Desperate times make people do desperate things and this week I’ve produced a roundup of strange and bizarre business practices that stand out head and shoulders below the water line for business ethics.
Starting with Kent County Council, who are normally held to be good employers with decent standards and so on. They seem to have lost the plot on this occasion, having sent a tender out for some services which a colleague applied for. An extremely long tender document was sent with explicit and transparent criteria for selecting the winning bid:
- Proven track record in leading successful change management projects
- Experience of working with a range of statutory and independent organisations
- Knowledge of mental health and knowledge of substance misuse issues
After spending considerable time preparing the proposal, a letter was then received, telling my colleague that they had lost the bid due to a ‘hidden’ fourth criterion:
Somewhat frustrating for an organisation that prides itself on transparency and so on. There was no feedback on whether my colleague had met the other criteria, thus there was very little they could learn from the time they had spent on this “indecent proposal”. What a waste:
Staying with local government, I heard that Medway Council are about to put their workforce on ‘zero hours contracts’ – this broadly means that staff will have no job security. I am self employed and have therefore signed up to the idea of being hired and used for time limited projects – that’s what I do and my security derives from being able to have a variety of clients and so on. However, many people in employment join an organisation partly for some sense of security re paying the mortgage and so on. HR people talk of engagement and getting ‘discretionary effort’ from people. In my long experience, taking away their ‘Maslow’ security needs is one surefire way of doing the opposite. Talking to a friend who is a dinner lady, she reported bitterly:
As part of Medway’s ‘Better For Less’ programme, we have had our hours cut, but are expected to cook the same amount of food in that time. They sent ‘potato consultants’ in to tell me that I could peel the potatoes in 8.5 minutes instead of the 10 that I take. I used to stay extra hours to get things done. That’s all stopping. So there will be ‘less’ but it will not be ‘better’.
Medway Council’s staff now have the worst of all worlds: A single paymaster, but with zero job security and the possibility of instant dismissal without any employment rights. Yet another “indecent proposal”. I predict a riot:
Incidentally, I have just been sent this artist’s impression of a potato consultant:
Finally, I recently did a project for boutique outsourcing Accountancy and HR consultancy RSM Tenon. The 7th biggest accounting firm in the UK. Again, a respected firm according to their own website. The project was to mediate in a dispute and I was informed that my budget was £3000. I had nearly completed the work when their consultant called up to tell me that they had changed their mind and only wanted to pay £2000! I reminded them that “The Only Way is Ethics”.
After a bit of straight talk, things were grudgingly settled, although I ended up doing some of the work for free, in an attempt to stay close to their “revised” budget. It turns out that RSM Tenon made £100M loss last year and now have a £94 M overdraft to help them continue in business. No wonder they are keen to slash contracts after completion! Strange though for an accountancy firm to make a massive loss and not wish to pay their bills, as their main business is accountancy! My attempts to help RSM Tenon stay within budget would prove later to be a “Big Mistake” in the words of Natalie Imbruglia
A couple of months later, I’d been asked to conduct some further work for RSM Tenon. This required attendance at a tribunal hearing which I was told I must reserve the dates for and could not book alternative work. These were then cancelled at very short notice and I was told that I would not be paid for the opportunity costs. I complained and was informed that RSM Tenon’s lawyers would be brought in to handle things, a strategy presumably designed to batter me into submission. Whatever happened to honour and gentlemen’s agreements? Other disgruntled observers reported this in a financial magazine:
“Bizzarely, they actually make a proportion of their fees from telling other people how to run their finances. Genius! This is what happens when accountants try to run a relationship type business. They’re like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”
To quote The Beatles “I should have known better” from RSM Tenon’s previous form. Oh well. I now have to take these people to the small claims court, wasting everyone’s time.
What should we learn from all of this?
- In desperate times, we need to be careful in taking contracts in case people default on their commitments. Even from what we perceive to be honorable and large institutions. How the mighty have fallen.
- In desperate times, treating people desperately will lead to desperate behaviour in return.
- In desperate times, smart people refuse to respond to desperate behaviour in kind. They do something different.
Has anyone else experienced bad business ethics in challenging times? My experience has been that there are plenty of them, although most people dare not speak of them or just assume that they are the only ones experiencing such things. Please add your story to this blog.
About the Blogger: Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock - Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics - Business and organisation development, training and coaching. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org