Tech whistleblowers have been in the news of late, ranging from former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen with a treasure trove of company documents to Erika Cheung, a former Theranos lab associate, who is a key trial witness. Your workplace concerns are probably not on par with these headlines. But still, it can be challenging to speak up at work when something isn’t going right.
Especially if it’s about an issue that needs to be resolved, such as the company’s software update cycle schedule or its stated values. Here you’ll learn how to bring problems to your manager or your team, so that you don’t have to suffer in silence, and get them resolved.
How to Raise Difficult Conversations at Work
- Express yourself in a calm manner.
- Hold an in-person or Zoom conversation instead of submitting a written document outlining the issues.
- It’s fine to use notes when holding your conversation.
- Chose a one-on-one conversation or limit it to only essential parties.
- Emphasize you are raising these concerns for the benefit of the company.
- Follow up your conversation with an email recapping the bullet points of the discussion.
- Be cognizant if you notice your manager or coworkers treat you differently after your conversation.
- Inform the HR department if you notice retaliation, so they can address it.
Forget Ghostbusters, Who Do You Call?
Let the severity of the situation and company’s culture guide you on who to talk to about your concerns, human resource experts and employment attorneys said.
“I wish there was a ghostbusters for these kinds of issues, but there’s not,” said David Lowe, a labor law and employment attorney with Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe in San Francisco.
Here’s how you should think about it: Does this concern only affect me? Such as a compensation issue or work environment issue? Or is it a broader concern affecting a number of employees?
Touch base with trusted co-workers to learn how management addresses, or doesn’t address, workplace issues to understand what steps you need to take.
“I wish there was a ghostbusters for these kinds of issues, but there’s not,”
For concerns over situations like business processes, product development, or company direction, it generally is best to reach out to those who are in a position to fix the problem, Lowe said.
“I would always start off with the lowest level possible to raise your concern with, someone who might be in a position to solve the problem,” said Lowe. “And I would always say start off with the least provocative thing.”
If the concern centers on a product problem, consider addressing it with the product team. If it is a management issue, then have a discussion with your manager, your manager’s manager or the human resources department, said Lowe.
Situations that involve sexual harassment or discrimination are sensitive and should be treated thoughtfully. If it seems like these issues, or others such as a lack of transparency or poor communication, are tangled up in the company’s culture, it might require you to consider whether your company supports an inclusive workplace.
“If you’re working on a pirate ship, the plank is out, libations and debauchery are flowing, corruption abound, it’s probably not going to be a good idea to report anything. It would probably be best to start looking for another job discreetly, then once your new job is secured, share your concerns with the appropriate person most likely to safeguard and address that information,” said Regan Gross, an HR knowledge advisor with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
How to Raise Issues Constructively
Tread carefully if the company concerns you are raising are more than just one-off complaints and along the lines of business operations or company culture — it can be tricky.
For example, let’s say you work for an unsympathetic, reactive manager. Eventually, you file a complaint with the engineering director about your manager’s frequent outbursts causing extra stress and an unpleasant work environment.
“Your goal should be to keep it very amicable and emphasize you are raising these concerns for the company’s benefit.”
This isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Will HR solve the issue? Maybe. If your toxic boss decides to retaliate or fire you, there’s not much you can do to stop it. Unless those behaviors are discriminatory, for instance, the manager’s short temper was only directed at women. If that’s the case, you’d have legal recourse.
When raising concerns, take extra steps to express yourself in a calm manner, Lowe advised.
“Raising concerns in writing can have risks, because you don’t necessarily capture the right tone. The company may feel more defensive like you are setting them up for a lawsuit if they get your complaint in writing, versus if you had a Zoom or in-person conversation,” Lowe said. “Your goal should be to keep it very amicable and emphasize you are raising these concerns for the company’s benefit.”
It still makes sense, however, to write out your bullet points for your conversation and refer to this cheatsheet, Lowe said. You can also follow up the conversation with an email that states “here are the bullet points we discussed and the next steps as I understand it, should you wish to share the information with other people,” he added.
You may be surprised to find that your concerns and issues raised may not only be welcomed by your company but also lead to change.
“The model workplace is one where employees can freely and respectfully approach each other, address concerns and move on,” Gross said.
Potential Issues After Raising Concerns
Sometimes raising concerns can lead to backlash, especially if managers or leaders don’t agree with your critique. If your situation can’t be solved amicably, here’s what to do in the aftermath.
“Managers or co-workers might not realize they are doing it, but treating you differently because you reported unethical or illegal workplace circumstances, decisions, etc., can be considered retaliatory,” Gross said.
The HR department should make it clear that retaliation won’t be tolerated and inform managers and anyone in the workplace connected to the events that retaliation for reporting the information is unacceptable, said Gross. She noted that you need to let the HR department know about retaliation as soon as possible so they can swiftly address it.
Avoid pulling in too many people on the issue because the employee, manager or executive who is the center of your complaint may feel targeted, Gross noted.
“If you don’t get the response you desire, feel your concerns are being ignored or you’re being gaslit, you should follow it up with an email to the person pointing out your concerns,” Lowe said.
The next step is to reach out to HR and noting you’ve had a problem with this group or individual and how you have attempted to resolve it.
If HR doesn’t resolve the issue, the next step calls for contacting a member of your company’s leadership team to resolve or correct the issue.
“Showing you’ve gone through the company’s internal process is important,” Lowe said.
Moving On Gracefully
Be forthcoming with prospective employers on why you left your last job, Gross said. She added you not only want to start your new job with transparency but also keep in mind there’s a good chance the prospective employer will contact your former employer to inquire why you left.
“Much like dating, it’s best not to talk about your ex-employer when job hunting since this is a red flag to employers,”
Transparency, however, doesn’t necessarily mean going into a lot of details about the facts leading up to your departure. For example, you can simply say something along the lines that your last employer “unfortunately, wasn’t a good fit due to the culture,” or “I really wanted it to work out, but we didn’t see eye to eye on values,” Gross said.
“Much like dating, it’s best not to talk about your ex-employer when job hunting since this is a red flag to employers,” Gross said. “While you do want to answer their question, do so, then redirect the interviewer’s focus to why you would be a great choice for their company.”