Should You Complain about Your Boss?

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When you have a problem with your manager, it’s hard to know what to do. For serious issues, like sexual harassment, action definitely needs to be taken. But for more trivial matters, the best choice might be to just let it go. If you are deciding whether to make a complaint about your boss, here are some guidelines to consider:

1. Evaluate the risk to yourself.

If we all lived in Fantasyland, people could freely gripe about their managers with no fear of retribution. But here in the real world, complaining about your boss carries considerable risk. After all, your manager has the power to affect your pay, performance review, career opportunities, reputation, project assignments, and the general pleasantness of your working day. So you need to realistically weigh the potential costs and benefits of lodging a complaint. Don’t do anything stupid out of anger or frustration.

2. Evaluate the importance of the issue.

Some concerns are so critical that the need to make someone aware of the problem outweighs personal risk. If your boss’s behavior could endanger customers, employees, or the business, then you have an obligation to tell someone. For example, at Your Office Coach, we have received emails from medical personnel whose supervisors were overlooking treatment errors. That’s an issue that needs to be reported.

On the other hand, if your boss simply has annoying habits, micromanages your work, seems to favor certain employees, or has other irritating personal traits, complaining may not be worth the risk. In between those two extremes lie many problems and issues that require careful assessment before you take any action.

3. Choose the best person to talk to.

In any large organization, you will usually have several possible avenues of complaint.

The most obvious (and often the most intimidating) is going directly to your boss. While that thought may cause your knees to buckle, sometimes it’s the best approach. Every single manager on earth will resent an employee who goes over their head, so complaining to your boss (in the right way) may actually be much safer than complaining about your boss. And if you work directly for the owner of a very small company, then you probably have no other choice.

The second possibility is upper management. However, you need to weigh this option very carefully. For one thing, high-level managers do not like to be bothered with trivial complaints or office squabbles, so you need to be sure that this is truly a serious issue before bothering your boss’s boss. Otherwise, you risk damaging your own reputation. Also, your boss is almost certain to find out that you complained and will not be pleased.

The third option is human resources. A good HR manager can be a valuable ally in straightening out manager/employee issues. However, a bad HR person may make the situation worse. So if you don’t know your HR manager personally, check out HR’s reputation for keeping information confidential and their success rate in resolving manager issues. If you talk with HR, be very clear about any information that you do not want shared with your boss. Many employees have been unpleasantly surprised when an HR manager repeated everything they said.

Finally, for legal or ethical issues, you may choose to talk with an internal or external attorney. This certainly applies if you believe that laws are being broken or regulations violated. But again, be very clear on the limits of confidentiality. In-house lawyers are working for the company, not for you.

4. Consider the management point of view.

Before taking an issue to any manager, you need to consider how it looks from their position and their level. Don’t expect them to automatically take your side or see it your way. Managers are usually focused on the big picture and the bottom line, so you need to think that way as well. And if you are complaining about your manager to another manager, remember that managers frequently tend to stick together.

5. Define the business problem. Focus on facts.

Whatever the problem, you need to determine how it relates to business issues. Managers are typically concerned about customers, quality, productivity, teamwork, and financial results. If you can explain how the problem with your boss is adversely affecting one of those factors, that’s the best way to get management’s attention. If you can’t relate your concern to a business issue, then you may need to let it go.

Once you’ve defined the business problem, you need to describe it in a factual manner. Don’t complain about your boss’s personality traits, make unsubstantiated assumptions, or inject your personal feelings into the situation.

Example 1: Here’s how you might describe a micromanaging issue to your boss: “I know that you need regular updates on all of my projects, and I’m happy to provide them. My concern, however, is that the weekly status reports are taking so much time to prepare that it’s affecting my project work. I’m actually spending about three hours a week just writing up the reports.

Example 2: Here’s how you might describe a problem with your boss to upper management: “Our group is concerned because Bob frequently comes in thirty to sixty minutes late and takes two hours for lunch. As a result, he is often unavailable when we need questions answered. Because of his example, some employees are starting to come in late as well. This is making the whole department less productive.

6. Decide what you are going to ask for.

Never take a problem to management without also presenting a possible solution or a request for specific action. If you simply want to complain, then talk to a friend or start a journal. Managers absolutely hate it when employees just dump problems in their lap. So before bringing up an issue, determine exactly what you want and make a specific request. You may not get exactly what you ask for, but the manager will appreciate your initiative.

Example 1: Here’s a specific request related to the above micromanaging issue: “I wanted to see if we could agree on a slightly different approach for giving you project updates. I would like to do a comprehensive report monthly, but send you a weekly email that outlines any problems or unexpected developments. Would that work for you?

Example 2: Here’s a specific request related to the above upper management conversation: “We wanted to make you aware of this issue because we feel that Bob’s work habits are hurting the company. If you feel it’s appropriate, we would appreciate your talking with him about it. Thank you for taking the time to meet with us.”

7. Prepare your presentation.

This is an important conversation which, as we have said, carries some risk. Therefore, you do not want to “wing it”. You will have the greatest control at the beginning of the conversation, so decide exactly how you plan to describe the problem and practice your delivery. If you have a close friend or highly trusted colleague available, try out your approach on them and ask for feedback.

8. Make your case calmly.

If you are upset about an issue, calm down before talking to anyone in management. Managers do not want to wade through four layers of feelings before getting to the problem. So if you are really angry or emotionally wound up, don’t go storming into someone’s office. Wait until you are in a calm frame of mind, then have a businesslike conversation.

9. Look forward, not backward.

The main purpose of making a complaint is to create a better future, not to gripe about the past. Use information from the past to help clarify the situation, but stay focused on what needs to be done to correct the problem.

10. Take group action for group problems.

If many people are upset about your boss, then the whole group needs to meet with someone together. This will get more attention and make it clear that the concern is widespread. Never volunteer to be the “messenger” on a controversial issue. As you may have heard, messengers sometimes get shot. And if no one else is concerned about your problem, consider whether it’s really worth complaining about.

11. Don’t expect feedback from upper management. Just wait to see if anything changes.

If you have decided to go over your boss’s head, don’t expect a higher-level manager to engage in a lengthy discussion about the problem or tell you what will be done to correct it. Under most circumstances, it would not really be appropriate for your boss’s boss to describe what action might be taken with your own manager. Having made someone aware of the problem, you have done your part, so you now need to wait and see what happens.