Tips for Complaining to Your Boss at Work

Tips for Complaining to Your Boss at Work

By Mark Swartz


It happens when you’re overlooked for a promotion. Or when you are told to work extra hours without added pay. Resentment builds and you’re dying to air your grievance.

If you’re a unionized employee there’s a process for this. But griping to management is ripe with risk for regular workers.

There is an art to complaining so that you get heard, not turned down or punished.


Grumble or Grieve?

There are all sorts of everyday issues that arise at work. Not all are worth protesting about. Even if you did it would end up getting you labelled a naysayer.

So choose your battles carefully. Some concerns are worth raising to your boss. Matters of pay, health and safety, being treated fairly, respectfully and lawfully for example.


Define the Actual Issue

The kinds of problems that end up getting raised with a supervisor tend to be fairly serious. They affect you so much you’re likely upset and frustrated. You’ll need to keep a lid on emotions.

Focus on what truly matters to you. Take losing a promotion. It involves missing out on more money and higher prestige. Greater responsibility and maybe influence too. Which of these aspects have you grinding your teeth most?


Seek Safety in Numbers

You may not be the only one distressed by the issue(s). A general pay freeze or policy shift affects everyone. So does a rampaging bully co-worker.

Approach your colleagues about their views discretely and professionally. Meeting with management in a group to discuss a change boosts the odds your voices will be heard. Careful though that you aren’t seen as the provoker that management can’t trust.


Point to a Precedent

Has anyone where you work ever campaigned successfully for this type of change? Alerting the decision makers to real examples bolsters your case. You can use the earlier instance as a model for your own request.


Know the Rules

Your complaint – or the process of addressing it – might be dealt with in existing documents. Read through the Employee Manual if there is one. Review your employment contract too.

If you believe that an employment law is being broken (e.g. you’re being bullied, or discriminated against based on your differences), that could move things to a different level. With a reluctant employer you may have to seek a legal remedy. Get a free or inexpensive consultation with an employment lawyer before proceeding.


Pick a Good Time to Make Your Case

How do you pick the proper time and place to raise your complaint? By understanding your boss’s world.

Don’t just blunder in and go off like an erupting volcano. Make an appointment. Try to schedule it on a day and time with fewer interruptions. Reschedule if the boss is fighting fires or has just received bad news.

If it’s just you and them, offer to meet in their office, or at a more neutral setting such as a coffee shop, if they’re agreeable.


Consider the Needs Of Your Audience

Any “ask” you make is a form of communication. It should be targeted to a specific listener (or set of listeners).

Be sensitive to their realities. Are they super busy? Do they get defensive when presented with difficulties? You can help by narrowing the concern. Keep it clear and concise. State it in terms that are easy to grasp, and show how your boss or employer will benefit if they resolve it to your satisfaction.


Be Ready to Compromise

Regardless of how reasonable your request is it may not get granted. There may be financial, administrative or political barriers.

Enter the discussion with these limitations in mind. Plan in advance which minimally acceptable outcomes to fall back on. It may be better to get some of what you want today and try to get more when conditions are favourable.

Treat the process as a negotiation. Cooler heads and persistence pay off. But if you hit a wall despite an intolerable situation, you’ll have to decide whether to stay…or find better elsewhere.