Counsel & coach: 'I need my supervisor's support but we never hit it off'
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Counsel & coach: 'I need my supervisor's support but we never hit it off'

We put your workplace problems to an employment lawyer and an executive coach.

I work in a small government agency at APS level 4 on a 12-month contract that has four months left. I quite like the work but I've never really hit it off with my superviser, who talks a lot without ever being really clear about what my tasks are. His recent feedback was that ''I should be able to work it out'' without him needing to tell me. Despite the recruitment freeze, my position is about to be advertised, and I'm pretty doubtful my superviser will give me a good reference. He will be on the interview panel, too. Will it help if I put my concerns on the table before the interview? And if I don't succeed in winning my job, can my contract be terminated before the end of the 12 months?

The Counsel

Jennifer Wyborn: Keeping the lines of communication open with your supervisor is an important part of managing these situations. I advise against treating this as a legal issue. One of the biggest causes of workplace grievances that we see is a lack of communication between employees and their supervisors, which can lead to misunderstandings and poor perception.

"Will it help if I put my concerns on the table before the interview?"

"Will it help if I put my concerns on the table before the interview?"Credit:Andrew Quilty

The plan outlined above is a good one, and there is nothing wrong with being assertive - as long as you are polite and constructive in the way you go about it.

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It may also be a good idea to address the issue from the point of view of the selection process. Employment decisions in the Australian Public Service must be made on merit. If the issues you have raised are relevant to the selection criteria for the position, you may want to address them now so they are not sitting in the back of your supervisor's mind when it is time to make the decision.

Bear in mind that, if you do raise these issues with your supervisor and they are not easily resolved, as you are a contractor you are unlikely to have the benefit of the dispute-resolution clauses in any enterprise agreement that applies to your agency's employees.

Can your contract be terminated early? It is difficult to give a clear answer without seeing its terms and conditions. Normally, a fixed-term contract is just that: for a fixed term. Your agency could only terminate the contract early if the contract says it can in these circumstances. Even then, there would be a question about whether the agency should terminate your contract early, given it only has a few months to run and the selection process could take some time.

The Coach

Jacqueline Jago: I'm struck over and over by the degree of skill needed to do your average public sector job. Mind-reading never made it into the work-level standards for APS4 (or any other level), for the good reason that getting the job done in any workplace means all of us must work all of the time on getting better at communicating with clarity - especially those of us who don't like to. It sounds as though your supervisor loves big ideas. I confess to some sympathy for that. Big-ideas people can be hell to work for, however, for the very reason you have described. So here's a plan.

First: clarify for yourself what you would like your supervisor to do, ideally in consultation with a trusted mentor or pal. Second: find neutral words to ask your supervisor to do that thing, emphasising that you are committed to doing the best work you can/being as responsive to his needs as possible. Third: visualise or practice the conversation until the urge to get tongue-tied or snippy or downright rude (I also confess to sympathy for these) has passed. Fourth: begin a discussion with your supervisor in which you let him know in very practical terms how you like to be supervised, including the gem that you respond well to a more specific tasking style, even though you understand his preference that you ''work it out'' for yourself. Step five, which is getting a good reference, likely depends on the outcome of step four.

Some supervisors will be thrilled with an APS4 who shows such professionalism. Others won't. You're about to find out which your supervisor is. Good luck.

Jennifer Wyborn is the lead partner of Meyer Vandenberg's employment practice. Jacqueline Jago is a certified executive coach. Send your workplace conundrums to counsel@canberratimes.com.au.