my boss says my work is bad, but all evidence says the opposite — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I qualified as an accountant about 2.5 years ago and started a new job. I moved from a mid-level firm to a firm that’s one of the best in the industry for the niche field I’m in.

My line manager (let’s call him Sam) didn’t interview me, and from the first time I met him, he has consistently told me this job will be a big step up for me and that I’d be playing catch-up. I thought nothing of this at the time because I agreed and felt ready for the challenge.

I was put on a sort of informal reporting process within a few weeks of starting, attending quarterly reviews with Sam. Colleagues who had trained internally at the firm and who were at the same level as me didn’t have this. I’m working in a niche sector, so the only way to really learn is on the job. I therefore took these reviews as a positive — aren’t I lucky that Sam wants to help me catch up and is taking time out of his busy schedule to talk about my progress regularly?

I passed my probation period, but Sam said it was a very close call and I was underperforming. In particular, I needed to work on my attention to detail. I agreed with this feedback and have really stepped up my game over the last two years, regularly working 18-hour days and making sure my work is flawless before it is sent to anyone. My chargeable hours are 50% higher than anyone else in my team (at any level). I regularly cover for Sam in meetings when he can’t make them and have built working relationships with all his clients. Basically for the last two years, work and proving I’m not falling behind has been the biggest area in my life.

Recently I had an annual review and Sam again told me I’m underperforming. I was told that although my attention to detail had improved, my technical knowledge was not as would be expected at my level. I asked for an example and Sam gave me a particular report that I had sent to the client, with him cc’d. Turned out that this report had been produced by another director in the business (with 35 years experience as opposed to my 2.5) and I had just emailed it on to the client. I pointed this out to Sam and asked for other examples, and he said he couldn’t think of any. I asked for a follow-up meeting in a few weeks to give him time to come up with examples, and he basically said no.

I’m disappointed that I’m being held to this sort of standard and it feels unfair. I feel like I’m now good at my job, and have “caught up.” I’m doing more complex work and longer hours than my peers. All the written feedback I have received from others in the team has been glowing. Colleagues at the firm at similar levels to me are not being held to the same standard as me. Most of all I’m demotivated by the feedback and the way it was given without examples.

Am I being soft and is Sam really just trying to help me catch up, or does it sound like Sam has made his mind up about me being not good enough, regardless of how I perform?

It sure sounds like Sam wants you to believe you’re not good enough, regardless of how you perform. Whether he actually thinks that himself is a different mystery.

To review: Your billable hours are 50% higher than anyone else on your team, at any level. You regularly cover for Sam in meetings, and all your feedback from everyone else is glowing. The only example Sam could give you of your allegedly subpar work was from a report that, oops, turned out to be written by a director with 35 years of experience. There are no other examples.

It’s possible that there’s more to it than this and Sam just sucks at providing feedback. Maybe your work is below where it should be and Sam happens to be better positioned than anyone else to see that, which is why his feedback is different than everyone else’s. In theory you could be working 18-hour days (!) and still struggling.

But I doubt it. I doubt it because he can’t actually explain his feedback to you. He’s very, very comfortable criticizing you — and has been from day one — but when push came to shove, the only example he could provide turned out not even to be your work. When you asked for other examples, he refused.

So while it’s possible that there are legitimate issues with your work, it sounds awfully unlikely. It sounds more likely that the issue, for some reason, is Sam.

Is there someone else you can talk to about what’s going on — someone who sees enough of your work to know whether Sam is full of crap, or someone with the authority to look into it themselves? Ideally someone with the authority and standing to get you moved out from under Sam if, as it seems, he’s tearing down your performance for no reason? Or who can at least get you real feedback with concrete examples about your work, not someone else’s?

Something here doesn’t smell right.

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