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How to Stand up for Yourself at Work

by Katie Moritz
August 18, 2017 | Work

Imagine this: It's your first week at a new job, one you really wanted and you hope will send your career in a direction you're excited about. Everything's going great—you already started work on a new project—when your boss asks you to do something that stops you in your tracks and sends up an ethical red flag. (An example that comes to mind are the scenes in "Hidden Figures" when Katharine Goble is told to remove her name from the reports she worked on.)

You want to stand up for what you think is right, but you also want to make a good impression in a new workplace with a new boss. (Your parents' advice to do whatever you're asked and more when you're making a name for yourself is ringing in your head.) You don't want to get a reputation of not being a team player or of being contrary before anyone even gets to know you.

Harvard Business Review published a case study recently that explored this dilemma. In the scenario HBS faculty Sandra Sucher and Matthew Preble presented, Susan, a young intern, is asked by her new boss to lie by omission about her identity when calling the company's competitors to get information from them. She is very uncomfortable at the thought of doing this.

So, what should you do if you encounter a similar situation? In the case study, advice from experts varied—there's no one right way to stand your ground. You can choose an approach that makes you the most comfortable.

Option 1: Be direct

Some of us have no problem piping up when we don't agree with something. You don't have to be abrasive, but it's not wrong to tell your boss directly that you're not comfortable doing what they asked. You could ask for further clarification or request time for a longer discussion about your boss's objectives and your concerns. After all, your own career is at stake if you are caught doing something unethical.

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In the case study, Josh Bersin, Bersin by Deloitte founder and principal, wrote "even though she is young and an intern, I believe (Susan) should tell Mr. Moon and Emma Visser, the manager in Amsterdam, that she is uncomfortable misrepresenting herself."

Bersin even wrote that he would recommend she send an email response to both of those people stating her concerns. He said she should stay positive and frame her qualms as a concern for the entire organization, not just for herself.

"She might say something like, 'I greatly appreciate the opportunity to do this work with you, and this project is quite interesting. I’m concerned, however, that if we don’t disclose the fact that I’m working for Zantech and the word leaks out, it will reflect poorly on the firm,'" Bersin wrote. "Her tone should be collaborative and constructive, and she should use the word 'we' as much as possible."

Disagreements with your boss are often delicate situations. A lot of important things are at stake, including your own self-respect. If you need a pep talk before a difficult conversation, these experts wrote for HBR about the five things you should ask yourself before challenging a powerful person you work with.

Option 2: Identify a Plan B

If the thought of being that assertive immediately gives you a lump in your throat, don't worry—there are other ways to handle an ethics question. Sometimes, a more delicate hand is necessary. Harvard Business Review editor Amy Gallo recommended in her writing for the publication to learn the culture of the company and read the room before trying an assertive approach.

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Ruwan Weerasekera, a nonexecutive director in financial services, health care and educational organizations, wrote in the case study that he wouldn't tell Susan to be up front with her boss about her feelings about his assignment. Instead, he wrote, she should suggest another way to approach the same task, a way she'd be more comfortable with and that wouldn't put her future career at risk.

He suggested doing some research into alternatives that might work just as well before coming to her boss with a counter-plan. That approach might reach the same end as dealing with it head-on without making an unflattering impression on a new boss.

Navigate workplace conflict in the way that's best for you

Every situation is different. The way you butt heads with one boss is going to be different than the way you butt heads with another. Ultimately, you'll need to make decisions that you feel good about.

It's important to have a job, but it's even more important to have a strong sense of right and wrong. If your boss is a good one, they will respect you for your strong convictions and for having the courage to work through a conflict like an adult. Remember that your employment is a two-way street—it should be beneficial to both your employer and you. If the ethical environment of your workplace doesn't seem like a good fit, you can always explore other options.

Want more advice for dealing with your boss? Check these out next:

More Than Anything Else, Your Boss Can Make or Break Your Happiness at Work

Boss Doesn't Like Your Idea? Don't Give Up Hope

How Improv Class Can Help You at Work

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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