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When your supervisor is unwilling to assist with an important workplace concern

Lily Garcia
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, August 5, 2010; 2:06 PM

Thanks for taking my question last week about my boss who is likely headed for a meltdown because she won't stand up for herself. I realized this week that I'm headed for my own meltdown because she won't stand up for me either. This isn't new, I knew this, but hadn't needed an advocate for a while. Basically, this boils down to the fact that I can't trust that she'll have my back any more than she'll take care of her own.

And this time it's not just my professional performance being affected, it's my personal finances as well. For three months running last year payroll screwed up my pay. They finally ironed it out, but I was very short for several months, luckily I had savings. Now the problem has happened again, and her response was to offer me a personal loan instead of picking up the phone and telling payroll that this ongoing problem was unacceptable and needed to be fixed immediately or to take it up her chain.

As it is, this is a part-time position and I've been looking for a full-time position and looking to leave soon anyway, but as of today I certainly will have fewer regrets about it.

It might make you feel better to know that you are not alone in your frustrations. Ask around. Your friends and family will confirm that they, too, have been vexed by the unwillingness of a supervisor to assist with an important workplace concern or otherwise look out for their best interests.

I often hear from workers who lament that their bosses are ineffective advocates: they do not champion employees for promotions; they are slow to defend good people who come under scrutiny by another manager or department; they do not tout the accomplishments of others; they do not "have your back."

In your case, you are luckily dealing with a workplace issue based on objective facts, outside the ambiguous realm of job performance. You have a rate of pay and a certain number of hours your have worked. If, for some reason, you are not being paid for those hours, then you obviously have a problem. It is unfortunate that your manager will not use her leverage in the organization to help you, but I don't think that you necessarily need her. Call the head of the Payroll department yourself and explain the problem. If you do not receive a timely satisfactory response, then escalate the issue to the next level of management, which is probably the head of Human Resources or Finance. Your next step after that would be to involve the wage and hour office of your state's department of labor.

In the meantime, I counsel you against accepting a personal loan from your supervisor, no matter how badly you might need the money. Many organizations prohibit loan-making among their employees either under a general ethics policy or a more specific debtor relations policy. The rationale behind such a rule is that an employee who is indebted to another is susceptible to being persuaded by his or her creditor to engage in ethically questionable conduct.

Bosses who advocate for the interests of their employees are uncommon. This is not an indictment of managers everywhere, but rather a frank acknowledgement of workplace realities. The typical manager prioritizes operational duties and his or her own needs well ahead of the concerns of employees. It is not a conscious choice, I think, but rather what gets reinforced by the way in which most organizations do business. At performance appraisal time, a manager can expect to be held accountable for delivering bottom line results, not for furthering the cause of concerned workers.

Of course, happy workers who feel valued and heard lead to better business results. But I do not think that the average manager or employer makes this logical connection. When a manager is called upon to list major accomplishments for the year, therefore, I doubt that resolving an employee's payroll issues will make the list ¿ that is, of course, unless that manager supervises the Payroll department.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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