What's Your Problem?

Since returning from maternity leave, I'm struggling with the person who used to be my deputy. He was acting finance officer while I was away, and he's reluctant to return to the deputy's role.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

He muscles in on meetings with my boss, tries to overrule my decisions, and he avoids the less exciting tasks that a deputy is supposed to do. In my absence, he has also become chummy with my boss, who always seemed to look on my pregnancy as an excuse to get off work, and who therefore tends to side with my deputy. I think he'll view any complaint from me in a dim light. What else can I do?

A. If we're going to think straight about this problem, we need to park to one side the fact that the reason for your absence was to have a baby. It's of immense importance to you, but it has no direct bearing on your predicament.

Looked at through the eyes of your boss and your deputy, this is what happened. The finance director is away from the office for several months. In her absence, her deputy steps up to become acting finance director and does a good job (as would you had the situation been reversed). Whereas the finance director occasionally missed a day or two at work, her deputy is always there when the boss wants him. This arrangement lasts long enough for a good, and even friendly, relationship to develop between them.

On the return to work of the finance director, initially at least, the deputy is naturally more up-to-date and better-informed, so the boss continues to look to him for advice and support. The deputy is human enough to enjoy this relationship and to hope it continues. The finance director, through no fault of her own, is left on the outside looking in.

I can see that all this is acutely uncomfortable for you and must seem deeply unfair, but unfair's a word you must be careful with. You can't undo what's happened. And what's happened is that your boss now has access to two people he knows to be capable of doing the finance director's job - and recent experience leads him to prefer your deputy.

You must talk this through with your boss, openly and without resentment. Accept that your deputy, given the opportunity, has proved his ability to do the bigger job. His evident pleasure in your own discomfiture is certainly unattractive, but to expect him to withdraw gracefully to his former status (and 'the less exciting things') is unreasonable. Equally, it makes no sense for you and he to squabble over the same territory. The only sensible answer is for one or other of you to be given another job, of equivalent rank and responsibility, in another part of the company. And you must accept that it might have to be you.

Jeremy Bullmore has been creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London and a non-executive director of the both Guardian Media Group and WPP.

Address your problems to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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