Monthly Archives: October 2009

My colleagues and I are convinced that one of our co-workers is insane. The details are bizarre and too numerous to go through, but as an example, when collecting clothes for needy children we found that this worker, who admitted to never having been in a relationship, mentioned that he had a basement full of toddler clothing. When I told him about an encounter with a pushy beggar, he said: “You should have sliced his hand off with my knife.” I have this fear that something bizarre will happen and then when the police ask: “Were there any signs?” we’d answer: “Sure, tons of them.” Yet what were we going to do? Go to human resources and tell them he’s crazy?

Manager, male, 34

LUCY’S ANSWER

This man doesn’t sound terribly dangerous to me. I suspect he’s far less likely to be a paedophile than any of your more normal seeming colleagues – the very last thing any paedophile would do is boast about the cute children’s outfits stored in his basement. Neither is he likely to be a knife murderer – as they tend not to make jokes about slicing off hands either.

While he may not be dangerous, there are three other possibilities: he may be mentally ill; he may be a misfit; or he may be a perfectly normal man who makes jokes that you don’t get. I’m ruling out the third option because your colleagues don’t get the jokes either, which suggests that there is something genuinely odd about him.

Most readers think that you should mind your own business, but I don’t agree. I hate the way that most people in offices ignore their colleagues’ distress signals and congratulate themselves on the fact that they are respecting their privacy.

I think you are right to ask what to do, but wrong to consider going to HR unless you know someone there who is unusually sensitive. You don’t have any strong evidence against him, and if you draw HR’s attention to his behaviour you are inviting them to be crass and make things worse.

If you want to help, I suggest you try to talk to him. Only by getting to know him better will you get an idea what can be done – if anything.

If, as I think most likely, he turns out to be a genuine eccentric, you should tell your colleagues to stop huddling in an anxious group around the water cooler and to enjoy his oddity. For all the talk about diversity, modern offices are stuffed full of people who devote themselves to behaving just the same as everyone else. Genuine weirdos are almost never hired and certainly not promoted. If you have one, you are lucky as they make working life slightly less dull than it might otherwise be.

I’m looking for a new job, but fear that my unimpressive title may be holding me back. I am a senior compliance manager in a big bank but my title is merely “controller”. Other people in my bank who do less senior jobs have much grandersounding titles. For instance, “head of corporate liquidity management” is a role far junior to mine – a cash management function running a team of two. I’m afraid that with a title like “controller” my CV won’t be considered for senior compliance positions, despite my good legal knowledge and the hard work I’ve put in. I feel that, in times like these, hiring managers don’t read the fine print of a CV and mine will go straight in the bin.

Controller, female, 36

LUCY’S ANSWER

In Thomas the Tank Engine, the classic children’s book, the much feared, top-hatted man who runs the railway has a title rather like yours. He is called the Fat Controller – the prefix “Fat” added less to signify the size of his empire than the size of his girth. Every four-year-old reading these stories knows that a controller is someone who controls. In other words, he is the boss.

Six decades after the Rev Audrey wrote these books, adults have become less confident about what a controller is – let alone a vice-president or a managing director. There is now an inverse relationship between how senior a job is and how fancy the title. Inflation is most rampant at the low to middle areas (where it is cheaper than a pay rise) but at the top, titles are the same as they always were. “Chairman” still means chairman and “president” still means president.

If everyone could be relied upon to be sensible, your plain title would be an advantage. The trouble is recruiters can’t be relied on to be sensible. The initial weeding is likely to be done by headhunters and as most of them like to call themselves “senior executive search consultants”, one feels little confidence.

Much as it pains me to say it, you should do what everyone else does and present your CV in the language of self-importance. Look at the wording in the job ad, and make sure your own wording mirrors it. Write that you are a senior whatever-you fancy, putting the word “controller” in brackets afterwards.

And just in case you feel tempted to go to your boss and ask for a grander title: don’t. Not only would that be demeaning, it would be advertising the fact that you’ve had enough and want out.

