Dignity isn’t optional

Last week’s rolling fatberg of a story featured a Hollywood mogul’s repeatedly obnoxious and fundamentally unacceptable (illegal) behaviour. I can’t imagine there is anyone that isn’t up to date with the story – widely reported – so I won’t go into the story. But here’s the summary;

Powerful man preys on less powerful women in industry for his personal gain.

Who knew?

There are multiple things that stand out for me in the story, but most prominently is the negligent inaction of so many men and women that stood by and let it happen. Who, without any shadow of doubt, are complicit.

I heard an interview with George Clooney who stated they were all aware that the guy in a question was a “womaniser”, but no one knew it was this bad. I’ve seen actresses that have significant power and global influence stand up and recount their stories years after – allowing multiple repetitions of inappropriate behaviour. I’ve read stories of actresses decades ago being warned to avoid certain situations.

Don’t give me the line that his power was overwhelming, I repeat: they were all complicit. 

It reminds me of a situation that I investigated in the past – an incident at a Christmas party between a senior male employee and a much more junior female employee. The actions were portrayed as innocuous, and between two people of the same age in a different context they could well have been so.

But this was a work context, with a significant difference in power, age and experience. And for me they were far from innocuous entirely because of those facts. As we investigated it became clear that the people who’d talked about the events in the corridors and over water coolers suddenly, “hadn’t seen anything”. I’m proud to say we stood our ground nonetheless and took action.

In the weeks that followed, as the rumour mills rolled, several senior colleagues of both genders told me that the guy had a bit of a reputation, that he was well known for acting inappropriately for years and that they weren’t surprised. None of these colleagues had anything to fear from stepping forward at any point. So why hadn’t they?

Let me put this really clearly, where inappropriate behaviour happens in the workplace and you standby, you are allowing it to happen. The movie industry is an unusual one, that mixes work and leisure in an unnatural way but nobody is trying to claim that his advances on women weren’t work related. That’s why he was sacked. And it can and does happen in any work place.

It is beholden on all of us to make a stand – particularly those of us in leadership positions, regardless of our gender. Everyone should be able to go about their lawful work, without fear of intimidation, harassment or assault. That’s not a high bar to set, it’s a basic human right.

Are you running a marathon, or becoming a marathon runner?

 

One of the fundamental reasons organisations struggle with change is that they frame it in the wrong way. I’m not a huge fan of sporting analogies, but forgive me this once.

One day I wake up and say that I want to run the London marathon. There are clear success criteria, clear steps to take and a very clear deadline. I can get my friends and family energised, maybe get them to sponsor me or come and cheer me through to the finish line. Of course, there are things that might get in the way – I might not get a place, I might pull a muscle, but other than that it’s a pretty straightforward (if daunting) task.

This is the “change” that most organisations like to face and are well equipped to achieve.

Now what if I was to wake up that day and say that I wanted to be a marathon runner? How would that change the approach and the context? When would it be achieved, when I’ve done one, two, ten? When I can run a marathon at will? My friends will probably not be too interested, they might even find me a bore and wonder why I’m slogging my guts out after work rather than going for a pint.

This is the change that most organisations are trying to achieve and are struggling with.

The joy of the first scenario is that once it’s done we can forget about it. Go to the pub and have a pie and a pint and spend every weekend on the sofa watching other people run around. We can revert back to our previous behaviours, with the task complete.

The issue with the second scenario is that we are talking about sustainability underpinned by behavioural change. We are transitioning into a new form of being, with no real sense of measurement, but a pretty clear sense of whether it has been achieved or not.

The difference between acting with agility and being an agile organisation.

The problem comes when organisations approach sustainable change with the mindset of task completion. We want to know when it will be done, why it hasn’t happened yet and why no one is coming along on the journey with us. We want the razamataz of the finish line and the medal and all we get is a pile of sweaty training clothes.

Creating meaningful, sustainable change is hard. It takes time, practice and repetition, it takes failure and despair. Worst of all, you’re never really sure if you’ve achieved it, or when or if you’ll arrive. Despite all the sweat, blood and tears, despite all the hard yards, you will only see how far you’ve gone, not how far you need to go.

 

 

Abolishing university fees is not the answer

Our problems with education are much deeper and more complicated than the debate about whether university fees should be free or not. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that making our current university system free would be catastrophic financial mistake that would increased debt without providing the necessary economic benefit to the country.

