Monthly Archives: October 2008

I have been instructed to slash costs in my department. Last week I put out a memo detailing cuts, among which was axing free biscuits and coffee at weekly bonding sessions. Since then I have had a succession of people marching into my office complaining that morale is being destroyed and that the tea and biscuits were a vital part of the culture. It makes me extremely angry that they should be so petty about biscuits when people are going to lose their jobs. Yet this really seems to have hit a nerve. What can be done to rectify it?

Manager, male, 42

Lucy’s answer

Oh dear. It sounds as if you got it the wrong way round. You axed the biscuits but kept the weekly bonding sessions, whereas what you should have done was keep the biscuits but axe the bonding. To insist that people bond at a particular time each week is a mad idea, especially as now your underlings are so aggrieved that any bonding will be an opportunity to make effigies of you and stick pins in them.

As for the biscuits and coffee, you have made the classic management mistake of assuming that trivial things are trivial and therefore don’t matter.

The reason all hell always breaks out over biscuits is not in spite of their triviality, but because of it. Biscuits are an emotional issue. In one place I worked, there were free biscuits; and even having them caused some resentment, as one colleague always used to get to the plate first and snaffle the chocolate ones. But getting rid of them caused a revolt.

The thinking of your “petty” staff goes something like this: if management can’t even fork out for a few grammes of fat and sugar per person per week, then it evidently doesn’t  care.

So you have screwed up badly on the symbolic front. Worse, you have screwed up strategically, too. Now every single benefit that you have yourself – every cab ride or lunch out, and lord help you if you have a company car – will cause massive resentment.

You have a choice.Either cut absolutely everything and put the company on a survival footing. Or bring back the biscuits.
Some readers think that it looks weak to change your mind. This is ridiculous. It is much weaker to stick to a bad policy for the sake of it. And when you perform your U-turn, don’t communicate by memo. Tell them the good news face to face over a weak brown brew and a Jammie Dodger.

I run a large company facing recession in all our main markets; I am trying to reorganise our business and keep shareholders at bay. In addition I am a non-executive director of a company that is faring still worse and fighting for survival. To do my own job requires working every evening and every weekend, yet emergency board meetings at the other company are endless. I can’t give that company my full attention, but equally now is not the right time to resign. I have legal and moral responsibilities to both businesses, but short of cloning myself I can’t see how I can meet them. What should I do?

Chief executive, male, 55

Lucy’s answer

From the way you write it sounds as if you think you are carrying the weight of both companies on your shoulders. And if you stumble, so will they.
This is most unlikely to be true but if it is, something has gone badly wrong.
Surely at the company you run you have installed a layer of people below you who are in this with you? And if you haven’t, why not?
It is ominous that you think the answer is to clone yourself: there is a high chance that two of you will be worse than one. Instead, you need to find other capable people who can share the load and perhaps allow you to have the odd night off.
At the same time you need to tell the chairman of the company where you are a non-executive that you are up to your eyeballs and would like to be excused from some of the emergency sub-committees that will be sprouting up everywhere.
You mention your legal and moral responsibilities. The legal responsibilities of an exec and non-exec are identical and I am not sure what you mean about the moral ones – although if you mean the practical responsibilities to your shareholders, staff and customers, they are clearly greater at your own company.
So if you think that by giving time to the non-exec role you are short-changing your own company, you must give it up. You might have thought more about accepting – I have never understood why CEOs want to serve on other boards, as they have plenty of work to do as it is and hardly need the extra cash.
Your problem is timing. Most non-execs are on a short notice period, but you may feel honour bound to stay longer until someone else is found. And then the difficulty may have solved itself: if things are as bad as you say, the company may go under quickly. I only hope you’ve got some good indemnity insurance.

At a dinner party last Saturday I was asked by a fellow guest what I did and I said I was an investment banker. I might as well have said I was a paedophile. Suddenly the whole table – all friends of my wife from the art world – turned on me with such venom I was really taken aback. I tried to defend myself by saying that I had nothing to be ashamed of in the work that I do in M&A, but the more I argued the more hostile the other guests became.

Next time this happens – and I fear there will be a next time – should I accept guilt for what isn’t my fault, or should I lie and say I’m a librarian?

Investment banker, male, 42

Lucy’s Answer

I cannot work out if your question is a genuine inquiry about dinner party etiquette or a howl of pain at the unfairness of life.

If it is the first, the answer is simple. There is absolutely no point in trying to convince arty people that you are anything other than the devil; any attempt will make things worse. The complaint against investment bankers is that you have dragged the world into recession through your greed, stupidity and arrogance, and any attempt to say otherwise will enrage them still more.

