How To Stand Up for Yourself at Work

Unemployment is high, and companies are requiring more and more from applicants and employees. Often the burden falls on the most recent crop—bright, fresh-faced kids who are practically asking to be exploited and underpaid.

As young professionals, we need to reach for challenges and take risks while developing the confidence to demand fair compensation.

Learn when to say no.

I was recently required to take a writing test following a job interview—this after presenting a portfolio full of writing samples. The test turned out to be a day’s worth of spec work. I felt dirty afterward for doing it for free, but I also learned my lesson: Two weeks later, when a coworker asked me to help her come up with a tag line for her husband’s company (a job they should have hired a professional for but instead crowdsourced internally using a gift card as an incentive), I politely indicated that I didn’t work for free.

Saying no is a skill that takes time and practice to develop, especially for the naturally enthusiastic person. The next time a coworker asks you do something, question yourself: Is this task part of my job description? Will saying yes further my career? Am I motivated by anything more than a desire to please? Could saying yes set a dangerous precedent? The sheer fact that you pause before responding will show that you are serious about establishing professional boundaries.

Ask for more.

As designer James Victoire exhorted, “Ask for more. Always. Ask for more time, ask for more creativity, ask for more money.” We often act like Accounts Payable is doing us a favor each month. News flash: Your company makes money off of you. Otherwise you wouldn’t be there. There’s something in it for them; there should be something in it for you. Negotiate your salary. Ask for a promotion. The worst that can happen? They’ll say no, but you’ll show you mean business.

Don’t just ask for more money; ask for more responsibility. Be valuable beyond your job description. Like the copy machine and computer software, you’re an investment; be one that they can’t live without. As Seth Godin asks, “Are you indispensable?”

Understand your value.

Spend some time and effort figuring out what you have to offer in the workplace. Take a test like like StrengthsFinder 2.0, which evaluates your professional strengths based on the idea that if you’re doing what you’re good at, you’ll be doing what you love. Ask people who know you what they think makes you uniquely valuable. Over the years I’ve heard from different bosses and teachers that I am both creative and highly organized. Knowing those strengths means I can speak confidently at interviews about the kind of work I’m good at. It allows me to identify situations where I will and won’t be happy. It gives me the guts to ask for more and say no at the right times. On the flip side, I know that I still have a lot to learn, so I’m willing to accept less money in exchange for more mentorship and opportunity.

Having said all this, I’m not trying to create monsters. On the contrary, be inspired to eschew false entitlement and overblown ego for true confidence and self-worth. Trade in your martyrdom for humility. Take your issues to the boss, not the water cooler. Establish boundaries instead of resentment.

Much of navigating the work world is learning to put on the identity of a professional. And that requires much more than a well-tailored suit.

Acree Graham Since graduating from Emory in 2008, I’ve paid the bills with everything from lattes and babysitting to marketing and social media. I now work in Atlanta as a freelance copywriter. I like cities, literature, radio and design. I still make a damn fine cup of coffee and I’m a pretty good dancer. Twitter: @acreegraham

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3 Responses to “How To Stand Up for Yourself at Work”

  1. Aditya

    I’ve been working for three years now – and this is the most important bit I’ve learned professionally. Nice post. :)


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