Let’s consider the two arguments for attending and progressing through higher education. Many people argue that learning is simply an enriching process that is rewarding for the individual and broadly beneficial to society as a whole. I’ve heard this expressed on numerous occasions. The problem with this argument is that places value and priority on only one form of learning or enrichment, generally based on the proponent’s own personal experience.

One could reasonably see an argument that taking a year out and travelling across Asia, learning about different cultures, seeing different cultural sites and immersing yourself in the culture could be equally, if not more, enriching to the individual. Or spending time in your bedroom pulling apart computers, searching the internet and learning about how to code, But of course, we don’t see many people proposing that the state should fund people’s travels and trips or internet explorations in their bedroom.

The second, more plausible, argument is that the country should have a high skilled economy and this is driven by university attendance. The problem with this argument is that the proponents of fee free university attendance don’t discriminate in their approach to the courses that should be available and the number of places. In other words, the value of the subsidy that is placed on a medical degree is exactly the same as the value that is placed on a degree in forensic psychology. Yet demand for the skills in the labour market is entirely different.

Add to this the complexity of the entry requirements for various subjects and the provision of places not matching with the needs of the economy (we reject bright, dedicated students away from degrees in medicine and then have shortages of doctors and a need to hire in from abroad) and you have a highly imperfect system. Is this a system we want to subsidise at significant cost to the taxpayer? Personally, my answer is no.

It seems to me that a level of government subsidy in the subjects that we are short of and need to build a thriving and dynamic economy, could and should be a good thing. But that should also extend into postgraduate development and in technical and professional development in vocational education – in the way that we’ve seen this applied to teacher training. Simply, applying a one size fits all approach to tertiary education misses the point and is a blunt and inefficient use of taxpayers’ money.

A well though through economic and industrial strategy linked to educational end vocational incentives for the subjects with skills shortages supported by a realistic and progressive graduate tax for other subjects feels like a more sensible and joined up way of approaching the topic. The links between education, skills and the country’s economic prosperity are complex and interwoven, but the job of government is to unpick them for the benefit of all – not simply as a means to buy votes.

When corporate culture goes bad

I’ve watched the developments at Ryanair unfold with a combination of incredulity and interest – I have to admit that it isn’t a company I’ve historically had a lot of time for and I’ll do pretty much anything to avoid using their services. The management of their recent issues, however, seems to have taken bad people management to a new, low-level.

If you don’t know the story, on 16 September they announced that they were going to be cancelling about 40-50 flights per day for a period of six weeks to “improve punctuality”, however, they weren’t (couldn’t?) going to tell people which flights in advance. The following day they added to this that they’d, “messed up” the holiday schedules of pilots as a result of changing the holiday year from financial to calendar year.

Then the stories started emerging of a pilot shortage which the company denied (although Norwegian Air say they’ve recruited 140 pilots from Ryanair this year and another airline who hired 40 pilots said 32 came from Ryanair). Instead the company offered their existing pilots a one-off bonus of £12,000 or €12,000 if they agreed to work extra hours, extra days and have low levels of sickness absence. Which didn’t go down well with the existing pilots – who saw it as an attempt to skirt around the real issue. The company responded by saying they were going to cancel part of their pilots’ holidays.

CEO Michael O’Leary said Ryanair had, “”some goodies” to propose to pilots, but added: “If pilots misbehave, that will be the end of the goodies.”

Wow.

Whatever the facts behind the story, the underlying management issues seem pretty clear and are encapsulated by the comments from O’Leary. Ultimately, if you treat employees badly it will come back to bite you at some point – they’re grown up human beings, not children in the primary school playground.

In this case, the issue has come at the cost of an overwhelming operational failure. Ryanair is a provider of flights and they’re unable to provide those flights to customers because their HRM strategy (and PR strategy) has gone woefully wrong. If the employee relations were good and positive, then none of this would have happened.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the issue is holiday scheduling, pilot numbers or pilot availability. In a well run organisation, the issue would have become apparent, a good conversation would have taken place with employees and a collective solution would have been found. The fact that this has played out in the public clearly suggests this wasn’t the case.

Creating positive company cultures with good employee relations is a fundamental part of successfully running an organisation. It won’t necessarily prevent problems from occurring (the world is not perfect), but it will certainly help to solve them when they arise. I’d wager the problems at Ryanair go deeper than simple technical issues of scheduling and whilst consumers might be quick to forget, I’m not sure the employee base will be able to do the same.