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Tuesday, 27 January 2009

People who need people are the luckiest people

There are a number of phrases that set my in-built danger bells ringing loudly.

  • 'Dad can you help me with my maths homework.'
  • 'Dad I'm going out I don't know where I am going or what time I'll be back.'
  • 'Dad I'm just going to use the phone I won't be on it long.'
  • 'You've won a weeks free accommodation in Florida, call this premium rate phone number to Croatia to find out more.'
  • Can you cook the meal tonight I'm going out?'
  • 'I'm calling from BT to tell you about our new calling rates.'


  • 'People are our greatest asset'
This last statement is generally uttered with the implication that the CEO/MD is also saying 'I love our people so much, so very much, that I want to take them all home with me every weekend for a party and give then give them all picture of a kitten and a puppy each because I love them so much did I tell you that?'

The last phrase sends shivers down my spine as it often associated with not investing in any other physical asset to enable staff to do their job with any degree of efficiency. There is also the proudly uttered 'We are investors in people' - great, but can you get a new biro from the fearsome Keepers Of The Stationery or more paper for the photocopier, can you hell as like.

You see, from my perspective, telling your employees that they are the company's greatest asset and then actively preventing them from undertaking the job they are paid to do by not giving them the correct tools is, well, unfortunately far too common. And if organisations are not actively preventing the staff doing their job then, by not fixing the problems, they clearly are condoning the whole can of wiggly things. I know that W Edwards Deeming covered all this back in the 50's so I won't go on about it (well not more than I am already doing) - but in my experience most people come to work with the intention of doing a good job, or at least the one they are paid to do, and then spend the day fighting the system which seems intent in preventing them doing exactly that. This is also true of volunteer work as well where the great British spirit of muddling through is alive and well and being honed to new levels of muddling not hitherto considered possible.

And then the recession.

'Get rid of people and get rid of them now'
'But I thought people were our greatest asset?
'Who said that, I never said that, I hate people, they are a liability, there are too many people around me I feel crowded get rid of them, preferably lots of them and they are drinking too much coffee and eating my biscuits. And shred those pictures of kittens and puppies, they make me feel nauseous.'
'But without people we will not be able to provide the high level of service to our customers that we, er, like to pretend we are delivering.'
'You still here, just lose the people and quickly. And you can go too.'

Well that is Capitalism for you I suppose, in all its ruthlessness, but when you hear of all the people now without jobs, and know there is more to come, it sort of reminds me of the first letter I ever had making me redundant - 'You are surplus to requirements'.

That's not how you deal with your greatest asset, that's how you treat a filing cabinet.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Door stops

It has been so cold in the house during the day over the last month I've had to use an ice scraper on the computer monitor bef
ore I could use it.

EoTP develops a new law of finance
When you have a much reduced income then the sensible thing to do is to reduce your spending at the same time. However there is an immutable law of the universe that states 'a drastic fall in your income and a sensible and matched reduction in spending is immediately followed by a corresponding substantial rise in your utility bills and an expensive failure of several vital domestic appliances.' Thus our gas and electricity monthly bill has just risen by 74%. Now I have appealed, in vain, to the accounts department of Horrendous Gas Bills and Laughingly Large Electricity Costs Ltd and thought I'd proved that, actually, our fuel consumption had fallen over the year - cunningly I used their own graphs and data but they remain unmoved.

So back to the cold house. You see, when you work you are so pampered, well at least many of us are/were, with warm buildings and, sometimes, even aircon during the summer. Mrs EoTP would like to point out here that she works in an Elizabethan building where the only way to warm it up was throw another Catholic on the fire. That was in the 16th Century of course. As a result, at home, the heating does not get switched on during the day and I have to wear so many layers to keep warm that the Michelin Man looks anorexic compared to me. I can't bend my arms to use the keyboard and have to rock from side to side to press the keys. thiz hus teken mi al dai to tipe.

Being at home also involves talking to a lot more people who knock at the door during the day, people I didn't know existed before unemployment. There is of course the Postie. Consistently, through snow and sun, rain and fog, she never fails to drop yet another substantial bill through the letterbox but never, ever any job offers. Don't get me wrong, after being home by myself all day with just my head goblins to chat with, the opportunity of talking to another human is one I can eagerly grasp.

