Q: Christmas and New Year are one of my office's busiest times. Usually I have no problem getting staff to cover but this year, everyone wants time off. What is the fairest way of choosing who has to work?
A: If Christmas and New Year are some of your busiest times, then presumably you expect this Christmas and New Year to be as busy as usual. So start (if you haven't already) by working out the minimum number of staff you'll need. And don't just think about overall numbers but specific functions. For example, you might be able to do without back office people for a day or two, but not without those who deal with customers.
Then be sure you know your own plans. I assume you're happy to work over this period yourself? If not, your problem will become even more acute.
Finally, don't hope to make money over those few days: decide that the limit of your ambition is to impress the hell out of your customers and get up the noses of the competition. See it as an investment period - and accept the fact that it's going to cost you.
Once you've got that clear in your head, you can take your staff into your confidence. Tell them that you've got to be open for business; that you're determined to do it well; and that, ideally, nobody should be working against their will or if there are strong family reasons for them to be at home.
Then ask for volunteers. Establish who is totally against working and why. Devise an extremely generous bonus pool. Be imaginative. Think not just about your employees but their families. For example, don't just dish out money but offer other options. Ask them what their families would appreciate: such as a weekend for two in Paris in the spring, all expenses paid including a babysitter; or a Center Parcs weekend for the whole family.
In other words, make it just that little bit easier for your members of staff to break the unwelcome news at home.
This may not solve all your problems - but at least it should minimise threats, instructions and general disgruntlement.
Q: I feel guilty when I leave work on time but miss seeing my children if I don't. Lately, my boss has started to 'joke' about part-timers - even though I usually start well before him. I am worried that he thinks I am not dedicated enough.
A: Conscientious people are famously good at feeling guilty. It's the lazy ones who whistle their carefree way through life. So you must sort out in your own mind whether your guilt is justified or not.
If you put in the hours and never leave important tasks unfinished, your conscience should be clear. So perhaps you feel guilty because you don't go for a beer with the boys after work?
You're clearly very sensitive on this issue - most thoughtful people are - but this could mean that you're reading more into your boss' 'jokes' than he intends. (From the sound of it, sensitivity isn't his own most striking characteristic.)
If the jokes continue and you go on fretting, pick a good time to have a word with him. Don't make a big thing of it, don't refer to the jokes and don't say you feel guilty. Just say how much you value seeing your children in the evening and ask him to tip you off at once if he thinks it's making you in any way less effective. Whatever his response, it's bound to be enlightening.
And if all goes well, it might even put a damper on the jokes.
Q: Suddenly I am having to play office politics. My manager's boss has taken me into his confidence and has criticised my manager, who he seems to want out of the company. I like the company and am keen to progress But I don't know how candid I can be with either of them.
A: I smell rats - and rat number one is your manager's boss. He shouldn't be discussing your manager with you at all - let alone critically. It puts you in a totally impossible position.
But I also smell something more than just office politics. As you describe it, your manager's boss' behaviour is not just rat-like but puzzling.
As the senior person, he should be able to get your manager out of the company easily enough if he thinks it necessary. How does he think confiding in you is going to help him?
So it occurs to me to ask: are your manager and your manager's boss by any chance men? And are you, by any chance, not?
If I'm right in this guess, then at least it begins to sort out some motives. Rat number one hopes you'll be impressed by his seniority and flattered by his confidences. Discussing your manager gives him an excuse to talk to you. And once you've started sharing a few little secrets, thinks Rat, who knows what intimacies might follow?
My advice is to avoid at all costs being party to any further conversations about your manager - and make it clear why. If you're happy working for your manager, and rate him highly, then say so. Rat may swiftly start changing his tune.
And whatever you do, resist the temptation to involve your manager in all this, even by innuendo. It will only make things even more complicated.
Jeremy Bullmore, former chairman of J Walter Thompson, is now a director of Guardian Media Group and WPP.
Please address your problems to him at: Management Today, 174 Hammersmith Road, London W6 7JP.
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