What do you say to your boss when you feel unsupported?
April 29, 2014 8:55 AM   Subscribe

Help me communicate my dissatisfaction with a business decision that impacts my professional development. Related: is this even a good idea?

I have worked for a big prestigious state bureaucracy for almost four years. During that time, I became licensed to practice law. Like most bosses, my executive director has been theoretically supportive of my progress... eventually... down the line... someday... But the fact is that he benefits hugely from having an attorney in his office, and now there are some very basic cost and time factors associated with my license. He's not willing to pay for any of those things, and I even recently had to use personal time to take a mandatory ethics course to maintain my license.

Recently, I was asked to do something (uncompensated) for another branch of the bureaucracy that would be a nice feather in my professional cap. The verdict came back yesterday that I would need to use personal time to do that, and that I'd need to disclose it in the state conflict of interest database. Now, setting aside the fact that they clearly don't understand the idea of what could possibly constitute a "conflict of interest" (since this is unpaid, and all in service to the same state institution!), this seems really punitive to me. It would be virtually no cost to them to let me take two half days. Instead, they're insisting that I use my accrued personal time, essentially paying for the privilege of taking on this extra activity for the institution.

Okay, so the writing is on the wall and they're communicating clearly to me that they don't support my professional development. So I'm putting my ducks in a row and planning to take my ball and go home. I feel like I need to respond in some way to express how disappointed I am and how unsupported I feel, but I don't have the right words to do that - and I'm not even sure that's a good tactical move.


On the one hand, I am unsupported, and so the clear answer is: screw what you should "say" and find a new job with a boss/firm/institution that supports your professional development.

On the other hand, I don't want to just roll over, play dead, and slink off to a new job when I finally find one - without first at least letting them know that I feel unsupported and giving them the opportunity to make it right.

On the third hand (so many hands), I don't want to poison the well and make my current position more antagonistic than it already is.

How to navigate?
posted by jph to Work & Money (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
In my eyes, you're doing this for you. Unless you put getting a JD or whatever into a professional development plan with your boss or agreed ahead of time that they'd cover this stuff, this is all on you.
posted by k8t at 9:10 AM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I even recently had to use personal time to take a mandatory ethics course to maintain my license.

This isn't as unusual as you seem to think it is. Almost all of my CE for professional credentials comes out of my pocket and my time. Similar for many of my peers in other organizations, and the same is true for my wife when she's dealing with state licensure (which she has to have to work where she works).

Recently, I was asked to do something (uncompensated) for another branch of the bureaucracy that would be a nice feather in my professional cap. The verdict came back yesterday that I would need to use personal time to do that, and that I'd need to disclose it in the state conflict of interest database.

I think you're looking at this wrong. You all might ultimately work for the same chief executive (the state governor), but you're not necessarily in the same organization. You're asking your boss to give up a resource (you) that he pays for, but you're confused as to why he doesn't want to do so. And the only value you're identifying is the value to you professionally, not to your office, boss, job, etc.

And yes, volunteer work can cause a conflict of interest, and your boss is right to raise it. The last thing you want to do is underreport things like this.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:11 AM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

So just to clarify, I got the job because I had a JD already.
posted by jph at 9:12 AM on April 29, 2014

And also this is for the same institution/organization. Just a different department.
posted by jph at 9:14 AM on April 29, 2014

In this particular instance, I would go to the manager for the task you were asked to do, and say "I'd love to work on this. It would be a great opportunity professionally for me. Unfortunately, I've been told I need to take personal time from my primary position in order to help you out. That's just not possible at this time, so if you aren't able to get rid of some of this red tape, I won't be available." In other words, put it back on them.

In general, I'd make a list of all the things (if any) that you do or have done in your current job that wouldn't have been possible without your law license - or alternatively, that your office would have needed to outsource to a legal department somewhere else in the bureaucracy. Bring that list to your executive director and have a conversation. Say "this is the value my professional development has brought to the team, above and beyond what I was actually hired to do and was qualified for at that time." See what happens.

If you don't get a positive response, or anything at all, then say you will need to scale back your legal contributions to the office, unless you are provided compensation for those contributions - and that you are willing to take comp time in lieu of submitting invoices at an hourly rate.

On preview, I see that you already had your JD. My advice above still applies - but perhaps it's also worth mentioning to your boss that a JD without a license is not nearly as useful to the organization (again, quantify this) and repeat your request for comp time or other resources to support maintaining that license in recognition that it is helping them, not just you.

Of course, if they don't ever need you to go to court or be a legal representative then maybe they really don't care about your license. In which case - walk away when you get a better offer.
posted by trivia genius at 9:17 AM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

You need to look at this from your employer's view, not your view.

