Monthly Archives: July 2008

I have worked for a small, struggling publishing company for five years and the boss and owner is a decent man I have a lot of respect for. I have just returned from six months’ leave to write a book, but in my second week back have been offered a grander, better-paid job at a major publishing house. I would jump at it, but I feel I have a debt of honour to my boss. He allowed me to take time off when it was inconvenient to him, the unspoken agreement being that I would remain loyal for at least a while on my return. If I resign now he will be rightly angry. But should I do it anyway?

Publisher, female, 34

Lucy’s Answer

You are right to feel uneasy. To sidle off now would be a low thing to do. Understandable, but still low.

Most of us can dispense with loyalty to our employers as they show none to us. Your employer is not a faceless company but a decent man who has done you a favour.

Luckily, there is an easy way to solve your problem: talk to him. Tell him you have been approached. Tell him you feel tempted. Tell him that you feel under an obligation to him.

It is quite possible he will be relieved. To pay one fewer salary when he is struggling may make him feel Christmas has come early. And as he survived without you for six months, he may not be worried about doing so indefinitely. If this is right, you can both wave farewell fondly and heave your separate sighs of relief.

Equally, it is possible – given what a decent fellow he isthat he will want to keep you but will also understand that small, poor companies can’t keep good people for ever, and see five years as a fair whack.

There is another chance (smaller, I think) that he won’t take it so well, and will protest that you have broken your unspoken deal.

If he takes this line, you must make that upspoken deal spoken, agree a minimum length of service and serve it with good grace. Then you can assuage your thwarted ambition with the thought that a decent boss whom you respect is rare. One who allows you to go off and write books is rarer still.

If you do stay, there is a risk you may be rewarded by losing your job as times are hard, and small struggling publishers may well fold. Yet you would not necessarily be safe in the big one either: it might not go under, but could well fire first the last one to have been hired.

I’m a manager in a trading company. My career has reached a plateau largely owing to my performance in meetings. When I’m with a group of people I find it really hard to express my ideas and get nervous before saying anything. I’m very soft-spoken, and can’t project my voice in teleconferences and have to repeat myself. I usually have good ideas and when I discuss them on a one-on-one basis, people like them. What can I do to overcome my soft voice, project my voice and speak up?

Manager, male, 40

Lucy’s Answer

There is only one solution to your difficulty and that is to force yourself to open your mouth in meetings. If you do this often enough the nerves will eventually go away.

Don’t worry if your ideas refuse to be translated into a stream of compelling or even coherent words: press on. However dismal your performance seems to you, others will be obsessing over what they have to say and will neither notice nor care if your brow looks a little sweaty.

Indeed I suggest that you shift the emphasis away from yourself and on to them. Are they such talented orators? Are their ideas any better than yours?

Once you have assured yourself of their fallibility, I suggest you make yourself invincible by working harder on your own ideas. Spend half an hour before meetings working on one or two simple things that you would like to say. (An unbelievably obvious tip, this, yet almost no one plans in advance what they say at meetings.)

Once you’ve thought of what to say, say it. Easy. Or rather, it isn’t easy, but it does become easy-ish eventually.

You can, of course, get professional help, but I am not sure if I recommend it. On your behalf I have been trawling the web looking for good advice, and the only effect this has had on me is to shake my own hard-won confidence as a public speaker. One tip is to mingle with the audience before a speech – a horrible idea. Another is that you practise in front of a mirror, which I’ve tried and can confirm makes one even more self-conscious than one was feeling already.

I also don’t think you should worry about your quiet voice. I have come across people in senior positions who make a point of talking in a whisper so that everyone has to strain to catch every word.

A month ago I was unfairly selected for redundancy from a job I truly hated. Luckily I received a sizeable payoff and have landed a better job, which I will start in September. I am now having a great time spending money and reacquainting myself with my wife and young family. My dilemma is what to do at my forthcoming exit interview. My head is telling me to be nice, but my heart tells me to give both barrels and explain how over the past five years I brought in most of the deals as my cretinous boss spent the majority of his time getting friendly with the summer intern. Do relationships with ex-employers really matter that much?

Banker, male, 34

Lucy’s Answer

Almost everyone will tell you to obey your head. They will say that alienating an ex-employer is foolish as you may need references or may have the bad luck to cross paths with your boss again.

This is a feeble, cowardly argument. For five long years you have been prevented from pointing out that he is a cretin, for fear of losing your job. But now, not only have you lost it anyway, you are being asked to pass judgment on him. To say nothing would be to do your heart a grave disservice. You should say something: the question is what.

I quite see how tempting it is to give both barrels, but I’m not convinced you should do this. Not because it would be unwise (if one is never unwise, one might as well be dead) but because it may not bring satisfaction.

Picture the interview. You will be sitting in a room with a member of Human Resources who is reading witless questions off a form about your satisfaction with training and so on.

