What's your problem?

You won't need to repeat this conversation - it'll be around the office with the speed of a spicy rumour.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: My boss was fired for his incompetence, and I've taken his place. I'm struggling with my new team. Before now, we were friends who went to the pub together and talked about work. So I know exactly who are the moaners and the lazy ones. The problem is that they know I know, and so our manager/employee relationship is already off to a bad start. How can I smooth the path and encourage them to adopt a more conscientious approach?

A: Unless your company has a deliberate policy of promoting incompetent people, I have to assume you're not one of them. You may not have been a goodie-goodie and you probably enjoyed a moan with your pint as much as anyone, but your team must know from direct personal observation that when it comes to the work, you've always been conscientious. The sooner you make it clear that you expect the same of them, the better for all of you.

As of course you realise, there's not the slightest chance of your being able to preserve your previous personal relationships. Nor should you want to. Nor, come to that, would the others respect you if you tried. You can't be someone's boss and their best mate at the same time.

You say your manager/employee relationship has got off to a bad start, but I bet it hasn't with everyone. I bet it's only the moaners and the lazy ones who are making life difficult for you. The others will be watching intently from the sidelines to see how you deal with this. If the moaners get you on the run, you're done for.

You need to make an early statement - by which I don't mean some wordy e-mail setting out your pious expectations. That would only open you up to ridicule. I mean action.

As soon as you've got rock-solid evidence of someone's irresponsibility - even if that someone has been an engaging pub companion - you must confront him/her with it face to face. Make it absolutely clear that things are going to be different from now on and that you'll be keeping a record. Leave him or her in no doubt that those who don't deliver will be fired - or whichever euphemism you prefer as long as it is unambiguous.

You won't need to broadcast this conversation - it'll be round the office with the speed of a spicy rumour, and the good, quiet ones will be delighted and relieved. The snide asides and the unfunny jokes won't stop immediately: the jesters have to save a bit of face. But things will never be the same again - and can only get better.

One last but very important point. As a new boss, you probably won't be familiar with the legally necessary procedures if you're thinking of terminating someone's contract. Make sure you become so.

Q: We were sent a memo at work saying that we'd receive bonuses this year. I've since got my monthly pay package, and the bonus amount is tiny. I'm mortified because I think our bonuses might be related to performance, in which case someone obviously thinks I'm doing a poor job. No-one has made it clear to us what the bonus relates to or how it's calculated. But I'm wary of approaching my boss, who's a notoriously bad manager and will probably dismiss my concerns. What should I do?

A: I'm not sure from what you tell me whether this boss is simply your immediate boss or is the ultimate, big-banana boss. If he's the big boss - and he's a notoriously bad manager - you should have started looking around a long time ago. If he's just your line manager, it's still tricky, but he's very unlikely to be responsible for the company's overall bonus policy.

Nobody should be kept in the dark about their performance rating: it leads to sleepless nights and saps the confidence. And you must be right in thinking that bonuses should be related to performance and have some semblance of logic behind them: you shouldn't be left trying to work it out yourself.

So rather than raise the bonus issue immediately, put in a polite but firm request for a formal performance review. If your company finds that totally unreasonable, then intensify your job search right away. And if you do get the review, you'll have a much better basis for judging the equity - or otherwise - of your derisory bonus.

Q: I'm renovating my house. It's a major job, and I can't help making and receiving phone calls from builders, electricians, plumbers, decorators and so on while I'm at work. I'm keeping these sessions to a minimum, but my boss has put her foot down and forbidden calls except at lunchtime. It's proving unworkable - the builders and other workmen need to call when things come up, and sometimes I need to call them at random times. How can I talk my boss round without causing bad feeling?

A: I'm not as immediately sympathetic as you may have hoped. I imagine you work in open-plan space - so it won't be the fact of making and taking calls that's driven your boss to give you this ultimatum; it's the distraction you're causing to others around you. Being forced to overhear other people's private telephone conversations is a real test of tolerance - and most of us fail it. Think trains.

So in the unlikely circumstances of you not having a mobile phone, get one right away. Instruct your army of confused artisans to use only your mobile number and to leave voicemail messages when you don't answer. Come lunchtime, call them all back. For real emergencies, take your mobile to the loo.

- Jeremy Bullmore has been creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London and a non-executive director of both the 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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