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Snake removal failed

photo illustration by Franke James; snake photo ©istockphoto.com/ Eric Isselée pink medicine photo ©istockphoto.com/ Karin Lau

Dear Office-Politics,

I wrote to you last year, “Snake Handling Not in Job Description“. You tendered good advice. Since then, the agency has ruptured. Tragically, one Animal Control Officer committed suicide as a result of the toxic culture, gossip and loose lips at work. Last August, the Field Supervisor resigned. Six weeks ago, the Division Manager (my boss) resigned after having a mental and physical meltdown. I’m next. The “snake” is still there.

I am the Shelter Supervisor and also acted as the Field Supervisor for 8 months during the vacancy, with no additional compensation. My annual review stated that my performance was exemplary. After the first round of interviews did not produce a quality candidate for the Field Supervisor position, the decision was made to re-open recruitment. That round, I applied. Then the Division Manager resigned. As a by-product of her gradual meltdown, I had been working far beyond the scope of my job description in an attempt to “cover” her shortfalls. I had nearly complete autonomy in procedural decisions regarding the Shelter. It was assumed by most that I would act as the Interim Division Manager.

I digress to the economic crises and budget shortfalls. I was told the City Counsel listed four high level management positions that were to be dissolved. One of the positions was a Senior Management Analyst that has very close ties with the City Manager. She was put in place as the Acting Division Manager, (nearly $10,000 annual salary increase) despite the fact that she doesn’t know sit from sick’em about animals or shelter operations. I am concerned that she immediately perceived me as an obstacle to her efforts to permanently secure the position. I understand that, as she has a brief opportunity to prove her abilities. She is highly educated, well connected, and possesses political and public administration savvy.

During a candid meeting, shortly after her installation, I expressed frustrations that I had been filling both positions with no salary adjustment for eight months, and was unable to perform both positions at maximum effectiveness. The remedy I sought was a Lead designee for kennel and field, to lighten my workload. This would have involved a 5% salary increase for me and each Lead designee, while continuing to save the vacant Field Supervisor salary.

Flash back to the Field Supervisor recruitment. Selection was put on hold to allow the permanent Division Manager to be involved in the selection process. Rather than allow me to continue as the interim, she selected an Animal Control Officer as the interim, (nearly $10,000 annual salary increase) removing my inherent advantage for selection. He has no college education and virtually no supervisory experience, but he is a great guy. Additionally, this created a severe shortage for the field staff, so she brought in an unqualified crony from another city that has a sordid HR history. It scares me that she fought upper management to place him and she won. Rumor says he is desperate for a job after being terminated from his previous job and is seeking upper mgmt. Why is he willing to accept a part time temporary position chasing dogs? She told me that I was very likely to be selected for the permanent position, but there was no qualified staff to backfill my position. Historically, I was given authority as next in charge in the Division Manager’s absence. It was given to the Acting Field Supervisor this time, with the explanation that he has not had the opportunity and may not in the future. Truth or smoke?

I had intended to seek the Division Manager position, but after falling a few rungs down the ladder during her tenure, I felt it was pointless for me to enter the competition for her position.

I mentioned that she has no experience in Animal Services. She also has no history of the inherent and ongoing conflicts, or the battles fought and won. An example would be the Shelter’s relationship with our Veterinarian. It is a contract for services wrought with conflicts of interest. The Veterinarians’ desire is to make money by providing services to shelter animals. The Shelter’s desire is to provide a minimum standard of care at an affordable price to satisfy California Animal Law. I have walked this tightrope. Historically, the Veterinarian is to provide a daily check of the population, and “necessary treatment” which translates to freedom from discomfort during the legal holding period. Now, the Vet has a naive ear to gain a larger role. Again, I understand that it’s a “dog eat dog” environment, but my performance is based on “live release” statistics and budget. Live release involves selecting the most desirable animals for adoption or rescue and culling the rest as quickly as possible. Now I’m being told by the Veterinarian how to manage the kennel population. I am moderately educated. Five years of college, AA, AS. No BS, MS or Ph.D. I am however a “subject matter expert”. The Acting Division Manager stated “I have eight years post graduate education and the Dr. has more…She is very busy and doesn’t have time… You need to accommodate her on her schedule…” I fear the result will be that I am way over budget for veterinary services, my adoption/rescue statistics will decline, and I will be forced to euthanize healthy adoptable animals to make room for animals that are receiving treatment.

Another example would be “the snake”. She too has seized the opportunity to create havoc. She has resurrected the fight against supervision that I thought had been fought and won. After sitting in on a staff meeting, the Acting Division Manager instructed me to address each of their concerns via email (evidence mail). If you were to refer back to my original “snake handling” request, the concerns are the same.

