Monthly Archives: April 2008

I have been out of the office on a three-day seminar and got back to find my chair has been replaced with a less comfortable one. I suspect a new colleague who started his job while I was away, whose cubicle is right across from mine, and every time I see him I feel cross. Should I get in early one morning and swap the chair over again? But what if it wasn’t him who was involved in this office larceny? Perhaps the cleaner may have removed my chair – unlikely but still possible. Should I confront him, or would that look petty? Or do I just put up with a chair that is uncomfortable and is not mine?

Research associate, male, 23

Lucy’s Answer

Your problem has provoked a storm of outrage on Dozens of readers have called you a baby and a fool and are cross with you (and me) for wasting their time on such piffle. I am taking no notice, and I suggest you take none too.

Of course your problem is petty. But so is office life. Indeed, on the spectrum of petty things your chair is at the serious end of the range. You spend almost as much time in it as you do in your bed and to have it stolen is an outrage.

First, there is the problem of adjusting to another one: the chair I’m sitting on has an improbably large number of levers that work in unexpected ways. Then there is the primal attachment one feels to one’s chair. The three bears expressed this well: “Who’s been sitting in my chair?” they roared - and their chairs weren’t even stolen.

Furthermore, one’s chair is a home from home in the office, and to have it pinched when one’s back is turned does not feel nice.

So what to do? Chair theft is a mean trick, but is fine in retaliation. Indeed, as the chair belongs to neither of you, a state of anarchy prevails. He took your chair in a raid when you were away. You take it back in a raid when he is away.

If it turns out that he didn’t really take it, then never mind. He has had it for only a few days so may not notice. Don’t think of discussing it with him in a reasonable way, as this isn’t a reasonable matter.

Once you have the chair back you must make sure it doesn’t happen again. One of my colleagues reduces his risk of chair theft by making such a fuss that thieves steal other chairs for a quiet life. I don’t recommend this for you: at 23 you need to earn more stripes before becoming a chair hysteric.

My own approach has been developed unwittingly: I have spilt so much food on my chair that no one else wants it.

I am working in a big commercial bank, within the global risk department (30 people) and have recently been appointed as deputy director.

This should be a nice thing: it suggests my boss recognises that I have the necessary skills to take over as director when he moves on. But my fear is that this “deputy” role is really just being a “personal assistant” to my boss – attending the meetings he doesn’t want to attend and giving talks he doesn’t want to give, etc.

Could you give me some clues on how to shine in this role as a deputy, and avoid being typecast as a bag-carrier?

Risk manager, 34, male

Lucy’s Answer

I am afraid you’ve got it wrong. You say the fact your boss has chosen you as deputy suggests he thinks you the right man to take over when he goes. It suggests nothing of the sort. The job of a deputy is not to succeed the chief when he quits or gets fired. It is to mind the shop when he is away and, when he is not, to do all the things he doesn’t want to do.

There are two sorts of bosses: secure ones who choose a bright number two and train them as a possible future number one, and insecure ones who choose a competent number two who is no threat at all.

I don’t know which sort your boss is, but I suspect he may be secure or else he wouldn’t have chosen someone as pushy as your problem makes you sound.

You now have two constituencies to impress: your boss and his bosses. The first matters most, since if you aren’t pleasing him, he’ll fire you. Don’t snap too obviously at his heels. In fact, don’t snap at all. Be loyal. Never undermine him. Carry his bags willingly, but make sure your luggage trolley is big enough to carry your own as well. Go to all those meetings with a good grace. Set out to balance your boss’s weaknesses. I know one boss who is brilliant strategically, but is hopeless at jollying people along. He wisely chose a deputy who does all that for him and who has now acquired a reputation as a great and popular manager.

Whatever happens, don’t stay in the job for too long. Deputies who have been around for ages start to yellow around the edges. And when a chance for promotion comes they get passed over as safe, dull and stale. Luckily that staleness doesn’t carry over to a new employer.

