exert power over you.
Always, in every job, regardless of the quality of your relationship with your supervisors, it is a good idea to keep copies in your own records of positive progress reports, assessments, accolades, and complimentary letters from clients.
Maintain an updated copy of your HR file, and store it someplace other than your office. That way a vindictive supervisor can’t go back and destroy evidence of your good work, and any drastic change in performance appraisals following a workplace conflict with your boss will appear to be — as it is — manufactured to discredit you.
If you have any conflict, ever with a supervisor and especially if your supervisor orders you to do something unsafe, unethical, or illegal, keep records of what happened, and your response. Document your recollection in a time-stamped format, like an email to yourself.
Write down everything you remember of what was said, and who was there to witness it. You may never need it, but in the event that you do get terminated, it may become the evidence you’ll need for a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Second: Get Backup
Colleagues and supervisors can both serve as allies. Sociopaths tend to flatter their peers and bosses but trample on people below them in the hierarchy. Their supervisors won’t necessarily know how badly they have been treating those subordinates until people start complaining en masse, or even leaving.
Bosses with narcissistic personality disorders can damage even their relationships with their own supervisors, whom they are often trying to one-up or upstage, so it is generally easier to get upper management to rid the organization of pathological narcissists.
Regardless of what variety of toxic boss you’re facing, you can’t handle it alone. Find other people they have targeted, and work together to document the boss’s behavior toward those colleagues.
Then complain to Human Resources as a group. The more of you band together, the more likely you will get management to recognize that the problem isn’t you — it’s the boss.
Third: Plan Your Escape
What that escape route will look like will depend on your education, professional landscape, and specific circumstances.
In some cases it may mean switching departments so you have a different immediate supervisor. In other cases, it may mean switching jobs or even career paths.
Even while you struggle in the bad situation, though, work with your allies to get the time off and the sick leave you need to recharge, and ensure that all of you get the mental health and physical exercise you need to avoid burnout.
In the healthcare field — right now in the middle of a pandemic compounded with an economic downturn — workers are experiencing record levels of burnout. We need to watch out for one another and find mechanisms to cope, because our work is crucial and essential, to our patients, to our colleagues, and to ourselves.
If you would like to hear more about how to recognize, avoid, and grapple with burnout during this unprecedented and unrelenting mass disaster event, the College of American Pathologists will be conducting a 1-hour webinar on Thursday, Jan. 28, at 10 a.m. PST (1 p.m. EST). I will be speaking and answering questions along with Gina Ann Drobena, MD, a well-known wellness expert. Although squeezing another lecture into your already packed schedule may not seem like the best way to combat burnout, I hope that you will find the strategies and tips we give to be worthwhile to add to your toolbox. Hope to see you there!
Judy Melinek, MD, is a forensic pathologist and CEO of PathologyExpert Inc. She is currently working as a contract pathologist in Wellington, New Zealand. Her New York Times bestselling memoir, co-authored with her husband, writer T.J. Mitchell, is Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner. The duo have also embarked on a medical-examiner detective novel series with First Cut, available from Hanover Square Press.
Last Updated January 27, 2021