Monthly Archives: June 2009

I’m an executive director in an industrial equipment distributor and, as our business is facing a downturn, it seems a good time to invest in my education and apply for a two-month advanced management programme at Harvard Business School. But my chairman has been extremely negative, refusing to pay for the course and making clear he does not think it a good use of my time. I really want to do this and can afford to pay for it, but I wonder if it is madness to make an investment in myself that may amount to damaging my prospects with my current employer.
Director, male, 42

Lucy’s answer

Yes, you are mad. I’ve just checked the Harvard website and see you are proposing to spend $60,000 on something that promises flatulently to turn “senior executives into indispensable leaders”. I have hardly ever come across people who were indispensable leaders and the idea that anyone could become one by dint of an eight-week course is fantasy. The website goes on to promise that “participants [will] leave equipped to make the tough decisions required to manage through the downturn”.

The first tough decision on how to manage in a downturn has already been made by your boss: ban all management training courses that serve to make employees more attractive to rival employers.

You say you see this course as an investment in yourself. In that case, you need to think of the likely returns. If you intend to stay with your present employer, these returns will be negative. You will irritate your chairman by going away and irritate him even more when you come back spouting the stuff that you have picked up in your short time there.

If, however, you see this course as a way out, there might be some point to it. Harvard is a badge, and some employers are still impressed by it. You might make contacts that could be worth something, too.

If this is what you have in mind, then I’d put it on hold. You claim that this is a good time for such an investment as business is slow; I think it’s a rotten time as no one is hiring. I suggest you try to forget about it for a year. If you are then still wedded to the idea and if the economy is picking up a bit, perhaps you should think again.

But I can think of other things I’d rather do with $60,000.

Twice a week, I travel into London for work, which takes two hours each way. What is the best use of my time on the train? Should I see it as an extension of my office and continue to do project work? Should I save it for the mundane but important stuff like filing emails? Should I improve my CV by learning Spanish? Or should I chill out and watch The Wire? My family thinks I’m a McNulty-obsessed workaholic at the best of times, and kick up a fuss if I do any of these outside office hours.
Management consultant, female, 44

Lucy’s answer

You should watch The Wire. Not merely because it will give you the most pleasure – it will give your family most pleasure, too. I’m married to a workaholic just like you. I tolerate the endless hours hunched over the computer. But what I don’t tolerate are the further hours hunched over the TV watching The Wire. Work is work and I have a respect for it. I have no respect for this wretched series that is so proud of being realistic that you can’t understand what anyone is saying.

There is a lot of The Wire, but not enough to fill eight hours a week – which raises the problem of what to do with the rest of your time on the train. The reason this is a problem is because we don’t really know if a commute is work or home. It feels a bit like work, as we don’t do it voluntarily, but we do it in our own time. I suggest you solve the problem by using your management consulting skills and draw three columns and label them Work, Commute and Home. Write down all the things that can be done in each. Sleeping can be done on the train and at home but not, usually, in the office. Most work tasks can be done in all three. You’ll find the nicest home tasks – seeing family and friends, dancing, gardening, and so on can be done only at home. So, the aim is to use the hours on the train to release as much time as possible to do things at home. See it as the place for computer games, ringing the plumber, paying bills and so on. Don’t use it for work e-mails unless that means you will be able to spend more time at home. Otherwise you simply free up time at work that you will then fritter away pointlessly.

And whatever you do, do not spend time improving your CV. It sounds as if your CV is fine as it is.

I recently received a call from a headhunter for referral about one of my former staff. This person had done a good job for me and I certainly would have given him a positive reference. But I had heard that he had been fired by his new boss for fraud. I had not investigated the question further, so this was hearsay only. I had a split second to decide, as the headhunter would have understood hesitation as a negative. I decided to talk only about what I personally knew and gave him a positive reference. Did I do the right thing?
Manager, male, 55

Lucy’s answer

Of course you did the right thing. The headhunter wanted to know what you thought about this man when he was working for you, and you told him. He did not want to know what rumours you had heard about him subsequently. It is the headhunter’s job to hunt those down and find out whether there is anything in them. Whether he is competent to do this is another matter.

When giving a reference, one has two duties of fairness: to the future employer and to the ex-employee. You can get into trouble with the law if you are unfair to either. A reference in which you are unfairly damning can result in a suit from the old employee; one where you recommend someone who did a terrible job for you can land you in court too. As a result, many employers limit all references to a few tediously unhelpful details such as name, job title and dates.

This seems to me a shocking waste. It is fantastically unlikely that someone will sue if you are acting in good faith. And these taciturn references end up unfair to everyone: good employees don’t get the reference they deserve and future employers are even more in the dark than they need be. If your man worked well for you, he deserves to be recommended.

Even so, I can see why you feel vaguely uncomfortable. If this man turns out to be a Robert Maxwell, you may feel you are playing a part in his future career in fraud. In fact, you aren’t. You are just telling the truth as it seemed to you.

But I suspect you are also anxious because the rumours have shaken your own judgment and you wonder whether someone who struck you as a good egg might have been rotten. You should not worry on this score either. It is a fact of office life that one can work with someone for years without having the faintest idea what they are really like.

I was a director in M&A at a big investment bank and quit in February. I could see the writing on the wall and hated my job anyway. I joined a small outfit that does interesting work with better hours, but I took a 50 per cent pay cut on my base salary. Since my bonus expectations are muted, I suspect I took about an 80 per cent cut overall. I thought I would get past that and focus on the job challenges and the new environment, but I find myself resenting my employer and myself for being so stupid. Should I quit and sit on the beach like everyone else?
Executive director, male, 31

Lucy’s answer

First, I want to salute your courage in admitting that money matters to you. This unfashionable view has so got up the noses of Financial Times readers that they have quite forgotten their manners in the responses they left on FT.com.

This week the outgoing head of Shell put forward a more palatable view when he claimed that a 50 per cent pay cut would have had no effect on his work.Yet he hasn’t put his goody-goody theory to the test – and you have. You found that halving your salary cut your enthusiasm. I am sure it would reduce mine, too.

I think much of what is making you cross is your own failure to predict how you would feel in this new, badly paid job. Yet I don’t accept that your experiment has been a disaster, as you learnt two important lessons: first, you don’t like feeling underpaid; and second, jobs that promise to be interesting often
aren’t.

Your best course of action is to jack in the new job at once and head for the beach. This too may turn out to be a mistake but if so, you ill learn a third, even better lesson: how much having a job matters to you.

My guess is that you will be no happier on the beach. You will resent the fact that you are being paid nothing at all to watch other people sitting on the beach being paid nothing either.

Once you have learnt that not working is not fun, you will be in better shape when things pick up again. By then you may find it’s rather nice taking home a fat salary for doing something that, by the sound of it, you are really rather good at.

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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