A week in the life

Conferences on culture changes, appraising outsourcing, mentoring, meetings on incentives… it’s all in a week’s work for an HR director. By Paul Simpson


Monday


8am The weekend’s haul of e-mails stands at 109. Three are from the managing director who has just been to a “change the culture” conference and wants to know what we can do to change the culture at Acme Printing International. He’s pencilled – or rather e-mailed – in a meeting with myself for tomorrow on the subject at 9am. His final chilling e-mail asks, “Have we ever seriously appraised outsourcing?” There are a handful of nominations for the employee of the year award (so far the winner is going to be the employee who suggested the award, we must avoid that).

An e-mail arrives from a reporter at the Argus asking if we will be shedding 100 jobs at our Nottingham plant after losing a children’s TV magazine contract. A very good question which I’ll put to our sales director Bill when he returns from his country retreat.

9am Our forthcoming tribunal hearing has taken a turn for the worse. Four months ago, it was all hale and hearty talk of total victory. Now the barrister who, I’m beginning to suspect, has every requirement of his profession save that of a fine legal mind, is saying: “The bottom line is, we’re guilty”. This is one more tribute to our sales director’s hands-on approach to hiring ’em and firing ’em. The barrister wants to rehearse Bill’s testimony, I say I’ll fix it.

7pm Bill pops his head around the door to announce he can’t attend Thursday’s meeting on incentives because he’s out with clients. I eschew the obvious reply. “Nice to know we still have some”, and ask about the lost contract. He growls something which sounds like: “It ain’t over, till it’s over”, and storms out.


Tuesday


9am Our first “change the culture” summit. Actually, all the boss wanted to talk about was outsourcing, although he did describe that irrepressible American Tom Peters as his mentor. This could be the most disastrous example of mentoring since Eddie Large took Syd Little under his wing. I agree to do a detailed appraisal of the costs and benefits of outsourcing my department and to call some consultant he met over the weekend. As he leaves, Brian says he’d like to put changing the culture on the agenda for the next board meeting. I nod, wondering how far he wants to go with this. The last time we asked staff to describe the company, their favourite adjective was “feudal”.

9pm Consultant “can’t possibly talk” to me until next week. Our solicitor says we are to be buried under a mountain of evidence at the tribunal. The plaintiff’s statement is a mere 51 pages long compared to the scanty seven we extracted from Bill. Our finance director Peter gleefully informs me, in a snotty e-mail, that my department costs have risen 38 per cent in the past year.

5pm The Argus is on the phone. The hack tells me which company has won the contract from us. I promise to ring her back when I have some news. Two more Employee of the Year votes. I have to e-mail Brian’s secretary to remind her that her boss can’t win because directors are excluded.


Wednesday


8am Something’s going on: the sales director is all shiny and smart. And the managing director has had his hair cut for the third time this decade. My secretary Janice goes on some mild industrial espionage and breathlessly informs me that we are the lucky recipients of a surprise visit from the chairman. It’s hard to breathe over the fumes of Mr Sheen.

9pm Our knighted chairman paid a surprise visit to our stockbrokers instead and is now at some symposium in Geneva. Bill and I interview a female candidate for export sales manager. Bill’s idea of a killer question is: “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” She gave the expected answer and Bill nodded approval. She’ll get the job, which could be interesting because she seems a lot smarter than Bill. When it’s over, I ask him about the contract and he becomes evasive.

5pm Our audit of employees’ use of the Internet at head office reveals that a member of the finance department spends 25 per cent of his working day on the Web. Nor, sad to say, is he downloading boring screeds about accountancy. Peter has already recommended withdrawing his Internet privileges and giving him an official warning. After another call from the Argus, I ring the managing director who confirms that we have lost the contract and may lose some jobs, but he didn’t want to tell me until he’d given Bill the chance to find replacement business. I politely suggest that one way we could usefully change the culture is by communicating with each other, but he bristles and says, “I don’t see why you have to take that attitude.”


Thursday


8am Exit interview with our very talented marketing director Sue. “Will Brian see your report?”, she asks. “If you want him to,” I say. She insists and then proceeds to take the company apart. After 10 minutes, I’ve run out of euphemisms. After 15 minutes, I’m just putting it down verbatim. I’ll tell Brian it’s useful ammo for our “change the culture” campaign.

1pm Hmmm. further study of the Internet audit reveals that Brian has been spending a lot of time surfing “outsourcing” web sites. The incentives meeting ended inconclusively. Morale among sales staff is low and it’s not just down to Bill’s “hands on the windpipe” management style. They’re supposed to get commission but the market is so tight commission seems about as real as the lost continent of Atlantis. Bill’s idea of staff incentives is not firing them, but his deputy, John, who’s a bit closer to the foot soldiers, has a few good if not dazzlingly original ideas, although I know the finance director’s lip will curl at the thought of paying for a sales conference.

5pm Ted, managing director of our Nottingham plant, is on the phone, incoherent with rage. The Argus has run the story. He’s already got a message to call the print union’s national officer. Why didn’t we warn him? Why indeed? Janice says I’ve got a message to call the union too. I send an urgent e-mail to Bill and Brian asking them if there’s any news on new business. As Bill doesn’t always read his e-mails – he says he hasn’t had proper training – I ask Janice to take a hard copy over.


Friday


8am Absenteeism on our management training courses has reached an alarming 17 per cent. Peter has already e-mailed me suggesting we suspend the programme. I understand his keenness when I open his weekly financial report: as a group, we are now a mere £6.5m below our revenue forecast for the current financial year. By just putting all the awful figures down together with the minimum of commentary Peter has compiled a devastating indictment of the company. Much more of this and “change the culture” will be superseded by “change the board”.

9pm The solicitor rings to tell me that Bill has been briefed but his voice is so firmly stuck in neutral I know it went badly. “How much are we looking at?” I ask. “Ten grand? Twenty?” With an evasion so ingrained I suspect it must be genetic, he says he can’t possibly speculate.

5pm Bill is off nursing his wounds in Oxfordshire. Janice is heading down the pub for a Friday night of revelry with most of the sales force. Brian has just accelerated out of the car park after e-mailing me that he has “squared” the union at Nottingham. I must remember to ask him to define specifically how he’s “squared” them. The tribunal starts on Monday. Simon, the office wag, is running a sweepstake on the damages. My fiver is on £20,000. My last two e-mails of the working week: from John telling me our new Australian salesperson has been making up fictitious meetings with clients while staying at home in bed and a final nomination for the Employee of the Year award, for the employee who came up with the idea. All in all, an odd week, nothing constructive achieved but nothing too destructive allowed to happen either. As I tidy up my desk, I see a Post-It from Brian timed 4.46 today which says simply “Outsourcing!!!” Just a little something for the weekend from the managing director.

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