Q: At a staff meeting, my manager stood up and told employees that her birthday was coming up soon and that we could buy gifts for her. During subsequent meetings over several weeks, she repeated this point. Of course, I bought her a gift. My question is: Was she taking advantage of her superior-subordinate relationship to, for the lack of a better term, extort presents?
A: It certainly sounds like your boss is trying coerce her employees into giving her gifts. Either she just wants loot, or she’s trying to foment a competition among her underlings over who can give her the nicest present. If you had a friend do the same, you’d likely put the brakes on your friendship.
“She may think that she is being playful, but all sorts of workplace harassment comes in inappropriately ‘playful’ guises,” said business professor Daylian Cain in an email. Cain is an associate professor at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut, in the US, where he teaches a class called Business Ethics Meets Behavioral Economics.
It’s not always a birthday that sparks discomfort. Workers sometimes must navigate a supervisor’s hints about buying a wedding gift or hosting an office baby shower. Sometimes a boss papers the walls with flyers for their jazz-band performance. Even marching a kid into the office with a Girl Scout cookie sign-up sheet can feel coercive to employees.
If you want to confront your boss about this behaviour, Cain suggests discussing first with friends how the situation might unfold — an idea he got from Babson College ethics professor Mary Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values programme. This way you can anticipate her reactions
First, though, Cain recommends you ask yourself what your boss was thinking when she made these requests. Does she realise that her employees feel coerced? Or is she trying to make friends, on the assumption that friends give one another birthday gifts?
This thought exercise works for any situation where you feel as though you are being forced to give presents, money, or time.
“Interestingly, research suggests that power hampers perspective-taking,” Cain said. “Perhaps that is why power corrupts: it is not that she thinks that she can get away with it, rather, she does not see that it is harmful.”
That’s not to excuse her conduct; just try to understand what was going through her head before you judge her, Cain said. You still retain your two options: report her to the personnel office, which will likely take her to task for making her employees buy her gifts, or assume that she was just lonely, and pat yourself on the back for being a nice person.
Source: BBC Capital