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How to successfully stand up to the boss

Bonnie Harris acknowledges she can get "pissy" with her employees. So she knew it took courage for them to ask if she could switch their weekly 7:30 a.m. staff meeting to 8 a.m.
/ Source: Forbes

Bonnie Harris acknowledges she can get "pissy" with her employees. So she knew it took courage for them to ask if she could switch their weekly 7:30 a.m. staff meeting to 8 a.m.

It might seem like a small change, but it wasn't to Harris, a self-described workaholic. Still, it was because of how they asked that she granted their request. "They were very charming about it," says Harris, then a manager at the tech company Renaissance Worldwide, which was acquired by Aquent in 2001.

Knowing how to stand up for yourself at work is an essential skill. Whether you're being overworked, treated unfairly or micromanaged, the way to successfully stick up for yourself is to remain professional. Lay out your argument in a confident yet calm manner, and choose your words wisely.

That's precisely what Harris' staffers did. First, they selected the salesperson who had the best relationship with Harris to discuss their issue. She scheduled a time to chat and then made Harris comfortable, even asking if she wanted a cup of coffee. She then laid out the problem: The majority of the sales staff couldn't drop their kids off at school and make it to the meeting on time.

Next, she asked why Harris insisted the meeting start at 7:30 a.m. Harris explained that she wanted her staff to start working at exactly 9 a.m. The 7:30 start time allowed for the inevitable schmoozing before they got down to the business of the meeting. The staffer had a compromise: What if everyone promised to be in their chairs at exactly 8 a.m. for the hour-long meeting and get down to business — no socializing. Harris agreed.

"She figured out what the real tension was," says Harris. "Employees need to understand there will be some irritation on their boss's part, but it's their job to guide their bosses through it. Don't get afraid or stop asking for what they want."

That's what Maria Arapakis advises. Arapakis, a staff development trainer, says it's vital to your success and sanity as an employee to stand up to your boss when he or she treats you poorly or if you notice another chronic problem. If you don't, you're likely to suffer throughout the course of your career.

"If you allow people to take advantage of you, they will," says Arapakis, whose Web site,, is a clearinghouse for tips on being an effective leader. "People know a good thing when they see it. To some degree, you have to teach people how you want to be treated."

Part of standing up for yourself is being proactive. If your boss chronically gives you an unrealistic amount of work, say something. First, schedule a time to talk instead of popping into his or her office. Next, try to come up with a suggestion for a way to solve the problem. When you're talking, use a non-confrontational tone. Arapakis calls it the "salt and pepper voice." In other words, state your case in the same voice you would use to ask someone to pass the salt and pepper.

Then say something like this: "I very much want to be successful at this job. On the other hand, I don't want to burn out. I don't want to be so engaged that I completely lose my personal life, because if that happens, I'll burn out. I'm finding myself staying till 11 at night. I want to consider with you what options we've got for somehow managing the workload."

Another tip: Come prepared with specific information. That's how Lauralynn Rogers, director of internal audits for IHOP, handles differences with her boss. Rogers got behind on a deadline for a project because he asked her to reprioritize tasks. When it came time for her performance evaluation, he brought up the missed deadline. "I went back and gave specific examples of how we decided to reprioritize everything," she says. "He thought about it and realized it was true." There are times when she can't think of specific ways to rebut what he says, so she revisits an issue with him later after processing it.

"If you're new in your career, you might get nervous when you have to stand up for yourself," she says. "If you're being attacked, you have to remember to breathe and stay calm and don't react emotionally."

Good tip, says Arapakis. If your boss criticizes you in front of others, she recommends saying, "I'm not comfortable with that." If your boss responds by saying it was just a joke, say something like: "I appreciate it's a joke — however, I'm still not comfortable with that kind of remark."

If your boss regularly hands you last-minute projects, take all those other points Arapakis suggested and say something like this: "When you come to me with last-minute assignments, it's difficult, because I've already got things on my plate. I'm wondering how we can work things out so I can deliver things to you in the way you want me to. Should we reprioritize?"

Then, hopefully you can make it to the gym instead of burning the midnight oil at the office.