Blogconfidential: She knows where the bodies are buried

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: She knows where the bodies are buried

March 24, 2011

I recently secured a new job at a mid-range university in a largish town. This was a major promotion for me. I am now an academic lead and have responsibility for running a very busy team. We are relatively immune from cutbacks and I was assured that moving home and my family 100-plus miles would result in greater stability in terms of employment.

In my team I have eight very able academics - and one who is a complete mystery to me. Over the first few weeks after joining the institution, I decided that I would simply observe the team instead of jumping in with major changes, as is my usual style.

I soon saw that the woman in question, who is on a full-time contract, does very little while the other eight academics all work quite hard. She spends her time dabbling in teaching and timetabling, but that probably works out at no more than seven hours a week. She comes into the office only twice a week, often arriving at about 9.30am and leaving at 3pm.

In my first week I had a word with the dean of the school, who suggested that I give the situation a "wide steer" but would not elaborate. Other members of the team have told me that "she knows where the bodies are buried". I could only take this to mean that she has inside information about people who work at the university and that reputations could be ruined if she was angered.

But I don't know the history and it is my job to run this department to the best of my ability. I really think that this needs sorting out and I think that I am the man for the job. Should I take her on?

I once worked in a similar environment where one of our accounts clerks was utterly incompetent, yet remained in post until her retirement. I suspect that she had information on financial discrepancies that could have been headline news if it had been revealed.

The fact is that all organisations have their secrets and embarrassing histories, and some of these do need to remain hidden. I agree with you that it seems unfair that one individual seems to have so much power along with a rather undemanding job description, but no organisation is fully functional.

Your dean has strongly indicated that he expects you not to rock this particular boat. Your problem is that you don't know what secrets she is privy to - but he does, so I would take his advice, at least until you have more information.

You sound like a real go-getter and I am sure that you will do well in your new job, but you should sidestep this challenge. Surely there are other problems that need to be addressed in your department? Encourage your staff, work with them and work around this one individual. Let the bodies remain buried.

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