IT Employment

Ask the Leadership Coach: Are we being treated unfairly?

Ever wondered if you're being held back unfairly? In this week's blog leadership coach John M. McKee gives tips and tactics to two individuals who feel they're not being treated right.

 John, I hope you can help me with my problem. It's keeping me up at night: I report to a boss who tells me I'm doing great work, and he backed up those comments in my recent annual review. He's always polite with me, makes positive comments about my skills, and says things like, "I couldn't manage without you." However, when it comes to the less formal measurements of our relationship, I can't see anything that reinforces those nice words. For example:

- When it's lunchtime, he often goes with one or more of my peers. But I'm never invited.

- It's pretty clear (not just to me, but others, too) that he has favorites. He lets these other department heads get by with lame performance results. Their updates in department meetings are often total BS. But my boss doesn't get cranky with them.

I feel underappreciated and, more importantly, undervalued. I think I work the hardest of any member on his team. I have the greatest track record of delivering on my commitments. But I'm probably paid less than these others at my level. My instinct is to confront my boss and just get everything out on the table. This is eating me up. Really. I'm losing weight as a result of it.

Any advice?

Jason, New York City

I recently saw you on a television program, providing tips about how to manage office politics during challenging times. I was impressed with what you said in the interview. However, I have a situation that you didn't address, and I really could use some guidance.

I'm a female executive working in a company that has a senior management team that's probably 75% - 80% male. I am well educated and very good (maybe I'll say, great) at my job. My team's job performance has top-level metrics. I like my job, but I don't like what I perceive to be a male bias in this organization that is one of the top three or four of its kind in the healthcare sector.

In discussions with the senior executive in charge of my division, I've had several conversations regarding my future with the company. He always says the right things about my prospects, and my annual assessments are consistently positive. But I've been in this assignment now for four years, during which I've watched newbies (all guys) come aboard and get promoted ahead of me.

My questions, Coach John, are:

- Do I go around the boss and directly to HR about this unfairness?

- How do I present it without looking like one of those so-called "whiny women"?

Katherine, San Diego

Jason and Katherine -

Each of you is expressing a concern about being held back as a result of who you are. Jason, it sounds like you're feeling that, because you're not one of the "in crowd," you're not getting the rewards you deserve for your contributions. Katherine, I get the impression that you've got a hunch that your organization may be one where there's some kind of career penalty for being the gender that is less represented in top senior ranks.

Both of your impressions may be right. And they may be wrong, too. Either way, it's important for peace of mind, and long-term career progress, that each of you addresses your situation directly, in a manner that is as nonemotional as possible.

In today's workplace, almost all organizations have policies (formal or otherwise) regarding promotional requirements. These provide guidelines about who can and cannot move ahead. But your situations are probably not clearly addressed by those kinds of policies. Simply put -- it's hard to make a convincing case that you're not being treated as well as the boss' favorite. And, even if one is dealing with a sexist, that's a tough one to nail down.

I suggest that you each make an appointment and talk to the boss. If asked for a reason for the meeting, tell him beforehand that you have an issue to address regarding equity and fairness. Just don't tip your hand entirely. Before the meeting, create a note with bullet points on it that you can use to keep focused.  Spend a few minutes, no more than five, describing your concerns and observations.

Then, ask him to respond to your statements. I realize it will be hard to be objective about what appears to be subjective decision making. But keep your cool and listen and make notes, because you might need them later. Respond and ask for more clarification if required.

This meeting just may be the wake-up call that the boss needs to change his stripes. But if you sense it's not, thank him for his time. It's very important that you don't show yourself to be overly emotional in this meeting. It could be used against you. Tell him that you intend to discuss it with HR as a next step.

Make an appointment with HR and outline your concerns -- again with as little emotionality as possible. Then wait. If you sense an air of change as a result of your assertiveness -- congratulations. On the other hand, if you see nothing beyond "business as usual," then you know it's time to break out your resume and start looking for a new job. You now know that you're in the wrong place. And, whether you like it or not, you don't "fit in." Companies don't promote those who don't fit in.

I'd hate to see you unhappy any longer.


Leadership Coach


John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...


I just finished reading this article and I wanted to throw in my two cents. First off, Katherine is in a very difficult position. She feels that there are factors that are in place that are stopping her from achieving what is important to her. My thought is to continue to work hard and build an impressive resume and references and carefully look for better opportunites. The main key to this is to make sure that you are taking a new opportunity because the job is a better job and not just because your feelings were hurt. I did the latter and regretted it. I worked for a company that I enjoyed working for and they liked me but I was passed over for some promotions for what I believe was stupid reasons. I ended taking a job with another company that I should have seen was a mistake. I was replacing someone that left under unpleasent circumstances. The manager and person that interviewed me were very rude during the interview. But I justified that this was this a better move and that I was changing jobs for a better opportunity when deep down inside, I knew that I did it because I was hurt. As for Jason, I am sorry to say this but stop crying. I know that sounds brutal but come on. Your upset because your boss doesn't invite you to lunch? Really? I have been at my new job for seven months and I have never been to lunch with anyone. So what. If you want to make friends, get a hobby. Your boss gives you positive feedback. In the long run, that's whay matters. I'm sorry to say it but suck it up.


I absolutely feel an imbalance in my workplace. See those who play the game get ahead, while the nose to the grindstoners get more work piled on along with being passed over. What makes it more difficult is that I'm in the middle of my career, make a decent salary, have great co-workers who respect me and what I do (and vice versa), if only all the managers (and their brown nosers) would magically disappear... You need to pick your battles, not take things personally, keep doing your job, and take as much opportunity where you can to use the company benefits. The latest thing to piss me off royally? Needing to make a formal case for why I should be allowed to attend a software conference. Nevermind the fact that I'm the primary person who supports and works in this piece of software. Of course all the managers will go, but they don't need to give a reason why. One thing I have to say is that I have NO desire to ever be a manager, I enjoy figuring out the solutions to the difficult problems and I learn something new every day...but it's nice to be able to "escalate" something to a manager when necessary. ;)


Is it happening more in this economy?


Business usually takes any course legal to promote its fiscal interest. I know my boss treats me worst than others. If I had boobs, he'd let me take more time off without complaining. Oh well.


For Jason, look at merit-based outcomes: If you're getting the same good performance reviews, the same pay, and the same promotion rate, then you have nothing to complain about business-wise. Who your boss socializes with outside work, like lunch, is legally and ethically his own prerogative. You may simply not be the type of person, personality-wise, that he likes to hang out with, which is not a value judgement on either of you. Of course, there is a tendency in the long-term for managers to let their social preferences affect what should be merit-based decisions, so watch for that in the future. And, you may decide that you prefer to work at a place where the boss likes to schmooze with you, which is OK, but don't blame your current employer for such a decision to change jobs. For Katherine, she's already being passed over for promotion, i.e. her management's decisions are definitely not merit-based. She should make her boss aware of it, as it may help her management to change their ways with future female employees. But I can pretty much guarantee that she'll be branded as a trouble-maker, leading management to "encourage" her to leave, i.e. her future performance reviews will turn negative. So, she needs to already have an exit strategy (new job) lined-up *before* she meets with her boss.


Jason, IMHO your boss is using you. I have a similar boss who is only interested in how he looks as far as higher management are concerned. He seems to play a game with senior management of second guessing what they want to hear. Having said that senior management only want to hear certain things - reap as you shall sow I guess. My advice is to leave as soon as you can, find a job where pay and promotion are based on merit, not who you are mates with. Not easy I know, but I think you should for your own sanity (Google "workplace stress").

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