My Two Cents: How to Make Suggestions at Work When You're a Peon

An employment advisor I'll call "Joey" recently told me that he's been banging his head against the wall at the art college where he works.

Occasionally students in crisis wander into Joey's office, desperate for a job or grocery money, sometimes having lost their student loans or housing.

Unfortunately, Joey has no way to help them.

"I asked my boss if we had any policy on what do when coming across students like this," said Joey, who comes from a social service background and is used to working with people in need of housing or financial assistance. "No answer."

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So Joey asked his boss again, and his colleagues, this time in writing. He suggested creating a fund for these students, or at least a more formal assessment program. Again he got no response. He sent a follow-up e-mail too, but still, nothing.

"All I was looking for was a general plan we could use to make sure we were helping these students," said Joey, who was unemployed for a year before landing his current position nine months ago. Then, he said, "I complained to my boss, and he let me know he didn't appreciate my tone."

Although Joey would like to take it upon himself to develop his own solution, he isn't sure how wise it would be to do so without his manager's blessing.

"I have some trepidation about rocking the boat and giving my future here a black eye," he said. "Creating change seems difficult."

I imagine many of you can relate. You see a flaw in the way your employer conducts its daily business and you want to fix it, be it to better serve your clients, conserve company resources or increase that almighty revenue.

Yet you worry that as a relatively low person on the totem pole, speaking up might brand you the office whiner, a black mark no one wants in this economy.

So what's an innovative employee to do? Is there a strategic way to diplomatically play boss even when you're not one? Or would you be wiser to shut up, put your head down and just do the work on your plate?

Earning the Boss's Ear

Before you try to change a long-standing policy, you need to earn your stripes -- as well as your boss's trust and respect.

"You should be past your probationary period before attempting to change how things have likely been done for years," said workplace expert Alexandra Levit, author of "They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World."

"The last thing anyone wants to hear from a new employee is, 'Well, at my old company we did it like X,'" Levit said. "Everyone is going to be thinking that if things were so wonderful at your old job, maybe you should have just stayed there."

Offering a Well Thought-Out Solution

Lodging a complaint without presenting a viable solution is another kiss of death.

"You don't want to be the enthusiastic incompetent," said Dustin Walling, a Seattle-based business management consultant. "The most important thing is to actually know what issues your boss is looking at."

In other words, if your manager's main concern is boosting productivity, make sure that's what your solution does. But before you rush down the hall to talk to your boss, make sure you collect ample evidence of how your idea will benefit the department or company.

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