Now, to personalities. She is, as I mentioned, highly educated and savvy. She is well poised and composed. She has a pleasant personality and humor. I typically do as well; however, the events that have occurred during the last year have me disheveled. Metaphorically, she would be an intelligent, stoic Borzoi; I would be a highly trained Jack Russell/Pit Bull mix. Constant composure is not a natural ability for me. I speak too freely and apparently don’t play the game well. My feelings get hurt. I espouse. She met me at my wit’s end, as compared to my normal operating demeanor.

I am concerned that she is inadvertently or intentionally providing somewhat negative feedback to the Department Head regarding my performance. She has assured me that I was on the “A” list with the Department Head and Assistant City Manager. She sought my opinions and feedback and now I fear I said too much. I fear I have sorely disappointed her.

Here’s where I beg your help…

Is there a Management Coach Service available that would allow me to routinely seek advice as to how to handle these situations before I open my big mouth?

Is it typical for subordinates to be allowed to take control of a meeting and sabotage a supervisor? Does that constitute hostile work environment?

Do I have any claim that I was overlooked for two positions where I met the minimum qualifications and two people were selected that did not?

I mentioned that I feel I have not lived up to the expectations of the Acting Division Manager. Her words and her actions do not match. Do I ask? I fear I would get the canned response to keep me trudging along.

Is it unacceptable for me to be open and honest? Too familiar?

In summary, I feel I am a high performing, quality employee that is lacking management/political savvy and finesse necessary of upper level management. I fear it will inhibit my chances for advancement. I failed to impress. I’m told I am defensive. I am. How do I survive the current crises and where do I go for immediate help with personal growth?

Thank you in advance for your efforts,

Animal Control Supervisor

timothy johnson

Dear Animal Control Supervisor,

First, I’m sorry that your efforts to remove the snake from my last response didn’t pan out, but it sounds like other issues in the department took the attention from her.

You are in an understandable position of frustration. You are a rational professional who is trying to manage her career in the midst of extreme conditions. However, that may not be enough in this case.

Let’s step back and look at the situation from the perspective of your acting superior for a moment. She was called into a meltdown situation (one suicide, stress-related resignations, etc.). I’m guessing she views her role as something akin to a “new sheriff in town” who is called in to restore law and order. As such, she will probably be suspect of any and all existing staff (yourself included). Even you admitted that her first impressions caught you at a low point. So what you are interpreting as cronyism, she’s viewing as housecleaning.

The wait you are experiencing to get your desired position and pay raise may be due to a couple of different possibilities. The new sheriff may be playing a waiting game to see if you have the stamina to survive before rewarding you. She’s gauging you for herself to see what you’re made of. The more likely scenario is that she views you as tainted goods left over from a bad situation and is dangling the promises out there long enough for her to find your replacement. Based on your letter, it sounds like the political credibility is on her side.

While I normally encourage people to put up a good fight when they believe in themselves and in their cause, I might recommend you update your resume and get as far away from this situation as possible (i.e., different governing body and jurisdiction). In recruiting, there are companies and projects known simply as “resume stains” because of their negative reputation. It’s probably best that you manage your career before this toxic environment becomes a resume stain for you. Besides, it’s always better for the career and the psyche if you leave on your terms rather than on theirs. If you can swing it financially, give yourself a break between employment opportunities just to allow yourself to emotionally, physically, and mentally regroup.

To get to your other questions:

Yes, there are professional coaching services available on everything from day-to-day perception management to communication to career counseling. I always recommend having a mentor, whether it is somebody you have to pay or whether it is done out of friendship.

Normal behavior under normal circumstances does not allow for overt sabotage in the workplace. I have encouraged covert sabotage before when an incompetent colleague needs to be exposed for what s/he is. Unfortunately for you, proving hostile work environment may be challenging.

You may have something to your claim of being overlooked for two positions. If you were backfilled by people who are not protected classes (age, race, gender), you may have a legal claim, in which case contacting an attorney would be in order. Since you work for a government agency, the last thing any of them wants is to be on the front page of the paper for a discrimination suit.

You probably will get a canned response if you ask about your performance and/or your advancement. As I mentioned earlier, she’s playing a waiting game with you… an emotional cat-and-mouse, if you will.

It is possible to be too open and honest. I recently provided very candid feedback to somebody in my life, and he took it very defensively. However, given his aversion to personal accountability, I expected it. My reasons for being open was because I wanted a written record of my perceptions of his performance (I cc-ed in a couple of critical stakeholders). There are times when I play my cards very carefully and dole out information on a need-to-know basis. Before you open your mouth to speak or hit SEND on the email, ask yourself this: What are the ramifications of what I’m about to communicate? How might it be perceived? How can this come back to bite me? If you can answer those three questions and remain OK with the responses, then communicating openly might be a good course of action.