But there are the others. We have the proselytisers, naturally, a steady stream of people most weeks, with the convictions of their faith, wishing to share it with you. I have no problems with anyone trying to convince others of their faith and will listen politely at my door for up to several seconds before declining their various tracts. Live and let live as long as it doesn't scare the horses I say. They seem to travel in twos: good proselytiser, bad proselytiser? Sometimes it is necessary to be a little more assertive in convincing them to leave, they having mistaken my smile as I greet them for someone desperate to be converted to Pantheism, become a Jedi Warrior, Man from Uncle or whatever. It is the ones who presume on my innate politeness by coming back for a second or third go over the next few weeks that, frankly, start to get on my er, er, er, wick (that'll do). I do point out that I don't come to their door and attempt to convert them to paganism or atheism on multiple occasions even though they have made it clear that they are not interested but we could make a pact and, if they don't stop calling, I will dress in a long white sheet and pointy hat and dance round in circles, singing and clapping on their drive whilst waving an inflated pigs bladder on a stick at each turn of the Equinox and other divers ancient ceremonial dates and is that OK with them?

We also have many itinerant peddlers call. They launch into their sales pitch for Latvian Gonks, Peruvian nose flute music CDs or super cloths (super cloths??) the instant the door opens, presenting you with an 'Identity card' that they have clearly made on a 1950's John Bull childs' printing set with a wonky, blurry picture of what looks like a Womble stuck on. I generally laugh at this identity card and tell them my kids could make a better one. Last week one presented me with a 'Peddlers' licence', allegedly signed by Sergeant in a Nottingham police station. I scoffed and he huffed and said 'Well, call them then it's pukka.' 'Right', I said, 'I will.' and made for the phone. He departed so fast he left scorch marks on the gravel on the drive.

Outside the house the Council are repairing the path. They are changing it from the 4 x4 testing ground it has resembled for many years to a blacktop surface with the smoothness of baize on a snooker table. Anyway they have this sign up - see the top of this blog. I wondered then, what sort of assistance they might offer me?

'Can you help me with my job seeking?'
'Yes go and talk to Albert there on the concrete mixer, he's a renowned expert and talks regularly on the Radio 4 'Today' programme to John Humphries amongst others. Albert is so motivational and passionate on the subject he'll soon put you right and get you back to work.'

'I'm confused about Marxism-Leninism could you explain the difference?'
'Of course, Brian driving the dumper truck completes the Wikipedia entry on that subject and lectures in many countries during his holidays - good friend of Castro actually.'

'I've never had cause to use the horse's hoof stone extracting tool on my Swiss Army knife, why do they still include one in the tool set?'
'Ah, now Jenny can answer that, she's an expert on medieval armour as well as our JCB driver.'

'I've been writing this blog on people who call at the door now I am at home a lot and don't know how to finish it.'
'That's an easy one, I can answer that for you, all you have to do is...'

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Testing, testing

OK so we've had a letter saying they might, just, not promising anything though, it's only a thought, look I still have my fingers crossed whilst I'm saying this, be interested in you.
For a job.
But first, before they even start actually speaking to you, before they even deign to actually even start to pay you any attention whatsoever, you have to be tested.
What with? Needles, samples and involving latex gloves and bend over Mr EoTP, that sort of testing?
No, scarier than that.
Psychometric testing.

You see in the old days you'd get a tap on the shoulder and a 'You're alright, just turn up for the interview more or less on time, try and find the right office, don't dribble too much, pretend you like the boss's wife and the jobs yours'. Then all those HR managers were targeted by recruitment professionals selling their snake oil and, suddenly, an interview with the pre-meeting shoulder tap was no longer good enough. HR had been convinced that some of us could blag our way through interviews without knowing anything about the job, managing people, team building and yet still be a complete and utter power crazed sociopath who would ruin most of the business before moving on. Many of those types found their way to the top I found. The HR team wanted to know more, much more about your psyche, team playing abilities and what your head goblins were saying to you when all was quiet and still.

So they came up with testing.

Now I am the first to admit that relying on an interview alone is a poor way of deciding who should get a job particularly if it is me that hasn't got the job. If I have got the job then it is a first class way of recruiting exactly the right person and don't tell me otherwise.

