You’ve noticed a change at the office. The mood feels a little different. Your boss and co-workers are acting a little colder toward you. They’re avoiding making eye contact and forgot to invite you to the weekly Friday happy hour meetup. Is it your imagination? No, sorry! These are signs—some subtle and others red and flashing—indicating that your boss dislikes or even hates you. Even worse, all signals point to him wanting to push you out the door.
Here are 10 telltale signs to watch out for. If you are smart and well versed in corporate politics, you can spot them early on and try to turn things around before it’s too late. Even if you can’t completely change your manager’s mind, if you’re perceptive and notice the pattern and what’s coming next, you can devise ways to buy enough time to find another job before you get fired.
1. Your initial warm relationship with your boss starts getting cold. When you start a new job, you understand that it’s a business and not everyone wants to be your friend. However, it makes work more enjoyable if you have a little camaraderie with your colleagues and management.
The relationship with your supervisor may have started off professional, but over time you found common interests in the same sports teams. You were actually excited to come into the office on Monday mornings and talk with your manager about the Giants and how the season looks different and how maybe we have a chance this year. As the seasons change, the discussions continue. Your talks progressively transform to chats about the Mets, Rangers and Knicks. When you pass each other in the hall, one of you would happily share, “Hey, did you say that play last night? It was amazing!” There was even a little fist bump a couple of times.
Lately, these nice pleasant exchanges have stopped. Your manager takes a different route when he walks around the floor, which conveniently bypasses your office. You pop your head into his office out of past reflective actions and start to share an awesome hockey fight you saw last night. He quickly looks away and you swear you just witnessed him pick up a phone that didn’t even ring and start talking uncomfortably to the nonexistent caller. You chalk it up to he’s going through something at home, but deep down you feel a little worried.
2. You and your boss have the first “talk.” Your boss—let’s call him George—sends a brief email requiring you to come into his office. George starts off the conversation, not with the usual sports talk, “This is your first warning. There is something that I need to discuss with you and it could be a serious matter.” It’s hard to focus on what George is saying as you’re thinking, “How did we go from being buddies to this?” Admittedly, you know that you had some personal stuff to deal with. Your youngest child is having some trouble in school with his grades and your older daughter is freaking out about the SAT and applying to colleges. You try to explain this to him, as well as pointing out that since Annie (another member of the group) was let go, you were doing a lot of her work. George doesn’t want to hear any of it and asserts that important deadlines were missed and you almost lost a large client. He sternly adds, “If I were you, I’d spend less time going to sporting events and more time working.” You hope that he is just in one of his moods and leave his office shaken and concerned.
3. The real “talk” happens. A few weeks later, George’s secretary calls and growls, “Mr. George Costiaks wants to speak with you!” Now, it’s serious. The second talk is when the realization hits home that your boss is displeased with you. George sternly asks you to follow him into a large conference room. You’re sweating and start babbling, attempting to preempt whatever’s happening with excuses. You bring up all the extra work you’ve been doing and the absence of any assistance. It is a tense and uncomfortable conversation, in which he describes in painstaking detail how much you suck at your job. He has pages of documents that he does not let you see. George reads off all of the tasks that were supposed to be accomplished, but he claims that you didn’t do them or—if you did—they were of inferior quality. He warns you that he will document this conversation and put it into the permanent record.
You are so thrown off that you didn’t know how to react and said, “Thank you. I’ll try harder.” As you make the walk of shame back to your desk, you yell at yourself for not standing up to him.
4. You are now invisible. The idle chit chat is over. George completely avoids any-and-all contact with you. If your paths happen to cross, he purposely avoids direct eye contact and walks in another direction. In meetings, you are a ghost to him. The one time you injected an opinion, it was met with stone-cold silence. Then, he quickly asks your arch nemesis in the office about her opinion on the matter. When she bores everyone with an hour-long dissertation, the boss smiles broadly and says how happy he is that he has such a bright young superstar on his team. You are not absolutely certain, but it looks like he gave you a sideways glance to see your reaction. It also feels uncomfortable that she is half your age, so you overanalyze the whole “bright young” thing. You wonder, “Is this actually due to the fact that I’m over 38 years old?”
