Friday, 28 November 2014

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 28 November

Just how do you go about confronting an intolerably tyrannical boss? Thomas Blaikie wades into office politics

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
I work in a multicultural organisation in mainland Europe that has open-plan office space. My department has 25 staff members, and our boss (from New York) is seated in the corner with a view of all the team from her desk.

Her method of communication is to yell questions or requests to her staff, frequently using their family name to avoid confusion with other staff members who share the same first name. For example, ‘Jenkins, have you approved the press release?’

Coming from the UK, I find this approach quite rude and disruptive. But perhaps I am just being overly sensitive. What do you think?
Sarah Rushworth, stationed in Europe

Dear Sarah,
How interesting to hear from the Continent! And not in an advanced state of civilisation as we are often led to believe. I must say your letter made my blood boil. Lucky I’m far away – I’d find it hard not to reach for the guillotine, a traditional European remedy, at least in France. What an awful boss! No, you are not being overly sensitive.

These open-plan o„ffices, intended to embody a more democratic workplace, are a disaster. In this case, the opportunity arises for a parade ground to open up where the sergeant major may hurl abuse in all directions. How insu†fferable that you are addressed by your surnames; how outrageous that she shouts across the room at you, regardless of what you might be doing at the time. Just because it’s an open-plan o„ffice, it doesn’t mean people aren’t trying to get on with their work. Besides, this is very poor management.

By the sound of it, your boss is trapped in one of those films about life in a 1920s newsroom, where the editor is a tyrant who growls commands from the corner of his mouth. The Front Page, for example. These days it is believed that employees will give their best in a friendly, supportive environment, treated with respect and courtesy.

What is to be done? Mass revolt, complaining to someone more senior or directly to the person in question, would be ideal but all too often in these situations people get cold feet at the last minute.

Otherwise you could try lone upward management. Don’t be afraid. Martinets frequently crumble at the first sign of opposition. Say: ‘Actually, I’d prefer it if you addressed me by my proper name… could you email if you have a particular request? I find it di„fficult to concentrate if I’m interrupted.’

Otherwise, the only consolation is that all tyrannies come to an end – eventually.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER


If you’re in a group in a restaurant, can you pay for some of the party but not others? What about a group of three, with one person left to fend for themselves and the other singled out for special favour? Obviously if the other two are a couple, there’s no issue, but otherwise it doesn’t seem right.

Sometimes an explanation is given: ‘I’m buying X dinner because I’ve been staying with them.’ Or some other favour is being returned. This is just about all right if it’s made quite clear beforehand. But really the rules of symmetry are offended. Better to switch to another kind of grateful house-guest gift, like a set of towels or a crate of champagne or soap. If the bill is very small, you think, ‘Couldn’t they have paid the whole thing?’ There’s a feeling of rulers being brought out and hairs being split.

Generally, this doing of good turns should be going on just between the people concerned, not when others are present to feel excluded. Either pay the restaurant bill yourself entirely – stretching your credit to its necessary limit – or split it equally between all participants.

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