WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM?

WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM? - MY OFFICE AFFAIR IS BACK TO HAUNT ME

by JEREMY BULLMORE, former chairman of J Walter Thompson, is now adirector of Guardian Media Group and WPP
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

MY OFFICE AFFAIR IS BACK TO HAUNT ME

Q: Five years ago I had an office affair with a junior member of staff It ended badly and she left the company, claiming I'd hindered her chances for promotion. She never lodged a formal complaint, but mutual friends tell me she remains bitter. I have since changed jobs, but have found out that she is now joining my company. She doesn't know I work here, and I'm worried she could make my life very difficult. Should I warn my managers of our previous relationship?

A: Wow, what a nightmare. I've done a fairly thorough trawl through your shortlist of options and I can't pretend that any of them beckons very temptingly, but we can probably eliminate a couple.

Warning your managers has a superficial attraction in that it gets things out in the open right away. But I wonder if it appeals to you for a less respectable reason: the opportunity to get your version of the story in first? And what exactly would you tell them? And what would you expect them to do with the information?

You can hardly expect them to cancel her job offer. I suppose they might just try to find a role for her in a different part of the company, but even that would compromise them a little. No, that option's out, at least for the moment. You'll only embarrass your managers, and they won't thank you for that.

Next in line is to do nothing; always an attractive option and surprisingly often right. But the risk here is considerable. Even if she's changed and settled down and perhaps formed a new attachment, it could be that all your apprehensions turn out to be unfounded. But that's not what your mutual friends are telling you, so you'd be unwise to bank on it. No, I'm afraid you've got to do something - and I'd start with those mutual friends of yours.

I find it odd that they've told you about her imminent job move but apparently haven't told her that you're already at the company. If they really are friends, they won't want her turning up for work on her first morning, all shiny-eyed and bushy-tailed, only to be brought up short by the sight of your baleful countenance at the next workstation.

So first, ask the mutual friends to come clean and tell her the score.

And second, ask them, on your behalf, to suggest a meeting just between the two of you. It's almost certainly the last suggestion in the world you want to hear, but you'd better do it. How she responds will tell you all you need to know - and what, if anything, you need to do next.

Why, I wonder, am I left with the unworthy suspicion that you really did behave badly towards her, all those years ago?

SHORT-TERM CONTRACTS MAKE ME FEEL INSECURE

Q: I've had a middle-ranking role in a large retail organisation for two years. I get on with my colleagues and my appraisals have been positive. But I've been kept on a series of temporary six-month contracts. I've consulted my boss about a permanent position, but he says he can't do anything. Meanwhile, I am not eligible for the company pension scheme, I don't take holidays in case it is used as a reason for not renewing my contract and I'm insecure about my future. What can I do?

A: I can see that this is very unsatisfactory, and a bit suspicious too. As a large organisation, your company is bound to have a personnel (I expect they call it HR) department. Now's the time to short-circuit your immediate boss and go straight to them. They're the people who know more about contracts and company policies than any line manager.

Ask them to tell you just why you've been kept on a series of six-month contracts with all the attendant disadvantages. Remind them of your positive appraisals. Tell them of your reluctance to take holidays (which I have to say I find rather weedy of you).

As you'll certainly recognise, this approach carries risks. One possible explanation for your company's behaviour is that they're unconvinced of your long-term value but haven't yet got around to saying so. By bringing the issue to a head, you may well be precipitating your own departure. But, by the sound of it, that might be no bad thing.

TIME-WASTING COLLEAGUE

Q: I have a middle-management colleague for whom I have no professional respect. She spends her time flirting with male colleagues and gossiping rather than supporting her own staff and getting reports done on time. This backfires on me as her staff look to me for guidance and I have to compensate for the work she isn't doing. The obvious solution is to speak to my boss, but he is a close friend of hers. I find it very frustrating that someone can get away with doing so little in such a key job.

A: First, search your own mind thoroughly for evidence of envy. All clear? None there? Quite sure? OK, fine.

Now take her out to lunch. And with absolutely no heat and no tedious repetitions, tell her exactly what you've told me. Show her your letter - why not? Above all, avoid the phrase '...and another thing'. Pour another glass of wine.

Even if not much improvement occurs, you won't have done anything you might later regret.

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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