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by JARED SANDBERG | March 10, 2009


Nan Worth harbors no animosity toward the Boy Scouts of America. But she winced when a new owner took over her former company and she felt forced into giving the little troopers donations.

The owner, a former scout who adorned his office with merit badges and posters of knot-tying instructions, began a fund-raising campaign, complete with a Boy Scout cutout in the lobby, speeches about the importance of being a scout, regular status requests about funds raised and a knot-tying contest to help raise awareness. The winner would be honorably mentioned in the company newsletter, Ms. Worth recalls.

Just two hitches: Tying square knots and lariat loops wouldn't help her get her job done and she didn't feel free to make contributions as she saw fit. "We all felt like if we didn't give enough, we would be on his blacklist," says Ms. Worth. "He knew who contributed and those who didn't."

When the boss has a pet passion, staffers can find themselves engaging in activities they've never tried -- probably because they never wanted to. Sometimes an executive's personal pursuits can help build communities. But they can also stir mild guilt trips or bigger shakedowns. And so the staff is a captive audience for their manager's jazz-band gigs, elegies over his approach shot to the 17th green, or any other avocation mistaken as part of the vocation.

That includes the rabid love of chocolate of Paul Karlin's former boss. "If you want to stay in this department, you are going to have to learn to love chocolate," she told him.

At first, he thought she was kidding. Then colleagues warned him, "It's a big thing to her." So even though he doesn't like chocolate, he took some that she offered, waited until the coast was clear, and wrapped it up for later re-gifting. "It was really strange," he says. "Really strange."

David Woodburn, a former senior engineer, worked for a golf-obsessed division whose employees would discuss the Tuesday night golf league at great lengths on Wednesday morning.

He felt left out. "Did I golf when I started that job? No. Did I start? Of course," he says.

It's hard to rail against interests so often bathed with the best intentions. But that won't stop Russell Blair, a retired judge. "People who insist on sharing their 'bliss' with subordinates should be required to wear a T-shirt that says: 'Now that my life is perfect, I'm going to fix yours,' " he says.

The line is crossed more than you think. Linda Konstan, an HR executive, has fielded all kinds of complaints from employees about their boss's imposed hobbies. That included one executive's penchant for tango. His own wife wasn't interested in lessons, so he dragged his administrative assistant to lessons.

"She really hated it," says Ms. Konstan. When she advised the executive not to engage in this extracurricular, he told her, "It's innocent. She'll love it." Only when Ms. Konstan visited him again and reminded him of how bad it might look -- and potential legal bills if things got out of hand -- did he finally relent.

Research shows that leaders who blur the line between work and friendship can end up with employees asking the wrong questions: "What do I need to do to make my boss like me versus what do I need to do to do a good job around here," says Jennifer Chatman, a professor of management at the University of California Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "In the most mercenary way, it's friends for hire."

Every so often, a manager learns a lesson. John Phelan, who was vice president of international sales at a manufacturing company, warmly invited the sales force to ride in his glider during a conference. Five salespeople went along.

The first two rides went well. Then, "ride No. 3 got off to a rocky start when the passenger began screaming shortly after liftoff and continued screaming until we landed a short time later," he recalls. Ride No. 4 went well until they suddenly lost altitude and barely made it back to the runway. Ride No. 5 declined because he "had time to talk to ride No. 3," he says.

Looking back, Mr. Phelan concedes someone of lesser job title might not have had the same pull. "My takeaway was that my hobbies should be left out of business functions unless the guest asks first."

It reminds Kathleen Peterson, a consultant, of the kind of obligations engendered by her sister, a former college president who would invite her staffers, and family, to the school auction.

Ms. Peterson felt they were there simply to up the bids. "Sometimes the consequence was we were the final bidder." So she ended up with trips she never took and a still-unwrapped painting, an "abstract, would-be landscape if you could discern it," she says. "Her retirement has saved all of us thousands annually."

Similarly, Patrick Shaughnessy's former boss realized he shouldn't publicly post his sign-up sheet for Girl Scout cookies after sales for the Thin Mints and Do-Si-Dos were curiously high. People, seeing others signed up, felt pressured to buy.

The manager took down the sheet, but began cube-to-cube stops to gently invite people into his office to make a purchase. "He didn't have a gun to your head, or your review," he says. Still, "I bought Savannahs."


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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