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.

"State your solution in measurable terms," Walling said. Think percentage increase in sales, number of additional customers served or hours saved each week.

"Managers have to think in terms of defensible numbers," he explained. "If you help do their work, your ideas will be more readily received."

That's what Atlanta retail marketing professional Gary Unger did.

When he realized the spreadsheet his department was using to track product distribution was far more labor-intensive than it needed to be, he redesigned the template in his spare time.

"Everybody was afraid to change it because it's quote, unquote 'not the system,'" Unger said.

That is, until he showed his boss how his new and improved template could save each member of the team at least two hours a day in data-entry work -- time they could now use to chase down new customers.

"My boss immediately saw the benefit to it," Unger said. "He went ahead and showed it to all the supervisors in the southeast region and they all loved it because they saw it could free up some labor hours."

Spearheading the Initiative

Of course, not all workplace bottlenecks have such a pat solution. Chances are the change you want to implement will require the assistance of your coworkers and several weeks or months of development.

So what's your next step? Once you have the supporting evidence in hand, set up a meeting with your boss.

"Don't do it in passing or in the hallway," said Jon Gordon, business consultant and author of "The No Complaining Rule: Positive Ways to Deal with Negativity at Work."

Instead, Gordon said, "Make it professional -- even if it takes you presenting a four- or five-slide PowerPoint." At the very least, he said, write a one-page overview of your suggestion and your plan for implementing it.

Before your meeting with the boss rolls around, ask any coworkers whose help you want on the project whether they'd be interested in participating should the boss give you the go-ahead. That way, you approach the boss with some of the necessary resources for your project already in place.

Finally, be prepared to lead the initiative from start to finish.

"If it's not something that you want to take on, then you are better off leaving it alone," Gordon said. "Because then if the boss says, 'I love the idea. Do you want to lead it up?' now it sounds silly if you don't want to."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,