You seem to be making the assumption that professional development inherently makes you more valuable to your employer, and as a result, your employer should support you at any cost to pursue this professional development. This assumption is not valid. It's not clear from your post why your employer should be helping your pursue your license. Is there some capability your employer wants that isn't achieved without a license? If so, then you should be telling your employer you need the license for that capability. If there isn't some capability your employer wants that requires a license, you shouldn't be surprised that your employer isn't supportive of your professional development. It'd actually be disadvantageous for your employer to support you, because then you'd be more valued by the market, requiring them to either increase your salary (for no necessary benefit to them) or to start looking for a replacement when you leave.

I hate to be the one that has to point this out, but professional development is not a "right", it is part of your compensation. If your monetary compensation is inadequate, professional development can make up for that. If your monetary compensation is adequate, your employer would rationally view professional development as an excessive cost that isn't required to maintain your position.

It would be virtually no cost to them to let me take two half days.

Say you make $100,000 on a salary basis. The cost of two half days is approximately $1,923 to your employer, assuming your net cost to your employer is about 2.5x your salary (from my experience, that scaling factor is low - upwards of 4x your salary is possible for a specialized professional when support staff are included). That's not to say your employer shouldn't support you, but you need to realize there's a cost associated with it.
posted by saeculorum at 9:45 AM on April 29, 2014

Say nothing and move on. They know EXACTLY what they're doing, and while they're more than happy to use your JD when it suits their interests, they don't feel that they owe you anything in return.

There are other agencies or enterprises that will be more than happy to provide you with the support you need.

But it's pointless to make a stink about it, in the grand scheme of things, they won't say, "Oh! I'm so sorry, I should have treated jph better! Oh, woe is me! I now see the error of my ways."

At the end of the day, they'll find another JD who will do what you do, and the world will continue to turn.

Put your energy in finding another job, you'll be better served.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:53 AM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Has the employer gained a resource that they are utilizing? If 'Yes', I think having a candid conversation about your compensation is in order. You have cited that your new knowledge has already benefited your organization, that this is clearly a pattern that will continue, and that the skills you posses today are being leveraged. While yes, you pursued this professional development yourself, there is a cost associated with maintaining it. If the company is going to utilize these skills, they need to pay for the maintenance for them. You can either accept cash for training expenses and licences, or a merit based raise which will cover your annualized expenses to match these new costs.

And yes, there's tons of this here that can backfire. You are either a top performer now as a result of your efforts and they pay up, or you start looking. There is no middle ground. You have identified and quantified how much you are now worth to your organization and it is apparently now just your current salary + additional operating expenses... I'd have thought it was more than that... but yeah, at a base level, if they are leveraging the new skills, you need to require better compensation. (Top performers btw, require better compensation)

If the answer to the first question is 'No', then you can still press the issue, but I wouldn't do so without another job lined up in the wings, because a competing job offer will be your better bargaining chip than a degree they aren't and don't want to utilize.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:54 AM on April 29, 2014

As someone who reviews conflict of interest issues professionally - there are definitely situations where unpaid work, even unpaid work for another department in the same organization, needs to be disclosed. I wouldn't presume to say whether this is the case for you without a lot more detail, but it doesn't sound at all unusual to me that you would be asked to disclose it, and that in some cases that information might have to be put into a public database.

To the more general question - I've had, and highly valued, employers who considered my professional development part of their responsibility. In one really great case, an employer who specifically budgeted for me to take classes/certifications, not just letting me do some PD on work time. But sadly, my impression is that it's not necessarily standard, or expected, and that there's not much you can do right now. Your workplace is not going to suddenly develop a culture of supporting PD because one employee has complained.

If professional development support is important for you, you need to start job hunting, and questions about professional development need to be part of that job hunt. Unless, maybe, you have some way of working through institutional processes rather than a one-woman complaint. Maybe there's a staff council you could get on, and advocate for better PD policies - but that kind of change would likely be measured in years, not months, so in the immediate future there's probably nothing you can do here.

Start looking, find an awesome new job, and bring this up in the exit interview.
posted by Stacey at 9:54 AM on April 29, 2014

I'm not even sure that's a good tactical move.

It's really not. You're halfway out the door -- I think you are better off taking the personal time and doing the project. The project, and maintaining good will from your colleagues, are more of an investment in your future endeavors than making sure they know how you feel, which would be a fleeting victory.

