When You're the Butt of the Joke.
Q: I recently overheard some of my employees making jokes about me, and I don't think this was an isolated incident. It's not like I can fire my entire staff for mocking me. I know business isn't a popularity contest and I'm the "boss," but I can't stop thinking about this incident. I want my employees to like and respect me. Should I forget about this and go on, business as usual, or should I talk to them about it?
A: A little touchy are we? Well, we wouldn't suggest you forget about it, but certainly don't make a federal case of it, either. You don't want to turn what may be some harmless fun into a witch-hunt. All of us in positions of responsibility are the subject of jokes and idle gossip from time to time. To put you a little at ease: Consider the person you believe to be the most influential person in the country, then imagine if that person has ever been the butt of jokes. If you're thinking of the same person we are, the answer is yes, he has been on the receiving end. And it's not just the current resident of the White House, but every president who ever served the United States. Most of the time it's merely been good fun to get a laugh--take someone's weaknesses and exaggerate them.
We'd bet the same thing is happening at your company. You're the "boss," as you said, and therefore the most likely target. In our experience, jokes made at the expense of equal or subordinate employees tend to be malicious or mean-spirited, while jokes aimed at the boss tend to be the employees' way of blowing off a little steam.
However, as economists are famous for saying, you could have a problem that requires your tactful intervention. You didn't mention the nature of the jokes you overheard. If they were merely water-cooler jokes aimed at you, forget it--you're being too sensitive. But if they really were not jokes, but serious attacks on your character or management abilities, action is warranted.
The first action is always self-examination. Were the things said about you true at any level? If so, it's your duty to correct your own behavior or decisions that adversely affect the workgroup. As a manager, you have many perks and privileges; two rights you don't have are to bring personal problems to work or show favoritism, at least not if you want a loyal, productive staff.
If you've ruled out harmless joking but are unable to make a connection between the comments and your behavior, you should talk to your employees. Not all of them, and not in a group, and not those making the jokes. Hopefully you have some employees who avoid comedy central and can be trusted to give you candid, honest and private feedback. Our suggestion would be to meet with them and tell them you're concerned that you may have said or done something to antagonize others. Ask whether there's anything they've noticed about you, not your employees, which could cause disruption in the workplace. If you've chosen well, they will give it to you straight and you can make corrections.
Rod Walsh and Dan Carrison are the founding partners of Semper Fi Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California and the authors of Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.