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Ask A Manager: Space Edition!

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worried about my boss's poor judgement, but the company has his back

I do a high-stress, sometimes physically dangerous job for a multi-national organisation in an industry that's undergoing lots of structural changes. Confidentiality is absolutely key to what we do for very good reasons, so unfortunately I'm going to have to be a bit vague in parts of this letter.

About eight months ago I was transferred from one branch of my organisation to another, after my old office was closed in pretty traumatic circumstances. I'm not exaggerating when I say I was glad to get out of there alive, never mind with a job, and initially I thought I'd been really lucky - new! branch is a very prestigious place to work - you might call it the flagship - and I got a promotion, too. I'm a different personality type from that which our industry's work-culture values, and I was starting to worry that I was just a bad fit and would never achieve promotion. Furthermore, the head of our branch - I'll call him Fergus - is highly regarded throughout our organisation. He's a bit of a maverick but he gets incredible results and our organisation obviously places a lot of faith in him. He suffered a serious workplace injury, which he's still dealing with the after effects of, but he remains very committed and engaged. Our industry has recently faced substantial disruption, branches are being closed all over the place and we are the only one that's consistently hitting targets and achieving objectives. Fergus is very charismatic, very creative, and I've always been impressed by his ability to think outside the box and achieve the seemingly impossible. However, over the last month or so I have become really concerned about the workplace culture he's created.

I first became concerned when he made some questionable hires. The first was when he rehired the number two from my old branch - call her Jane - who was directly responsible for the events that led to it failing. I used to report to Jane, and I always got the impression she didn't take me seriously and regarded me as a rule-bound stick-in-the-mud. When I say she was responsible, I need to stress that we're talking serious misconduct on Jane's part - she was immediately terminated and I believe also faced criminal charges. In justice to her, it was a spur of the moment bad decision rather than sustained bad behaviour, but it also had incredibly serious negative consequences for everyone involved, including some fatalities. I have been asking myself what Fergus is thinking. He says that she is genuinely brilliant at the technical aspects of our industry, we need her expertise, he believes she would respond well to a second chance, and that anyway he's hired her at the lowest level where she can meaningfully contribute so there's no possibility of harm. I'm not disputing her technical brilliance but I have serious concerns about her judgement given how unbelievably badly she screwed things up for everyone last time. I wish her the best and hope she can turn her life around, but I think giving her a new position with the firm is like giving whisky to an alcoholic. We eventually had a brief conversation about what happened and I actually do believe her statement that she thought at the time she was acting for the best and that she deeply regrets what happened - but I don't trust her not to make a similar catastrophic error of judgement again.

The other new hire which worries me is Bob, though for slightly different reasons. Bob has a great record, but recently went through some serious and sustained job-related trauma. In this case, it was definitely not his fault, but normally someone in his situation would be expected to take medical leave and go through debriefing and counselling. It's not unusual for employees in this position to try to insist that they're fine - our industry tends to attract stoic, macho types, so it's important that managers don't go along with this. However, Fergus overruled all this because he said Bob was the sort of person we were desperately in need of, and appointed him to a post of responsibility above his previous grade. He's spending a lot of time with him, but he also makes heavy demands on him - for instance he straight out told him that Jane was more valuable to the organisation than he was and that he was to prioritise her safety over his. In many ways Bob is an exemplary employee, but I am worried that he has returned to work too soon and that Fergus is putting unreasonable demands on him, but Bob has become really loyal to him. He also seems to regard any questions about his welfare as a threat to his position.

Since these two events, I've been looking at our branch with fresh eyes, and what I see worries me. I'm conscious of the fact that I lack Fergus' charisma, and I am not much of a risk taker - a quality our organisation tends to value, unless you push it too far, like Jane did, and I had been too pre-occupied with worrying I was failing as a manager to question Fergus' technique. But while there are bigger reasons why everyone in our organisation is under stress, I am concerned that he's pushing people too hard. He is moody and sarcastic and generally a very demanding boss. He allowed one of our scientific specialists to pursue experimental research without what I would regard as a robust ethical and/or OSHA framework. To be fair, it is producing extremely good results which are already turning the tide for our organisation, but I am concerned about the precedent it's setting and about possible long-term consequences. I am also starting to worry that his emphasis on loyalty is a red flag. Our organisation is very strongly hierarchical and demands a willingness to follow orders and respect the 'chain of command' - but this feels different, and I'm not sure why. I know that head office sent in an exec to talk to him about some of his recent decisions, but something came up, she was called away, and hasn't been heard from since. Everything that's come down from head office since has suggested that they're satisfied and want him to keep doing what he's doing.

Am I over-reacting? I have asked myself if my original sense that I don't have the right skills and personality to excel in leadership in our organisation was right after all - if head office is supporting Fergus, maybe I'm scared of shadows. But I have a really strong intuition that I'm not - something is wrong with how Fergus is running the place. I just don't know what I should do about it, given head office's attitude, and I'm haunted by the fear that I'll end up making a Jane-esque serious error of judgement. I'd appreciate any suggestions as to the right course of action, particularly as to how I can protect myself and vulnerable fellow-employees.