The Workplace: Criticizing your boss: A survivor's guide, The International Herald Tribune

The Workplace: Criticizing your boss: A survivor's guide
Matt Villano The New York Times
TUESDAY, JUNE 27, 2006

NEW YORK—You and your colleagues have concluded that your supervisor is incompetent. How do you lobby for his removal without damaging your own career?

Focus on what’s best for the business, said Clay Nelson, president of Clay Nelson Life Balance, a consulting company in Santa Barbara, California. “This should not be a lynching of the manager,” he said. “Communicating the needs and input of your team will go much further than ranting and raving, nitpicking and getting personal.”

What are warning signs that your supervisor has trouble managing?

Incompetence comes in many flavors. If your manager overdelegates tasks to you and your colleagues, he may not understand how to handle things on his own. If he jokes around during important meetings, he may not grasp the gravity of his responsibilities. Other red flags include excessive procrastination, extended time away from the office and a general lack of interest in what is going on with the company.

If there is reason to believe that he is an outright liar, you have a big problem. Peggy Klaus, president of Klaus & Associates, a leadership consulting firm in Berkeley, California, said one of her clients had a manager who assured colleagues that he was attending meetings on their behalf when in fact he was out golfing.

Is it dangerous to discuss the situation with co-workers?

As long as you have colleagues you can trust, it makes sense to share your thoughts with them. But Scott Salmirs, executive vice president of American Building Maintenance, a building services company based in New York, said employees should try to have these discussions on personal time.

Salmirs added that employees should avoid sharing their innermost feelings.

“There’s too much at stake in a situation like this to pour your heart out,” he said. “You don’t want to give somebody something they could use against you.”

At what point should you take action?

Speak up when frustration with your manager affects your ability to do your job. Stephen Viscusi, author of “On the Job: How to Make It in the Real World of Work,” said, “If you’re thinking about quitting over an incompetent manager, clearly the situation has gone too far.”

Rick Brenner, president of Chaco Canyon Consulting, a management consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, added that employees whose managers were verbally abusive, harassed other workers or committed crimes like fraud or insider trading had an obligation to speak up immediately.

In these cases, Brenner said, inaction could be more dangerous than the alternatives, particularly if doing nothing exposes you – or your employer – to legal liability.

Where can you turn for help?

Some big companies have 24-hour toll-free hot lines that allow employees to express concerns or grievances anonymously. These hot lines are often run by independent organizations that document complaints and turn them over to a company’s human resources department. If no hot line is available, employees can go to human resources directly. This will not be anonymous, however.

Some companies also run annual exercises in which employees can submit performance reviews for managers while managers are evaluating them.

Finally, an employee may schedule a face-to-face conversation with a higher-ranking boss, but Viscusi warned that this approach could be risky: “The boss could be your manager’s buddy. Then what do you do?”

No matter which avenue you take, it is important to give specific examples to support each claim, said Heather Gatley, executive vice president for human resource services at AlphaStaff, an outsourcing company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“You don’t want to go in and say, ‘My manager is incompetent and doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing,’” Gatley said. “Instead, give your bosses all of the data they need to see the problem and communicate to the manager what needs to change.”

What risks do you run by trying to remove a manager?

Sir Isaac Newton wrote that every action has an equal but opposite reaction; that law of physics applies in the office, too. Your manager is not going to be happy about your complaints, and if he is not replaced, you may be lucky if he just ignores you.

Some form of retaliation would not be surprising, Brenner said – perhaps a demotion, an increased workload or travel assignments to the least desirable cities in a region.

Your manager might even have you fired. Billie Blair, president of Living and Learning, an organizational change-management firm in Los Angeles, said employees should consider all these potential consequences before speaking up.

Copyright © 2006, The International Herald Tribune