How to Respond to an Unfair Boss

Yesterday I spoke to a group of students at George Washington University about professionalism. GWU’s Career Development office selected the topic because recently-employed alumni were having difficulties adjusting to their new environments. They weren’t having trouble coping with the work expected of them, but with the nuances of workplace behavior. After my talk, one of the questions a student asked reflected exactly the type of dilemma that the recent alumni were facing.

“How do you respond if your boss is unfair?

If you think your boss is being unfair, you need to talk to her directly. Let’s assume you completed all the work for a client presentation yet your manager invited another peer to the meeting. Ideally, before the meeting takes place, you say “I would love to attend the pitch, would that be OK?” (no need to mention you’ve worked your butt off on the damn project unlike the other trainee). Your manager may suddenly realize her oversight and invite you on the spot. But, if not, it’s best to drop the subject for the time being. Perhaps she has another conflicting meeting she plans to invite you to. Maybe the other trainee has some connection to the client account that you don’t know about. Or possibly, your supervisor thinks you lack the presence necessary to attend an outside meeting. Whatever the reason, she has made a decision. She’s the boss.

You do need to know if being excluded from the meeting was a subtle indicator that there is something wrong. So, in a follow-on conversation, ask your manager if she can give you an update on your performance. Focus on areas where you need to improve. You may discover that what you previously deemed unfair was a red flag that you need to improve your performance.

Part of developing professionalism is learning to interpret subtle meanings in workplace behavior. With that skill, you can respond correctly to your manager and your colleagues, and help push your career in the right direction.