Should the private sector put up with being used as a second tier of the welfare state?

The holiday season is over (I almost called it summer, but that would be an outrageous misnomer for the rain-drenched travesty we’ve all just been through). Journalists call it the ‘silly season’ because there’s not much going on (holidays, no parliament, no schools, etc, etc).

While I was secretly relishing the recent stock market turmoil because it gave me something to do, it occurred to me there is one other group to whom the term silly season applies. And that group is HR. Unfortunately for the personnel community, like some kind of mythological Greek punishment, yours is a silly season without end.

Testing times

To start with, this is the period when exam results come out and those tasked with recruiting the best and brightest of our youth to their respective companies breathe a collective sigh (of despair, not relief) as we are reminded on a grand scale that skills are something today’s youth don’t seem to care overly much about.

Of course, many headlines dragged up the amount of people with A* results and how easy exams are these days. But the rather more pressing issue was that in terms of GCSEs, barely half (55.2%) hit a C grade in maths, and only 62.2% managed it in English.

The CBI called it “a skills nightmare” and wheeled out figures to show how employers are having to train too many of their young employees in basic skills – 15% offer remedial training in maths, and 13% train staff in basic literacy.

A while later, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) declared that employers should provide financial education for their staff in light of the same stock market turbulence that was keeping me in gainful employment. Shortly after this, figures from the Chartered Management Institute showed that the health of staff is being affected by the amount of change they face at work and employers need to do something about it. Not even suggestions (swiftly denied) that the Conservative Party would support increasing paid maternity leave to three years and three extra bank holidays seemed that out of place.

Demand-led economy

This constant barrage of demands on employers doesn’t seem odd any more. Ceaseless and often unreasonable demands on employers are now the norm. But God have mercy on you if employers were to make reciprocal demands on staff. Time after time, it’s employers to the rescue, and having it any other way makes you some kind of right-wing tyrant.

Recently, someone in a good job summed up the situation for me by saying he did next to nothing on a day-to-day basis, but couldn’t get fired if he ran naked round the building waving his bits at all and sundry.

Increasingly, employers – the private sector in particular – are becoming a sort of secondary welfare state, providing service after service because employees simply aren’t ready or willing to take on the world of work. This is all before we get started on gold-plated public sector pensions and identifying the sector that is making all the money that actually pays for them.

Calm before the exodus

It seems that business doesn’t like all these demands, but will put up with them – for now. But I worry how long this relative calm will last. Businesses will go elsewhere if we cannot service them here. This is globalisation, people.

The less we have to offer from the ranks of the populace, the less time companies will waste hunting for talent here. It may take a while for other countries to catch up with the stable legal and regulatory frameworks that make the UK so attractive to investors at the moment but loyalty to dear old Blighty might become a little stretched as and when this happens. And it will happen.

Expecting companies to come to the rescue again and again so that we have the capability to get the job done is not a sustainable solution. Whether we can change the habits of a lifetime remains far from clear. However, in the interests of making this never-ending silly season seem less depressing, spare a thought for the celebrity agent I was talking to the other day.

If you think your employees are making unreasonable demands, then I recommend a day or two trying this extreme form of people management. Take these two instructive tales for example. First, she was recently woken at 3am by a client demanding to know why no paparazzi were snapping her as she stumbled, legs akimbo, out of a nightclub. The very next day, another celeb was on the telephone in tears because she had had her hair dyed and no-one had thought this a momentous enough event to publish the story in a paper.

In the midst of the eternal HR silly season, spare a thought for those enduring the downright ridiculous.

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