Erica Hartwig gave birth on a Saturday. And, though she had previously arranged to work from home during her maternity leave, the following week her boss’ assistant informed her that the company had decided not to honor her maternity leave. Instead, they offered her six to twelve weeks — unpaid.
“Five days after I had my newborn they told me this,” Hartwig told Refinery29. At the time, Hartwig was looking after her baby as well as her father, a disabled veteran. “I was a single mom and was relying on that to pay for my mortgage, pay all my bills. I had saved but was really relying on that money.”
A few days later, Hartwig decided to go into her office and confront her boss, who was the owner of the mortgage company where she worked as a sales manager. “I was hormonal and am sure I was teary-eyed,” Hartwig said. “I walked in his office and told him [his decision] was unfair — that he had assured me I’d have a job and be able to support my family. I don’t think he knew what to say.”
For many, the thought of calling out your boss is terrifying. Many companies have HR departments, whose job it is to handle such disputes and tensions. And yet, in some cases, going directly to the source seems like the best way to handle a problem, especially if HR reports to the boss in question.
But what does calling out your boss actually look like? And when — if ever — is it a good idea?
After being reprimanded for using a ‘sarcastic tone’ in an email, Lara Frank* confronted her supervisor. Frank felt the email she’d sent was straightforward and professional, and said as much to her boss. “That’s when I mentioned to her that I think there is a huge bias in favour of men and their communication,” Frank said. “We have a lot of people on our team that are very blunt — much more than this — and they’ve never, to my knowledge, gotten a talking to.”
Frank decided to confront her boss directly, instead of going through HR. “I felt that it would mean more coming straight from me,” Frank said. At first, her boss got defensive and was shocked Frank had perceived gender bias, especially since she herself was a woman. Frank suggested that her boss attend an unconscious bias course, and her boss eventually agreed. Soon after, Frank was given a raise. “I think it helped with trust and transparency. Even though it seems counterintuitive that calling out your boss would help with trust.”
“Standing up to him, even though it was super hard, was the best thing I ever did.”
Like Frank, Hartwig was also rewarded for her outspokenness. After confronting him, her boss agreed to let her work from home. And though Hartwig was afraid to call out the powerful owner of her company, she's glad she did. Following six weeks of maternity leave, Hartwig started coming in on Saturdays, and was soon able to work back up to full time. “After that talk, in the lunchroom I would smile,” Hartwig said. “We ended up acting like it never happened.”
Hartwig stayed at that job for four more years, and though she has now left and started her own company, she stands by her decision to call her boss out out. “Standing up to him, even though it was super hard, was the best thing I ever did,” Hartwig said. “It set forth what other women could do as well, because if anyone was pregnant they were nervous about what could happen. It made him realize he couldn’t walk all over his employees.”
Not all instances of calling out one's boss go over well, though. Dan Salganik called his boss out after being blamed in a company-wide email thread. "I knew that something was wrong, so I circled back to past emails,” Salganik told Refinery29. “I screenshotted those conversations, responded and CC’ed everyone involved and told her that this is not a way to treat an employee.”
Salganik was fired. Still, despite the situation ending badly, he stands by his decision. Now, Salganik runs his own digital marketing agency, and has learned a lot from his experiences calling out his boss. “I run my own company now and know that you should treat people well,” he says. “People make mistakes and that's fine as long as they learn from them.”
Workplace expert Lindsey Pollak acknowledges that calling out a boss is complicated, and recommends carefully assessing the situation before making this decision. "You have to understand how that person works," Pollak told Refinery29. "What is their communication style? How do they give feedback? Do they need their morning coffee before a conversation?"
Pollak says that a decision to confront a boss has to be based on one's intimate knowledge of their boss, including whether they tend to be open to candid conversations or not. If deciding to confront one's boss directly, Pollak recommends framing the confrontation as a conversation. She also recommends documenting, in writing, anything that transpires so that you have facts, including dates and times, to back yourself up if you do decide to confront them or talk to a third party.
Pollak cautions, however, that if a boss is abusive, toxic, or discriminatory, that it's best to go to HR or reach out to an older mentor. "Micromanaging is something you can handle on your own. Abuse is something different,” Pollak said. “You decide where the line is.”
Ultimately, calling out a superior is never easy, but there are times when a situation merits doing so. After all, a boss is only human, and is therefore likely to make mistakes. Still, a boss has a lot of say over an individual's professional success, so discretion is always key, something that Frank says she remains conscious of. “While I am lucky that my boss and I have a rapport that encourages open and honest conversation, I need to remember that she is my boss,” Frank concluded. “At the end of the day, if I had said something she found offensive or insulting in any way, she has the power to terminate me.”