It’s the poor wot gets the blame…

Today I have the dubious pleasure of revealing to some of our staff how we intend to deprive a good number of them of their jobs. It’s by way of a dummy run, for these job losses have nothing to do with the cuts – they are about the completion of a programme of work that was always going to come to an end. There is of course a connection though; in other times these well-experienced and in many cases long-serving staff would have had little difficulty in finding their next assignments. Now, of course, they are being “released” into a much harsher and more hostile environment, and one which is poised to become harsher and more hostile still once the Comprehensive Spending Review’s full horrors are known next month. And then I fear the experience I’ll gain today will be put to further and repeated use until, quite possibly, my unpleasant work being done, I join these ex-comrades once again in another bout of unemployment for myself. Changing the name of my blog back to its depressing original title will be only the least of the doleful consequences.

But I’m jumping ahead and I shouldn’t allow myself to think these maudlin thoughts; nor do I want to be in any way indulging in a self-fulfilling prophesy. Things may not turn out this bad. It’s not insignificant however that I am thinking thoughts as unhappy as these. Throughout the public sector there are many other senior managers such as me who are being frog-marched into acting as agents of the Coalition’s dissembling over the deficit. And it’s having more profound effects than it might appear. Throughout the sector there is a growing sense of foreboding, a chronic anxiety about the future, a disabling resignation. There is a serious danger that not only will public services be decimated by the loss of the skills and experience of those staff who will be the direct victims of cuts, but also that those who remain will be so de-motivated, so over-stretched, and so battle-scarred that the rump of services will be even less effective than they might have been. A double-whammy if ever there was one.

Rich irony then that today is also the day that Mr Bob Diamond, £100 million beneficiary of the banking débâcle that precipitated all this grief, is confirmed as the new Chief Executive of Barclays Bank, which in making this appointment is effectively blowing a loud raspberry at the majority of the citizenry of this country who are now paying the bill for the banks’ collective folly. It is of course more complex than that, and far too many of that same citizenry were colluders in that folly when they swallowed the patently false prospectus that money could somehow be magicked from thin air. Despite that, it remains the case that the real-world consequence of this complex web of financial inter-relationships is that some very few individuals are able to hang on to their magicked money whilst very many more are to be deprived not only of any magicked money they might have been unwise enough to accept, but also the very real money that comes from having a job.

It may be argued that we have no poor in this country, and relative to the total global economy that is largely true. It is not true that no-one is poor even by that definition since we have plenty of people with no food and no shelter save that which is provided through charity. Certainly the people whose jobs I’m about to whisk away could not be called poor on a global scale, even after they’ve lost their jobs. But we all know that poverty is relative and not absolute. Compared with Mr Diamond we’re almost all paupers. So I have no hesitation in confirming that, yet again, “It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure, It’s the poor wot gets the blame”.

The bitten bites

OK, so the real phrase is “the biter bit”, but in my case the order’s been reversed. Today I spent most of my time wielding my red pencil as I and my colleagues struggled to find substantial savings in next year’s budget. As a result of my efforts no-one is going to be dragged into their boss’s office as I was in 2008 (see my first post) and told summarily that their services will shortly be no longer required. But it would be idle to pretend that there will not eventually be some people whose jobs will go.

As you may imagine, this was a rather uncomfortable process for me, and it brought a mixed set of emotions. As the director with ultimate responsibility for finance, I was often in the position of having to spell out unpalatable choices for my colleagues, and to oblige them to grasp nettles they would have preferred to have left ungrasped. What was perhaps most strange for me was to observe my own feelings and rationalisations. The fresh experience of my own redundancy and subsequent struggle to find work seemed to result in two diametrically opposed sensations. On the one hand, I was acutely aware of the devastation that accompanies notice of losing one’s job. But on the other I was in some way conscious of feeling a kind of moral authority: I was not visiting on anyone else anything that had not been visited on me. I don’t offer this as some sort of exoneration, but simply as an honest reportage of how I felt. There were other odd, and I fear wildly misplaced, moral dynamics. Because I was pressurising colleagues to make cuts from their budgets, and thereby to put their staff at risk, I felt it was only right for me to offer up some sacrificial lambs from inside my own directorate. Surely, I must lead by example. Written on the page, this seems every bit as ludicrous a logic as indeed it was, but I felt the “moral” pressure nonetheless.

No matter how hard one tries to approach this kind of task with clinical objectivity, these frequently spurious human motivations keep rushing in to confuse and ensnare. I know from my own bitter experience that the last thing a colleague needs is to be told that making them redundant has hurt the decision-maker as much as the recipient. That’s a lie as plain and as clear as the the one that a million stick-wielding schoolteachers have trotted out to a million maths-book-down-the-trousers schoolboys. And yet, it is perhaps ultimately re-assuring that humanity – no matter that it’s often in the form of human frailty and moral confusion – leaks into these processes despite our best efforts to keep it at bay. I’ve been bitten, and now I’ve had to bite. I haven’t relished it, but I have taken some pride in trying to approach it with an awareness and a sensitivity to all these contradictory but very human confusions.

