Q: I’m a teacher at a high school in Wisconsin. We have a new principal this year, and she seems very nice. We just returned for staff preservice week to find mini bottles of things like Crown Royal whisky and Patron tequila in our mailboxes, with a note saying, “Cheers! I can’t wait to work with you!” Am I wrong in thinking this is inappropriate? Would you tell her so, or would you just say thank you and let it go? I know she means well, and I bet she’s pretty pleased with her creativity. Of course, there are some teachers who are pretty jazzed by this gift. I think a few of them also hope it’s a sign that it’s going to be a fun year, and that maybe she’ll even go out drinking with them. But I’m not one of those teachers. I have no interest in partying with my principal, and I don’t want to work for someone who’d go out drinking with staff members, either. In my experience, those types of leaders play favorites — you’re either in or you’re out. I have many, many colleagues who are as upset about this as I am, but none of them plan to say anything to her. Nobody wants to start the year off by antagonizing their new boss. Anyway, I’m on the fence here and would appreciate advice. Would you speak up?
A: I can understand why the gift made you uncomfortable, and I also can appreciate your hesitancy to say anything. In fact, I imagine that you’re reluctant to say something for the same reason your new principal gave you the alcohol—you both want to get off to a good start.
The note was appropriate — the alcohol, not so much. Why? You indicate the first reason in your question — the gesture has made a number of teachers uncomfortable. Aside from the fact that many people don’t drink for personal or religious reasons, some schools don’t even allow alcohol on campus. In her attempt to spread cheer, she offended quite a few individuals, and she may even have violated your district’s policy.
Beyond these practical considerations, her efforts already have backfired. To some, it may seem like she’s trying too hard to curry (or buy) favor. And even if she didn’t mean to communicate that she likes to party with staff, a few of your colleagues have drawn that conclusion. That’s not the tone a leader should be setting, and it’s lose-lose. The teachers who hope she’ll go out drinking with them may be disappointed to discover that she keeps it professional at all times. Regardless of how she behaves, she now has to contend with a second group of teachers who worry she’ll play favorites and create a cliquish environment. There may even be a third group of offended teachers who think she’s trying to communicate her higher status with this expensive gift.
In other words, she’s inadvertently transmitting a whole lot more than good cheer. So where does that leave you? I’d level with her. This may feel counterintuitive, but it’s the kind choice. As it stands, she has no idea that people are trashing her behind her back. Her gesture was misguided but well-intentioned. If you want to set her up for success, give her the opportunity to address the issue directly and apologize to the community. Keep in mind that so much is in the delivery. If you storm her office and tell her she’s violated Code 17, Section 3 and everybody thinks she’s trying to buy their love, it’s not going to go so well. If, on the other hand, you highlight that everyone knows her heart was in the right place, she’ll be more likely to hear you — and to realize that your heart is in the right place, too.
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