A Trip to the Vet’s

Most people accentuate the positive and downplay the negative on their curricula vitae or résumés. Clever employers are aware of that and take it into account. Really clever employers add points for initiative when it is done well.

However, it is clearly overkill when a job applicant claims to have flown helicopters with Prince Andrew, and played rugby for Wales, and earned a PhD, and served with the Royal Marines, and raced a bobsled at the Winter Olympics, and spied for two major British intelligence agencies, and played guitar on the folk circuit, and helped design the Polaris missile system ...and much else besides.

Apart from anything else, when could he have had the time? Yet despite telling a large number of huge and obviously contradictory lies, Stephen Wilce held down a very important job for five years

...with the New Zealand government!

...after passing their highest level of security “vetting”!!

...as their Director of Defence Technology!!!

Sorry about the multiple exclamation marks, but it really does beggar belief. A modern government can have no excuse. Of course, those of us with small businesses do not usually have access to the security files and investigative apparatus that is available to the state. Nevertheless the rule for all of us should be that whatever can be checked about a job applicant should be checked.

The most important facts of an employee’s working life are usually the hardest to research. However, it is still worthwhile to follow up on any minor details that are easy to verify – on the sound principle that someone who lies about little things will also lie about big things.

In Wilce’s case, it is astonishing that no one in rugby-mad New Zealand thought to check the on-line list of everyone who has ever won a Welsh cap. That would have been enough to raise questions.

In previous posts we have condemned over-regulation of employees surfing the internet or gossiping in working hours. This vindicates our position. A bit of on-line surfing by a nosy co-worker would soon discover what high level security “vetting” by a New Zealand’s Secret Intelligence Service did not.

Missing the Point

Our Bad Management of the Week Award – which we have just invented for this week and this particular case – goes to Carlisle City Council, who have banned staff from chatting on Council time.

Staff must now “clock off” if they wish to talk about non-Council business in the office.

Never mind the resentment and ill-will that this generates among employees. Never mind the fact that, if this new policy were to be carried out to the letter, it would cost far more in administration than could ever be saved.

The real objection to the new policy is that gossip is good – at least so long as it is kept within reasonable limits.

Informal communication between employees is an efficient method of conveying useful information. “Lateral systems” avoid the hassle of sending data up and down the formal hierarchy. Many businesses actively encourage their development by sponsoring social activities among staff.

Put simply, it is cheaper to say something at the proverbial water cooler than to send an official memo.

Of course, excessive chattering and gossiping in working hours can become a problem. However, there are better ways to deal with it than decreeing counter-productive policies that simply alienate the employees on whose goodwill the organisation depends.

The best is to set employees tough, challenging objectives that engage their interest and keep them too busy in working hours to waste time.

The problem in Carlisle, as in most of the developed world, is that challenging objectives, engaging people’s interest, and being too busy to waste time are not concepts usually associated with local government.

Not Dreaming Of A White Christmas

We blame the metric system...

Ever since British television unilaterally started measuring snowfall in centimetres rather than inches – “ten” instead of “four” – Britons have used the higher-sounding figure as an excuse to go hysterical over a little wintery weather.

The United Kingdom has been all but closed for business in the crucial last week before Christmas. There is no excuse – especially since this is the fourth time a relatively small amount of snow has caused major disruption in Britain in as many years.

Of course, there is little that can be done to help retail businesses suffering from the physical absence of customers, but there are practical steps other businesses can take to minimise all forms of disruption.

1.   Accept this is going to happen: a number of recent events have demonstrated how, as modern business life becomes more complex, it becomes more vulnerable to a range of potential disruptions.

2.   Draft a formal emergency plan, and brief employees and, if possible, suppliers and customers, so everyone knows what to expect – and what is expected of them.

3.   Train employees who live relatively near the place of business to act in key roles in case those who normally occupy those roles cannot get to work.

4.   Maximise the number of employees with access to work facilities.

5.   Keep contact details of employees, customers, and suppliers at home. This might violate data protection rules. We wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to break the law but in our experience businesses that take the practical and pragmatic approach tend to fare better than those who show blind adherence to rules that don’t serve them well.

6.   Use the internet – e-mail and websites – to keep everyone informed about what is happening.

Fire At Will

Is it right to fire an employee who insults his superior or colleagues, or both, on a social networking site like Facebook?

This should be a no-brainer. It is not only right – it is essential.

Apart from anything else, in some jurisdictions the insulted colleague or superior, unless he is the business owner, could end up suing the business.

On a more rational level, even the most liberal and easy-going management cultures need to preserve some degree of discipline and subordination. The alternative is chaos – as well as litigation.

So it is vital, even in a very informal hierarchy – perhaps most of all in a very informal hierarchy – that everyone in the workplace understands the concept of respect. It might sound bureaucratic, but, even in a small business, a formal Code of Conduct can be useful. Everyone knows where they stand and, if there is a dispute, it helps to be able to point to a clear declaration of everyone’s rights and responsibilities.

Adding belt to braces, all contracts of employment should refer to the Code of Conduct, and should also include a clause making it a condition of employment that no employee should say or do anything that is likely to bring the business into disrepute. It should be made clear that this applies outside working hours and even – if the laws of the particular jurisdiction permit – after the period of employment has ended.

This is not restricting free speech. No one is physically preventing anyone saying anything. It is simply confirming that, as we have said before, true freedom of choice means accepting the consequences of your choices. If someone bad mouths someone else, the consequence that the first someone should expect is that the second someone is not going to want to carry on giving him money.

Freedom of speech must be balanced against the basic economic freedom to give your money to whom you please.

The US federal government has problems with this concept. The Obama Administration has intervened on behalf of a Connecticut woman who was – quite rightly – fired for accusing her supervisor of mental illness in the most offensive fashion. This is the same Administration which fired General Stanley McChrystal and Colonel Lawrence Sellin – again, quite rightly – for criticising their superiors in far less insulting terms. The irony is obviously lost on them.

Big Brother = Bad Business

Some employers are becoming positively paranoid about the abuse of business internet facilities by employees.

It is certainly true that many working hours are “wasted” by employees using company time and company computers to do a bit of online surfing or shopping ... or whatever. It seems that hardly a week goes past without some bureaucrat being fired for downloading pornography on taxpayers’ laptops – thus confirming our suspicions about the sort of people who become bureaucrats and what they spend their days doing.

It is quite right – and rather satisfying – that bureaucrats are disciplined for waste of resources they are given as a public trust.

However, private business can and should apply different standards. Our best advice to anyone thinking of a drafting a policy on employee use of work computers for private purposes is “Chill Out, Dudes”.

Accept that if technology is available, then it is going to be used – and if it can be used for personal purposes, then it will be used for personal purposes. Just accept it.

If you think too much time is being lost because technology is being abused, just reflect on how much time you are saving because you have that technology. Are you really saying you would rather not have it? A degree of wastage is the price you pay for having the technology – a price worth paying.

Of course, it is possible to reduce wastage by a combination of monitoring and tight disciplinary procedure. However, taking the time to check employees’ browsing histories and follow up with disciplinary measures is just as wasteful as unauthorised surfing. More importantly, it creates the wrong atmosphere in the workplace. If you show you distrust your employees, then the best of them will seek work elsewhere, where they feel trusted and valued – and you will be left only with those who need watching.

Here is a better idea. Stretch your employees. Set them challenging targets. At worst, this will leave them less time to waste. At best, it will engage their interest, so that they do not feel the need to relieve their boredom with a little surfing at work. Indeed, they may end up doing work at home, in their own time and on their own computers.


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