So the unemployed don’t piss?

I’m having another, and final, go at Jobcentre Plus-Fuck-All this week. It felt about time, it being a good 4 or 5 weeks since I last had a pop, other than the sheer incredulity of last week’s bonus post. (As an update on that, they have continued to insist that I visit them for one final and nostalgic instalment of their job-seeking wisdom which I’m due to receive tomorrow morning, and frankly the excitement is killing me.) Let me be clear. I realise that I’m pursuing a symptom and not a cause. That Jobcentres do not create the mess or the despair that they are charged with trying to mop up and deal with. I recognise that for Jobcentre staff it must be a thankless and depressing task, and probably the last thing they need is to read the bitter outpourings of an unemployed blogger.

Well, I’m sorry about that, but outpour bitterly is just what I’m going to do. There is a real problem in my view about disentangling cause and effect. Jobcentre managers will doubtless be saying that the things I’m about to rant on about are the effects emanating from causes which have their roots in the bad and angry behaviour of their “customers”. Thus the fact that there are, quite literally, several hundred CCTV cameras across the four floors of my Jobcentre is doubtless to protect Jobcentre staff from physical attack, and equally doubtless there was a history of physical attack before the cameras were installed. I wonder.

What I do know is that being so comprehensively spied upon is enough to make even me want to do something worth watching like, I don’t know, perhaps pissing in the stairwell. I alight on that possibility less randomly than you might think, because on every floor there is a toilet marked clearly, “For staff use only”, and firmly locked. I have no idea what an incontinent benefit claimant is supposed to do, and I daresay that on application someone will allow you into the pissoir of your choice. That’s not the point. The sheer aggressive unwelcomeness of the Jobcentre is as much stimulus to anger as it might be protection from the anger thus provoked.

This “architectural” aggression seems to legitimate the bureaucratic aggression which as often as not spills out from Jobcentre staff, and even more so, from the army of security guards that glower at all and sundry. I’m a peaceable fellow at heart, and unlikely to administer more than a withering look or a sarcastic riposte. But the Jobcentre can stir wild and violent urges even in me.


An extra instalment for your perusal. Incandescent does not even begin to do justice to my state of agitation and disbelief.

I have just been to sign-on. I explained, with some pleasure, that I had succeeded at last in getting a job to start in the New Year. I was told, as I had indeed expected, that if I wanted to continue to receive my NI credits I would need to continue signing-on until the new job actually started. A minor inconvenience, but rules is rules. Then the bombshell. An interview has been arranged for me with a careers advisor next week. This, I was told, is in order for me to receive advice on how to go about getting a job. I feel the need for a verbatim record of the exchange.

“Oh, well that’s kind. But obviously it would be a silly waste of everyone’s time in the circumstances, wouldn’t it?”

“Well, you still have to come.”

“But why? What use will it be for me, or for you?”

“I’m sorry, but you have to come to see the advisor, and if you refuse you will have your benefit stopped.”

“But you don’t pay me any benefit! We’ve been here before.” (See an earlier post for details.)

“We give you NI credits, so you have to come.”

“How much is it costing for me to have to come – not even at my normal signing-on time – to see an advisor for advice I palpably don’t need.”

“That’s not the point.”

“But it is the point. That’s why unemployment costs us all so much. Why can’t you use your common sense, and realise that in these circumstances what you are asking me to do is silly, and a waste of time and money.”

“There’s no need to be aggressive.”

“You think that’s aggressive? It’s aggressive for me to ask you to use your intelligence?”

“I’ll ask my manager if an exception can be made.”

“Thank you.”

A slight pause.

“No, you have to come because the regulations say you must.”

“Could you please raise my concern and incredulity formally in some way. It’s not acceptable for you to hide behind rules that defy simple common sense!”

“You’ve made your point several times, sir, and I must now ask you to leave.”

“Will you convey my frustration and dismay?”

“Please leave now, or I will have to call the security guard.”

I think my blood pressure has returned to normal now, but my sense of frustration remains as potent as ever. What a load of fatuous bollocks.

The fun and games of psychometric testing

These days we job applicants are assailed not just by illiterate person specifications, but also by the particularly piquant pleasure of the on-line psychometric test. These are supposed to alert employers to, well, to what some psychologist believes one can infer from the enforced answering of bizarre questions. Since I’ve perforce become familiar with being on the receiving end of these charades, I now cringe with shame that I allowed my Head of HR to persuade me that they should be introduced for some high-level posts at my last company.

