Ethics Coach

What to Do When Your Boss Doesn't Trust You

What to Do When Your Boss Doesn't Trust You
Image credit: illustration © Patrick Hruby
This story appears in the January 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Q: I work part time at a company. My desk sits out of the owner’s view. After I called in sick for a few days thanks to a case of shingles, the owner had his administrative assistant—also a part-time employee—tell me they can’t trust the hours on my timecard because they can’t see when I arrive or leave, and I “could be ripping them off.” I’m insulted. I report hours accurately, have been there a year and resent that a peer was sent to deliver this message to me. My initial instinct was to quit. How should I handle this? 

A: Your experience underscores some ethical problems that can be avoided through solid communication skills. 

If a business owner has a question about a direct report’s honesty or work performance, the employee deserves the respect of hearing about it directly from the owner (or the human resources department). No matter how busy things are or how awkward it may feel to voice a concern, it’s a leader’s job to initiate the discussion, ask questions, be open to the responses and clear up any problems. 

There’s no justification for sending an underling to do one’s bidding and deliver a message of dissatisfaction. That person may spin the intended message to incorporate his or her own views of the situation, causing unnecessary harm and damaging the owner’s relationship with the employee in question. 

It’s similarly problematic when a boss shares concerns about one employee with another—even if it’s just a bit of in-the-moment venting. Beyond the obvious (it’s unprofessional), the employee on the receiving end of the gossip (because, really, that’s what it is) is likely to spread the word, causing distrust among others and eroding the boss’s position of leadership. 

It can be lonely running a business. Leaders need to have a peer group where they can speak freely while confidentiality is maintained, or they should rely on family members with whom they can safely share what’s on their mind. In the office, leaders should strive to foster a spirit of teamwork among their staff by what they say, how they say it and how they demonstrate respect for everyone’s contribution to company success. This is especially important when relying on part-timers. 

My suggestion to you is to try and get beyond the emotion caused by the assistant’s comments. This will free you up to initiate a nondefensive conversation with the owner to find out why the timecard concerns cropped up and how you can restore his confidence in your relationship. Going forward, if you do what is expected of you and still don’t feel respected, you should look for another job.

Q: Over the last 16 years, I’ve helped to double the business of my aging father-in-law and his brother. They have no business skills or financial literacy. Many employees, vendors and customers have encouraged me to take over the company, but I can’t convince the brothers to sell or retire. I want to reach my full potential. Would it be unethical to take a portion of the business and start my own company?

A: Let’s address your word of choice first: potential. It has nothing to do with control or status; it’s about the way you work, the purpose that gives your work meaning, the respect and support you earn, and how you make others feel when working with you. 

If you can’t continue in a family business you helped grow but don’t own, invest in yourself. Develop the business plan and strategy for a company you would like to start. Envision what reaching your potential in the business would look like. If what you develop would put you in competition with your father-in-law’s firm, consider the implications (not to mention those awkward holiday dinners), and think about what it would take to create a win-win situation. It is not ethical to poach clients, so identify new prospects. 

When you are ready, meet with your father-in-law and talk about your plans. Share your appreciation for the opportunities you’ve gained through working with him, be receptive to his feedback and explain what excites you about the business you’re planning to create. He may be sufficiently interested to want you to do all that for his company. But regardless, you can do what it takes to propel your career and potential to the next stage.