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How to Stand up for yourself at work
Nov 10, 2021

Knowing how to stand/speak up for yourself at work is a critical career building skill.

We would all like to believe that our workplaces provide healthy, respectful and collaborative environments for us to work in. Afterall, when you took the job that was one of the selling points that attracted you to accept the offer in the first place.

The reality however, is that this is easier said than done. If you are too bold you might find yourself standing up in the unemployment queue. On the other hand, if you remain timid and silent you will perpetuate the abusive and destructive cycle and stay miserable or quit.

Tactfully standing up for yourself requires some foresight and a strategy. Things happen at work. It’s high pressure, and different people deal with stress differently. Knowing how to be professionally assertive without being insubordinate or disrespectful will help you manage frustration, burnout and workplace overwhelm.

Here are 4 ways to be professionally assertive

Teach people how to treat you

When people do not know how you prefer to be treated, they will assume that you will accept the same treatment they will accept. This may not necessarily be true.

You know HOW you want to be treated. You also know How you define respect. So, teach those who you engage with. This means colleagues and managers.

Often times leading by example is sufficient and people around you get the message. However, there will always be that one person who needs some additional help in learning how to treat you. This may be a fellow colleague or a manager, either way bully mentality should not be tolerated.

Simple steps like not responding to messages and mails after hours is a good first step in teaching people that you are not accessible 24/7.

Being clear about what your job is and what someone elses job is and not fuzzing these two things, is another way to ensure you don’t become the packhorse in the office.

Understanding and Empathy does not mean Acceptance

We all come from different cultural backgrounds. This makes cultural diversity in the workplace a huge issue when people are not aware and tolerant of each other’s culture. That said, that does not mean you need to simply accept someone else’s bad behaviour. Understanding someone else’s culture around personal space, eye contact and communication styles will go a long way to help you understand how to adapt your own responses.

This does not mean that you need to accept bad behaviour though. This does mean that you need to learn how to set personal and professional boundaries sooner rather than later.

If someone stands too close when they speak to you simply take a step back and casually say something like “excuse me but I just need some space” OR “lets give each other some space” OR “can you stop hovering please, it makes me feel awkward”. If you keep this casual and simply say it as part of the conversation, then it doesn’t become an issue but merely sets a tone for future behaviour.

Be Clear and Be Confident

Sometimes leading by example and practicing compassion is not enough with some people. This means you may need a different approach, which can be tough if you are not comfortable with standing up for yourself in the first place. Therefore, being clear and being confident about what you are willing to accept is important. Remember the more you allow things to carry on in the hope that the behaviour will miraculously change, the more you consent to the behaviour you are uncomfortable with.

If a colleague or manager speaks disrespectfully to you or piles on work that is not yours to do or dismisses your contributions to getting the job done and you remain silent; then you are to blame. Silence is consent… and as long as you remain silent, the message they receive is, there nothing is wrong.

Complaining to colleagues about this or expecting someone else to stand up for you is not always going to solve the problem. While you may have the odd occasion when someone else sees this behaviour and says something about it, the majority of the time this will not happen.

Address problems immediately

The easiest way to deal with bad behaviour is to nip-it-in-the-bud. Deal with it as it arises, don’t wait for a meeting or separate occasion to address things that can be addressed instantly.

For example, if someone calls you “Honey” or similar in a meeting, immediately respond with, “Please use my name to address me.” OR “My name is [your name], please don’t refer to me as “Honey.”

If a coworker tries to take credit for your work in a project meeting, let them finish speaking. Then, politely note your own contributions. For example, “Bill did a great job organizing the reports. With his help, I was able to analyze and file them a lot faster than usual.”

If you don’t feel comfortable calling them out in public and sometimes a public confrontation is simply inappropriate, then address the matter immediately after the meeting has concluded.

For example, if a coworker talks over you in a meeting and they have never done that before, give them the benefit of the doubt! Wait until the meeting is over and talk to them about it privately. You might say take them aside and say, "I realize you probably didn't mean to do this, but when you interrupted me at the meeting earlier, I felt belittled and a bit embarrassed. Can you be more careful about that in the future?"

Questions feel less confrontational. If you need to have a tough conversation with a colleague/manager, try to avoid opening with aggressive statements like “I don’t like the way you’re doing this” or “I think your approach is wrong.” Start the conversation with a question. For example

"Can you help me understand why I now have most of Derrick’s assignments this week? Is he not available to do these? Is there something I should know about?"

"I'm not sure I understand why you cc'd the entire team on that email. My understand was that we were talking privately. Can you tell me why you did that?"

"Would you mind explaining the new schedule? I know you must have a good reason for making changes but based on this schedule you have put together we are going to run out of time."

When all else fails

Some issues require a stronger response than others.

If you are being bullied and or mistreated at work, it is in your own best interest to stand up for yourself. If you are unable to deal with bad behaviour on you own, remember every company has an escalation policy.

The typical process is to first take thing to your direct line manager. If this proves to be ineffective then follow the process to your HR office. The HR team is there to provide this kind of assistance so don’t feel embarrassed or concerned about going this route. Abusive and toxic work environments are not conducive to productivity or healthy workspaces. HR cannot help if you don’t tell them that help is needed.

Please understand there will always be exceptions based on conditions of employment and workload priorities. Those are typically extra-ordinary circumstances and adjustments can be made. However bad behaviour in any form is never acceptable.

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