Readers Sound Off About Evil Consultants, Toxic Colleagues--And Much More
By Anne Fisher

(FORTUNE Magazine) – It's enough to shush the cynic in all of us--you know, the little interior voice that keeps insisting that people really care only about themselves and their own careers. More and more of the mail I get dwells not on the correspondents' own woes but on what other readers ought to be doing, or thinking, to get out of a bind. Picture it! Thousands of people taking time out from their (presumably) busy schedules to worry about somebody else's problem! And a total stranger's problem too! Makes you think there may be hope for humankind.

But maybe not for human resources. In the Sept. 29 issue, an hr guy who signed himself "Catbert" waxed indignant about his employer's failure to take him as seriously as he takes himself. This brought a slew of complaints from bosses who would like to outsource every Catbert into oblivion, but most offered at least a few tips on how hr types might keep their jobs. Wrote one honcho: "The best move Catbert could make is to ask his top-level managers, one by one, where they think his department could best add value. The answer will sometimes be that hr is a necessary evil, but at least there will be an opportunity for managers to speak frankly. Then, if Catbert offers solutions to real problems like turnover and employee motivation, people will sit up and listen."

A fellow signed "Fort Hood" wondered in the Sept. 8 issue what kind of reception he'd get when leaving a career in the military to join the private sector. I've printed some encouraging answers (Oct. 13), but reassurance is still pouring in. One reader, a retired Navy captain, points out that a military background builds skills that private enterprise can only envy: "Military officers seldom have the chance to replace poor performers with new hires, so they learn to make the best of what they have. And an ageless military tradition is that officers mess and bunk last in the field, so that if food or bedding is short, they find out right away, since they go hungry or sleep on the ground. Can civilian managers say the same?" A rhetorical question if ever there was one.

Lou Benjamin, managing partner of an Atlanta-based headhunting firm called Military Recruiting Institute that specializes in matching ex-officers with corporate jobs, adds that, for a whole list of reasons, corporate demand for people with military experience is "staggering." Gosh. In other words, Fort Hood, don't fret.

Lots of thoughtful readers, including a fair number of consultants, wrote to advise "Frozen Out" (Nov. 10), who was concerned that a consultant was after her job. "Often companies will underestimate the abilities of their own people, opting instead for the supposed advantages--chiefly financial--touted by someone with a briefcase from 100 miles away," says a manager named C.J. who has shivered in Frozen's shoes. "It's true that Frozen probably doesn't need to worry, but it wouldn't hurt to start looking around at other career opportunities, just in case." Noted.

The biggest outpouring of sympathy and counsel came in response to letters (Oct. 27 and Dec. 8) about dealing with toxic co-workers. "I have never understood why managers don't put toxic people in their place more vigorously. After all, we don't allow people to steal from or physically assault their colleagues, no matter how good their technical skills may be or how high their rank," writes a reader named Andrew, who sent a five-page single-spaced account of his own travails with toxic people, adding, "Conflict resolution and win-win solutions have their place, but they don't work with scoundrels."

A few thoughts about what sometimes does work, from Fresno-based team-building consultant Tom Jones: "These people have an instinctive fear of discipline, and they won't accept responsibility. So you need to make clear that you don't want to show them up or prove them wrong, you just want them to change their behavior. Then be specific about what you need them to do differently. It may require several attempts, but eventually, if you keep at it, they'll look elsewhere for somebody to pick on who isn't so 'touchy.' "

It seems worth a try--if you haven't already given up, like a writer named Gus who has had several toxic bosses: "Annie, please keep us informed if you see any trend in business toward ethics, fairness, and what Sam Walton called being 'servants of those we supervise.' Now there's a novel thought--bosses treating employees as they themselves would like to be treated." Well, it's not all that novel, Gus. Maybe you should try for a job at one of "The 100 Best Companies to Work For" (FORTUNE, Jan. 12).

Before we wind down, I'd like to kick off a contest of sorts (with no time limit and--sorry--no prizes), with the working title Annie's Believe It or Not. The rationale here is simple: Some people write solely to relate a workplace incident that doesn't call for any comment or advice but is nonetheless just too incredible not to pass along. To start us off, a senior manager at the Central Intelligence Agency--"as conflict-averse a workplace as I've ever seen (but only in the sense of wishing conflict weren't there)"--tells of his six years running sexual-harassment awareness workshops at the CIA. "I saw some amazing things," reports our informant, "such as a formal discrimination complaint that arose during a training session. The trainer, describing one definition of harassment, referred to 'the reasonable-woman standard.' And a (male) staffer said, 'Well, that's an oxymoron.' " The offending spook was reprimanded but kept his job, which leads to a question: Aren't spies, especially clueless ones, supposed to know when to keep mum? Adds our man in Washington: "Just another reason to be glad the Cold War is over."

GOT A QUESTION OR COMMENT? FAX IT TO: Ask Annie, 212-467-0579 MAIL: Ask Annie, FORTUNE, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, Room 1559, N.Y., N.Y. 10020 Please include a daytime phone number.