Direct dialog with boss creates low morale

Dear Joan:
I hope you can help me with a delicate situation. I read your column in the paper and really appreciate your business knowledge.

We have a situation in my area that is quite touchy. I am seated in the middle of three co-workers who definitely do not behave in a business-like manner. Their language is disgusting and the constant abuse of this with the customers on the phone is upsetting as well as unprofessional.

To complicate matters, our supervisor seems to ignore the problem since he associates after work hours with these people. How can I remedy the situation without calling attention to myself? Could you suggest any advice that may help me deal with this? Sincere thanks for your help.

Your supervisor may have gotten himself into a trap called "One of the Guys." Socializing with employees after work is a good way to build rapport and teamwork but he may be confusing it with trying to be a "good guy" who wants to be liked by everyone. He may be uncomfortable with his authority and so is pretending it doesn't exist. He may be unwilling to confront his "pals" when he needs to take an uncomfortable stand.

Supervisors who try too hard to be liked or who are unable to separate friendship from leadership usually are troubled bosses. They wonder why everyone doesn't get along like one big happy family. They are hurt when some employees say he has "favorites." They feel betrayed when one of their employees steps over the line and bends the rules. What these bosses don't realize is that they asked for it.

Employees want a leader who has the guts to confront a problem that is negatively affecting the rest of the group. If their boss can't do it, he or she becomes a figurehead, a joke. The group will soon form its own rules. Informal group leaders will jockey for position and subtle power plays will begin. Since informal leaders don't have real power, they often deal with nonconformists in a harsh way to maintain control.

This may be overstated in your case but I've played out the scenario so you might see how close your group fits the extreme. If your boss is afraid of losing friends and your three co-workers are unified against you, you don't have much of a chance to change the situation.

But if you think your boss is serious about good customer service and you have seen him set standards on other unpopular issues, you can probably approach him about this situation.

It isn't clear from your letter if your co-workers are actually using this language with customers or if you are concerned that the customers could overhear the language. Obviously, if they are using this language with customers, complaints will soon follow and your boss will be forced to take action. If that isn't the case, you will have to be careful about how you present the facts.

If you are certain that customers have overheard this language, that is, if they have commented directly to you, this will be excellent information to share with your boss when you are explaining why you are concerned. If you have no factual examples, you could be seen as a complainer who is making trouble.

If you approach your boss and say this as a situation where "they are bothering me," he may bungle it by bringing it up with his "pals" in an inappropriate way. Then you'll be cooked with your co-workers. Since he won't protect you with standards that are fair for everyone, you will be vulnerable. Because you said you don't want "to call attention to" yourself, I suspect you know this could happen.

Trying to appeal to your co-workers on your own probably won't work either because you are probably seen as an outsider and a nonconformist who should be ostracized or "taught a lesson."

If you do go to your boss, be prepared with a non-judgmental, unemotional description of how this is affecting the bottom line. Mention the impact on the customers as your primary concern. It's fine to say it bothers you as well but don't make this your primary argument. He will be more inclined to confront the issue if he fears that bigger problems with customers could make him look bad to his boss. That motivator may work where others fail.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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