This month, Miss Conduct (Elaine Sternberg) offers guidance to troubled readers on outward bound management courses and stolen stationery.
Dear Miss Conduct
Our department head is keen to enrol all executives in an outward bound-type management course. And I'm totally impractical. How can I minimise my humiliation? Will anyone respect me again back in the office?
Anxious of Oxford
Let's not get carried away. First, be glad that they respect you now - genuine respect among colleagues is considerably less common than you might suppose.
Second, if your colleagues respect you, I doubt you can be 'totally impractical': these days even bimbos (of either sex) can't easily get away without being able to use the telephone or top up the coffee machine. I suspect you're averagely unfit, or unco-ordinated, or just don't much like physical exercise. If so, you should have little to fear: properly designed outdoor management courses don't require much muscular strength or agility.
That's because the purpose of a good management course is not testing physical prowess, but developing moral character. Outdoor training courses work by forcing people to confront objective reality, in which their mistakes have direct, inescapable and immediately felt consequences. Unlike manipulable colleagues, nature does not respond to waffle or threats or promises; if the raft isn't sound, you end up wet in the river, no matter how brawny you may be, or how good you are at office politics. When your survival (or even comfort) are at stake, being trustworthy and having common sense matter more than having impeccable pecs or earning zillions.
So unless you're reality-challenged as well as physically frail, I wouldn't worry about being humiliated. The ones who should be concerned are those who normally rely on powerful mentors, protective secretaries and obsequious flunkies to shield them from hard facts. The more they're used to throwing their weight around, and getting their own way, the greater the shock they're likely to receive. One just hopes it's salutary, not coronary ...
Dear Miss Conduct
One of our employees invited me home for dinner with his family.
While there, I could see company pens and computer disks all over his house. I want to be fair, but it seems obvious now why the office stationery cupboard is always empty. What should I do?
Distressed of Dorking
Check your facts. The cupboard might be bare because of bad stock control.
And your colleague might have substantial company assets at his house without any wrongdoing. Those boxes of company paper and floppies might just mean that he's taken lots of work home. If so, they're signs of commendable diligence, not culpable theft.
Your colleague has only committed theft if he's taken company property without authorisation and doesn't use it for company purposes. If he has, however, he's as guilty as if he'd stolen colleagues' personal property, or robbed the till. That the firm may be large and rich and impersonal does not excuse the offence: theft is theft. Nor is dishonesty diminished by the culprit having been a hard worker, being poor or having used his ill-gotten gains for charitable purposes.
If the employee is a thief, give him a stern warning, and put him on notice that repetitions will not be condoned. Make sure that the whole firm understands company policy on the use of office supplies. If necessary, circulate a memo stating that stationery should remain stationary.
With zero tolerance for dishonesty