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How to tell your boss you’re unhappy – without worrying about getting fired

Our recent exit process survey has revealed that although 94% of employers would prefer their staff to come to them before resigning, the reality is that very few employees do so.

Even though a professional might be looking for a new position, many will not disclose it to their bosses until after they have signed a new contract. For some, having that conversation is too difficult and even intimidating.

The survey found that only 42% of employers will approach their bosses if they are thinking of leaving an organisation. Some respondents cited loyalty to the company as the reason, while others did not want to burn bridges.

Another group of respondents believed that if they were open with their bosses, they might stand a reasonable chance of promotion and not have to go through the hassle of  finding another job.

Why is talking so hard to do?

While some won't do their employers the courtesy of sharing their unhappiness and dissatisfaction prior to looking for another job, others are simply worried about negative consequences of speaking up. In addition, some professionals are not comfortable sharing feedback and constructive criticism with their managers.

But it’s not just employees who find it hard to start the conversation. Many employers fear a backlash if they are forced into a difficult conversation with an unhappy employee. This is especially true if past conflicts or poor communication between the two parties has played a part in contributing to the unhappiness of the employee.

However, it still pays to try. The cost of recruiting, hiring and retraining staff – especially talented ones – can add up quickly. After all, 85% of employers said they could spot the tell-tale signs that an employee is unhappy and planning to leave anyway.

Unhappy employees, bosses say, become distracted and disengaged, and their productivity quickly falls away. To make things worse, absenteeism leads to even greater costs to the business.

But how to start the conversation?

Be open and honest

Being open and honest about why you are unhappy is the first step in getting an issue resolved. Among the top reasons are limited growth opportunities within the company and dissatisfaction with pay. Other reasons include feeling undervalued and under-challenged, or belonging to a corporate culture that no longer fits their aspirations or values.

Speaking to your boss about the lack of career growth opportunities might just be the trick. Setting fresh goals will give you a renewed sense of value and direction. A clear career progression and growth opportunities are also among the most important factors in staff retention.

Speak on issues and not personalities. It is very off-putting for a boss to hear an employee bring up a raft of new criticism, and it reflects poorly on the worker for not having the issues addressed earlier.

Discussions are often more difficult – and sensitive – when it comes to pay. This is simply because employees often link remuneration to their own value to the company. Many professionals gain industry-wide contacts and over time discover how their salary compares with their peers across the industry.

In addition, being mindful of a few key talking points can make a potentially bumpy conversation much smoother.

First, it is important to remain calm and professional. Speak on issues and not personalities. It is very off-putting for a boss to hear an employee bring up a raft of new criticism, and it reflects poorly on the worker for not having the issues addressed earlier. Discuss your unhappiness – don’t have a dump session.

Second, be clear. Understand what it is you need and want. If it is about job performance, be clear about reasonable and challenging targets, as well as work priorities. If your concerns are financial in nature, make your case for an increased rate of pay. If you are having difficulties with a line manager, state clearly how you would like it resolved.

Third, triangulate. If you find it difficult to see eye-to-eye with your boss, sit down together over a document that works through figures, proposals or solutions. Taking the focus off the personal aspect can be a great way of dialling down any worry or tension.

Take the offer of an exit interview

At the end of the day, even if the working relationship can’t be salvaged, both parties should welcome an exit interview – a strategy that can give all parties a more truthful picture of the company. An exit process is important because former employees are likely to be more reflective about the organisation's culture, systems and processes. Having difficult conversations can stand you in good stead when you build skillsets in your career.

The process of looking for another opportunity can also help towards understanding the reasons behind your unhappiness and help you refocus on the important aspects of your career development.


Visit our Career Advice hub for more advice to guide you through your journey as a professional.

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