Better Mondays - Chapter Eight
Draw a Line Between Your Personal and Business Life (And Keep it Flexible)
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Chapter Eight - Draw a Line Between Your Personal and Business Life (And Keep it Flexible)
This can be one of the most daunting challenges of successfully negotiating the corporate bureaucracy. If you’ve been recognized as someone with management potential or have exhibited other “high-profile” aptitudes, your managers will expect you (and often your spouse) to participate in all company-sponsored events, including those that appear to be primarily social. If you’re already on the management fast-track, your responsibility for “presence” will correspondingly expand to make you even more visible.
Since we’ve touched on the subject of spouses, let’s talk about the importance of your marital status and how it can affect your career path.
Married or single—does it matter?
The term “glass ceiling” has been used for decades to describe the virtual barrier that prevents certain classes—women and minorities in particular —from advancing into higher levels of management. Yes, it still exists, and the bias, prejudice, and erroneous preconceptions that perpetuate it often include marital status.
Here’s the short answer: When it comes to married versus unmarried employees, with all other factors equal, the married employee will receive more points for stability and consistent emotional balance. Here’s why: A single guy or gal poses a lot of “what if” questions. What if he or she meets someone who lives out of town and decides to move to be with them? What if a love affair ends on a sour note and leaves one or both of the employees emotionally devastated, impacting their performance?
Call it flawed logic or irrational speculation, but a married person is a known entity, and managers usually assume a married candidate’s future to be less subject to personal situations that could be detrimental to the company.
Am I suggesting that, for the sake of their careers, singles find partners and tie the knot as quickly as possible? No, just be aware of the “tainted single” prejudicial attitude that can influence management’s evaluation of your future potential.
If you’re currently without a significant other, you can neutralize some of the perceived instability of your “singleness” by keeping your sexual exploits to yourself. Yes, I mention this in another chapter, but it’s important enough to repeat: If someone asks you how you spent your weekend, keep your responses vague, with references that indicate you’re a home-body. If pressed for details, tell others that most of your free time is spent taking online courses, working out at the gym, or pursuing some aspect of self-improvement. You may be dying to brag about the threesome you had Saturday night, but in a word—don’t.
If you’re attending a corporate-sponsored event where other employees will be accompanied by their spouses or partners, consider asking a friend to go with you. Make sure to choose someone who knows how to behave themselves in a professional setting, can chat up a storm, and knows how to turn on the charm. (I know, if you’d found someone like that, you’d have married them. Just do the best you can, keeping in mind that it’s better to go alone than with someone who drinks too much, or whose personality leaves others feeling placated or insulted.)
Romantic relationships between employees.
For decades, companies have used behavioral guidelines, environmental influences, and formal policies to keep their employees from engaging in flirtation, romance, and sex. Human resource departments continue to hire independent consultants to present workshops on curtailing sexual overtures and innuendo. Periodic memos are constantly circulated to remind employees to keep explicit conversations, public displays of affection, and sexual overtures outside the office.
Has it worked? It depends on how you measure it. I think the level of casual flirtation is probably about the same. Even when companies institute new policies to control or eliminate it, the resulting atmosphere only appears less affected. As most will tell you, it’s still there, bubbling just under the surface.
Thankfully, here’s what has changed . . .
The blatant, historically male-initiated sexual overtures—especially when delivered with intimidating and inferred ultimatums—are pretty much a thing of the past. Victims now have voice and recourse, and offenders are no longer protected by their job status or value to the company.
That being said, people working for the same company still meet, become attracted to each other, and end up having consensual sex. Some fall in love and get married. Others fall in love, get divorced, and then get married.
Here’s the big question: If tempted, what do you do?
First, consider your company’s rules and policies concerning an inter-office romance. Assuming there are strict directives for acceptable employee behavior while on company time and property, it’s also a good bet that repeated infractions can result in automatic termination—for at least one of you. However, if you’re determined to ask out that cute brunette in accounting—despite the risk to your career—here are some guidelines:
Be discrete. Don’t ask a co-worker out while you’re within earshot of someone else. It can be embarrassing for both of you. When asking, don’t gush about your pent-up feelings or use language that should be reserved for the bedroom. Simply ask the question: “Would you like to go to . . . ?”
