Good Work or Good Intentions?
22 November 2011
There is an expression in military circles that goes: ‘Feet ok? Mail getting through?’ Two little questions that sum up the entire universe of an average soldier and his happiness. And no matter how his feet or whether his mail has indeed ‘Got through’ he responds with the affirmative: ‘Yes Sir’ because he knows that is the correct answer and will keep him out of trouble.
When you think about it, the commercial environment is measured in equally simple terms – terms to do with assessing profit and growth. Just as these are the motivating force of any business, so are individuals intrinsically linked to this motivation through their pay. Employee surveys state that ‘salaries are not the only consideration’ but then ‘promotion also matters’. We may not state that money is our motivation, (and it is not considered survey etiquette to do so) but it is consistently the primary force that drives people from their bed to plunge head first into the subway and beyond.
And with more than 2.62 million unemployed, who can blame them? The labour market is carrying surplus and all work is good work – particularly if it is paid and sustainable. My role in education is to equip young people with the skills employers want, to make them more employable. Their biggest concern is not trying to get a good job; it is trying to get any job. They recognise the competition is sitting next to them in crowded lecture halls and bustling campuses. To this anxious crowd, unpaid internships feel like a good job - one I spoke to had been an unpaid intern for over a year.
As my mother’s Woman’s Institute group are very quick to point out, ‘In this world there are good people and bad people, and the latter don’t live around here’. So how do we make the moral decision on what is good work or bad? What is the role of a professional bailiff? Is that not good work? Not a good person? From a commercial perspective, they reduce debtor days and are incentivised against performance targets. Manageable, profitable, results oriented. Or what about the firm engaged to manage a headcount reduction programme? From a commercial perspective they reduce exposure to employability law, and operate to a fixed cost. But would it pass this noble formula for good work laid down by the Good Work Commission? I doubt it.
Perhaps the answer depends on whose shoes you are standing in? Because increasingly it seems that we are obligated to stand in the shoes of the long term employee. As the CEO of an organisation, the boardroom is cast aside, the board table upended, the management accounts filed away, and in its place we are supposed to focus with close to parental adoration on our employees. Take their temperature, check their pulse, offer them the comfortable chair and ask operations to whistle up some afternoon tea. Are they feeling ok, are they feeling content in their work? Are they happy? Offer them a snap survey to check. ‘Employee engagement’ is like giving more hormones to HR.
As an employer I feel like the employee has some kind of magnet to which political will is inextricably drawn, such that all legislation – and there is oodles of the stuff – is increasingly reading like a manifesto for how to make your employee happy. Strangled by TUPE, paternity, maternity, flexi time, job share, part timers, sickness benefit, employability law and the plethora of rights that manifest themselves with the arrival of any new employee, I wonder just how small businesses are supposed to be David’s engine for growth when it is spluttering for legislative air.
Occasionally I find myself wishing that ‘Feet alright? Post getting though’, could be enough for my own business too.