I am a level-headed, unsexist accountant who believes strongly in meritocracy, and I’m beginning to get hacked off at the treatment handed out to my female colleagues. One of them has just won a prize for being an “emerging leader” that was only open to women. Meanwhile, one of my female bosses has just got a seat on a board, despite being less impressive than men at her level. Now, the final indignity is that I applied to a course in executive education and see that the college is offering scholarships to women – but not to men. Am I wrong to feel so resentful?

Accountant, male, 31

LUCY’S ANSWER

Let’s take these outrages in turn. First, the award. Why does this rankle so badly? Do you really want a hideous trophy on your desk

proclaiming that you are an “Emerging Leader”? And would you still want it if you knew the field had been limited to, say, blue-eyed men? There are hundreds of awards for women, and they don’t help women advance, so

they can’t hold men back. They are sweet but harmless – like gold stars at school.

As for your second grievance, how do you know your female colleague is less impressive than the men? Did you sit in at the interviews? Do you know for a fact it was “impressiveness” the company was after? Even supposing she was picked simply for her sex, I don’t see why this affects you directly.

More galling are the scholarships offered to women – but even these don’t damage you. If the college had stopped offering places for men or if they increased your fee to pay for the women’s scholarships, then you might have a stronger case for resentment, but as it is, I think your complaint is a bit feeble. I’m not denying that discrimination in favour of women takes place. I’m just saying you shouldn’t worry about it. There is still plenty of negative discrimination faced by women and by almost everybody almost all of the time: I’ve never visited a workplace in which decisions were all made in the level-headed meritocratic way you favour.

Nothing’s fair, as my dad used to tell me. So you should drop your resentment right now. Grinding your teeth will do nothing but wear the

enamel down. It will not only make you a bore to yourself, it will make you dull company.

Concentrate on your own career, and even if you win no prizes, you may win some respect.

I have almost finished a PhD in vascular diseases and expect to go into research. I love science and am good at it, but my salary as a researcher will be about £30,000 a year – not enough to buy a house and start a family. Recently, I came across the forex market and took a week off work. I found the fluidity highly profitable and made three times what a top London university professor earns in a month.

I have started to wonder if I should quit my PhD and trade fulltime at home. I mentioned it to my family, who were very negative as they believe in titles – although their MBAs don’t seem to have got them anywhere. Help please.

PhD student, male, 25

 

LUCY’S ANSWER

I’m struggling to understand how a clever, sublimely well-educated scientist could ask such an idiotic question. I can only assume that you are so starved of money and excitement that one dollop of cash and the rush of adrenaline from a brief winning streak have impaired your reason.

Betting on the foreign exchanges is a bad idea at the best of times; when the money is your own and when you don’t know what you are doing, it is an even worse one. I worked in an FX dealing room years ago and saw how much money people lost who were actually good at it. I also saw the looks on their faces as they were losing it.

All my sympathy is with your parents. I’m not terribly hung up on titles, but in your case you have worked so hard nearly to get a PhD that to give up at the last minute would be lunacy. I urge you to press on and get the letters after your name. When you’ve done that you should get a job as a poorly paid researcher and see how you like it.

Look at the people who are good at it and are 10 years older than you and see how they manage. I can’t believe that none of them has children.

If the sight of their lives of penury fills you with dread you have three options.

The first is to continue as a researcher but earn extra in the evenings by part-time gambling, either in currencies or online poker. I’m not sure I recommend this – in fact, I’m sure I don’t. Gambling is addictive and even if you made enough to start a family you’d never see that family. And eventually you’d lose both the money and probably the family.

Failing that you could leave research and find someone to pay you a large salary for using your brain. Either a job in the City that involves analysis or something in business.

The third option is the best one, but it requires even more luck than winning on the foreign exchanges: find someone who is not only lovable, but also stinking rich and marry her.

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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