Your pressing management questions answered

16 November 2018 -

Conference call

Are company references a thing of the past? How do you manage across borders? And is an office romance ever a good idea?

Guest expert Lesley Cowley OBE CCMI

Mean-spirited management?

After being made redundant by a leading multinational two years ago, I asked for a reference. I was told it was not company policy to give references, except to confirm dates and positions held. Now my son, who has ended his employment at a well-known retailer to pursue his studies, has had the same answer. He wants to work part-time while studying, but recruitment agencies insist on references from employers. Is there a reason for this seemingly mean-spirited trend?

Lesley: Many employers adopted a policy of giving minimal information after legal cases from the late 1990s onwards in which companies were found liable for providing misleading information or omitting information.

Some people try to get around this by asking for a verbal or personal reference from, say, a former manager. But this can still open up the potential for liability, so I suspect that these will also become rare.

It is a shame you weren’t able to negotiate a full reference as part of your redundancy discussions, but I expect you and your son will have some materials to draw on for applications, such as appraisal comments or customer feedback. Job applications increasingly incorporate such quotes. Done well, it’s very impactful.

Also remember that seeking references is very often the last stage in the recruitment process. New employers will have already made up their minds and so I suspect that the reference stage will become increasingly administrative.

My virtual boss

I work from home and only connect with my manager online. It can be hard to establish a real rapport this way, though we both work hard at it. Do you have any recommendations about frequency of contact and building bonds in a virtual environment? We work in separate countries so there’s little chance of us meeting.

Lesley: It is great to hear you both work hard at maintaining your relationship. As you have recognised, where there is geographical separation, regular communication is much more important. Frequency of contact should be guided by the degree of oversight that your manager would like, but I suggest a proper one-to-one discussion at least once a month, with weekly or fortnightly updates by email.

To build and strengthen bonds, I’d suggest making sure you take time to get to know your manager’s interests, likes and dislikes (and vice versa).

One final but important aspect is to think about your own appearance and working environment when interacting. Set up a test call with a friend to ensure you have selected the right volume, camera distance and angle, and background. Your clothing should be appropriate too. In spite of time differences, I would not expect to see someone in their pyjamas on a video call. I know of a conference call that was interrupted by a partner’s loud snoring – the source of much hilarity, and memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Office romances

What should be the company policy on romantic relationships? Two of my subordinates are in a relationship and I’m concerned it could lead to a lack of professionalism in the office. Our company has no official policy on this. Are personal situations beyond my remit?

Lesley: Your employees are entitled to a private life and generally a manager can only get involved when there is a direct impact on the workplace team. It’s surprising that your company doesn’t have a policy on relationships.

Many businesses do, and for good reasons: some very tricky issues can arise when workplace relationships end, but also while they are ongoing – for example, issues around favouritism, confidential information-sharing, conflicts of interest and inappropriate conduct. Rather than wait for a problem, I recommend you instigate the development of a policy. Perhaps your team could help with the task?

Lesley Cowley OBE CCMI is chair of the DVLA and Companies House, and former CEO of Nominet

Read: more management dilemmas

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