Dear Lucy

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My wife, who works at the same company as me, has for some months been conducting an illicit affair with our chief executive. She has decided to leave me and to resign her position in order to move in with him.

The affair, which has now been made very public, seems to have done no damage to him but has devastated me. I now find myself having to work directly for the man who has cuckolded me – which is intolerable to my pride.

However, I don’t see why I should resign from a job in which I had been excelling, when I am the only person to have behaved professionally throughout. What should I do?

HR director, male, 50


The first thing to do is get a good lawyer. Even if the affair did not break your company’s policy on relationships, and even if you have not been discriminated against, a skilful lawyer may be able to argue that your employer has breached its legal duty of trust and confidence.

Although the most you would get from a UK industrial tribunal would be £70,000, your company would almost certainly agree a much larger private settlement in order to avoid the damage to its reputation of having the squalid details of who did what to whom spread all over the papers.

If, however, the main harm done has been to your pride, it might be wiser to stick around. Simply by staying, you extract a revenge of sorts: for so long as you are still in the company, your CEO is not going to be able to forget the embarrassing incident. You will also be someone it becomes rather difficult to pass over for promotion.

If you manage to hold your head high, your colleagues may quickly stop pitying you – pity being the most horrid thing to be at the receiving end of at work – and in time respect and like you more for it.

The chief executive’s standing with your colleagues will almost certainly be damaged by this, and you may benefit from the fallout.

Either way, the rumpus will die down in time. The appetite for scandal in the average office is prodigious, but the scandal needs to be fresh to merit continued discussion. You will only be talked about as the-man-cuckolded-by-the-CEO until the next big scandal breaks – which will probably be quite soon.

And if you stay you may well have the satisfaction of seeing this new relationship fall apart. As the late Sir James Goldsmith said: “When a man marries his mistress, he creates a job opportunity.”

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


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


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


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



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.

I am furious about my bonus. I worked hard all year. My numbers were great, the best I’ve ever had. I had a high evaluation from my boss and coworkers. When I was told the (very low) figure, I didn’t complain because my boss assured me he had worked hard to give me as much as possible and I was getting more than people senior to me. I now find that others with worse performance got far more money. It seems the reason I was passed over was that he knew I would not make a fuss. Is it too late to raise hell? Can I mention others’ bonuses, although they are supposed to be confidential?

VP, female, 35


You think a bonus is a reward for doing a good job. In fact, it is a prize you get for playing a game that is complicated, skilful and highly political. The boss controls the money and information, and the players lobby to get the biggest slice.

The winners are the people who get the biggest bonuses, but neither the winners nor the losers will know for certain whether they have won or lost because the boss will tell everyone they have won, even if they haven’t. The result is mass dissatisfaction and paranoia. Secrecy and disinformation abound. Nearly everyone will pretend their bonus is larger than it really was – it may well be that yours is not quite so out of line as you fear.

Yet, from the wording of your question, I suspect you are an innocent at this game. Partly, this is due to your sex. When a woman is told her bonus, she tends to smile and say “thank you”. A man will look disappointed if he is pleased and throw a tantrum if he is disappointed.

A good player will start lobbying months in advance for next year’s figure. They will talk endlessly and loudly about their imaginary successes. They will drop hints about all the people who are trying to hire them. They will be seen everywhere.

It is too late for you to throw a tantrum about last year’s bonus and always a mistake to refer to the bonuses your colleagues allegedly got.

However, it is not too late to start playing for next year – if you have the stomach for it. It may be that you find the game so distasteful that you’d do better in another career where you’d get no bonus – but wouldn’t mind as no one else would get one either.

Recently, I became a manager of a small financial firm. Initially, my mainly male staff either resented me or flirted with me, but now I have won their respect. A week ago, I came to work a few hours early and was accosted by two men who pushed me inside and robbed me. They bound me up, gagged me and left me face down on the floor. I struggled with my usual determination but I could not get loose and had to lie there until four of my staff, arriving two hours later, found me still utterly tied up. They were considerate and sympathetic but my dignity and pride are demolished. I walk around the office trying to feel authoritative but I really just feel empty. How do I regain that feeling of competence?

Manager, female, 33


I like the way you describe your ordeal. You are cool, factual and not self-pitying. You weren’t afraid of your attackers; it is the response of your staff that frightens you.

I don’t find this at all odd. Having one’s staff see one as weak and vulnerable is humiliating. I can also see why you’re discombobulated by their sympathy. I nearly have a fit if anyone in the office says something as mild as “poor you” because I feel they are trying to get one over on me.

But I don’t think the four who untied you did necessarily see you as weak. I am also sure that their sympathy is not the undermining, political kind, but the simple sympathy one feels for anyone in a tight spot.

I am trying to imagine how I’d feel if I had found my boss tied up on the floor on arriving at work. I think, once I had untied her, I’d feel weird about it too, as if the natural order of things had been interrupted. I would want her to return to normal as soon as possible.

What happened was embarrassing for everyone and it is in everyone’s interests to draw a heavy veil over the whole thing. You say you feel empty, which isn’t surprising; that is what happens when one is in shock.

Most readers think you need counselling to help you come to terms with what happened, but I’m not at all convinced.

Instead, I think you need to fake it. Pretend to be exactly as you always were. In time, the memory will recede and you will find you aren’t pretending any more – you’ll be yourself again. And when you are, I believe your staff will think you are even tougher and more professional than they did before.

I’m not worried about your ability to get your authority back. But there is something else that concerns me. Do you really have to get in several hours before everyone else?

Lucy Kellaway is away. Dear Lucy will return in September.

I’ve been interviewing candidates for a research job and, thanks to the recession, have had a very good shortlist. The two frontrunners are both excellent – they seem bright and keen and hardworking. One is reasonably good-looking; the other is exceedingly plain – obese and with bad skin. The role is not client facing so looks should not matter. Yet I find myself inclined to hire the person who looks more prepossessing – which is unfair as the plain one surely needs a break. What should I do?
Manager, female, 38

Lucy’s answer

You should hire the fat and spotty one. This is not because you feel he (or she?) deserves a break – it isn’t your job to play the role of social engineer. It is because he is almost certainly better at the job than the one who is easier on the eye.

I know you claim that the two are equally skilled and industrious. If you weare right about this, then you should hire the looker as lookers are easier to have around. But I don’t think you are right.

If you read the research, it will tell you that beautiful people are more successful than ugly ones. They are paid up to 15 per cent more and that they advance more quickly. This might make one inclined to choose the cute one.

However, if you consider the reason for this discrepancy, the odds shift towards the fatty. Beauties outperform beasts mainly because we expect them to do so. If you show people pictures of job candidates, they rate the beautiful as more trustworthy, more intelligent and more diligent than the plain. Fat people score particularly badly. One US study had people rate the obese as awkward, lazy, uncooperative and unconscientious.

Lookist perceptions run so deep they even affect sport, where one might have thought performance would speak for itself. According to my colleague Simon Kuper’s new book about football, hunks get picked more often for top teams as scouts are impressed by players who look the part.

Thus, for your plain candidate to to have got so far suggests he is far better than the other one. You should hire him at once – indeed, I hope you did so weeks ago. The only reason for not doing so is if you feel the heavy, spotty one looks so dreadful that you physically shrink from him. Then mark yourself down and hire the looker.

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.