What's Your Problem?

I have moved to a new job and am shocked at the inefficiency and wastefulness of my new department. It doesn't seem to be accountable to anyone, and so the department head is lazy, often drunk for half the day, abuses his expenses account and sends himself off on jaunts abroad on 'company business'.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

 I've tried confronting him about it, but he is unrepentant. At what point can I go over his head to the company CEO, and would this be the best solution anyway?

A: I'm pretty sure that the scene you're describing is an acute case of what might be called the Stain-on-the-Carpet Syndrome. When the red wine is first spilt on your carpet, your in-stinct is to get it cleaned immediately. But it's not that convenient. And so you wait a week or two ... and then another ... and before you know what's happened, you don't notice the stain any more. Until, that is, a friend comes to visit for the first time and says: 'That's a bit of a nasty stain.' And you're deeply affronted because you've quite got used to it, and what impertinence, anyway ...

Incompetence and corruption in companies take hold in much the same way. To you, they are glaringly obvious. That's because, as a newcomer, you're seeing them for the first time. But your colleagues have long since lost the ability to be shocked - their sensibilities have become blunted by familiarity.

When they think about it at all, they tell themselves that's the way things are done around here. By adjusting to these local customs, they've invested in them and become hostile to change.

I'm taking you through all this not in any way to excuse or condone, but before you can sensibly decide what to do next, you need to understand the probable background. You won't, for example, be thanked for drawing people's attention to the stain on the carpet. Your departmental head isn't going to give up his thoroughly agreeable lifestyle at the prompting of a junior. Even the CEO must have some inkling of what's going on - yet has apparently elected to do nothing about it.

When a malignant culture is as entrenched as this, only in movies does it fall to a lone and lowly employee to lead a revolution and inspire change. Normally, change is triggered only by some irresistible external pressure: the mass defection of clients, an Inland Revenue investigation, a cash crisis, the belated awakening of the owners ...

So, a little reluctantly, I reach the conclusion that your best course of action is a principled withdrawal. List every example of waste, inefficiency and dishonesty you have observed factually and without pious commentary.

Incorporate this list in a letter of resignation, which you should hand-deliver to the CEO.

If he responds positively, if he asks to see you and probes more deeply, there may well be some hope. But if he still refuses to acknowledge the stain on the carpet, you may be certain that you've made the right decision.


- Jeremy Bullmore has been creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London and a non-executive director of the Guardian Media Group; he is a non-executive director of WPP. Address your problems to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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