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.

I am the chairman of a UK company arranging a board visit to our operations in the US. Three of the non-executives are insisting on travelling club class, claiming that they will not be able to work otherwise. Ours is a strongly egalitarian company and it is our policy for all flights to be in economy. When the US team visits us, this is how they travel; I fear that if they discover different rules apply to the board they will be disillusioned. But if I force the non-execs into steerage I will be losing their goodwill. What should I do?
Chairman, male, 54

Lucy’s answer

The trouble is that you didn’t communicate your hair-shirt policy well enough to the board members when you hired them. Unless told otherwise, most non-execs of large companies expect to fly club class on long flights as a matter of course.

You should have said at the outset: if you think you’ll be swanking about on expenses at this company, forget it. It would have been up to them to decide whether they wanted to join the board under those conditions.

Now your communications job is going to be tricky whatever you do. You have a choice between making the rest of your staff angry when they discover the company is not quite as egalitarian as it pretends to be and making the non-execs feel cheated out of what they see as their due. The second is clearly the lesser of two evils. You aren’t trying to motivate the non-execs in the same way you are trying to motivate your managers. They are most unlikely to quit and are unlikely to sulk by failing to read their board papers properly, as the penalty for negligence is jail.

Alternatively, you could sidestep the issue by asking if it’s really necessary to cart the whole board across the Atlantic. I’m assuming it is, given that yours doesn’t sound the kind of outfit to tolerate waste. In which case, why not buy the board economy and let them pay for their own upgrades if they see fit. You could, if your budget stretches to it, buy them economy plus, which will save face and buy some leg room.

And if I were you, I’d make some political capital from the refusal to buy club for the board. Sir Richard Branson, a world leader when it comes to PR stunts, usually flies economy just to make a point. I don’t see why you shouldn’t get similar mileage out of the same stunt.

My wife is expecting our first child. Ten days before the expected delivery date, I am due to go on a business trip to Los Angeles with my boss. The trip is important to the company and it is an honour that I have been picked. If I say I can’t go, I expect my boss will be nice about it, but I fear it will mark my card as someone not serious about work and will also mean that a sly colleague (who is always trying to get one over on me) will go instead. I’ve no reason to think the baby will come early but, if it does, LA is an eight-hour flight away and if I miss the birth, my wife will never forgive me.
Manager, male, 29

Lucy’s answer

Most readers seem to think this is the easiest problem ever posed in this slot. There can be no contest, they say, between a business trip and a baby’s birth, and even asking the question makes you a monster.

I don’t see it like that. This is simply the first in a series of tricky decisions you will have to make balancing work and family – all of which will involve weighing up conflicting issues.

For a start, the baby will probably be late and so, if you go, you are unlikely to miss the birth. Second, even if you stay at home you may miss it by fainting, or fail to be any help and succeed only in annoying your wife.

On the other hand, I doubt if your boss would mark you down for staying at home: you have a copper-bottomed excuse that even the most child-unfriendly boss will accept. Even so, you may hurt your career by staying by your wife’ side as you’ll be missing out on an opportunity to shine and you’ll be giving your cocky rival an undeserved leg up.

What you finally decide, though, is not something I can help you with. It depends on what you and your wife want.

My own husband nearly missed the birth of three out of our four children: the first child for complicated reasons involving a broken-down car and a heavy night out; the second because the baby came quickly; and the fourth owing to a bothersome work deadline. Only with the third was he present throughout, and saw the birth as an opportunity to interview the young doctor about the new purchaser-provider split in the National Health Service.

The moment of birth is not the most special event in a child’s life. There are an infinite number of other special ones that follow.

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

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

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.

I am leaving my job after 19 years and taking “early retirement”. My question concerns leaving drinks. What I would like on my last day is just to slip away with no goodbyes and no fuss. However, this is not the done thing, which is to invite the entire office for drinks, put one’s credit card behind the bar and give a gracious speech. Even if I accept that I need to do something like this – although I am far from convinced – do I have to invite everyone? There are several people I will not miss and who I feel no need to socialise with. And just how much money do I have to put aside?
Manager, female, 52

Lucy’s answer

There are four arguments for inviting the whole office out for a drink. It is the done thing. Not doing it can cause offence. You may need to work with these people again, so it’s wise to butter them up. And it will make you feel better to tie up the past 19 years with a pretty bow.

All four arguments are feeble. Leaving drinks may be the done thing, but you don’t have to do it. One of the joys of early retirement is that office conventions need no longer concern you.

Not giving a party won’t cause offence — there are so many leaving dos now that one fewer may be a cause for celebration. Nor will a drinks party help you get work in the future, as 19 years’ experience will surely count for more to former colleagues than a glass of plonk.

The only decent argument is the fourth: leaving parties can make one feel better about going. But if you think buying drinks will make you feel worse, and poorer, then I’m sure you’re right.

A leaving party is a bid for immortality in the minds of one’s colleagues; if you have any colleagues who you care about being immortal to, you should do something, but do it your own way. To have drinks in a nearby pub is a waste of money as your dreary do will merge with everyone else’s. The most memorable leaving party I’ve been to was given by a delightfully eccentric woman who slipped out of the office quietly on her last day, just as you would like to. Three months later, she hired a cinema and subjected chosen colleagues to a three-hour film of Don Giovanni. I will never forget her.

I am a PA to an extremely volatile boss. Over the years I have developed a good working relationship with him – I understand his little ways and work around them. I also have – or had – a good relationship with his wife, with whom I often talk on the phone. The two of us sometimes joke about his lack of organization and about his tendency to forget appointments and then blame someone else. However, since last Monday he has been cold and distant and keeps referring sarcastically to his “famous lack of organisation”. I am certain that his wife has said something to him. Is there anything I can do to rectify the situation?
PA, female, 36

Lucy’s answer

Talking about people behind their backs is never wise. But being wise all the time is dull, and if you work for someone who is volatile and tiresome – as your boss sounds – you clearly need to be able to moan about him from time to time.

The danger is that if you moan to A about B and A suddenly takes it into her head to tell B, then you are in the soup. I’ve been caught out a few times this way, and it is frightfully awkward. The only consolation is that one then marches up to A, gives them a rocket and watches them squirm.

Alas, as the snitch is his wife, you can’t do this. Any attempt to discuss it with her will make it worse.

God knows what was going through her mind at the time. Perhaps she is jealous of you. Or perhaps she is so utterly boiling over with rage against her disorganised husband that, in attacking him, she enlisted your support to underline what a hopeless, pathetic case he is.

Understandably, he is furious to think the two of you are ganging up on him. He will feel roundly humiliated, which means you must not make any attempt to discuss it with him. Even if you apologise, any mention of the incident will remind him of it and increase his humiliation.

He is dealing with this by being a baby, by sulking and making sarcastic asides. The best route for you is to be excessively, exaggeratedly grown up. Do your job fabulously well. Appear oblivious to sulks and comments. If you look neither hurt nor embarrassed by his asides he will desist eventually. These sulks are too tiring to keep up indefinitely if one is not being rewarded with a response.

If he doesn’t come round quickly, you may feel inclined to find a better boss. But it might be easier to stick with this one and find a better confidante instead.

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.