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