If you’re turned down, don’t ask twice. It’s not only rude; it could also be considered harassment. Even though you deliver your second invitation with courtesy and respect, if the recipient of your interest becomes uncomfortable, you’ve crossed the line, and you can be held accountable for it.
Keep sex off the table during the first date. Make your first date a casual lunch or a cup of coffee after work. If all goes well and you both decide to indulge, explore the possibilities OUTSIDE of company time and property. Taking the secretary out to the parking lot for a “noon-er” in the backseat of your Chevy will not be appreciated by management, and if your sex partner du jour regrets the activity later, your lack of judgment WILL come back to haunt you.
Keep the relationship to yourself. Don’t share the fact that you’re dating a company employee. Make sure your partner understands the need for secrecy as well. Most companies consider romantic activity between employees an unwanted distraction within the workplace, affecting not only the two people involved but others who know about it. If it negatively influences office productivity, one or both of you may find yourself being transferred or terminated.
Agree on rules of disengagement before things get serious. If it doesn’t work out—and most of the time, it won’t—have a mutually acceptable understanding of how to break up or at least wind things down. Think of it as a dating prenuptial. If your relationship grows and you end up together in the long term, great. If not, you’ll have some rules to help normalize your post-breakup behavior at work. Remember, if one of you loses interest and calls it off, you’ll still have to work together. And that can be a big order. Here are a couple of suggestions to include in your pre-relationship discussion:
1. Agree that if either party decides to call it quits, they must be honest and disclose their feelings as soon as possible.
2. Neither of you are allowed to suddenly stop calling or radically change your behavior toward the other without a full explanation of what’s going on. Not knowing why a relationship ends only adds to the hurt and disorientation of rejection. Being honest can also help reduce the animosity and outright hostility the injured party can feel toward the other.
The mid-twentieth century adage of “Don’t stick your pen into the company inkwell,” was an early attempt to warn employees (primarily men) to consider their co-workers in the same way as they would any company asset—don’t abuse it, never exploit it, and don’t even think about taking it home. And yet, many couples can still remember the first time they laid eyes on their spouse—riding together in the same elevator, chatting in the company lunchroom, or sitting next to each other at a business conference—brought together because they were employees of the same company.
I must admit to having a special affinity for this group of love-struck co-workers since I, too, married a co-worker. And after 25 years of marriage, I consider our meeting, relationship, and resulting marriage to be the most positive and influential event in my life. Just because you both happen to work under the same roof should not be a reason to eliminate each other as a possible life partner. Just remember, an office romance has a much greater—and safer—chance of longevity when passion is moderated with equal does of caution, discretion, and responsible judgment.
What about vacations and taking time off work?
I could cite all kinds of studies that show the advantages of taking vacations. However, the following story does a much better job at making my point:
After ten years at Acme, I’d earned three weeks of vacation, but as December rolled around, I had not taken a single day off. That particular year had been especially hectic. One of our sales engineers had been transferred to another office, leaving us shorthanded. And after six months, his replacement was still a couple of months away. As a result, my inside sales assistant, Jill, and I took over his customers, including all associated order administration and follow-up.
Taking a vacation that year was simply not an option. In the most literal sense, taking time off work would have damaged the company’s relationship with dozens of customers, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost business, and put an unacceptable workload on my assistant—something I refused to do.
As I looked at my planning calendar to determine the days our office would close for the December holidays, I realized I had enough vacation days to take the entire month of December off—an impossible fantasy.
I mentioned this to my boss who responded by acknowledging my loyalty to the company and then added he would ask the regional manager—who was in the office that day—to approve additional compensation equal to a month’s salary, financially offsetting my forfeited vacation time. In his mind, there was no question I had given up my vacation due to company circumstances, and more importantly, the company had benefited from it.
Believing Mr. Regional would approve the request, my supervisor posed the question to him while the three of us were in the same room.
Mr. Regional got a bothered look on his face and mumbled, “That’s not possible.” Directing his comments at me, he added, “You should take your vacation days when they’re available. Giving them up is a personal decision, and the company can’t be responsible for poor planning on your part.”
Until that day, I’d never realized how far a person could put their head up their ass. This guy recognized value only when it was of benefit to him. Since he didn’t see how pulling several thousand dollars out of his discretionary account would be of any immediate advantage to him personally, he attacked my well-intentioned efforts with criticism.
