Monthly Archives: January 2009

I work for a US bank in London and was last week given a bonus for 2008. It was 60 per cent of the 2007 bonus; it is a sign of the respect my managers have for me and I am grateful for it. However, my bank has received billions of dollars of support from the US government, meaning that my bonus is being paid for not by the bank’s shareholders but by taxpayers – which seems entirely inappropriate. What should I do? Give it back? Give it to charity? Resign? Or stop worrying and take it on the grounds that the bank was perfectly entitled to pay its staff what it considered necessary to motivate and keep them?
Banker, male, 35

Lucy’s answer
It is a sign of how low your trade’s reputation has fallen that most Financial Times readers assume I’ve made you up. A banker with a conscience is not a creature they can understand.

The few who credit you with existence do not credit you with sense: they think your guilt is misplaced.

I don’t agree. It is right and proper to feel queasy about this money being dumped in your lap. It does not matter how good your performance was last year; banks that have been rescued should not be paying out bonuses at all. You suggest bonuses could be justified to stop bankers from jumping ship, but where are the safe harbours they are meant to jump into?

In spite of all this, I don’t think you should give the money back. For a start, you may find it impossible to do so for bureaucratic reasons. Most banks are hopeless at processing payments that are irregular; it would not surprise me if no one could even tell you which account to pay the money into. Even if you cleared that hurdle, you still should not pay it back because the bank would almost certainly lose it – just as it has lost its shareholders’ money.

What should you do with your ill-gotten gains? You suggest giving it to charity, but as charities were not the victims of your bank’s incompetence, I don’t see why they should be beneficiaries of your act of reparation. The victim was the economy, and so you should take your bonus, pay your tax and spend the rest in empty shops.

If you feel the need to protest against this rotten remuneration system, you need strength in numbers. I suggest you start a support group for bankers with a conscience. You would be making history as the first trade union devoted to reducing its members’ income.

I was recently ousted from my position as head of a profitable business unit and replaced by my (then) trusted lieutenant. I looked on this person as a confidant and friend. He had been to my house; we enjoyed numerous nights out and went on foreign business trips together; I had even protected him when things went a bit awry. Alas, it turns out he was one of those working behind the scenes to get rid of me. Now that things have fallen apart, this guy has just been given his marching orders and has, this very evening, sent me a “poor me” email asking for a reference. I have moved on and will start a new position next week, but what do you think I should do?
Manager, male, 42

Lucy’s advice

The natural, satisfying, thing to do would be to ignore his message. If you do this you will think: “That shows him! Scumbag! He was a snake to me and now (mixing a metaphor in your excitement), the boot is on the other foot!” I predict such feeling will last two minutes, to be replaced by doubt. Was that the right thing to do?

 

Consider the effect if you refuse his request. He may think: “Oh dear, he is upset with me, and I don’t blame him, as I was clearly a snake. Now I will become a nice person.” But no, of course he won’t. Instead he will think: “How petty and cretinous. He is still so huffy about losing his own job that he can’t rise above it and write a simple reference. I always thought he was a fool. Now I see that he’s pathetic, too.”

 

Think instead about what would happen if you swallow your distaste and write the wretched man a reference. By doing so you won’t be helping him get a job, as jobs are hard to find and even a glowing reference would not land him one. I suspect that you might find writing it strangely enjoyable. You can make it insultingly brief and unhelpfully bland. You can confirm that you worked with him, and then praise him to the skies for two minor virtues and neglect to mention anything else. Perhaps he is punctual? Or convivial?

 

By writing the reference you place yourself on the moral high ground without sacrificing anything. And while basking in your own virtue you might ask yourself one little question.

 

Was this man really sharpening the knife behind your back? Or was he just showing the self-interest that is essential for survival in what sounds like a pretty dysfunctional place to work? The answer will tell you whether you really have, as you say, moved on.

My company is looking to hire a relatively junior employee and has advertised online. Managers reporting to me tell me they rejected one promising candidate because an internet search revealed her online profile, which describes her favourite position as “on top with my bondage gear and whip”. They say this shows she is not suitable for us. Even if it was a tongue-in-cheek comment it might be hard to take such a member of staff seriously. But I am concerned that we might be missing someone good. Should I reverse the decision and interview the candidate anyway? And were we right to use the information at all?
Managing director, male, 53

Lucy’s answer

Why do your managers think this woman is not “suitable”? Is it because they have found a negative correlation between people who like a bit of leather in the bedroom and people who are good at filing, or at whatever it is you want this employee to do?

Or is the problem that they fear someone who has so little judgment that she writes about whips on the internet cannot be trusted in your company? This is a little more plausible, although it is still pretty feeble as half the population under 30 writes things about themselves online that they would not dream of putting in a CV.

You ask if your managers should have been looking at this stuff in the first place. As it is publicly available there is nothing morally or legally wrong with their conducting such “research”, although it does not seem a good use of their time. Such jokey bragging about sex is meant to amuse friends, not to impress employers; eavesdropping on this conversation tells you nothing. Five minutes spent interviewing this woman will establish much more quickly whether she will be suitable for your company than peeping through the wonky keyhole of the internet.

Still, I don’t think you should go to war over her. To interfere over the hiring of a minor colleague may alienate your co-workers. With unemployment rising there must be any number of other good candidates. But neither would I let it go altogether.

I assume the only reason you heard about this was because they were gossiping about it. At that point you should have said loftily that the information about her sex life did not strike you as relevant. You might have added you were in favour of any employee who had a preference for being on top, as this was your own preferred position too

Three years ago I left a successful accountancy practice to join my wife’s even more successful financial advisory firm. We had many discussions prior to me joining and decided that the opportunity to work together was too good to refuse. The reality, however, has been very different. I have now discovered that one of the reasons for her success is a relentless passion to get things done her way, which makes me just another employee. The dynamics of our home life have also changed – all decisions need to go her way or there is hell to pay. I am caught between a rock and a hard place. If I stay, our relationship may not withstand the strain. If I leave, I’m unlikely to find a good job in the current environment and that will further compound our income disparity. What do you suggest?

Accountant, male, 52

Lucy’s Advice

You say you are between a rock and a hard place: if you go on working for your dictatorial wife your marriage won’t survive but if you quit and land a less well-paid job the income gap between you will become excruciatingly wide.

This isn’t a rock and a hard place – it’s more like a rock and a lumpy cushion. Destroying your marriage is a big deal (if you planned on its survival, which I assume you did), while earning a bit less than your rich wife isn’t a big deal at all – unless you make it one.

It sounds as if things were pretty good between you until three years ago, otherwise you would not have considered doing something as insane as working together. But now, after three years under the cosh, you have seen a different side of her. She may have seen a different side of you, too. Perhaps you have not proved quite as good at the job as she thought when she took you on. Which may explain what is happening at home: her lack of respect for your judgment at work has migrated into the domestic sphere and she has lost respect for your way of stacking the dishwasher too.

It sounds as if, perhaps as a result of the kicking you’ve been given, you are becoming a little unreasonable. You complain she treats you like another employee, but what is she supposed to do? To give you special treatment because you are her husband would be a quick way of alienating all her other employees.

I am prepared to bet that she is as eager as you are for this terrible experiment to end. Might you consider doing something else entirely? You could reinvent yourself as tinker, tailor, soldier or sailor; or failing that as a magistrate, consultant, or even – circumstances permitting – a stay-at-home father.

Dear Lucy

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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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