Monthly Archives: September 2008

I have a problem with my HR director, who is a perfect nightmare. I inherited her from my predecessor and find she is not only lazy and incompetent but has alienated her team and her (talented) number two has just quit. She takes an inordinate amount of sick leave, claiming that the job is “stressful”. Clearly I need to get rid of her but she knows the rule book inside out and has a litigious frame of mind. She is from an ethnic minority and, though born to middle-class Indian parents, appears to believe that life has discriminated against her. She views me, a white male, as a personal affront. What do I do?  

Chief executive, male, 51

Lucy’s Answer

You must decide if you want to spend management time sorting this out or whether to lavish money on it instead.

In the first case, you need to manage her downfall actively, setting clear performance targets and monitoring her failure to meet them. Then, when you finally fire her, she won’t be able to claim unfair dismissal.

There are three problems with this approach: you will have to put up with her laziness and incompetence for quite a while longer; it will eat up a lot of your time; and – worst – she might well end up suing you anyway on discrimination grounds.

If you are in the UK, the law makes the employer guilty until proven innocent: the onus is on you to prove that you did not discriminate against her. This can be quite tricky, especially if most of your senior people are white males and if you have not insisted on everyone attending diversity awareness courses.

You can risk it, but you need to think not just of the cost but of how bad the newspaper headlines might look.

If I were you I would deal with the problem quietly by throwing money at it now. It does not sound as if she is enjoying the job much at present. It is either making her ill or making her skive, neither of which are good. Her new boss is unsympathetic and possibly sexist and racist and seems to have it in for her. Her team are awful and her number two has just quit.

Call a meeting with her and offer her a fortune to go.

If for some bizarre reason she turns this down there is always the special projects option. Pay her to do a hugely grand-sounding yet utterly peripheral job where she has no one reporting to her. And then tempt the brilliant number two back into the number one slot.

My husband has just lost his job on Wall Street. When he was in work he was impossible, living on the adrenaline of deal making. Now he loafs around the house, sullen, full of self-pity and criticising everything the children or I do. I have spent years living with his oversized ego, but now his ego has collapsed it is even worse. Is there anything I can do? Should I pretend to be sympathetic? Or shall I tell him to suck it up and be grateful that we are not under any financial pressure? I’m not going to divorce him, because of the children, but I would like to know: do damaged Masters of the Universe ever recover?
Wife, 42

Lucy’s Answer

Your problem has brought on such an outpouring of bile on FT.com that I strongly urge you not to look. According to readers, you are a chilly, go-getting cow in need of therapy. Your husband has toiled hard to keep you in designer frocks and needs your support; you are a sociopath for not providing it.

Maybe I’m a sociopath too, but I don’t see it like that. Wall Street jobs can gobble up a man’s life and soul (assuming there was one there in the first place) leaving him with nothing when the job ceases to be. I can imagine that a hyped-up, absent husband was not ideal, but that an angry, present one is even less so.

Should you pretend to be sympathetic? No, you shouldn’t. Former Masters of the Universe don’t like sympathy, especially if they sense it is false. But neither should you tell him to “suck it up”, as that would be unnecessarily unpleasant.

Instead, I suggest forbearance and patience.

His world has come crumbling down and while you can’t pick it up for him, you can provide continuity by being exactly as before. Don’t make allowances. Don’t patronise him. If he is being horrible to the children, tell him off – and tell them that he doesn’t mean it.

I suggest you make no attempt to manage his time, but manage your own to make the new circumstances easier for you. Take yourself off to the gym, if it gets you away from his sharp tongue for a bit.

As to whether MoUs recover, that depends on their mettle.

You may find that your husband is chastened by the experience of unemployment and becomes someone more to your liking.

More likely he will find another high-pressure job in time, and then you will find him just as hyped up and just as absent as before.

My son has just started at a top school and to my horror I see from the address list that he is in the same class as the son of a man whose incessant bullying forced me to leave a job I loved. We were co-managing directors and the sight of his name still makes me feel sick. He was in trouble when I left as the company was forced to settle with me. I cannot face the thought of bumping into him in the playground or at a parents’ evening. Should I confront him? Tell other parents? Do I have to become an absent mother and detach myself from my son’s education? Do I tell my son to keep his distance? What if they become the best of friends? I could not bear it.

Banker, female, 40

Lucy’s Answer

The answers to your questions are No, No and No. Don’t confront him, as what would you say – “I still hate you, you beastly bully, and I’m telling you right now that your son isn’t invited to any of my son’s parties”? Don’t tell other parents, as you would only sound mad and bitter. And they do not need to be warned against him as he is most unlikely to start bullying stray parents at school functions. Above all, don’t tell your son. He needs to decide which of the other boys he likes without heavy breathing from you.

Comfort yourself with the thought that banking executives have rather a lot on their plates at the moment so are not likely to be taking their sons to school and even less likely to be hanging around the school gates for a gossip. Unless they have just been fired, that is.

Either way, you need to put what happened in the past. He isn’t bullying you any more. You left the company and he got into trouble, so he will want to avoid you even more keenly than you want to avoid him.

You may have to endure the sight of him at parents’ evenings, but there will be lots of other people there for you to duck behind. If you do come face to face with him, give an icy smile, say hello and congratulate yourself on being so dignified.

If the thought of doing that leaves you feeling too sick, you may need a bit of cognitive behaviour therapy to get the requisite distance from the blighter.

There is a danger that his son will become friends with yours, but more likely he will report that the boy is a knobhead. In
that case you can take great pleasure in saying airily that you aren’t surprised: the father is a cad, too.

I work in a team of four researchers and I have a problem that I realise will seem laughably small, but is really getting to me. I am a very neat person, and every night I leave my pad and pen to the right of my keyboard. In the last few weeks I have found that when I come in it has been moved to exactly the same position on the left. Even when I go out at lunchtime I come back to find that small movements have been made to my desk. I don’t know which of the three is laughing at me. Perhaps they all are. If I protest I will look ridiculous but to do nothing condemns me as a victim. What do you suggest?
Researcher, male, 37

Lucy’s Answer

As my own desk is a heap of papers, old magazines and dirty cups, I struggle to find my pad at all. I’m struggling even harder to understand how it can matter so much which side of the keyboard yours is on.

So I’ve sought expert advice from a colleague who is dedicated to leaving his pen exactly parallel to his pad at all times. I explained your problem and he looked stricken. “That is not laughably small – it’s terrible,” he said.

He urges you to stick a Post-It note to your pad saying: Please don’t move this pad. I see it might seem funny to you, but I have an obsessive-compulsive condition and so find it upsetting to find my pad in the wrong place. Thank you.

I bow to his wisdom and experience, but this strikes me as a little heavy-handed. If your colleagues are simply engaging in light joshing, they could be so mortified by this note they might start treating you as a leper. But if they are in fact trying to be horrible, your note will please them as it will tell them they are succeeding.

Most readers suggest you respond to a joke with a joke. Variously they urge you to Super Glue the pad to the desk, put petroleum jelly on the pen, write a jokey message under the pad or – most imaginatively – empty the hole punch into their umbrellas.

These pranksters all think the problem will be solved if you show you can take a joke, but I’m not so sure. My colleague has a stronger than average sense of humour – except when the positioning of his pen is at stake.

If I were you I would skip the schoolboy pranks, and do nothing. This does not make you a victim: it means you are rising above it. They only do it for a response, and if they don’t get one they will stop soon enough.

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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