Four Ways to Weather Workplace Wrongs

by Susie Amundson

Last week, I was waiting in a parking lot when two women came out of their office building at the end of the workday. It was a semi-warm day so our truck windows were open. I caught an earful.

One woman was fuming about her supervisor who was perpetually vacillating on a work project. Reportedly, the supervisor kept waffling and modifying items on a report. The woman sharing the story was ticked off from re-doing work over and over again, incorporating each and every tiny edit as it bubbled up, and not getting any of her other work done.

She was fuming. And then told her friend:

It’s Just Not Fair!

We’ve all said it. Had the experience of workplace injustice. We’ve felt it in our marrow.

  • Maybe your supervisor demoted you based on hearsay.
  • Or that geek with the same qualifications, education, and work performance that sits next to you just got a huge promotion.
  • Or your new position just handed you a load of responsibilities but no authority for making decisions.
  • Or your colleague gets to work half-time but when you requested it, you were denied.

I’m sure you’ve experienced a basket of workplace injustices you could add to this list.

Triggers of Workplace Injustice

Unless you’ve been in the workplace for less than a day, you understand that injustices crop up like dandelions in Alaska’s June. The injustices that seem to rattle us the most are the ones that we have little influence over – usually those are distributive and interpersonal in nature.

Distributive ones deal with the perceived fairness of salaries, bonuses, and perks. You know the drill. The new gal gets hired with the same qualifications and responsibilities as you, and guess who is earning the larger salary, sitting in a big office, and going out to lunch with the boss? Meanwhile, you are eating leftover stir-fry at your desk (OK stir-fry can be good) editing the new gal’s work.

Interpersonal injustices address fairness about how employees are treated with regards to respect, dignity, and civility. This type gets personal. Maybe you’ve been a witness to a dressing down at work – others or your own. It never feels fair. In fact, these are the ones that really sting, usually carrying a heavy emotional burden. Like shame. And let’s face it, distract us from getting the real work done.

The “What Is”

Inevitably, workplace injustices happen. They always seem unfair. And that is — the “what is.” The reality.

Unfortunately, some workplaces reek of abysmal injustices, unethical behavior, and mismatches with our personal values. If this is your workplace and there’s an option for leaving, this might be the time for you to hit the ‘go” button. If there’s harassment or abuse, immediately report it accompanied by a close colleague.

Four Ways to Deal With Unfairness At Work

We want our workplaces to be fair. Just in case this isn’t happening at your job, here are four tips.

Take Care of Yourself Emotionally

When we are faced with an injustice at work, let’s say one of your coworkers just took credit for your work, our bodies get an uncomfortable felt-sense and our emotions charged. Sometimes it is a hair trigger with feelings of confusion, shock, hurt, frustration, or rage.

Remember then to Stop. Breathe. Name and Tame. Before you create your own narrative from the discomfort of the feeling, take a pause. It’s important to breathe, experience the felt sense of the emotion, and name it.

For example if you are annoyed with your co-worker acknowledge to yourself, “I’m feeling angry.” Stay with the actual bodily sensation of the emotion and it will subside in about a minute (sometimes less). It’s also important to offer soothing to yourself. “I’m OK, I’m just hot with anger and I’m grounded enough to allow this feeling to pass through me. I’m alright.”

The step of emotionally caring for yourself without any story line except self-kindness is crucial. Without self-soothing and self-care, your clear thinking will tank. In other words, you’ll act in ways you won’t like later (and they won’t improve the situation either).

Step Back and Use Your Evaluative Eye

The circumstance is always bigger than us. My favorite workplace mantra is “Step Back, Step Back, Step Back.” Usually when we are in the turmoil of a workplace injustice we are so attracted to righting the unfairness that our lens for viewing it is myopic.

Before you respond to the injustice, remember to step back far enough to see the context, dynamics, and complexity of what’s going on. Perhaps the colleague that just took credit for your work has a low self-esteem, contracted a painful disease, or is simply emotionally undeveloped.

It doesn’t make the workplace wrong right but it does give you a framework for viewing it. So you can see it with a clear mind.

Step Up With “Who Do I Want To Be?

I probably should have started with this reflective question in the #1 spot. Just who do you want to be in the face of perceived workplace injustices?

Do you want to grab the jugular of your co-worker that is not dependable with his work tasks and tell him he’s a lazy slug? Do you want to scream at your boss and tell her to stop ripping into the team? Do you want to right every wrong in the blasted place? Every salary differential? Every discourteous conversation? Every snide remark?

Probably a part of you does.

But if you are reading Wise At Work, most likely you want to connect to your human wholeness in the workplace. You want to be a better person, kinder, compassionate, full of integrity, and bring this package of goodwill each day to work. This is the Step Up part.

And remember, you get to determine who you want to be. After all, you’re in charge of you.

Use Your Human Wholeness To Change Injustices

It’s from this same human wholeness perspective that you also get to determine how you want to relate to the injustices that take place in the workplace. How you believe and uphold your values when you see situations in the workplace going awry. How you live out your integrity. How you accept responsibility.

For most of us, it’s important to confront some of the most pertinent workplace injustices. For example, that co-worker taking credit for your work – you can let it go if it doesn’t bother you but if it’s a common occurrence, it will help both of you and your working relationship if you pull him aside and kindly ask him to stop it.

And as for the raging injustices, it’s good to handle those in a group or team where your group energy will be more influential. As for the slights and infractions, letting them pass with humor, goodwill, and patience will often lighten your soul.

And speaking of light, may each of you enjoy a delightful SUMMER SOLSTICE!

Susie

p.s. In the next newsletter, I will discuss how workplaces can create systems to help with more equal exchanges and fair standards. Stay tuned!


Two monkeys were paid unequally for the same task in this 3-minute video and the frustration about the unfairness took place immediately! This emphasizes that fairness is a key component in our mammalian social system — that’s us in the workplace. Don’t miss this.