What's your problem?

What's your problem? - AN UNLUCKY BREAK

by JEREMY BULLMORE
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

AN UNLUCKY BREAK

I booked a holiday to attend my best friend's wedding in the US, giving my boss months of notice. With one week to go, he scheduled a meeting, which he said was crucial and I had to attend. Although he paid to fly me out later, I missed the wedding and only briefly saw my friends before they went on honeymoon. How do I tell my boss his behaviour was out of line?

The part of your question I find most interesting is when you ask: 'How do I tell my boss his behaviour was out of line?' You assume without question that it was - and of course it may have been.

But surely it all depends on the nature of that particular crucial meeting?

One of the most common complaints from people in business is lack of involvement. They feel there's always some corporate layer, just one tantalising rung above them, where all the interesting things are decided and where individual contributions can have a decisive effect They long to be indispensable and to bask in greater public recognition.

So if you're lucky enough to have such a job, then you must also expect some degree of pain: not least, a constant tug of war between personal time and professional time.

The more valued you are, and the more conscientious you are, the more such conflicts will arise. But whatever you do, don't try to generalise: take them one by one. It will always be difficult, but there will certainly be times when you should want to put a crucial meeting (assuming it really is crucial) before a best friend's wedding. And which went into the diary first is totally irrelevant.

So was that meeting really crucial? Was your presence clearly important?

Or was your boss just playing silly buggers? If it was the former, shut up and count your blessings: you've got a job that thousands of others would die for - and a free trip to America.

If it was the latter, look for a new boss.

COVERING NOTE

My boss has a drink problem and I am increasingly having to cover up for him. I don't wish to be disloyal but I do find the situation difficult and am worried that the lies I keep telling on his behalf will somehow rebound on me.

Covering up for colleagues is one of the great and joyous parts of belonging.

We used to do it at school to foil the teachers - and we do it willingly at work to show solidarity and friendship. Where it goes wrong - and it's certainly going wrong for you - is when it becomes habitual.

To cover the occasional indulgent lunch is one thing. Keeping up a smoke screen around continual under-performance is quite another. What's more, there comes a point - and you've reached it - when you're doing no one a favour, not even your boss.

So first make the decision that you've got to stop the subterfuge; and then begin to work out how. I'm sure you must start by trying to talk to him. It will certainly be difficult and it may not work; but he'll never forgive you, and perhaps rightly, if you haven't tried. Make sure he understands that you've got to end the cover-up and why.

After that, you're into what you call disloyalty - but that's being too harsh on yourself. There's nothing disloyal about trying to stop a person screwing up their life. Don't confuse it with sneaking: it isn't.

Who you talk to next depends on who's available, who you know best and who you trust. The personnel director? The company doctor? A friend of his? His family? But you've got to talk to someone - and what's more, it must be someone with whom you can properly leave the responsibility.

LIE DETECTED

I recently took one of the hardest decisions of my working life and made three of my middle managers redundant. My secretary now tells me that one, who is 49 and has been with the company for years, hasn't told his wife. By all accounts, he continues to 'go to work' as usual. This probably isn't my problem but I do feel responsible. What should I do?

It may not be your problem but you're right to feel you can't ignore it. Nor can you delegate - you've got to talk to him yourself.

Since you can't - or shouldn't - ring him at home, you need to find out where he goes every day. By the sound of it, your secretary may know.

Then arrange to bump into him. If necessary (to protect your secretary) you may have to pretend that the meeting is by chance - it doesn't really matter if he doesn't believe you. Don't pussyfoot around too much: just ask, does your wife know?

My guess is that he's already regretting his deception but is finding it harder and harder with every day that passes to think of a way out of it. If he couldn't bring himself to tell his wife when he first lost his job, it must be hideously more difficult now.

So by far the best thing you can do to help is give him a new opportunity to come clean. Say you'll give him a letter with the current date on it - explaining as sensitively as possible why he's being made redundant.

Write it for his wife's eyes as much as his. Then sign him up with an out-placement firm (which you probably should have done earlier). I know it's deception - but the man must be in turmoil and you've got to help him. Nobody else can.

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.

Or e-mail: management.today@haynet.com Regrettably no correspondence can be entered into.

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