Sir Fred Goodwin – slings and arrows: Off message

With all the banks going into meltdown, it seems that Sir Fred Goodwin was the straw that broke the camel’s back, causing the Great British Public (ie, the national press and all the major broadcasters) to start wetting their pants about the size of his overflowing pension pot.

As if that wasn’t pushing enough steam through ears across the land, the former chief executive of super-failing bank RBS poured fuel on the metaphorical flames by refusing to give up any of his contractually agreed pension of just £703,000 a year.

This conflagration has left everyone feeling a little bit tetchy, to say the least. And even Gordon Brown has weighed into the row by suggesting Goodwin give some of it back.

A thousand natural shocks

Naturally, the media has been blowing things out of all proportion as usual, with Goodwin’s pension edging ever upwards with all the certainty of a game of Chinese whispers, reaching several billions a day in some quarters. That nice Mr Peston has been much in evidence once again, after a fleeting respite when everyone was focusing on the Obama bounce, 100 days of Obama, Obama and his new hound – a Portuguese water dog – and Obama and Gordon go for a walk. But it has been the poison pension episode that has had the nation in its grip.

And the main gripe gripping the nation is the fact that it’s ‘taxpayers’ money’ that will be used to line Fred’s pockets.

But it isn’t. Because it never is.

It was taxpayers’ money, but now that it has been paid, it’s the government’s money, and the government – which may or may not have been elected by you, but was at the very least elected by your peers – can spend that money any way it sees fit. Like spending £20bn on renewing the Trident nuclear missile programme, or spending £1bn a year on the apparently illegal war in Iraq.

You have no real power and no real choice, aside from making your mark at the ballot box.

Whips and scorns

Of course, as taxpayers, people have an expectation that their money will pay for some stuff to be done that will benefit themselves, and, at a push, the rest of society. But while most people are happy to see more money going into the NHS and the education system, for instance, there are still baffling items of expenditure that irk every right-thinking individual – such as dodgy MPs’ expenses, the home secretary’s second house, and Gordon Brown’s guitar lessons. (OK, I made that one up).

But even if it’s not our very own cash, it beggars belief that the boss of a failing company deserves such a windfall in recognition of the apparently brilliant job he has done in racking up the biggest losses ever seen in UK corporate history. And never mind that he’ll never get to paradise, what with it being “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”, as it says in the Bible.

All of us are short-changed by the nefarious ways of the City, the irregular structure of the government, and the often baffling way the country is run. But paradoxically, while most of us are powerless in the face of the government and the corporate monsters, one class of people is in a position to make a difference: Humanos Resourciosa – or the lesser-spotted HR professional. These mysterious beasts, who dwell in the bowels of most large organisations, prowling the corridors of power, largely unseen and unheard of by the masses who work there, have the power to truly change the way we work.

As the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) chief economist John Philpott said in these very pages (‘Upside of the downturn’, Personnel Today, 24 February), HR can benefit from the global recession and really make a difference. Yet, what HR’s equivalent of Robert Peston didn’t say was just how big an impact HR could exert by applying its collective wisdom.

There are enough deep thinkers about the ways of work – plying their trade at The Work Foundation, Roffey Park and Cranfield School of Management, to name a few – to come up with a new model, a way of running organisations without the need for a greedy chief executive. So the CIPD should get all the thinkers together and come up with a plan – and fast.

Take arms against a sea of troubles

The first step would be to cull those at the top, rather than those struggling to earn a living down near the bottom. After all, if you take all CEOs out of the equation, what would happen? Diddly squat, that’s what. Most CEOs do nothing whatsoever, most managers above a certain level do nothing whatsoever, and some cheeky rascals might argue that most HR directors have an equally heavy workload (although, of course, there are exceptions to all the above).

But this really could be HR’s moment to shine in a big way – if only it had the courage to force the issue.

Obama, Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel et al have accepted that now is the time for change. And in this period of reshaping the way we work in the wake of the financial disaster, to make companies leaner and more agile, more ready to bounce back when the slump turns into a bump and things start to move upwards again, HR’s real thinkers could start to plant the seeds of real, radical change.

The credit crunch has made everyone sit up and take notice. So now it’s time for HR, and the CIPD in particular, to start leading the way, rather than allowing less honourable individuals to hijack the bus and once more drive us all down the cul-de-sac of rampant consumerist greed.

Failing that, there is an attractive – albeit criminal – alternative: take all the CEOs who have been in place for more than a couple of years (with an amnesty for notable exceptions who have a modicum of integrity), tie them up, put them in a great big wicker man, and hand the matches to the nearest pyromaniac.

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