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Dear Miss Manager:
I am not a manager myself, but I need to tell you about my boss. All of us who work for her have experienced the same problem: she takes credit for every success and blames us for every failure. The most recent example is the most flagrant: I went to her with a proposal to eliminate a large backlog of loose-leaf filing. I suggested that everyone in the department, including staff who normally have nothing to do with loose-leafing, file one release a day from the backlog until it was eliminated. No one would need to spend more than fifteen or twenty minutes a day on this activity. She agreed that this was a good idea, then told me to go ahead and arrange it. I did, with the help of a few others, and soon we had a good plan, charts, schedules, and everyone seemed enthused. Our manager filed one release at the beginning, but then she claimed to be unable to work it into her schedule. That was OK. Everyone else (about ten of us) had a great time – we made a sort of contest out of it. The backlog was gone in six weeks. Then, just the other day, in the law school's newsletter, there was a feature about our manager, and it included a paragraph about her recent initiative to eliminate the backlog of loose-leaf releases. It was written to indicate how she can see problems and come up with solutions in a creative way. It was even suggested that she had to convince her reluctant staff to go along with the idea! Needless to say, we all felt betrayed and humiliated. We weren't too surprised that she took no notice of the success of the project (she never compliments), but the rest of it hurt us deeply. I'm not sure if there is anything to do about it. I just wanted you to know that not every manager out there has all those great qualities you are always talking about.
If it could make any difference, I would apologize to you on behalf of managers everywhere. But the kind of behavior you mention isn't bad management. It is just bad. There is, unfortunately, no ready-made solution for dealing with people who behave unethically. "Unethically" is itself a bit of a cop out. Lawyers, doctors, business executives, ministers, and librarians who cheat, lie, or steal are said to be unethical, and part of the solution has been to require courses in ethical behavior and to establish codes of professional conduct. Different levels of unethical behavior result in different penalties: a reprimand, temporary suspension, disbarment, prison. But in law offices, in medical research facilities, in businesses everywhere you will find incidences like the one you describe. Insinuation, nods and winks, tone of voice – there are thousands of ways to belittle, lie, and generally treat people badly without violating in a technical sense the rules of behavior implemented by a professional organization. Not every example will be as clear-cut as the one you give. Credit stealers are usually sneakier than that. One is tempted to suggest that if someone needs a course in behaving at a minimally ethical level after one has reached the age of obtaining a degree in law, medicine, or library science, there is probably not much hope for such a person. So, I don't hold out much encouragement for changing the internal disposition of your boss. But, that does not mean there are no ways to change the actions of such people.
Are there any advantages to the rules-oriented approach to ethics? On the one hand, there are sometimes acceptable methods for dealing with ethical lapses within organizational policies. If, for example, your boss is a member of the American Association of Law Libraries, she is theoretically operating under that organization's "Ethical Principles" (http://www.aallnet.org/about/policy_ethics.asp). Unfortunately, nothing there contemplates generally bad behavior. A professional organization is appropriately more interested in laying out the rules for behavior within the specialty over which it has an interest. So there is much in AALL's Ethical Principles concerning the appropriate dissemination of legal information and nothing about how generous, kind, and hard-working members should be. And really, AALL has enough to do working with the profession's inherent needs. No one expects more. Like all organizations, and like all workplaces, families, and societies, one needs to be able to rely on the basic forthrightness of the majority of its members in order for anything to get done.
So what is to be done? I think a memo which simply states the facts of the case, without saying that your boss behaved badly, should be composed. As well as you can remember specific dates, actual words used, processes, etc., you should spell them out plainly. Who is your manager's boss? The library director? The dean of the law school? Whoever it is, make an appointment to see him or her. Give that person a copy of your memo and a copy of the story in the newsletter. Say that you just wanted to let that person know that the implication in the newsletter — that the staff were somehow uncooperative or unconcerned with the backlog — is not at all how the staff felt. Don't demand anything, don't imply any specific action. Let the facts speak for themselves. You will have done your duty in passing appropriate information to the next level of management. This may be a brave or foolish thing to do depending on the relationship between your boss and her boss. If they are very chummy, it may only get you into trouble, in which case you should forego the procedure. But if her boss is a reasonable person, he or she will understand what is behind the dissatisfaction you and the other staff are feeling. Alternatively, you could directly ask your boss about the newsletter story. Is she completely reprehensible? Is there room for reform? You will have to make that judgment. You could bring a copy of the newsletter story and ask her why the reporter seemed to have the impression that the staff were unenthused about the project. This could of course produce a lot of double talk and excuses, which will only sink her further in your estimation. But it might also reveal to her that she's not so clever as she thinks; that there are people around her who know what she's up to and that she'll have to watch herself. Whether that goes on to produce a change in her behavior is anyone's guess. It may be worth a shot.
Dear Miss Manager:
I have an embarrassing issue to raise. What am I to do about a new employee who is, to be honest, a bit pungent? Actually, this employee downright stinks. That may sound harsh, but it is only too true, and it has reached a crisis point, mostly because of the way other employees are reacting to it. The issue has gone beyond the unpleasantness and distraction of the offensive odors themselves and has become the chief topic of conversation throughout the day, and the fuel for innumerable jokes and cutting remarks directed at the offending employee, who seems to be as oblivious to the comments as to their inspiration. And now it has turned more serious in that another employee is suffering fairly acutely from allergic reactions she believes emanate from the particular quality of the odors in question, which originate, it seems safe to say, from the new employee's apparently prodigious menagerie of pets.