My first test was handwriting analysis. They asked me to write all the letters of the alphabet as neatly as I could between the lines on a page in a notebook using a pen with a nib and an inkwell. No, false memory there, that was at primary school. Shame I accidentally spilt all that ink over the dress of the little girl sitting next to me. No my first test came, strangely, at the end of an interview process. I was reasonably confident that I'd got the job and 100% confident I wouldn't accept it. However the HR manager remarked, seemingly out of no where, that I should have filled out the initial application form in ink, in my very bestest handwriting, and not have printed it out on a computer. Did he not know how many bleedin' hours I'd spent making sure the print came out in exactly the right places on the application form after lining it up in Word? Well no, he didn't so he made me write it out in longhand like some form of after-school detention. Now I'm left handed and wondered whether all the resultant Rorschach inkblots would count against me and they, too, would be analysed - 'Be careful of this one he thinks he has special yellow friends living on the ceiling.' No a week later he rang up and said, simply, 'You're OK.'
Is that all the handwriting analyst could come up with on their professional scale? What was the scale then?
1. The ruthlessness of Genghis Khan
2. The sheer terror of Margret Thatcher
3. The team building skills of Stalin
4. OK
5. The honesty of Blackadder
6. The personality of Eeyore.
7. The intelligence of George W Bush

I turned the job down.

Next job application came with the computerised version. Left alone at a screen and keyboard I was given an hour to complete the test. Twenty minutes later I'd finished and, eventually, the HR person returned and was suitably impressed at my speed. 'That was fast' she said 'Some of those maths questions are very tricky, you did well to do them in your head.' 'Head' I thought 'I used a calculator I had in my pocket.' Well as no one had said not to I decided not to say anything - and took the offered job.

Of course HR are not so easily diverted anymore and the tests have become longer and more involved. I still have the results of several to hand. Let's share:
Actual quotes here.
  • 'EoTP is unlikely to be reticent about coming forward.' - er, aggressive?
  • 'He doesn't seem to have problems with stage fright in large groups.' Show off?
  • 'Naturally curious'. Stop pushing your fingers in that electric socket - that was my Mother.
  • 'Strongly creative.' Yes I see that of course I am, but 'don't let him work in finance'.
  • Rules - likely to exercise a degree of flexibility.' Yes, I treat them as guidelines.
  • 'You should employ him now.' Are you listening?

Here's another one, only 25 pages long this one. My own Mum wouldn't recognise me.
  • 'Affable, socially confident.' Lock the drinks cabinet and hide the party food.
  • 'Very independent.' Well I think that means very independent what do you mean you disagree, I don't care I'm going to do it anyway.

Should I take any notice of it, should anyone? In some ways they are like horoscopes as they all talk in very positive and flattering terms about someone very important to me i.e. me. Whether they truly make a difference in recruitment when the potential employer finally groks my age and goes 'No we wanted young and cheap, I don't mind if they have the personality and moral scruples of Pol Pot tell the older guy we actually wanted uncreative and totally biddable.'

So I leave you with just one question?


Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Consultation period

I could see the gleam of hope kindle and then blaze in her eyes with the heat of a white hot sun. She'd read my CV, discussed my career aspirations, and now she pounced with the zeal of someone revealing the entire secrets of the universe to the uninitiated.

'You could be,' she paused dramatically, 'a consultant' and then leaned back in her chair with the triumphant look of someone who has just bought the last bag of brussel sprouts in Tescos before Christmas whilst all around her the unlucky ones wailed and gnashed their teeth at their misfortune (well they do where I live).

And that was it, 50% of the result of the career counsellor's output after exhaustive psychometric testing, CV evaluation and interview skills. Oh that and be an interim manager which proved to be the other 50% and we've already had a little look at those roles. Having developed a poker face, as a result of so many people telling me 'Oh you'll soon get a job with your qualifications', and then not having done so, I asked, simply, 'Consult who with what?'. Had I asked how to fix the Large Hadron Collider for just £5.30 I feel I might have got a more fulfilling answer. 'Ah' she said, 'I've just forgotten that I had another client, er right now in Mumbai, must go'.

So let's put the beefburger of consultancy over the flames of possibility and see what catches fire. Well I've been an independent 'consultant' and it falls, in my experience, somewhere between the fun you have hitting your face with a house brick repeatedly and running over your foot with the car. Both interesting experiences in their own ways but you are very glad when they stop.