I hope this helps. Again, I’m sorry you are having to endure so much in the workplace. Based on this letter and on your previous one, it does sound like you work in a breeding ground for toxic behavior, and I would venture to guess the animals are better behaved.

I do wish you well in your decisions.

Thank you for writing to Office-Politics.com.


Timothy Johnson, Author & Consultant

Timothy Johnson is the Chief Accomplishment Officer of Carpe Factum, Inc. His company is dedicated to helping individuals and organizations “seize the accomplishment” through effective project management, strategic facilitation, and business process improvement. His clients have included Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, Wells Fargo, ING, Principal Financial Group, and Teva Neuroscience. Timothy has managed projects ranging from a $14 billion class action lawsuit settlement to HIPAA compliance, from software conversion to process reengineering, from strategic IT alignment to automated decisioning, from producing a training video to creating a project office environment. He is currently an adjunct professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, teaching MBA classes in Leadership, Managing Office Politics, Creativity for Business, and Project Management.

An accomplished speaker, Timothy has enthusiastically informed and entertained audiences across the nation on the topics of project communication, office politics, creativity, and meeting management. He has written two books, both business fables: Race Through The Forest – A Project Management Fable and GUST – The Tale Wind of Office Politics.

  1. 6 Answers to “Snake removal failed”

  2. Feedback from Animal Control Supervisor:

    Dear office-Politics (Timothy),

    I can’t thank you enough (again) for your insight and sound advice! Right on target with clear stop signs for me, to save my career and reputation!

    From the perspective of the “new sheriff”… I was the “new sheriff” when I was hired. I was (thankfully) suspect of any and all staff. I chose to gain my own perspective. She should do the same. She should gauge me for herself. I will vet out. I do think she is brilliant, I just can’t read her. Both scenarios you offered are equally likely.

    She has told me (no documentation) that she supports getting rid of “tainted goods” including “the snake”. She encourages me to document infractions and move forward with disciplinary actions. She asked me to email all complaints against the vet office, and asked me to review and provide input on a new contract. Here’s where I can’t read her. I send email to document that she encourages discipline, she gives a verbal response. In closed door meetings, she says “We need a new vet, the contract should go out for bid” “she’s a freak”, “are you the only adult working here?” “She needs to go away”, “ Can’t you make him quit?”, “write them up for demotion” (the snake) etc. She never puts any of this in writing, so I have no documentation that I am supported in my efforts. Her emails contradict, stating that I need to address their ( my staff and the vet staff) concerns…etc. I’m likely over thinking this, but what I see is that she is telling me to play hard-ball, but, If HR or the union kicks it back, I will be an insensitive overly assertive supervisor. I can see her setting me up. Covert sabotage?

    You are spot on that this agency could be a “resume stain”. I’m fortunate in that I am being courted by another agency, (the one I resigned from to accept this position). They would welcome me back. But…my highly trained Pit Bull/Jack Russell nature resists that temptation. I have, however, updated my resume. When you speak to doling out info on a need to know basis, that is precisely what I am trying to do but she’s beating me at my game. I email her my concerns, stating that I desire her input and/or recommendations, she responds “send me a meeting request”. We meet, I have no written record. When I consider the ramifications of my written record, an overview of that record might show that I am not confident in my decisions, when in reality I just fear being set up. I am trying to document a written record of her perception of my performance. Not happening.

    Now that I have your well thought, brilliant response to my dilemma, I feel I am better equipped to play this out (the emotional cat and mouse). I may have played my hand pre-maturely by being candid and cc-ing critical stakeholders early on. I regret that she is aware that I am aware. I’ll be more careful to hide my cards (bc). The three questions you posed for me to ask myself prior to my opening my mouth or hitting SEND may prove to be the most valuable advice ever. I can’t express how grateful I am that you would donate your time and expertise to help me. I’ll write again as the saga continues.

    Forever grateful,

    Animal Control Supervisor

    By Letter writer on Aug 24, 2008

  3. Timothy Johnson’s thoughtful post on his CarpeFactum blog:

    I just answered a very challenging letter for Office-Politics.com. My goal is always to provide workable strategies to allow the letter-writer to continue successfully in their current position. However, in this case, a repeat letter writer made it painfully obvious the most feasible course of action was to leave a very toxic workplace situation (when people are committing suicide and having nervous breakdowns, it goes beyond simple office politics).

