Monthly Archives: April 2009

I have recruited a sales person whose job is to represent our business to senior types in banks. He constantly uses the construct “we was”, as in: “We was hoping you’d recognise us as a sophisticated supplier.” He also uses a lot of jargon, which creates a poor impression. He peppers all his communications – spoken and written – with “piece” and “reach out” and “going forward” and “value added”. When I mentioned it, he said this was just the way he talked and, in any case, was normal usage and I shouldn’t worry about it. Should I?
Manager, male, 50

Lucy’s answer

Yes, you should worry very much – not that your salesman can’t talk properly, but that he doesn’t even pretend to pay attention when you tell him off.

This reflects badly on one or other of you: either he is an intolerable upstart – as well as a murderer of language. Or else you are a liability as a manager. Not only do you hire people without having listened to what they say, you can’t get them to pay you even the most cursory compliment of appearing to listen to what you say.

As for the jargon and the dismal grammar, many readers of this column fondly believe that people who sell things should be able to express themselves clearly and elegantly. This is utter rot. Some of the very best salesmen talk the most awful drivel and have emerged from school without any flair for grammar. Think of
traders on market stalls and their signs “Avocado’s – 3 for £1”. Shoppers passing by don’t think: I’m not going to buy them because the apostrophe is misplaced.

The only reason for minding is if the jargon and weak grammar are at loggerheads with the image of your product, or if they make what he is saying hard to understand. The first could be the case if the product you are selling to these “senior types” is quite pukka, meaning that a barrow boy isn’t the right person to sell it.
As for the jargon, this matters even less. Most of the senior types I know in banks can’t utter a sentence without throwing in a couple of “reaching outs” or “pieces” and so will surely embrace your salesman as one of their own kind.

My graver worry is not about the “we was” or the “reaching out”. It is the fact that this man can’t express himself comprehensibly at all. Did he really say: “We was hoping you’d recognise us as a sophisticated supplier”? Ignoring the off-putting Uriah Heepishness of this sentence, the real stumbling block is “sophisticated supplier”. What on earth is that?

I recently moved to Grand Cayman to avoid London in a recession. I’m house-sharing with a friend of a friend who is a bit of a Jack-the-lad. I recently came home to find him and my boss going at it on the sofa. My boss has now confided that she has strong feelings for my housemate. The problem, besides feeling like my mum is dating my headteacher, is that my housemate is seeing at least three other women my boss doesn’t know about. As I am very new, I do not feel comfortable discussing the situation with either of them.

Will I be judged by my boss once the truth comes out? Do I risk ruining an otherwise very peaceful (and cheap) house-share to protect my boss?
Consultant, male, 25

Lucy’s answer

In conventional organisations, knowledge is power. If you know something scurrilous about your boss, you have a weapon against her. In less conventional ones, knowledge is dangerous. If you have dirt on your boss, your boss can take you out. I fear your outfit may fall into the second group.

Your problem is not just that you stumbled on your mother embracing the headteacher. That must have been traumatic, but is now in the past. The difficulty is that your mother has chosen to confide in you.

Your boss has now breached all the usual divides between professional and personal life and by treating you like an intimate, she makes you feel you ought to tell her about your lothario flatmate. I beg you not to do this: you would be jeopardising your cheap lodgings and will make her doubly dislike you.

I dare say she dislikes you already: that she has confided in you is almost certainly born of distrust more than trust. You burst in on her doing something dubious and she is trying to neutralise it by involving you. Unless she is a very odd woman indeed, she would not pick the newest hire, and a young man at that, as a confidant on matter of the heart.

To prevent further confidences, you must adopt the role of gauche young Englishman (even if you are not English, this is the best role for you). Next time you must blush and look uncomfortable and give surprised utterances such as “Oh dear me”. This will make these conversations so sticky that she will desist. And when the blow falls on her she will be less likely to take revenge on you.

You could solve the problem by coming back to recession-hit London, where you would be less likely to have such excitements in your life. Though you would also be less likely to have a job.

For eight years I’ve been a loyal and hardworking manager at a small, family-run business. I like and respect my employer. Yesterday I was made redundant. I feared it was coming, as my boss would not meet my eye and I knew someone had to go.

However, I don’t think the company followed the correct legal procedure. I received no warning, no explanation and no right to appeal. I feel wronged and suspect that I was chosen because I am well paid and work part-time. Do I seek legal advice for unfair dismissal, despite how much this will hurt my employer (who I do like and usually do respect)? Or do I rise above the perceived injustice and console myself with the thought that they probably won’t make it through this recession?
Senior manager, female, 34

Lucy’s answer

It sounds as if the real problem is not that you’ve lost your job but that you are very angry about it. It’s quite understandable to be spitting with rage when you’ve given eight years to a company only to be cast out on your ear: I’d be really angry in your shoes, too. But what troubles me is that your anger has a nasty side. You protest how much you like your boss but then say you’ll console yourself with thought of the company going bust.

I think it would be much better to console yourself with the thought that there was nothing personal in this, that these things happen and to concentrate on getting a good reference and finding another job.

I’m not quite sure what you want to happen now. Do you want an apology from your boss and a nicer goodbye? If so, a lawyer is the last thing you need.
Instead, you should talk to this man whom you used to like and respect, and tell him just how you feel (omitting the bit about hoping his company will end up going down the tube).

If what you want is more money, a lawyer may not be able to help much there, either. If the company did not follow the correct procedure – the rules are different for small companies – then you might have a case for unfair dismissal, but unless you can prove discrimination on grounds of sex or race, the size of the payout is going to be tiny. And the process of suing is expensive and exhausting.

The only good reason for seeking legal advice is if you are lying awake at night fretting over what your rights are and a lawyer will be able to tell you. If you consult one, don’t feel bad about your boss: you don’t owe him anything. But you do owe yourself something and for your own sake I’d let it go. Nice endings are better than nasty ones.

I am a newly appointed department head and have been conducting interviews for my deputy. The two leading internal candidates are both capable and ambitious – though there is no love lost between them. I decided to go with the person I feel I will work with best, but unfortunately some idiot in HR has got into a muddle and announced that the other candidate has got the job. This man has just come up to me all smiles to ask when he begins, while the other guy is angry that I did not tell him that he had not got the job. Should I go with the wrong candidate, or try to unscramble the situation, which would risk my credibility, even though the fault was not mine?
Manager, male, 37

Lucy’s answer

Some idiot in HR may have screwed up, but so have you. Instead of e-mailing me you should have gone stomping straight up to the idiot and demanded that he sort it out at once. In these things you have a window of a couple of hours to rectify the problem, but after that it’s too late. The wrong candidate has already opened the champagne and boasted to their friends; to take the job away would be to invite him to bear a lifelong grudge

Now you must concentrate on making the best out of a bad situation.

The first task is to repair the morale of the right candidate. Tell him what a close thing it was. Tell him the announcement was rushed out too early, apologise for not having spoken to him first. Give him a pay rise. Or if there is no money for that, give him a fancy title. Call him associate department head.

Next, you must manage the situation with the wrong candidate. You say that he is good, but that you aren’t sure if you’ll work well together. You may find you get on better than you had thought: it is impossible to know until you try it. The wrong candidate might turn out to be the right one after all.

If he isn’t, then you should get him moved after a decent interval. If your company is large enough to have an out-of-control HR department, it must be large enough to shift people around a bit. Tell HR they must engineer this. After all, they owe you one.

The final thing you must do is what you should have done at once. Give the idiot a rocket. From the wording of your e-mail I have a feeling you have no fondness for the HR department and that this may well be a task you will enjoy.

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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