How to Deal with an Unfair Boss

Nothing destroys an employee’s trust and loyalty faster than the suspicion that she is being treated unfairly. It’s a common situation, one that nearly everyone has experienced. Unfortunately, few know how to respond. Susan’s story is a case in point.

Susan expected to be promoted to the position of accounting supervisor. Instead the promotion went to a woman whom Susan considered less capable. Susan suspected that she had been the victim of racial discrimination. But instead of taking intelligent steps to address her suspicion, she gave in to anger and resentment. She began treating her boss in an offhand manner and did not disguise her ill will toward him. She deliberately “forgot” to show up for a meeting that he requested. She enlisted co-workers in a vicious whispering campaign and started a rumor that he was having an affair with the woman who had received the promotion. Susan also began dropping hints that she had begun looking for another job.

Three months later she was fired.

The reason? Being disruptive and detrimental to office morale. Susan retained an employment attorney to file suit for racial discrimination. After some preliminary informal discovery, her lawyer told Susan she had no case. Not only had Susan’s boss documented many instances in which she was seen gossipping during working hours, but his performance reports on Susan showed that, in fact, he had been giving her consistently high marks. He had even recommended Susan for promotion to a newly created position a step higher than the one Susan had been seeking. Susan’s promotion had been scheduled for the following month, and her boss had scheduled a meeting to discuss it with her. When she failed to show up for the meeting, he became concerned about her attitude, deteriorating job performance and stability.

Stories like Susan’s serve as lessons for those who suspect they are victims of unfair treatment. These step-by-step tips* will help you take effective action without falling victim to career-damaging missteps.

1. Don’t Speculate on the Reason for the Suspected Unfairness

Even if you have good cause to believe that you have been treated unfairly, you have nothing to gain by sharing this view with co-workers. Even worse is speculating as to the cause of the suspected unfairness. Telling colleagues, “My boss treats me unfairly because I’m Asian,” could make you look paranoid, not to mention permanently cripple relations with your boss and co-workers. Even if your suspicions ultimately bear out, you would have jeopardized your credibility and effectiveness in the interim by coming across as someone who jumps to hasty conclusions.

You have nothing to gain and everything to lose by speculating on the reason for your boss’s unfairness. If the situation proves to warrant it, your lawyer will be the one to fit the unfair treatment into an appropriate legal theory for purposes of pressing a formal grievance proceeding or a lawsuit. But that typically won’t happen for many weeks, if not months.

2. Document the Unfairness

Rather than blabbing your suspicions to anyone who will listen, think through your reasons for believing you have been treated unfairly. Then write them down in a clear, concise outline. It may read something like this:

I believe that I was treated unfairly in not being selected for promotion to accounting supervisor. Here are my reasons:

  1. I have consistently received the highest job performance ratings since January 2001;
  2. I have worked in the department longer than anyone at my level;
  3. I led the team in implementing the new computerized billing procedures;
  4. 4. …

Writing out your thoughts will help you see and possibly correct flaws in your thinking before revealing them to anyone else. If your position is supported by facts, the outline you write out will be useful in the steps to follow. Keep the outline concise. If it comes out too long, simplify and condense it down to a single page.

3. Discuss Your Concerns with the Boss

If writing the outline convinces you that you do indeed have sound reasons to believe you have been treated unfairly, schedule a closed-door meeting with your boss. See it as your opportunity to see the boss’s side of the story. Keep your mind open to the fact that the boss’s actions may have been based on considerations of which you may have no knowledge. What you see as unfairness could have been a misunderstanding, an honest difference of opinion or simple oversight.

At the start of the meeting hand your boss a copy of the outline you wrote out in Step 2 above. Give her a chance to look it over before beginning the discussion. Use the outline as your talking points during the meeting. Orally flesh out the reasons you have outlined with the kinds of details that are too involved to set down in writing.

Once you have presented your view, it’s your turn to ask the boss for an explanation. Always use a respectful, neutral tone. For example: “I know you must have your reasons for not giving me that promotion. I just wanted to find out what they were.”

Then sit back and listen attentively to your boss’s explanation. Give her a fair chance to explain. Don’t interrupt or argue with the explanation, just make sure you understand them. See how well your boss bears the burden of justifying the suspected unfair treatment. You may even want to take notes of what she says to help you document the meeting, but only if you feel comfortable doing so.