Firstly, consult what? Well, when you've had many years in the wacky and fun filled world of the sandwich-in-a-balloon industry you might feel uniquely qualified to be able to consult with the said purveyors of sandwiches-in-balloons. Of course, you first have to get over the hurdle that the the employer that has just ejected you might not feel like having you back on the premises, in the same town, county or even country and the fact that their competitors probably loathe them and their staff with a passion bordering on an obsession. The moment you left you were erased completely from corporate memory unless you figure in the same sentence as 'Ah that was the fault of XYZ, he/she didn't complete it before they left.' Your departure is good for at least six months of backside saving.

Then you discover that, strange though it seems, there are 65 other people who also claim to be to be consultants on the sandwiches-in-a-balloon business. You've never heard of them, you don't know where they've come from but they all seem to be pitching for the same teeny weeny bit of work. And all have strangely sounding business pedigrees that somehow make yours just that little bit less lovely and cuddly.

How much do charge? Oh this is so hard, so very hard. You are desperate for the work but don't want to sell yourself short because, once you name a day rate, hell will freeze over before you can raise it. £500 a day sounds a lot. But how many days will you work for and how any days do you have to spend not being paid looking for the next job. And you don't get paid when you are on holiday or have a sickie - pulling a sickie now costs you money (and that's a bad thing). Remember consultants often have the same, or slightly worse, survival rate of a soldier in the trenches during the First World War. I once turned down a week's work at £250 per day on the basis that it was half my usual day rate and then spent that week at home not earning anything. Still I had my pride. And an empty wallet. But I had my pride and that's what counts Tesco, that's what counts why are you escorting me out of the store?

The car, what car do you buy? Right, the big shiny company car has gone leaving only a small oily stain and few weeds on the drive. Now you have to buy your own. Prudence says a 10 year old Fiesta will do - but what will the client think? Too big a motor and they will think you are charging them too much, a pile of rust and they will think nobody else will employ you and have they made a major error. But how can you be a consultant without a sharp suit and a big shiny car? Everyone else has a big shiny car, why can't I Mummy?

And then there is the actual work.
'So what value exactly will you add to our company Mr EoTP?'
'Well I know stuff.'
'What stuff do you know and will that stuff enable us to sell more of our stuff for more money?'
'Well I know stuff about the industry and stuff about selling and stuff about marketing. And I have a kitten.'
'OK we like the kitten but not you - the kitten can stay.'
Fundamentally you will only get work as a consultant if you can actually show that, by the end of the paid period, that things are actually better in some way. Compare that to most people's jobs where they are satisfied if things are not actually materially worse than when they started out that morning or, at the very least, somebody else has been blamed for it.

And don't think that a groovy web site that lists your qualifications and Alma Mater will make the blindest bit of difference: it won't. Neither will funky headed paper - I had really very funky and colourful headed paper and I couldn't find any work after 18 months and therefore no one to send it to. Anyone like to buy 15 reams whilst we're here? The people who pay you money want the knowledge in your head extracted and put into a bottle and then they can throw the husk of your body out onto the cold, cold streets.

There are the accounts and the Inland Revenue to deal with and I still have nightmares about the day the VAT man sent in the
bailiffs. Yes I was VAT registered. Pay the VAT before the children eat, before the mortgage is paid, above all else do not fail to pay the VAT man as they have super powers that transcend all us mortals. Pay them and all will be well, they said. Well I did and the one time that the VAT system paid my cheque into the wrong account, through their error, I had the bailiffs knocking on the door three days later demanding anything that wasn't too large to get through the front door but not including Mrs EoTP fortunately. Oh it was all sorted out, how I laughed, though I'm still waiting for an apology 10 years later.

In the end I gave up the consultation work. To be fair it gave me up first. All my contacts dried up or moved on and in the end there wasn't really a market for what I was offering. Marketing support for small to medium enterprises since you ask. Though I was prepared to do anything by the end of the period. That work as an ice trucker paid handsomely thank you. As if.

So before you decide that consulting is the very thing for you, in the worst recession the country has seen since the dinosaurs were wiped out by a giant meteorite or some one said 'there's a big black rat just got off that boat do you think it might be carrying a funny foreign disease', just be sure that the stuff you are selling is the stuff organisations are buying.

Or you'll be stuffed.