Generally these tests ask you to say which of 4 statements is most like you, and which least. About 150 times usually, with different combinations, sneaky repetitions, and seemingly designed to force you into either inconsistency or lying about yourself.

An example: I’m modest about my achievements; I do most of the talking; I don’t like keeping to the rules; I keep a tidy desk.

Next question: I’m prepared to stand up for what I believe; I get anxious before big meetings; I keep my own counsel; I don’t like to show my emotions.

And always, you must tick the most and the least like you. Usually, having ticked that which is most like you, you end up having to tick something as least like you that you don’t believe, but which is the least daft choice. Or vice versa. Try them out and see. But although you can often look at an individual question and give a sensible answer, it’s the sheer number of questions, and the way they force you into corners, that most frustrates and demoralises.

At the final question I’m asked what best describes my current emotional state: You want to slit your throat from ear to ear; You feel like throwing your computer in the bin; You would glady throttle the writer of this exercise. I tick all three. The computer says I can’t tick them all. Oh yes, I fucking well can.

“Tell me, Mr No-Job, how long have you had this difficulty with anger management?”

“Oh, about 45 minutes. In fact, ever since you started asking me these damn-fool bloody questions!”

But sadly, my future employment may yet depend on this psycho-babble nonsense.

Supporting myself with a statement

Here we go again. “Please tell us how your skills and experience meet the criteria in the person specification. Be specific, and give concrete examples of what you have personally done. Do not write more than 3 pages of A4 in total.” Sounds entirely fair enough, doesn’t it? Except when you realise that there are 35 points in the person specification. A little basic arithmetic is called for. Three pages of A4 at a reasonable font size is about 1,700 words. So divide 1,700 by 35. That’s about 48 words. From the beginning of this post to this point is, well, 101 words. So I’m supposed to have addressed two person specification points, being specific and including examples of course, already.

That’s OK when the point in question is, say, “Must have a degree-level qualification”, but a bit more tricky when it’s, “Knowledge and understanding of effective business improvement and performance management systems”. In 48 words? OK, so 48 is an average, but in no case would I have the luxury of the 173 words I’ve got through so far in this post.

And concision is not the only challenge to the writer of a convincing supporting statement. Understanding what on earth is meant is frequently harder than trying to write an answer. How about, “Knowledge of integrating equalities issues into services and achieving agreed targets and providing leadership in this area.” No? Well try, “To review and process re-engineer the above corporate services so that they fully support the Target Operating Model.” This Target Operating Model (why capitalised?) is nowhere explained in the reams of accompanying bilge one has to wade through. But just in case you are much cleverer than me, knowing all about the Target Operating Model, and with fluent facility integrating equalities into services whilst you sleep, try this one. “Is: resilient, tough, fixer, broker, influencer, plotter, scanner.” And most beautifully ironic of all one person specification, having called for “excellence in written communication”, went on to demand I show how I might be “engaging with and understanding the business, communicating information and advice which the Council and it’s partners needs in away that is accessible to everyone.” Lynne Truss, weep now. 366 words, by the way.

The great transferable skills myth

I’ve spent half my career believing that the important skills in life and work are generic. From fundamental life skills, like being able to listen to and communicate with other people, to the ability to analyse a situation and think logically about it, I’ve told myself and the staff I’ve been responsible for that these are competencies that will always be in demand, and can be applied in any work or personal circumstances. Demonstrate that you have developed these and other similar tools, and that will be more important to prospective employers than the specific environment or sector in which you established that competence. Well, I’m beginning to question that assumption.

In the jargon of these things, these generic attributes are called “transferable skills”. Of course, if you work in nuclear physics then the specific technical skills are always going to be the ones you need. If we want them at all, we certainly don’t want the new nuclear power stations we’re about to have foisted on us designed by people who knew nothing about radiation but were good at getting along with their colleagues. But I don’t work in nuclear physics, and I assumed that HR skills, the ability to motivate and lead my team, project management of information technology, developing strategy, and the financial skill to manage a £5M budget would be as useful in, say, the management of the health service as in the management of education.

But apparently not. Recruitment consultants nearly always play safe, and safe means knowing that the candidates they’re putting forward not only have the right skills, but have developed them in the right places. In a recession there will always be a queue of people who have worked in exactly the same sector as the new job is in, and who’ll not need any settling-in period whilst they get to grips with a new context. They’ll be ready to hit the ground running, as is apparently always so vital an attribute. I’ve always thought that the most likely consequence of hitting the ground running is to fall flat on your face, but what do I know?

So my skills might be acknowledged as being of a high order, but they ain’t transferring anywhere.