Suffering so far in silence
As embarrassing as such an issue is to relate, and as truly embarrassing as it will be to deal with, something clearly must be done, embarrassing or not. Your first order of business is to make sure you have your facts straight. It may seem ridiculous to question whether or not the employee really smells bad; I'm assuming that must be incontrovertibly true and not just a bit of whimsy that started with a mild offense and has been blown out of proportion. But make sure this is the case. There are people in the world who do not tolerate anything that doesn't meet with their own sense of propriety (Miss Manager herself has had such accusations leveled against her!) If the new employee is a bit out of the ordinary and doesn't fit into some other employees' range of acceptable odors, but is not really so egregious as the ensuing jokes and commentary imply, then your real problem may be with the rest of the staff. That, of course, would be another whole topic, so I will assume that is not the case here and that you really do have a verifiable, "reasonable man"-defined smell to deal with. And I will assume that your conjecture about its origins in the employee's pets is also true, although again I would caution you to be sure about that before you begin any actions.
Now, what you have is an employee who, because of some personal behavioral choices, is unpleasant for other employees to be around and is thereby disrupting the workplace. In other cases of inappropriate behavior, your actions would be more obvious. If the new employee were using the phone too much for personal calls or taking hour-long mid-morning breaks or displaying pornographic images in the work area, you would have a clear line of action, probably backed up with a written policy from the personnel office. In this case there may be no specific policy that covers the exact problem. But read the policy anyway. There is undoubtedly some generic, catch-all provision that will be useful in the present case. Something appropriate may reside in a dress code or appearance provision that says an employee should be neat and clean. These kinds of documents have a very wide range of expression depending on the nature of your institution: business or university, state institution or private, etc. Union provisions in particular may complicate the procedures you have to go through in case like this if it is pursued based on official documentation. And this does not at all contemplate the possibility of legal action. If all of this seems like an extreme caution in a case like this, I assure you that there are places and circumstances under which such caution is necessary. It would be best if this kind of situation could be handled unofficially as much as possible. If it becomes necessary at some point to go to official documentation or institutional rules to make a demand for change, you should know what you have to go on. But don't begin there.
It would also be unwise to start with threats or bombastic demands. This will be embarrassing for you, but it will probably be even more embarrassing for the employee in question. Delicacy is essential. The question of the employee's feelings in the matter should never be forgotten. Assuming that the employee is performing in his or her job appropriately, the issue of the offending odor should be separated from the essential elements of the job as much as possible. But don't be too circumspect. At some point, and the sooner the better, the actual problem must be dealt with directly. A sample script for a manager in such a situation (and I think the odoriferous employee is analogous to other sorts of behavioral/personal situations that might arise) might go something like this:
"Ziggy, I am quite pleased with your work. You are doing a good job. But there is something that is troubling me, and I'm hoping you will be able to help me. To be honest, Ziggy, many people in the department have been quite bothered by the animal smells that seem to attach to your clothes." [If possible, make the actual accusation or problem to be dealt with as impersonal as possible, at least initially. In this case, a problem with someone's clothes may seem less offensive than a problem with his body, as it were] "I understand that you have a lot of pets." [Here an invitation to talk about the animals or some personal matter in a positive light would be good to initiate if possible. Once the essential topic has been broached, it is a good idea to veer off of it for a short time so that the employee knows what is at issue but is not immediately called upon to explain or defend anything. Also, a short, pleasant, slightly off-topic conversation at this point will lessen the sense of severity in the conversation without necessarily diminishing the importance. Don t let this sidebar go on too long, though. Sooner or later, you'll have to get back to the crux of the matter.] "So, Ziggy, to get back to the issue of the clothes, I'm hoping you can help me think of a way to alleviate this problem." [Something like this will allow the employee to begin discussing the problem, and from here your response will depend on the employee's reaction. Ideally, he will say "I had no idea! I will immediately make changes!" This, however, is not likely. Be prepared for a certain amount of denial, defensiveness, and distraction. He may assert that people don't like him and are ganging up on him, that he has a right to have a hundred and eighty cats, etc.] "I'm sorry you feel that way, Ziggy, but the problem is real and it is up to us to figure out a solution. We work in an indoor environment here, and it is essential for everyone to be able to work closely with one another. A couple of years ago, there was an employee in another department who wore too much perfume and caused other people to avoid her. Once she was told about how her perfume was causing trouble, she scaled back and everyone was happier" [Offering an example that makes the employee feel he is not the only one to be singled out might not be a bad idea. If the employee has not shown any signs of a willingness to change by now, pull out the stops a bit.] "The fact is, I have to trust my own judgment and that of the majority of the people in the department and say that you must come to work in a cleaner state, for your own sake and for ours. The Personnel Office requires it, and so do I. I expect there to be immediate improvement in this." [Don't threaten any specific consequences yet. This is as much as you can do in a preliminary meeting.]
If the employee is still defiant or unwilling to improve after this, then you have a decision to make. Is the behavior bad enough to warrant further action? If so, you will want to discuss the issue with the next level of management before you proceed. It will be a good idea to discuss the case with your bosses to make sure that you can count on them to back you up. But most employees aren't looking to get fired. Things may be a bit rocky at first after this initial meeting, and there may not be 100 % compliance right away, or things may slip back to the old ways after some initial improvement. Be prepared to be vigilant and to return to the topic if necessary. Recidivism in itself could be grounds for further action, if things get to that point.
This will be a painful operation, and it will require great tact and kindness to be successful. This is the kind of situation that separates the real managers from the clock-punchers. Good luck!