A manager's effort to build team morale shouldn't be costly for employees

By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 24, 2009; 11:53 AM

Hi. I work for a boss with very limited interpersonal skills. He's nice enough, but doesn't seem to get the simple niceties of treating staff well. He's never done anything for the team for the holidays, shows up late to team lunches, expects us to chip in to buy a departing co-worker lunch and then eats half of the co-worker's food instead of ordering and paying for something for himself. The last straw is that to celebrate a recent success, he wants us all to go out for drinks -- "the first drink's on him." I am one of the more senior members of the team, and while I try to hide it and keep positive for the rest of the team, my morale suffers, too. Is there anything I can do to clue him in?

Although your boss is not exactly an Ebenezer Scrooge, he may nevertheless benefit from being visited by someone such as you who can help him to appreciate the impact of his behavior.

Your boss may be quite oblivious to the importance of displaying generosity, even around the holidays. Or, what's more likely, he may not understand what generosity means. He may also be clueless about how inconsiderate it is to dictate from his position of authority when others should chip in. Your boss does, at least, get the importance of acknowledging team accomplishments and bidding a warm farewell to departing employees. The problem is his lamentable execution.

I think that it would be foolhardy for you to undertake influencing your boss' personality or to teach him basic good manners. The time for that passed long ago with his childhood. What you can do, however, is advocate for specific changes that will benefit everyone.

At the root of your boss' problem is utter stinginess. It is one thing for him to require that the team contribute to a departing coworker's meal. It is quite another for him to consume half of that meal himself! To make matters worse, he then announces, with what I imagine to be an infuriating air of self-satisfaction, that the first drink at your next outing will be on him. Yet, in your boss' distorted view, he is being extravagantly generous.

Before you tackle the issue of his failure to give holidays gifts, therefore, you may have better luck addressing the opposite side of the coin: the inappropriate pressure he places on others to spend money. Start by explaining that requiring people to attend outings at which they must pay for drinks or meals is counterproductive to his presumptive goal of building morale. Tell your boss that managers, in your experience, ordinarily either charge team outings to a corporate budget or cover the costs themselves. If he invites his employees out, he should find a way to pay. People will attend regardless, but they will resent him if they are forced to foot the bill. Your boss may insist that he does not have the budget or personal funds to cover the cost of events. If so, tell him that team events are not essential to the expression of gratitude and that a heartfelt note of thanks will have a much more positive impact than a mandatory team outing at which everyone goes Dutch.

This may also be a good time to mention that his late arrivals to team lunches are making people wonder how much he respects those who work for him. Although it costs nothing, his being punctual would generate enormous good will and lead people to be more forgiving of his interpersonal shortcomings.

If you find that your boss is receptive to your initial overture, venture further to suggest that he seize upon the holidays as an opportunity to thank the team for their hard work throughout the year. Emphasize again that what matters most is sincerity and thoughtfulness, not the amount of money he spends. f cost is a concern for your boss, you could offer to help him think of low-cost ways to acknowledge the season. I have heard of managers who distribute $10 dollar coffee shop gift cards, who bring in batches of home-made cookies or who invite their employees over for dinner. With a bit of creativity and a modest budget, your boss can surely find a way to make your team feel valued and respected this year while discovering for himself the indefinable sense of joy that giving brings.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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