In short, use them.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:10 AM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

So I guess what I am hearing - and maybe I should have clued into this before now - is that when employers say they want to support whatever your professional goals are, there's a huge asterisk attached to that. The more you know. Thanks for helping me adjust (lower) my expectations.
posted by jph at 10:11 AM on April 29, 2014

If there's an asterisk there, it's "be certain to set clear expectations at the beginning and throughout your employment at appropriate intervals about how we define "support your professional goals"". My company, for instance, is very up-front about how they support education, time away from the office for personal development, time IN the office for personal development, etc.
posted by ersatzkat at 10:17 AM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you have a review coming up? That might be a good time and place to bring this up and say something like, I'd really like it if I could use one day per quarter for professional development. Then if they don't give you that and you find a job where they do, you can say that when they ask why you're leaving. At my last job, I asked at a review what I would have to do to get promoted and my manager said, I don't know but I'll find out. Six months later at my mid-year review, I asked again and he still didn't know. So I got a new job.
posted by kat518 at 10:20 AM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

IANAL, but it's probably not legal for you to work for your employer for free. The other branch of the employer is still the employer and it's my understanding that federal labor law says you can't work for free.
posted by theora55 at 10:21 AM on April 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you stick around and have an annual review coming up, that could be a good time to bring up the general issue. I've always found that to be a good time to circle back to professional development stuff. Day to day there are a million other things going on and it's hard to say "sure, go off and take work time to buff up your resume, even though you're needed for your job here", but your review is an appropriate time to discuss whether a goal for the upcoming year might be to do XYZ PD activities. Then when you're requesting them you have an agreement to refer back to - "I'd like to take two days next month to do [activity z], in support of goal 3 of my annual review", or whatever. Supports your claim, and also prevents any manager worries about whether he's setting a precedent for an unlimited amount of work time devoted to development. You agreed on five days, you get five days, everyone's happy.
posted by Stacey at 10:23 AM on April 29, 2014

If they aren't being supportive, it's because you haven't persuaded them that they should be.

Could you make up the half days over nights and weekends? Reassure them that you will make sure all work gets done?

Do you have a PD budget and days? At my non-profit we each get $2,000 a year for PD. We don't get days but that's because we use a ROWE policy so we don't have personal/sick days or work hours.

Bullet point out the benefits to the ORG, not to you. i.e.:
- Cross-departmental relationships and collaboration
- Better understanding of the XYZ challenges facing Department X, which will enable me to bring a more informed perspective to my leadership of Project Y in our department.
- Improved understanding of efficiency processes in the way that Project X approaches initiatives A and B.
- Will generate report on learnings and outcomes for Executive Director and leadership team in our department.
- Building skillset that will enable me to make sure my team can better handle problems in Process Q.

posted by amaire at 10:29 AM on April 29, 2014

>>I have worked for a big prestigious state bureaucracy for almost four years.<>
There's your problem, right there. Most (not all, please no nasty grams) state governments are not filled with ambitious people; they are filled with people who have figured out that if they do MORE work, others will do LESS work. A race to the bottom. And they get away with it.

The way I see it you have two choices: advance into a thankless, underpaid job with a nice title where you oversee people like your boss (who can't be easily coached or fired) or take your hard work to the private sector where people WILL see it your way.
posted by brownrd at 10:30 AM on April 29, 2014

More thoughts. They don't care too much that you "feel unsupported." They should care, but what they really care about is that they are building a team that can make their organization/department more effective and successful.

I would do a similar spelling out of the benefits for this: "But the fact is that he benefits hugely from having an attorney in his office, and now there are some very basic cost and time factors associated with my license."

Maybe you need to set up a broader check-in. "I was really surprised that you weren't supportive of me doing this project. Can we set up a meeting to discuss?"

Then in the meeting:
"This project is part of ongoing professional development that is making me more useful to the team and is helping me be a more valuable asset that supports our organization's strategic goals. With my JD and my new professional license, I have helped [HOW HAS THIS BEEN GOOD FOR THE ORG?].

This particular project will not take away from me fulfilling my work responsibilities, and is in fact part of ongoing growth that is helping me reduce inefficiencies, improve our XX outcomes, help support the ABC team, and reduce the cost of using external contractors.

I see a path for myself at this organization where I can really help our department thrive. I want to continue building the skills and experience I need to be effective here. Can we talk about what you're thinking and how you envision my path at this organization?"

Also - maybe this is a sign to you that this other project that the other department is taking on is not a high priority. If it were, they would want to put their best people on it. Maybe you could say, "If this particular project is not a high-priority and you don't think it's a valuable use of my time, could we work together to find a cross-department project with Department Y that would be a big win for all of us and is more aligned with our department's goals? I think the skill-building and experience would really help me be more effective in my role."
posted by amaire at 10:35 AM on April 29, 2014

when employers say they want to support whatever your professional goals are, there's a huge asterisk attached to that

Well, if the professional goals you're working toward differ too much from what the employer needs someone to do in your position, or in another position opening up or being created, then pretty soon "it's not a good fit" anymore.