So that year I gave the company an extra three weeks of uncompensated work. Double work in fact—my own and, with Jill’s help, that of the missing salesperson. I also learned how much the company valued and appreciated my sacrifice, in dollars and cents—terms we both understood.
But wait! Isn’t it possible to hurt your career by taking vacations? There are a surprising number of employees who allow a large percentage of their vacation days to go unused every year. They typically cite the following reasons:
· Their workload is too heavy to leave
· There’s too much going on at work right now
· The timing isn’t right
· The fear that being gone too long—typically more than a week—could hurt their chances for promotion.
If you’re worried that your absence will negatively impact your career, express your concerns to your supervisor. Explain that you want to make sure your vacation doesn’t impose undue stress on others or cost the company new business. This should be done during a private meeting after you’ve prepared the following:
1. List any contracts, meetings, correspondence, or other communication scheduled for completion or expected by others during your absence. Explain that you have rescheduled the non-critical items and will complete the high-priority work prior to your leaving. How do you identify a high-priority task? If it’s something that needs to come from you to ensure its accuracy, or will result in a bottom line you’ll have to live with (performance goals, for example), bite the bullet, and get it done before you leave.
2. Make arrangements with a co-worker to take over any direct customer responsibility you may have. When someone calls for you while you’re out of the office, make sure the person responsible for answering the phone knows to route your calls to the substitute. (Obviously, you’ll offer to return the favor when the situation is reversed.)
3. If you feel it’s necessary—either to placate your boss or to demonstrate the importance you place on your job—provide your travel itinerary and contact information. It’s usually a good idea to suggest the perceived level of need before others interrupt your vacation. In other words, is it okay to call to get your opinion on a situation that could have waited until you returned? Or do you want to be interrupted only for critical questions and decisions that could cost the company (and you) money? Also make sure your boss knows your preference for contact (phone, email, text).
Associations with fraternal and professional organizations.
Unless there is a definite advantage in disclosing your association with a fraternal or professional organization (for example, because your supervisor or a member of senior management is also a member), you’re better off not mentioning it.
Even though the purpose and intent of many fraternal groups are primarily altruistic, the majority of companies will consider your affiliation with any club, charity, alliance, or organized group as a distraction.
Management wants you to spend your productive efforts exclusively on their behalf. Revealing your association with a fraternal organization may cause a supervisor to wonder if . . .
· While you’re at work, are you distracted by the bake sale you’re organizing that weekend at the Elks Lodge?
· How often will your responsibilities as a Mason take priority over your job?
· Are you using company time and resources to make phone calls, produce copies for members, or sort your mailing list on behalf of fraternal organizations?
The only reasonably safe exception? Church. Any organization having a religious connotation is usually hands-off. One reason is that most services and meetings take place on Sunday, a day that doesn’t exist on the corporate calendar. If you attend services on Saturday or help out with church-sponsored activities, you can usually get away with it, but keep in mind you’ll still be expected to give up the occasional weekend when company travel is required.
As a salaried employee, the company will fail to see a hard line between personal and business time. And as you move up the ranks into upper management, you’ll find that line increasingly blurred. For example, if your goal is to rise to a division manager or vice-presidency, you’ll need to project the persona of a “company man,” someone who is never off the clock, and always available to pursue the interests of the organization.
How to deal with an unwanted promotion or a request to move to another location.
Being forced to deal with an unwanted offer of promotion or a new assignment that requires relocation can be a double-edged sword. Turning down a promotion—even if your reasons are justified—can create serious doubts about your commitment to the company’s objectives and priorities.
Relocations can be especially damaging to Users. For example, if your long-term career plans are based on the eventual creation of your own business, a move half-way across the country can be disruptive and may delay the launch date of your personal venture by months or even years. This is particularly true if you’re planning on using your local base of contacts to help grow your business after you leave the corporation.
It’s a thin line, and it gets thinner over time. You may be able to turn down the first or even the second offer of relocation, but a third refusal will establish a pattern, and your long-term value to the company will come into question. I know plenty of Users whose third offer came with an ultimatum: Accept the new assignment or seek other employment.
This may seem like the corporate version of cutting off their nose to spite their face, but it’s an extremely common ploy to separate the Users from the Loyalists. I’ve personally experienced it twice.