5. The email and official memo meets your inbox. A few weeks have passed since the meeting and you start thinking maybe everything is okay and back to where it was. Then, there’s a super uncomfortable elevator ride where you were stuck with him for a 30-floor ride, which seems to last 30 hours. Awful, soul-crushing muzak’s playing in the background and you both stare intently at the elevator buttons. Shortly after the ride of doom, you drag yourself back to your office. The “bing” sound makes you jump. You just feel that something bad is going to happen. The uncomfortable conversation, in which he gave a soliloquy about your utter lack of competence is converted into a professional terse email documenting all your faults. The email clearly documents what you need to do—or else. The “or else” is vague and disconcerting. It is written as an official document to codify that you suck at your job and now there is a paper trail to prove it, in case you try suing after you are ruthlessly terminated.
6. You are set up to fail. Suddenly, you receive an inordinate amount of work and assignments expected to be accomplished by unachievable deadlines. The tasks require reporting back to the hiring manager at prescribed time periods. It feels like you are on double-secret probation.
The boss is highly critical of all of your work. There are no suggestions or constructive criticism. It feels that he is setting you up for failure and looking for an excuse to fire you. George is checking off boxes and citing your incompetence that you just know will be used against you in the future. At this point, no matter how hard you try, it doesn’t matter.
7. Real work is taken away from you. There is a new hire—Becky. Becky happily taps on your door and waltzes into your office. Oh, it’s not Becky; it’s Ms. Sternburger. She starts to inform you that Mr. Costiaks asked her to take some work from you to free you up. Ms. Sternburger’s tone is ominous. With your unlucky streak intact, reaching for files, you nearly knock over your coffee. While trying to catch it, you send the papers from the files flying. Of course, your door is open and everyone else nearby notices. The annoying guy two cubicles over loudly snickers. He’s the little weasel that goes to lunch with your boss every day, laughs at his bad jokes and plays golf with him on Saturdays.
She now regularly stops by your office to pepper you with questions. After a week or two, she knows as much as you do about your job.
8. You are not invited to important meetings. They don’t even bother to apologize or make excuses. Ms. Sternburger, who you want to despise, but is really a very nice person, brings an extra cup of coffee and asks if you’d like to go with her to the big meeting. She seems excited about it. You weren’t invited, so you try to make up an excuse. Your stomach churns, you feel dizzy and the room starts spinning. You hate meetings; however, you would love to have been invited to this one. The realization sinks in that it’s over for you.
9. You notice an increase in closed-door meetings. There has been a steady stream of fresh-faced, well-dressed, clean-cut, new-suit-wearing people showing up to your offices. These polished young people, who look like they are from human resources and headquarters, nervously smile. A couple of the corporate people are given a tour. One of the guys peek into your office and whispers to his colleague. They both look guilty and scurry away to your manager’s office.
10. The inevitable meeting with human resources seals your fate. Later that week, you check your voicemail and there is a demand from your boss to meet him in a conference room on the top executive level. Your heart races and you try to catch your breath. All morning, you were swamped and didn’t have time to check the voicemail earlier. The meeting is scheduled to start now. You bolt out of the office and run to the elevator, which is making a stop on every floor. You decide to jog up the stairs and—after nearly having a heart attack four flights later—you arrive 15 minutes late. You enter sweating profusely, shirt untucked, suit disheveled and breathing hard. When you open the door, your boss is there, along with a person you recognize from human resources. The big boss is there too.
Everyone looks super serious and angry. They stare at you as if you’re a deranged homeless man who wandered into a corporate meeting. It gets fuzzy from here on. There’s a lot of corporate speak and jargon, furrowed brows and angry glares. The boss’ boss lectures about how tough things are and they need to make room for top young, up-and-coming and new talent. While this is important, you’re distracted by his appalling fashion sense. As he drones on in a nasally and whiny tone, you suppress a laugh over his bad comb over. You can’t remember who said it, but you heard something like, “We are separating you from the payroll.” Even though you knew it was coming, it hurts. The worst part is that they didn’t even try to soften the blow with a “It’s not you, it’s us” speech.
And that’s it. You’re done. The burly security guards escort you back to your office, watch as you pack up your stuff and unceremoniously take you down the elevator and right out the door. You try to keep it together, as you don’t want to give them the satisfaction of seeing you cry.