Of course, there are employers who actively undermine your professional goals; for example, they tell you you're needed in the office and can't take your personal days on the days you'd need them for the outside project. It could be worse.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:49 AM on April 29, 2014

they're communicating clearly to me that they don't support my professional development... I feel like I need to respond in some way to express how disappointed I am

You are doing this by "putting my ducks in a row and planning to take my ball and go home." There is no problem to solve here other than what your next job will be and nothing to communicate except your notice.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:56 AM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

The asterisk here is that companies never ever care about you. Even HR exists to benefit The Company. All the past few decades worth of 'employee engagement' discussion is only ever about the bottom line. When it comes time to scale back headcount, they just look at a spreadsheet and pick off whoever looks a) expensive b) expendable.

I know it hurts. And you will progress faster and make better career decisions when you look at your job as emotionlessly as they do. There are places to get your need for acknowledgement met and work just isn't it. And any expression of your disappointment / resentment just make you look petty, emotional & entitled, and this further hinders your career if you were to meet these people again, or act the same way in a future job.

It sucks. I know.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:15 PM on April 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Whenever I'm feeling unappreciated by my company - which is often, here at Dunder Mifflin East - I remind myself that they pay me to show up to work every day and do what they tell me. That's it. That's the trade-off. I work, they pay me. Any attempt at increasing employee satisfaction or promoting professional development I chalk up to some nefarious ulterior motive, ignore, and move on.

"A nice feather in my professional cap" - how does that translate into a benefit for your current department? If you can articulate that to your boss, you might have a shot. If you can quantitatively point out the ways in which your professional development has/will help the department, do that.
posted by lyssabee at 12:31 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Making you take personal days to do your required ethics classes to maintain your bar license is totally out of bounds -- for a job that requires that you be a licensed lawyer. Sounds like this job may not actually require that you be a licensed lawyer? If so, hightail it out of there and start actually practicing law.
posted by yarly at 5:09 PM on April 29, 2014

jph: "So I guess what I am hearing - and maybe I should have clued into this before now - is that when employers say they want to support whatever your professional goals are, there's a huge asterisk attached to that."

I think that the internal volunteer opportunity and your license to practice are two totally separate situations, and associating them with each other under one banner of "ergo, you don't support my professional development" is going to confuse their feeble, jargon-addled brains. (Yes, yes, they are indeed both issues of professional development, but The Bureaucracy is not, by definition, adept at seeing the big picture.)

First, the easier one from my point of view: Expecting you to use paid time off for a volunteer leadership/service/prof. dev. thing with another branch of the organization is very weird. I've never heard of such a thing in bureaucracies such as yours except as active dissuasion -- either against a role that the boss truly does NOT want the employee to take on at all for internal political reasons, or because the boss has a strongly possessive blanket bias against ANYTHING that will take your butt out of your chair and away from your job for even a second. It's more typical in my experience that anything internal to the organization is considered a freebie, both for you and for them.

Regarding your license: I think that the personal costs and time of maintaining your license are really on you. The license isn't a credential required for your job by your employer or by your field to do this job. But, if your department is benefitting directly from you having your license:
a) you can quantify it and make the case that you are saving them money on consultants, etc.
b) these advantages should be incorporated into your yearly evaluation so that you can more easily demonstrate that this value-add deserves a raise.

Now, I can readily see why they would mooch off of your new credential, yet disavow it as anything other than your personal decision, even while claiming warm-fuzzy credit for being supportive. That reason is...institutionalized peevish insecurity. For example, your license signals that you have the option to ditch them to go be a "real" lawyer, which upsets egos and changes the power dynamic.

It also violates the weird polite fiction which deems it tacky to acknowledge a wish to move on "merely" for a more fulfilling job. B-b-because that means that everything you cared about here was just a pretense and not really meaningful to you...if you'll ditch it when something better comes along, it must not be worth much! (i.e. jealous.)

Anyway, I think that the asterisk attached to an employer's support of your goals depends enormously on the culture of your particular department, the personality of your boss and other higher-ups in leadership, the particular career prospects in question, how they've justified any cost investment, and other variables. The personality of your boss most of all, in my experience.
posted by desuetude at 8:09 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

It would be virtually no cost to them to let me take two half days.

Anything you can complete in 8 hours is not going to be very meaningful as professional development. The projects or experiences that have stretched me and where I acquired actual new skills or knowledge were weeks or months long, not hours.

Perhaps what seems like a great opportunity to you looks like a pointless, low-value distraction to your boss. It is better to figure out what skills and experiences you want to have, and then find a way to obtain those that aligns with your department's (and your boss's) needs and direction.
posted by jeoc at 5:29 AM on May 3, 2014

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