So then you start giving two barrels. Do you feel the thrill of revenge or do you suddenly feel embarrassed, like a schoolboy caught grassing someone up?

To find out, I suggest you do a little role play with your wife, as the two of you are now reacquainted. Get her to be HR and you be yourself. You may find that just playing the game brings release. Or you may find that you go off the whole idea.

If you can find something to say that is a) satisfying, b) true, c) dignified, and d) makes you feel better, then go ahead and say it.

But even if you do, you should not expect anything to happen as a result. Apparently only 4 per cent of companies put the stuff collected at exit interviews to any use.

I’m number two in a successful advertising agency that has just introduced a green bike purchase scheme to encourage staff to cycle to work. One of our creative stars, a big fat guy, jeered at this but then astonished us by applying for his grant of £800. A few weeks later he was overheard in the pub boasting he was using the money to pay the congestion charge on his flash sports car. This has been drawn to my attention and I’m wondering if I make a disciplinary example of him or ignore it, bearing in mind that he is a star performer.

Advertising executive, female, 49

Lucy’s Answer

There is so much in this to wonder at. First that your scheme allows staff to claim for a bike without having to prove that they have actually bought one. Most companies now require proof before reimbursing staff for a cup of coffee; it seems that advertising is more lackadaisical. The next is the prodigious amount he claimed. My bike, which is rather nice, cost £350, including mudguards, padlock and helmet. But that’s advertising for you, again.

Third is the loose talk in the pub overheard by spies who grass to managers who then take decisions based on such dodgy testimony – not a terribly good way of running a company. And finally there is the cynicism of the scheme itself. The agency dreamt it up cynically to boost its green credentials, and the fat guy cynically used it to subsidise his own less green mode of transport.

Still, this list of complaints doesn’t answer the question. You want to know if you should blow the whistle, and if it makes a difference that he is a star.

The answer to the second question is Yes, of course it makes a difference. It is absolutely fair to treat stars differently – they add more to the company than non-stars and if they were treated just the same as everyone else why would anyone strive to be one?

But should stars be able to break the rules? This depends on what the rules are. I suspect that in your company the rules are so ill-defined that almost everyone breaks them a bit, making it odd to single him out, unless you have decided that it is time to tighten up the whole operation.

So what do you do? You say you are number two. One of the beauties of being a deputy is that when passed a hot potato you can always respond by handing it on to your boss.

I share a small office with a young Turk, with whom I get on well enough. He is ambitious and hardworking – already on the same level as me despite being 25 years my junior. However, several times a day he telephones his wife and his taciturn manner is replaced by a sickly cooing. “Hello, honey pie,” he says in a baby voice and then asks about the mundane details of her day. Following the recent birth of their first child things have got worse as now the baby is put on the phone and he starts saying “da da da” to the child – who can’t be more than three months old. It is driving me so demented that every time he picks up the phone I find myself tensing up, fearing the soppy nonsense that I am going to be subjected to. Can you recommend anything?

Accountant, male, 55

Update from Lucy: I don’t think the phrase  Young Turk is any more racist than the phrase  red herring. The young Turks  were groups in Ottoman society striving for political change at the end of the Ottoman Emprire. Now it’s used interchangably with  young whipersnapper – to mean a thrusting young person. I quite like the phrase, and am surprised that so many readers seem to find it offensive. Either way it has very little bearing on this problem – which is about how to deal with a colleague  who makes frequent personal phone calls in a baby voice.

Lucy’s Answer

A small, shared office is a wretched thing. You are practically sitting in each other’s laps for eight hours a day and have to listen to each other, smell each other and pretend to get on. I used to work with someone who spent much of his time calling local police stations as his son kept getting arrested. At least this was more interesting than “da, da, da” – which has nothing to recommend it at all.

It sounds to me as if you are doing rather well in these tricky circumstances. You have every reason to resent your office mate for being so very much younger than you and for doing so much better; the fact that it is only the cooing that gets you down says a lot for you.

Many FT readers have written harsh things about you on the website but, if I were you, I’d put it down to age. This is one of the main gulfs between our baby boomer generation and Generation X. We bark “Yes?” when our families call us at work, while generation X see nothing unseemly about being soppy fathers in public.

This means there is no point in raising the matter with him. He will think you are a crusty old git, which could be unfortunate when he becomes your boss in a couple of years’ time. Instead, you need to find some way of getting the message across subtly. You could try sending out bad vibes – frown, look uncomfortable and shuffle papers in a some-of-us-have- work-to-do way whenever he starts cooing. However, I fear this may not work: if he is blind enough to believe his three-month-old baby likes to chat on the phone, he may be blind to your distress signals.

The best thing is to get up and leave every time he does it. Unless he is phenomenally stupid, he will eventually notice he is inconveniencing you and may join the other young men in the corridors outside making baby talk with their wives and children on their mobile phones.

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.

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