    Honestly, I hate to have to give that advice. I’ve overstayed my welcome in toxic workplaces and made best efforts to make things right before admitting to myself nothing will change and subsequently moving on ….more

    By CarpeFactum on Office-Politics on Aug 24, 2008

  4. Just a suggestion for Animal Control Supervisor concerning your manager’s unwritten responses to your e-mails. I once had this problem with a senior: she would always come to my office to discuss the e-mail with me rather than reply in writing. After I would deal with the situation as we had discussed, I would send her a confirmation e-mail which always included a summary of our verbal discussion and what we agreed upon. On particularly sensitive issues I would send her an email outling our discussion and intended actions before following through. Eventually, she got the message…

    By PC on Sep 7, 2008

  5. Wow, this post makes me want to retire to a beach in Mexico. Eek! Seriously—don’t people realize that when everyone gets along the work place can actually be fun?

    By J. Buffet on Nov 16, 2008

  6. Timothy, I thought I’d give you an update. I used your advice to develop a strategic action plan. I also tried the suggestion from PC, to “push” email confirmation of conversations with the Division Manager. Well, things are progressing nicely. The “snake” has been re-aligned and has no power. The Acting Division Manager whom I was so terrified of, was sorely missed at City Hall, and has been promoted (once again). She is now the Assistant to the City Manager. I now have a talented experienced Division Manager that truly understands every aspect of our industry. I read a couple of your books, I attended every seminar, watched every video, and read every book I could find on workplace culture, unacceptable employee behavior, negativity in the workplace, successful communication, etc. I read one book titled What your Boss Doesn’t Tell You Until It’s Too Late. My point here is that I didn’t merely complain. I took steps to mitigate the impact my behaviors have on the situations I find myself in. I am striving to be a clear communicator without becoming defensive. I am striving to be unafraid to present unpleasant facts, exactly as they are.
    I have one more poison employee to deal with next, in order to rid the work group of toxicity. Please read on as once again, I intend to seek your advice. She is the stealth, chronic complaining negative influence. She is also a liar. Her apparent goal is to successfully litigate a suit against the City that will allow her to retire. Her first complaint to HR (prior to my tenure) was (all buzz words) bullying. The second was racism, next was hostile work environment, the latest is stress. I don’t tolerate “blanket parties” of any kind in my work group regardless of the employees’ performance or my personal relationship with them. This gal wants it all, her way. To give you some insight, the claim of bullying was instigated because the “snake” rallied the other staff against her. The racism claim was a result of a refrigerator magnet in her (and everyone else’s) inbox from Black Panther Pest Control. The third was hostile work environment, resulting from my insistence that she complete her assigned tasks, like everyone else, and my refusal to adjust her schedule to her liking. The schedule change would have required me to “bump” a 15 year exemplary staff to a less desirable schedule. So, she acted out several days in a row and was counseled for insubordination, which is punishable by suspension WOP. She immediately filed a WC claim for stress, preventing any disciplinary action. Any task she cares not to do will cause her stress, so she goes home.
    I am diligent and skilled at documentation, so I’m OK in that regard. Where I need your advice is protecting myself from her lies. I’ve learned that if people are bad…they are more skilled at being bad than I am good at proving it. I cannot have any conversation with her that is not either witnessed or documented. That prevents me from being able to develop a healthy working relationship with her. An example of her lack of truthfulness is at Christmastime, each of my employees was given a gift bag from a local rescue group. Each bag contained a gift card. City employees are forbidden to accept any gift with a cash value, so my staff was asked to turn the gift cards in. She stated that there was no gift card in her bag. An example of my inability to converse with her is an instance where I mentioned to her that volunteers were not “setting up” cages the correct way. That turned into a formal complaint to the Division Manager that I told her the other staff had complained about the way she set up cages and that she was put under undue stress as a result.
    I used your covert strategy, to document one of her frequent heinous activities; Theft of City property and falsifying documents. Surprisingly, all of the supporting documentation disappeared from the employee accessed files. The City is understandably wary of disciplinary action against her as she is in a protected class. I know from experience that people will bite you right square in the back for selfish reasons. People are funny. I’ve learned (the hard way) that they are always eventually exposed for exactly what they are, good or bad. I’ve learned that if they are bad…they are more skilled at being bad than I am good at proving it. I’ve learned that if I go about doing the right thing, consistently, and let the bad ones finally reveal themselves for what they truly are, I usually come out ok. I’ve likely used up my nickel with you, but if you have any advice to assist me with my “Equal Rights Diva” I would be grateful.

    By Animal Control Supervisor on Feb 28, 2009

  7. The two scenarios this employee describes should be required reading for anyone considering a job with an animal control agency. I don’t know what it is about these departments but this level of toxic, unprofessional behavior is the NORM! I have worked for two, am currently President of one (for two more weeks) and am looking forward to no longer interacting with these dysfuntional groups. I am a veterinarian…..

    By moi on Dec 16, 2012

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