Why confrontation at work is critical

October 26, 2011: 2:25 PM ET

Keeping silent on the job can come at a considerable cost to any employee or manager. What to keep in mind when confronting your boss or coworkers with problems.

By Megan Hustad, contributor

FORTUNE -- It's hard, given how swollen the unemployment ranks are these days, to conjure up much sympathy for those who are unhappily employed with health benefits. But even the gainfully employed have their job troubles.

The "quits rate," or the number of voluntary leave-taking from paid positions, has been low since the economic downturn began in December 2007 and still hovers around 1.5% -- a number that most economists consider unhealthily low.

When an economy is humming along, unsatisfied employees can quit cruddy jobs with relative gusto. They either have a more promising job lined up, or are confident they'll be able to find one within a few relatively painless weeks of pavement pounding. But when jobs are scarce, people keep showing up for jobs they don't like, perhaps never liked.

The low "quits rate" problem suggests other side effects. Young people are often wary of approaching colleagues and bosses to discuss on-the-job dilemmas out of fear that the slightest whiff of incompetence will get them canned. (The unemployment rate for people in their 20s is nearly double that of the general population.)

Others stay silent in the face of work situations that border on hostile because, again, who's to say that managers -- staring at a vast pool of available 20-something labor -- wouldn't rather fire the squeaky wheel and replace her with someone more accommodating of inter-office nonsense?

I talked to an account manager at a prominent photo agency who once sat and listened to the head of HR inform her that while taking care of herself was "her decision," the company would prefer she not have to visit the doctor so often (to control a chronic medical condition), even though she made up the lost hours every time. Her three supervisors did not communicate with one another, and would not hear of other demands placed on her unless she said something -- at which point she worried whether she sounded like a whiner. A promotion was dangled and delayed for months. Meanwhile, she learned to suck her mounting anxieties up and keep quiet. More

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