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How to Deal With a Difficult Employer

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The drudgery of work often is the source of humor for comic strips, resignations that go viral on YouTube and TV characters who couldn't possibly be so clueless about serious workplace matters. But when your issues are real, and you're dealing with a difficult boss, it's not so funny. When you're handling the stress of a job you just don't like, or you feel that you're being treated unfairly, it's time to find a resolution, even if it means finding a new job.

Define the Problem

Answering the question, "What is the problem with my employer?" is the first order of business before you start working on ways to deal with a difficult boss. List the pros and cons of your job. There must be some benefit to working for your employer other than the pay or you wouldn't be looking for ways to manage the situation, instead of simply turning in your resignation. Many employees find it difficult to work under micro-management, in which their every move is scrutinized. Other employees experience job dissatisfaction because they don't get enough attention from their supervisors or managers. Thus, define your problem before you craft a solution.

Candor Is Fine

If you're comfortable doing so, speak candidly with your boss. Discussing your difficulties or, at a minimum, getting them out in the open may shed light on problems your supervisor may not have known existed. Refrain from using language that your boss could perceive as accusatory or inflammatory. "Be professional," is the advice that Claremont McKenna College professor Ronald E. Riggio gives employees who bring up sensitive topics with their bosses. For example, find a kinder way to say, "I don't like working for you because you're passive-aggressive." Instead, you could say, "For the past several months, I feel like my performance gets mixed reviews. I would like to discuss my strengths and areas where you believe I could improve." Be honest, straightforward and forthright in all your communications at work, including the difficult conversations.

Turning to Human Resources

Whether you're having problems with your department supervisor or the organization as a whole, and you don't feel comfortable sharing your concerns with your boss, go to your human resources department. HR staffers advocate both for employees and the employer, so take advantage of their presence. When you're dealing with specific workplace issues or incidents, draft a chronology of events or circumstances that trouble you and use that as a list of talking points during your conversation with HR. New York City employment lawyer Alan Sklover advises employees to be specific about their complaints in his firm's November 2009 article, aptly subtitled, "Specificity Yields Credibility." Also, be prepared to decide whether you want to lodge a formal complaint against your boss or the company. Depending on the issue, HR staff will likely ask if you want to file a complaint and, if so, be further prepared to become the center of an investigation. This is particularly true if your issue involves potential violations of business ethics, safety regulations or fair employment practices.

Explore Your Options

Full-time employees spend one-third of their time at work, and if you're having difficulties dealing with your employer, that's a third of your life that's a source of stress and unhappiness. Consider options such as transferring to another department, finding a new job elsewhere or even transitioning into a field you think you'll enjoy more than your current one. Unless your work environment is completely intolerable, stick with the job until you find a solution to your problem. And if you must quit, do it in a dignified and professional manner so as not to burn bridges.

Don't Just Gripe About Problems -- Solve Them

When you voice your concerns, avoid complaining without offering any type of solution. Effective workplace communication shouldn't focus solely on what's wrong, but how you can make things right. In your conversations, be open about your issues and make recommendations that will aid in resolving the issues as well. If your employer views you as merely a complainer, you probably won't get as far. So don't just bring your gripes to a meeting with your boss or the HR staff -- bring possible solutions.


Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

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