Like many, I was pretty gobsmacked by the brazen approach of the P&O CEO Peter Hebblethwaite in addressing a parliamentary select committee last week. If you’re unaware of the story, it broke a couple of weeks ago when P&O effectively fired a quarter of their workforce with immediate effect via video. And, unsurprisingly, there was widespread outrage from politicians, the media, trade unions and employer groups. Rightly so, these were acts that even if the law was taken out of consideration were highly immoral and unethical.
But the fact these made headlines, these are just the actions of a rogue organisation, right? Sadly not.
Before I go on to make my main point, I want to stop for a second and clarify something that I think is important to the context of the argument. There is an intellectual difference between believing something is wrong or right and believing it is the principal argument that needs to be had, right here and right now. In a world full of opinions, but limited space and time, our job as leaders is to curate all of those multiple points and focus on the ones that matter the most, for our teams, for our organisations and, for society. The ones that matter to the majority.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the world of work and creating a sustainable future we fail to do this. That’s why you’ll find the last twelve months littered with articles and opinion pieces about flexible working, working from home, remote working, hybrid working, the four day week and more and why you’ll find little on the increasing practice of fire and rehire.
What is beneath this? Well the first set of issues relate predominantly to white collar, professional workers and the latter to blue collar skilled or manual workers. It is simple as that. And yet the latter group make up a much more significant proportion of the workforce. So as leaders and HR professionals we focus on the things that matter to us personally, and the journalists write about the ones that matter too them. Curiously there is a significant overlap.
I’ve spoken before about my concerns about restructuring work without thinking about the majority of workers and the communities that they live in and I stand by these concerns because they are very real and pressing. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in progress in the workplace or moving towards a different more flexible future, I just don’t think it is the most pressing issue that we face in our societies and in our workplaces, right here and right now.
If the P&O situation tells us anything, it is that for many of us our view of work is shaped by a privilege afforded by position. These practices have existed for years (Irish Ferries did something incredibly similar in 2005) and they’re going on in organisations today. And of course, this is just one of the unfairnesses that exists in work. If we believe in creating a future that is better, that is supportive of all and that creates the kind of organisations that we would be proud that our grandchildren work in, we would be better starting there rather than feathering our own, already comfortable nests.