It may turn out that your boss has a good explanation. It’s also possible that she admits to an error and promises to take steps to correct it. Often she may simply disagree with your assessment of the situation. Whatever her position, make sure you have understood it thoroughly. Ask her to repeat or explain further if her statements aren’t completely clear.

4. Evaluate Your Boss’s Response

Let the meeting gel in your mind for at least a few hours or overnight before you take any further steps. You may find yourself satisfied with the outcome. Or you may feel that the situation isn’t as clearcut as you had suspected and that it may be in your best interest to wait and see if things improve. It’s also possible that the meeting confirms your suspicion that you have been treated unfairly. If so, move on to the next step.

5. Confirm the Meeting in Writing Unless the meeting has fully resolved the issue of unfairness without further action on your boss’s part, confirm the main points of the meeting in a letter or memo no later than the end of the following business day. If your boss had acknowledged a mistake or oversight and promised to take steps to remedy the situation, you might want to say something like:

Thank you for taking the time to meet with me yesterday. After hearing my concerns, you concluded that I was inadvertently passed up for promotion. You graciously promised that I will be promoted to account supervisor effective next month.

If the meeting ended without a satisfactory resolution, your confirming letter might sound something like this:

This letter will confirm our meeting of January 15, 2002 wherein I presented you with my reasons for believing that I had been unfairly passed over for a promotion. You provided the following reasons for your decision: …

The purpose of the confirming letter isn’t to argue your case, engage in breastbeating or to place blame; it is purely to create a written record to confirm that you laid out your complaints to your boss and to confirm the precise outcome of the meeting.

As with all your communications with your boss, couch the letter in respectful, neutral language so that it doesn’t provoke objections or nitpicking from your boss. That would merely set off a paper war that would waste time and could unnecessarily complicate the record. It does not do you any good to put details of your complaint in the letter except in a general sense to provide an overview of the reason for your complaint. The confirming letter should not exceed a single page. You may want to attach and reference another copy of the written outline which you handed the boss at the start of the meeting.

6. Send a Copy to Higher Ups

You will want to forward a copy of the confirming letter to the head of personnel, the head of the department, your boss’s boss or — if you are management level and the company isn’t too large — to the company president. This serves two purposes: (1) triggers management review of your boss’s actions; and (2) gives written notice of your grievance to lay the groundwork for more formal grievance procedures or legal action. Also, the knowledge that you are capable of taking such matters to the next level may encourage your boss to be more careful in future actions toward you. Of course this could be seen by your boss as going over her head and provoke resentment or even hostility. But you already crossed the Rubicon when you decided to confirm the meeting in writing in Step 5.

In certain egregious instances the company may discuss the matter with your boss, then take corrective action. More likely, it will simply file away the letter for future reference. That could prove helpful if you suffer another instances of unfairness — even if you ultimately end up not taking further action on your initial grievance.

7. Weigh the Costs and Benefits of Legal Action

Even if you remain convinced that you have been the victim of unfair treatment, weigh the costs and benefits of retaining an attorney to take your case to a formal grievance procedure and/or a lawsuit. First there is the cost. Some attorneys will take sound wrongful termination or employment discrimination cases on a contingent fee basis — i.e. taking their fees only out of settlements or judgments that may ultimately be recovered. However, most attorneys will at least require an initial retainer that may range from one or two thousand dollars to tens of thousands. Then there is the possibility that you will lose your suit.

Regardless of the outcome you will have to devote many tedious, probably unpleasant days to consultations, depositions, discovery and trial. Many employment actions do settle before trial, but the majority go through at least a few depositions and hearings before a meaningful settlement offer is made. Often the settlement or judgment is far less than what you might have expected. Perhaps most importantly, commencing legal action makes it unpleasant and emotionally difficult for you to keep your current job.

If the unfair treatment wasn’t shockingly egregious or damaging, writing it off as a learning experience and moving on to another job may turn out to be a better option than legal action.

8. Preserve Your Status As an Employee in Good Standing

You can continue with your legal action even if you leave your job. But if you choose to stay, initiating legal action does not relieve you of your duties as an employee. Short of being actively prevented from entering the workplace or being denied access to necessary equipment or working files, you will be expected to continue performing your normal duties in a professional manner. Taking on an adversarial or hostile attitude toward your boss or co-workers would merely provide ammunition with which to justify the original unfair treatment.

Ironically, in taking legal action for unfair treatment, you will have to reward your boss with your best performance ever in order to maximize your chances for a good end of your complaint.

*These tips are suggested for dealing with sizeable corporate employers. They are not recommended in a small-business context.