The first time occurred when I was employed by Mountain Bell (Yep, the old phone company) and after working for a year, I was offered a transfer to Phoenix, Arizona. Currently assigned to the Mountain Bell office in Yuma, I’d taken the job after completing my second year in college. Since my real intention was to work a couple of years to save enough money to return to school and complete an engineering degree, a move to Phoenix made no sense. My living expenses would be much higher, the job would require more drive time, and as a result, building my savings would take much longer. In short, I saw the move as counter-productive to accomplishing my real goal of returning to college to complete my degree.
I turned it down.
Mountain Bell’s response? “We have nothing else for you.”
At the time, their decision infuriated me. I’d believed their offer was presented as an opportunity for advancement, not a contingency for continued employment. But the regional manager was an egotistical hot-head. He interpreted my refusal to move as an insult, a personal affront to his authority, and I was summarily punished for it. (Yes, I quit the phone company and went back to school a year earlier than planned, paying the bills with part-time jobs and student loans.)
The second time I received a “career ultimatum” was during my fourteenth year with the “Acme” corporation. The offer of relocation came raw and unwrapped, without promises or accolades, and missing all the earmarks of a reward for a job well done.
At the time, I was working in the Phoenix office and had just been assigned a new manager resulting from a company-wide reorganization. My newly ordained boss immediately decided I would be more useful in Denver. I asked my new boss, “What happens if I turn it down?” The manager’s answer was swift and simple: “You can seek other employment.”
Here’s the point: An offer of promotion or relocation can serve many purposes, all of which will be in the best interests of the company. Whether or not you share in any of those benefits will be based on your ultimate end game—what you want to accomplish in the next five to ten years of your life.
If your current position is as far as you’re willing to go with your current employer, your best defense against unwanted relocation is to create a situation “outside your control” that explains why you can’t—as opposed to won’t—accept a promotion or relocation. Here are a few that have been used successfully to rationalize a refusal to move:
· A health condition. Never yours, but affecting a family member. (Compromised personal health is a liability that could put you on the shortlist for termination.) This could be in the form of a well-documented allergy to the plant life or environmental pollution in the new location, or a family member who cannot tolerate the heat, cold, humidity, or altitude. It will add credibility to your story by referring to these symptoms as inducers of more serious problems, such as circulatory issues, asthma, shortness of breath, vertigo, stroke, etc.
· The lack of educational facilities at the new location, especially if you’re continuing your education under company supervision or sponsorship. I mention this but don’t bank on it. In the past, making a move before finishing an advanced degree could put its completion at risk. Now, that’s seldom the case. Online courses, extension classes, and other at-a-distance options are commonplace, and the need for physical presence in a classroom has been eliminated. A stronger argument, however, can often be built on a child’s need to remain in their current school, as explained below.
· Children. This is probably the most powerful defense against relocation, especially in the middle of a school year. There’s plenty of data that can easily be manipulated to show the detrimental effects of uprooting a child during a school year. Portraying your decision to turn down a transfer because you must default to the higher priority of being a good father or mother will generally be received as commendable. But remember, your refusal to move may still result in termination, but you’ll leave with the admiration of your co-workers.
· The potential loss of your spouse’s job. Always express this as a secondary concern to your own career. Never give the impression your spouse’s job is of higher priority than yours. As far as the company is concerned, your job is the one that counts and should always be given precedence over the income-generating activities of other family members. If it becomes a conflict, the company will eventually ask you to choose between your spouse’s career and your own, especially if they are grooming you for a managerial position.
· Religious ties to a church or congregation. Be very careful with this one. A manager once confided in me that his decision to terminate a salesman—a devout Mormon—was based on the employee’s lack of productivity. The employee saw it differently. He believed his firing was due to his refusal to move from Salt Lake City. The truth? The guy was doing a lousy job, but he might have received a second chance if he’d accepted relocation to a larger office where he could have received more supervision. The takeaway? Rationalizing a need to stay put for religious reasons loses all merit if you’re not performing at an acceptable level.
Remember, none of these reasons is a guaranteed ticket out of relocation, but they can motivate a human resource manager to take a second look at company liability in the event your firing could result in a wrongful termination suit.
Coming up next from Better Mondays:
Thanks for reading,
Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business. Roger is the author of Better Mondays and Speak Up, and host of Success Point 360 Podcast, offering tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.