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Lynne Curry: Free spirits, sexual harassers and other meeting hazards

Lynne Curry

Q. Our business development manager slams anyone who dares dispute him. He thinks he's immune from consequences as he brings so much money into our company.

As I don't live in fear, I took him on in a recent staff meeting. His comeback was "Young lady, if I may call you that, you need a boyfriend." I responded "I already have a great one." He then said "You need a more adequate one." I was speechless. What could I and should I have said?

A. Speechlessness proves an excellent response to sheer stupidity. A stunned "Pardon me" indicating you can't believe he said anything that brainless serves as a low voltage response. Alternatively, "Sir, you're out of line" demonstrates your professionalism in response to his gaucheness.

Depending on what you want to accomplish and the risks you're willing to take, you could place your smartphone on the table and say, "Sir, may I quote you? Would you make both statements again, and please use the 'young lady' phrase?"

After the meeting, I'd urge you to meet with your company's CEO or HR manager and let them know who attended the meeting so they can investigate and take action. Your company can't afford someone who makes sexually harassing statements in public, and you need protection against retaliation.

Q. I supervise a man who's a creative idea guy, exactly what we need in our organization -- except he drives the rest of us nuts. He sits in staff meetings making brash comments and poking fun at others' ideas. When I make him stop, he obeys but sits mute, which is as irritating as his comments.

The rest of us depend on him for his part of projects. Although he turns out an amazing amount of work if motivated, he operates according to his own timeframe, often leaving others hanging. If the project doesn't "grab" him, he simply doesn't care.

He's never on time for meetings and even if I insist he show up on time he arrives late, giving me wild stories that I wouldn't accept from my teenagers.

I don't want to fire him, I want to fix him.

A: You supervise a "free spirit" personality type. Normal efforts to rein them in rarely work as they turn most events into contests or adventures. Your free spirit focused attention on himself with his comments and reacted as if you stomped on him when you asked him to cut it out. When he sat mute, he again stole the group's attention.

Here's how to leverage his creative talent: Give him more projects that he can handle and tie incentives to his providing deliverables according to your time schedule -- set prior to when others on your team actually need the tasks completed. While free spirits procrastinate when given only one project at a time, most multitask brilliantly, enjoying a work overload challenge. This lets him win without causing others grief.

As you don't want to create perceptions of favoritism or reward bad behavior, keep the incentives small and equivalent to what you give others. You can do this if you create ways to reward every employee's achievements.

Because your free spirit disrupts group meetings, you need to assess whether you really want him present. If you invite him, make the meetings more challenging and interesting, because the moment you allow meeting dullness, you invite free spirit boundary-pushing. Because you already know how he responds to your "ceasefire" requests, if he pokes fun at another staff member in your presence, up the ante with a "we'll take that comment offline after the meeting."

Finally, you've said he's "exactly what" your organization needs. Is he? What's "the project doesn't grab him" mean? Few companies can afford the productivity and morale drag of bystanders. Ultimately he and you need to decide -- is he in or is he out?

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Lynne Curry
THE WORKPLACE