Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Ask the Professor III

Dear Professor Plum:

I have recently been promoted to a management position, so I’m still new to having people reporting in to me. Some of my employees have been coming to me to discuss issues that I consider to be personal, not work related. I want to be a caring manager, but where do I draw that line?

- Kenny G., Boston, MA

Dear Kenny:

Congratulations on the promotion! The fact that you’re coming to me for advice already tells me that you’re going to make an outstanding manager.

It is inevitable that when you begin managing people, eventually you will run into a few employees who want to share too many personal details about their lives. I admit that this can sometimes be a challenging problem to deal with. Fortunately, you have come to the right person, Kenny.

Early in my management career, I, too, had a hard time dealing with one particular employee. This employee – we’ll call her Tina – had a tendency to share stories with her co-workers that were highly personal. Whether it was a disturbing anecdote about the homeless man who used to expose himself to her when she worked at a hardware store, or a graphic description of the oozing lump on her back, she always found a way to interject the most inappropriate details into a seemingly normal day.

On one particularly stressful afternoon, Tina came into my office to discuss some issues she was having with a customer. We had what seemed to be a productive discussion about the client, and then Tina started to walk out. But just as she reached my doorway, she turned back on her heels and started to tell me a story about her son. She told me that she was really frustrated with her son and had to ground him because she caught him urinating all over their bathroom walls. What made this so exceedingly disturbing was the fact that her son was 17 years old.

It was at that moment that I perfected my best approach for dealing with similar situations, so this is where you’ll want to start taking notes. I put my head down a little, hugged my arms around my body, and started rocking slowly. Then, I just stared at the floor and let myself go to my happy place. For me, that place was a forest on a clear, autumn day. I could almost smell the pine, feel the leaves crunching beneath my feet, and hear the chickadees chirping. Kenny, your happy place may be somewhere entirely different – it may be a sunny beach or a ski slope – but that’s why you have to approach managing people from an individual perspective.

You’ll find that when you consistently utilize this technique, eventually the offending employees finish their stories and walk away. But remember that consistency is the key. In order to successfully manage a team of people, you must acquire these simple survival skills and coping mechanisms. Only then will you be a true leader.


Dear Professor Plum:

What are your thoughts on office romance? I have started to develop feelings for a co-worker, and I think he might be interested in me as well, but I’m a little worried about dating someone I work with. It’s a big company – over 800 employees – if that makes a difference.

- Hope D., Omaha, NE

Dear Hope:

Oh, what a can of worms you have just opened up, my dear. And believe me, I’d love to be able to tell you that this is the one topic with which I have no personal experience, but I’d be flat-out lying to you. This is a very tricky topic, so I’ll try to break it down into the key components.

I will begin by saying that I understand the temptation to date your co-workers. Most people spend far more time at work than they do with family or friends, so it’s just logical that you might start to be attracted to someone you’re spending that much time with.

As with any tough decision, you need to calculate the risk versus the reward. Office romances are not always a bad thing, but you have to make smart choices. One critical choice to make is what department you should target for your dating pool.

Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the pros and cons of each department that I have personally had dating experience with:

: They can get you a bigger monitor.
Cons: If you break up, they can easily hack into your computer and send a defamatory blast email to the entire company from your user ID.
Risk Level: High

Pros: They like to read.
Cons: If you work in a department that is responsible for meeting budget goals, accounting can make your life miserable.
Risk Level: Low to Moderate

Finance is really just Accounting with attitude and bigger salaries, so please refer back to the Accounting guidelines.

Pros: They tend to be very stylish.
Cons: They are typically egomaniacal and think they run the company, so you’ll constantly have to listen to them drone on about how no one in the company understands the brand platform, blah, blah, blah.
Risk Level: Moderate

Pros: They are on the road a lot, and they can make a lot of money.
Cons: Sales people typically lack discretion, so expect your breakup to be broadcast at the company picnic.
Risk Level: Moderate

Human Resources
Pros: You won’t have much competition.
Cons: They will never call you back.
Risk Level: Insignificant

Customer Service
Pros: They will always try to work things out with you.
Cons: They will always try to work things out with you.
Risk Level: Low

If you are looking to date someone within your own department, my personal recommendation is that you only date your direct supervisor or his boss, because then it really benefits you not only from a personal level, but also from a professional level. Sure, dating an employee can be very empowering, but ultimately you may have to fire that person, and then they may be hesitant to continue dating.

If you follow these simple guidelines, you’ll see that interoffice romance is really as simple, as fun, and often as messy as shooting fish in a barrel. Best of luck to you, Hope!

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