Deputy director (at least in your mid-30s) looks pretty on a CV. Unless yours is a bank with so very many directors that even the cleaning lady has been made one.

I work for a large company in the leisure sector. A year ago, we recruited a glamorous HR director, who has recently embarked on an affair with our CEO. Both are married and I’m sure they think they are being discreet, but their relationship is much remarked on and gossiped about by staff. In some ways it is none of our business, but they are conducting the affair on company time (and sometimes, I gather, on company property). Also both of them are inclined to issue “motivational” memos telling staff to be more passionate about work. It all sticks in the gullet. Should someone say something. And if so, who?

Manager, male, 51

Lucy’s Answer

You say your chief executive’s affair is not your business. You are quite right: it isn’t. But then, as if to excuse your outrage, you say that they are fornicating on company time and on company property. The first is meaningless as time is stretchy – as long as they are doing their work this doesn’t matter.

All of us waste some time in the office, mostly in less exciting ways such as ordering our groceries online. And as for company property, unless they are tearing down the blinds and damaging the chandeliers, I can’t see that this has any implications for shareholders either.

You then cite the motivational memos. In my experience these memos almost always stick in the gullet – whether the sender is engaged in a torrid affair has nothing to do with it.

You say everyone is gossiping about them. I can’t see a problem here either – at least, not from your standpoint. Gossiping is an enjoyable activity, and the more senior and scurrilous the subject, the more diverting it is.

The only problem is that if everyone knows, they will get found out soon. Which means that, depending on what country you are in, you may lose a chief executive

Harry Stonecipher was fired as head of Boeing in the puritanical US over an affair with a staff member, on the – possibly spurious – grounds that the affair had clouded his judgment.

If you would like to hang on to this CEO then you should let him know his secret is not a secret at all. Then he may be able to do something about any incriminating e-mails, and be a little more restrained.

If you have a good relationship with him – which your bitter, tut-tutting e-mail suggests you do not – you could do it yourself.

Otherwise an anonymous letter might be best.

I have been working in marketing for fifteen years and have always been a bit of a Stakanovite and I’ve always been successful. A year ago my husband and I bought a derelict house and since then I have been a project manager on that – with the result that the effort I put into my job has gone down by half. To my amazement no one at work has noticed. My latest appraisal was my best yet. The house is now done, and I am wondering, did I waste all that effort? Is it OK to continue to coast? The thought makes me feel a little guilty. Should it?
Marketing executive, female, 41

Lucy’s Answer

By accident you have stumbled on something rather important. There is no direct relationship between how much effort one puts in, and how well one does. The more nebulous the job and the more senior you are, the more this is true.

You have managed things well by putting the spadework in early. By digging industriously for 15 years, you have made your bosses imagine your commitment to the job is beyond question. It may take them a further 15 years to notice that it is not.

It’s not surprising that they’ve noticed nothing so far. Nor is it surprising that, on the contrary, they think you are going from strength to strength. Various readers suggest this is because you seem more relaxed, or are working smarter, or because hard work is inefficient. I don’t agree; I think it is because the appraisal process is dodgy. Instead, I’d be inclined to trust your appraisal of yourself: that if your effort is down by 50 per cent, the value of the output is down too.

If you manage things properly, you can go on getting away with this for ages. I know one senior manager in your industry who keeps up his visibility by sending occasional e-mails to important people in the organisation, and every quarter coming up with a really good idea. The rest of his time he spends playing tennis.

You ask if you should feel guilty about slacking. The answer is no. You are not cheating anyone, and if your employer is happy with what you are now putting in, that should be enough.

The only reason to return to your old Stakhanovite ways is if you miss the work. If slacking is making you dislike your job because you hate doing it half-heartedly, you should either redouble your efforts or – better still – buy another derelict house.

Dear Lucy

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Lucy Kellaway, FT columnist and associate editor, offers her solution to your workplace problems in a fortnightly column in the Financial Times. In this weekly online edition of her 'agony aunt' column, readers are invited to have a say too. Read more about Dear Lucy here.