Working with Your Boss

November 06, 2013


Know your place in the hierarchy

When I entered the workforce—not quite a gazillion years ago, though sometimes it feels that way—every new professional knew that a hierarchy existed. My peers and I understood that we started on the very bottom rung of an organizational ladder, and after years of toil, we might slowly but surely work our way up. We knew where we stood in the hierarchy by the size of our offices and how we addressed others. My first office was a fraction of the size of the one occupied by the head of the American Petroleum Institute (API), my first employer. And from the day I started to the day I left, whenever I spoke to the API president, I addressed him as “Mr. DiBona.”

Today’s new professionals often encounter flatter organizational structures. Yet hierarchies at work have not disappeared. Rather than climbing organizational ladders, today’s junior employees encounter a series of chutes and ladders. While navigating them, successful workers follow some rules of business etiquette that help them successfully work with every boss they encounter along the way.

Never forget your boss is your boss

Even in the flattest organization, distinctions exist between bosses (the people who possess ultimate decision-making authority when it comes to hiring, firing and assigning tasks) and the people who are charged with accomplishing tasks. Successful new professionals understand that their boss, right or wrong, ultimately has the last word. Rather than questioning strategies or challenging their decisions, up-and-comers look for ways to accomplish their boss’s goals.

You may not be expected to address your boss by using the social title of “Mr.” or “Ms.” Nonetheless you should adhere to some specific rules of business etiquette, including the following:

Acknowledge your boss. Before you enter your place of employment, stop grooving to your playlist. Store away your iPod, smart phone and ear buds, and say hello to the people you encounter in the lobby, elevator and hallways, especially your boss. Before you close down, do an end-of-the-day check-in with your boss to ensure no emergencies have arisen that could delay his or her departure.

Accept assignments with pleasure both literally as well as figuratively. When given an assignment, avoid saying, “No problem,” which diminishes the significance of the request that has just been made. Instead say, “I’d be delighted to get started on this right away.”

Keep your boss informed of key developments. This is especially critical when events transpire that might delay completion of a task by an agreed upon deadline. In all interactions with your boss, adopt a “no surprises” policy—a boss should never be surprised by something you have or have not done.

Respect the chain of command. Never go behind your boss’s back or over his or her head without first speaking to your boss. Where you report to multiple bosses, make sure each one is fully informed of the work you are doing. If your workload is such that deadlines need to be renegotiated, involve every supervisor who might be affected.

Keep all client and customer confidences. Nothing harms a boss’s credibility more than a subordinate who reveals client secrets.

Get it done

As a junior member of the workforce, your primary mission involves the completion of specific tasks in a professional and timely manner. Each time you receive an assignment, make sure you understand the parameters of the task. Have you been asked to draft a few short paragraphs or develop a comprehensive report? Does your boss require your input within a matter of minutes or a few days? Good business manners dictate that you clarify any questions you might have up front, and then get to work.

When accomplishing a task involves working with a team of coworkers, tackle the assignment, including possible disagreements, without elevating issues to a boss. Remember, your boss has a plethora of other issues to address without resolving subordinates’ disagreements. Demonstrate your professionalism by finding win-win solutions that satisfy all involved parties.

Ensure any work assignment you deliver to a boss reflects well upon you. Before you deliver an assignment to your boss, proofread your work. (Please do not rely on spell check.) Also, make it a point to give your boss “client-ready” work product, i.e., documents that are free of miscellaneous markings and food or beverage stains. 

Remember, bosses are human

In the best of all worlds, each boss you encounter will give you meaningful assignments, explain them thoroughly, and then provide feedback on the final work product you deliver. However, the odds are pretty good that you will eventually encounter a less than stellar boss. In fact, one estimate suggests that 87% of all workplace bullying is undertaken by supervisors.

When employees speak about “bad bosses,” they generally refer to some specific behaviors, including: nitpicking, stealing credit, or invading a worker’s privacy. Should you encounter a boss who you believe has not behaved well toward you, business etiquette can help you successfully navigate the situation.

Start by asking yourself a series of questions, including the following:

What’s the nature of the issue and what’s your contribution? Before you conclude you have a “bad” boss, ask yourself whether your boss’s actions might be justified. The boss who brings typos and inaccuracies to your attention is not a nitpicking supervisor. Rather he or she is justified in their displeasure.

Is this a one-time event or part of pattern? Everyone has a bad day. You know that things in your personal life can affect your work performance. The same thing holds true for your boss. Before you conclude that a boss is “bad,” good manners dictate that you give them the benefit of the doubt and determine whether he or she is simply experiencing a bad day.

What is an appropriate response? When you believe a boss has treated you unfairly, schedule a private one-on-one meeting. Explain the nature of your concerns, using lots of “I statements” and focusing on facts rather than emotions. State your case and don’t argue with your boss’s response.  At the end of the meeting, thank him or her for his time.

Like the rules of social etiquette, the rules of business etiquette help followers navigate challenging situations. When new professionals first enter the workplace, few things are more challenging than knowing how to effectively interact with a boss. Fundamentally all you need to remember is the following: your boss is not a parent nor is he or she a best friend. Instead your boss is a professional to whom you report and owe certain obligations. To successfully launch you career, act respectfully, do good work, and always act in a timely manner. 


What You Need to Know

Employee manuals and orientation programs rarely spell out in detail the duties of new professionals vis-à-vis their bosses. Simply put, every new worker’s No. 1 job is to make sure his or her boss always looks good.



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