To avoid further ugly scenes, next time say you work for the government. Which, depending on your bank, may be partly true. If there is a follow-up question (although there probably won’t be) say you work on the financial side. That will shut them up.

The good news is that if you go to dinner parties as infrequently as I do, things may be less intense next time. People do not obsess over the same things indefinitely, or else going out would be so dull no one would bother. Next time the topic will probably have shifted to Madonna’s divorce, and you will be returned to the status you probably always had: smug, boring, philistine, too rich for your own good and an eccentric choice of husband for your nice, arty wife.

The bigger question is, who is right: you or the outraged artists? The answer is neither. You weren’t personally responsible for what has happened, yet neither are you in a good position to claim the high moral ground. M&A is not the most honourable of callings: mostly it just added to leverage and job losses, so to show a bit of humility might have been seemly.

One other thing I would love to have known: what did your arty wife say to you in the car on the way home?

I work in corporate finance and for the past four years have slogged my guts out, routinely doing 14-hour days. In the past month work has dried up and we are all sitting around pretending to be busy and failing to drum up business. I am finding the boredom far more stressful than I ever found the work. I don’t know how I should behave. Do I have to just sit there and wait? I’m tempted to take three-hour lunches with friends, and go home early to learn salsa dancing. But would that be begging to be first in line when the axe inevitably falls?
Investment banker, male, 27

Lucy’s answer

Being bored at work is painful; being bored as a prelude to being fired is torture.

You ask what the work etiquette is for this situation. You already know the answer: if everyone else is sitting at their desks bored witless, pretending to work, the etiquette demands that you do so too.

What is interesting in your case is that the penalties for ignoring etiquette are lower than normal. This period of boredom will end with the fall of the axe and you will probably be fired, but so, probably, will they. Unless your bank is even less wise than the competition, it will not decide who to keep on the basis of who was best at faking industriousness when there was nothing to do.

So some slacking is safe, but I don’t think you can ignore the political game altogether. In normal times office politics is a part-time sport slotted in around work. But now that there is no work, your colleagues will be doing politics full-time. If I were you I would set out to play this game sparingly but efficiently. Be in the office long enough to find out what people are saying. Otherwise leave your jacket on the back of your chair and make it seem as if you are at meetings. Skive intelligently.

As you hate emptiness, I suggest you write a plan to get through the days. Allocate time for looking busy, time for picking up the gossip and time for your own affairs.

I should warn you of one thing. As you have always worked 14-hour days, you’ll be a skiving virgin, and constitutionally may not be cut out for it. The first salsa lesson on office time, like the first few three-hour lunches, may give you a thrill but after that you may find they start to pall. But then you can always devote yourself to what you really should be doing now: finding a career with better prospects.

I am a corporate lawyer in New York, recently separated from my wife, also a lawyer. We both worked extremely hard but when not working we used to go out with people who were mutual friends or who might be useful for business. My new girlfriend is 16 years my junior and is a successful model. I spent last weekend in Las Vegas with her and her friends and it was an orgy of boredom. They – though beautiful – were marketing associates and sales reps and we had nothing to talk about. Is it unfair of me to demand that she must dump her old friends if she wants a future with me?
Lawyer, male, 41

Lucy’s answer

Is it fair to demand that she dumps her own friends? No, obviously it isn’t fair, and either is it kind, realistic or sensible. More to the point, it isn’t necessary. If you don’t like her friends, simply arrange your life so that you don’t have to see them. I very much doubt if she wants to spend time with your 40-year-old legal friends much either.

Various readers have written in asking what this personal problem is doing on these pages. As I see it, your problem is not altogether personal, and that’s the trouble with it. You look at your partner’s friends as part of a business continuum, and this makes you nostalgic for those charming soirées with your ex-wife when you would both spend profitable evenings chatting up legal contacts.

If your new relationship must pass the business test you should think coldly about what each of you gives the other. To her, you are presumably a source of financial backing. You may also help by making her seem more grown-up and giving her some bottom, as it were.

For you, she is a source of glamour and gratification to your male ego. Yet I’m not sure how this helps in business terms. Clients may envy your pulling power, but they may find her company as boring as you found her friends. They may also think you are having a mid-life crisis, and if I were hiring a corporate lawyer, I’d prefer mine crisis-free. It would be interesting to know why she wanted you to go to Las Vegas with her. Perhaps it was as simple as that you were paying. Equally, she may have been unsure about you, and saw this as a panel interview with her friends. Alas, it seems you failed.

That means your best bet now is to quit before you are fired and do the sensible thing and go back to your wife – if she will have you.

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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