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At Wits' End

Dear Dave
I work in a 50+ person firm with just one owner. Over the years, the principal has promised to implement a number of initiatives including a new operating structure designed to share more responsibilities with others. I’m afraid not all that much has actually changed however. There’s a general feeling among many at our office that our owner is not all that sincere about making changes, and does just enough to string people along to keep them from leaving.

I have been here since 1999. I feel I have been passed over as I see younger people, some with no degrees, getting opportunities to do interesting work I never get a chance to do. I am told I don’t have enough experience which does not seem logical since I have over 25 years in construction-related trades and have passed my exams. What I don’t know for sure is if I am being discriminated against because of my age (I’m 50 this year), or if the firm is just blind to the fact that I can do more for the client than just draft. I would like to stay here, but cannot continue to sit idle while people with less experience are given promotions and more responsibility than I am. I will be fully vested in our 401K plan next fall and could leave then and take it with me. I’m nearing my end, am having trouble sleeping at night and am receiving professional therapy. What should I do?

Dear NG
A fresh start somewhere else may be in order. It seems your principal has you pegged at a certain level and, after five years, it might be hard to change his perception of you. But before you do decide to pack it in and move along, you should take the time between now and when you vest next fall and use it productively to see if there is not some way for you to stay.

In a non-threatening manner, see if you can illicit some objective input from some of your peers at the office. Over a beer after work or at lunch some day, ask some people who you feel know you and your capabilities for a frank assessment of how they view your strengths and weaknesses. See if their understanding of your abilities is in line with your own perception. Make it clear that you want to hear the bad as well as the good and that their input is very important to you. It may be hard for people to open up, so the more you can do to put them at ease, the better the information you’ll receive.

Assuming your co-workers agree with you that you do have the skills and abilities to do the type of work you’d like to do, come up with some recent specific examples of real work in your office done by others that you feel you too could have done just as well. Schedule a meeting with your principal to discuss the issue. Don’t just walk into his office and plop down in a chair and start talking. Arrange an appointment. You want to make sure you have his full attention. When you do eventually meet, objectively and dispassionately explain your concerns about the gap between the work you are doing and the work you feel you could be doing. Share the specific examples you’ve collected. Sit back and wait for a response. If the principal agrees you could do more and is willing to make that happen, than seek out a timetable and measurable steps that will make you feel comfortable that real change is coming.

If the principal does not see you as being able to do the work you would like to be involved with, try to find out if there are some specific initiatives you and the principal could agree upon to eventually change these shortcomings and create a schedule and milestones to chart progress against whatever these initiatives turn out to be. The key and the trick, either way, given the possible propensity of your principal to tell people what they wish to hear in the interest of peace and tranquility, is to come away with something objectively measurable to track progress against.

If the principal is unwilling to commit to a program of improvement or feels nothing will change his assessment of your abilities, you’ll have at least made a good faith effort to correct your existing situation and can make plans to begin to look for a suitable position elsewhere. With the degree of personal and professional frustration you’re experiencing, there is no reason to remain unless a change appears possible.

Wahby and Associates