28 May 2011

Talking to the boss

Fran had no trouble getting along with the guys – she was one of those women born to work in open pit mining. She had been there 17 years and never really had a major event like some of the ladies reported. She loved working in the trades. People often said that it was because of her personality – she was funny, generous and kind. She would say that growing up with 5 brothers had prepared her for this work.

Get ‘er Done
The thing that also worked in her favour was that she liked to nip trouble in the bud before it got out of control. Even though the thought of having a difficult conversation made her anxious, she had seen too often what could happen when things are not dealt with. She knew that it was important to get ‘er done so the crew could get back to work.

Things were a little different this time. The new boss had only been here about 6 months and things had gone downhill since he came on board. He timed his sexist comments and jokes for when Fran was in earshot. If that weren’t bad enough – the guys had taken to repeating the jokes and offensive language. For example, she and Tim had worked alongside one another for years without a bad word between them. Lately he had taken to referring to women as splitarses – a particularly offensive term that she had never heard him use.

It was affecting her work – she had always loved coming to work, more often these days she had to force herself out the door in the morning. Her husband and children were starting to notice that work made her grumpy. It was time to deal with this because it was impacting her private life.

There was no other option – she had to speak to her boss. Supervisors often don’t realize that they are setting trends. If he gets away with it, then the guys will think it’s ok. One bad seed in a position of authority has the potential to destroy the culture. Bad behaviour at the top could mean hell at the bottom. Some of her male co-workers agreed that the standard had changed and even some of the guys were feeling the pain.

Power Imbalance
Fran knew that anxiety was common whenever there was a need to have a difficult conversation. What she was not prepared for was how the anxiety increased when there was a power imbalance - the stakes were so much higher. The playing field was no longer level.

She had a lot to think about. She did what she normally did – visualized herself going into the office, having the conversation while keeping the conversation on topic. It was important that she only speak about the impact that his behaviour was having in the workplace and she needed to use specific examples. She’s been documenting them for a while now.

It might be a little easier if the boss had a heart of gold but he was known for his biting remarks and use of sarcasm. Fran knew that there was a risk involved. There was no turning back – she was prepared to leave the company if need be.

Fran’s story is not an uncommon one. People have no control over how things will turn out. Many toxic environments are made worse because the boss contributes to or sets the standard for toxic behaviour. Having the conversation is essential – moving on might be the only viable solution but that should only take place after the conversation has taken place.

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