Workplace etiquette, step one: don't call your boss a moron
Is your boss a moron? And can you tell them so to their face? Workplace deference seems to be dying
This week, a man who was fired for allegedly calling his boss “a f***ing moron” had his job reinstated at the Employment Appeals Tribunal. (He claimed to have only called him “a moron”.)
My own boss, whom I would never call a moron (but did, in a jesting discussion about this article, call “your moronship”), felt that this raised some questions about what constituted acceptable office behaviour, and friends listed anecdote after anecdote about office friction and the increasing informality of the workplace. David Brent was never far from all our minds.
“I’m sure we’ve all felt our boss was a moron at one time or another,” says Graeme Yell, a director with the Hay Group management consultancy. “But if you call anyone at work a moron you’re not likely to be the most popular colleague.”
Yell observes that the boundaries of acceptability have moved and the workplace is a less formal place. Everyone is on first-name terms and it can be difficult to know exactly when “banter” (see second paragraph) crosses into being “disrespectful and rude”.
The boundaries might be fuzzier in Ireland than elsewhere. In a survey by Hay Group in 2011, Irish bosses were considered to be the most relaxed and informal in Europe.
“We’re increasingly seeing leadership styles that are less about command and control and much more to do with involving and empowering people,” says Yell. “The flip side of that is that people you’re leading feel . . . enabled to be a bit more informal.
“I wouldn’t want to spread too many international stereotypes, but you do notice the further south people go [in Europe] the more hierarchical people are and the more particular they are about their titles and how they’re addressed, in a way that is alien to people from Ireland and the UK.”
Yell links the growth of informal office behaviour to changing work structures and the decline of large-scale industry. “And that trend is likely to continue,” says John Babb, a managing consultant with the Irish branch of the Hay Group.
“There’s a generation of people coming up who expect to be consulted and informed about things that affect their lives. In the past there would have been a more patriarchal approach where the boss would try to protect you from the harsh realities of the world. Now bosses need to be emotionally intelligent.”
Both Babb and Yell believe that this is a good thing. “It’s important to have an environment where people can put forward ideas or speak up when there is a problem,” says Yell. “That’s not as easy in a more autocratic workplace . . . People doing the work often have the best ideas on how things can be better and productivity can be improved.”
There is a countervailing trend, however, exacerbated by hard economic times. David O’Riordan, an employment lawyer with SOR Solicitors, maintains that while workplace interaction might have become less formal on the surface, it is complicated by legislation that didn’t exist 20 years ago.
“There are 14 pieces of legislation under which claimants can make a claim against an employer. So I don’t think boundaries have been removed or the divisions between employer and employee have disappeared.
“In recent years, if anything employer-employee relationships have become more difficult because pay rates have dropped and people have lost their jobs.
“The number of payment and wages claims brought before the rights commissioner trebled from 2007 to 2010. And unfair dismissal claims have gone up hugely in the same time.”
O’Riordan has seen many cases involving bad behaviour in the workplace and says that there are no hard and fast rules about what is acceptable.
“What one court or tribunal might regard as inappropriate conduct towards an employer might not be seen as such in another division of the court . . . And you’re going to find a different environment in, say, a building site, than a bank or an operating theatre.”
Yell maintains that the trick for negotiating this territory is clear: ongoing communication. “I think the workplace has become much more complex. If you took a time machine back 40 years, managing was a one-way process. Now people expect to be involved in a dialogue and a more equal relationship, and that’s a good thing, but with that everyone needs to be mindful of what’s respectful and when things could tip into bullying.
“Bosses should ask, ‘How do I earn people’s trust and respect?’ rather than assume that because they’re the boss they’ll just get it . . . and employees shouldn’t call their boss a moron.”