You and your co-worker had a spat. Your boss keeps throwing you under the bus. You’re looking to make an internal transfer or want to ask for a raise, but you have no idea how to approach the subject.
When your company doesn’t have a dedicated or reliable HR team (or any HR employees at all), dealing with certain workplace issues or questions can be intimidating—especially if you don’t have the best relationship with your boss or the issue in question is with your boss.
Deep breath! This doesn’t mean you’re completely alone. All you need are allies to help guide and empower you to make the right call.
There are several different kinds of allies you can turn to. They can help you express your frustrations, come up with a thoughtful solution, and formulate a detailed and professional plan so that you’re prepared to confidently handle what might be an uncomfortable conversation.
And remember, you don’t have to rely on just one ally—pick the combination of people that makes sense for you and your particular situation.
Turn to... Advocates on the Inside
Let’s say your relationship with your direct manager is going south, quickly. There’s zero communication or little support, and your interactions are terse at best. It’s time to turn to an inside ally.
These people know the office culture—and hopefully your manager—backward and forward, so they can easily offer guidance on interpersonal issues.
Before we think about who exactly these people might be, here’s a script for how you might initiate a conversation with them:
Thank you for taking the time talk to me today, I respect your opinion and trust you to keep this conversation confidential. Here are the issues I have and see in my relationship with my manager, here’s what I want, and here’s how I am going to say it. I would really like your advice on how this all sounds and if you think there’s a better way to address it.
So who are these inside allies?
A Hiring Manager
Who else did you interview with to get your job besides your boss? Suggest meeting with them for a coffee date offsite—they’re the ones who most likely work closely with your manager and understand what makes them tick. They also probably know you and how you work, so they can tailor their responses accordingly.
A Trusted Colleague
Do you have a relationship with another manager or colleague you trust and respect? This shouldn’t be your work best friend who you vent to at happy hour, but someone you have more of a professional relationship with. Tap this person for a confidential meeting to ask for advice.
Turn to... Friends Outside of Work
Let’s say your emotions are too raw to have a professional conversation just yet. For example, your project partner took credit for the amazing slide deck you spent the last week perfecting, and you’re now seeing an incredibly bright shade of red.
The goal of leaning on your friends is to make sure you can first take care of yourself so that you eventually can handle the issue at work professionally. These allies are the perfect audience for the emotional-but-probably-not-work-appropriate speech you want to get out of your system, so that you can approach a conversation with a mentor or colleague in a calmer state—and the ones who’ll make sure you actually take action once the emotions have subsided.
A Friend You Can Be Vulnerable With
This is the friend who gives you a safe place to vent freely (emphasis on safe). This should be someone who’s completely unattached to your work environment, and who you trust to keep your frustrated rant confidential.
A Friend Who Will Hold You Accountable
This is the friend who texts you first thing in the morning to make sure you make it on time to your weekly workout (or insert any other activity that helps you stay sane).
If you need to have a direct or difficult conversation with someone at the office, your motivator can hold you accountable for following through and later follow up to make sure any changes you push for actually stick.
Turn to... External Experts
What if the issue is just too complex for your non-HR allies to handle? It’s time to call in an expert from the outside to coach you through it. This person may not be able to sit in the meeting with you, but they have the knowledge you need and can be your cheerleaders along the way.
For example, I was the first person to go on maternity leave at my last company, and I needed to figure out how to take care of myself and my future child while also following my company’s policies and tying up any loose ends. With the help of my ally, a seasoned HR professional who also happens to be a close college friend, I felt empowered to call a maternity leave planning meeting with my boss and came with a thorough checklist in hand.
A Third-Party HR Company
While your company may not have HR onsite, they may work with a third-party vendor to help with onboarding, benefits, and payroll. Sometimes this even includes access to HR consultants who can help you navigate tricky issues. Check your benefits paperwork for a phone number you can call or a website you can check for resources.
A Career Coach
Why not entrust someone who’s done this before, a lot? Many career coaches and consultants will create tailored strategies, example scripts, and go through mock conversations to make sure you’re equipped to handle any difficult situations at work.
While a therapist may not have business expertise, they’re experts in how to explore and manage what may be personally holding you back, and can help in creating a plan of action. Ask yourself honestly, is this anxiety or fear I’m feeling about more than just this issue at work? Therapists can help guide your self-discovery into the ‘whys’ of your emotions and behaviors in a safe place.
An HR Friend or Mentor
This can be someone you know directly, a friend of a friend, or someone in your professional network. The point is, speaking to someone who’s in the field and has probably faced this problem a decent amount is a great way to get an honest, unbiased opinion.
Armed with the support and guidance from your allies, it’s time to address that issue head on. (For more advice on having difficult conversations with a co-worker or boss, try this article and this one or this one.)
Navigating workplace problems is never easy, and it’s even more difficult without HR. But by building a trusted team that can help you with various aspects of a tricky situation, you can handle just about anything.