Indecent Proposals

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.

Indecent proposals occur when there is dishonesty in a contract

Indecent proposals occur when there is dishonesty in a contract

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:

The real criterion for selection

The real criterion for selection

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’.

Screen Shot 2012-12-21 at 09.23.01

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:

Half Consultant, Half Potato - original photo at

Half Consultant, Half Potato – original photo at

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”.

RSM Tenon - The only way is Ethics

RSM Tenon – 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.  For a further story on HM Revenue and Customs, check HMRC.


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


21 responses to “Indecent Proposals

  1. Thanks for this Peter. I appreciate your openness in sharing these experiences. I have just been paid the first of my January invoices and it’s from a small charity with limited financial resources, and I was just reflecting how often this is the way. Some congruence between the underlying philosophy of organisational purpose and how they behave?

    How interesting that this organisation are marketing themselves as having expertise in people and culture consultancy; there is is attachment to the idea that the larger the consultancy organisation the more the expertise. I could argue the larger the organisation, the more that ethicability can get disrupted.


    • I used to collect for Help the Aged and was always astonished by the reactions of people on the doorstep. One man (3 doors down the road) actually said NO whilst I was about 4 seconds into my ‘help the aged’ speech. I thought of a witty riposte which knocked him dead. In contrast I knocked on a door of an old lady who insisted on going out the back to find what change she had although I insisted there was no need. I think this seems to play well at the organisation level as well as on the street.


  2. Hi Peter

    I’ve started taking payments up front for all jobs below a certain size. Bad client nearly bankrupted me last year and they’re still prevaricating over a small bill I sent towards the end of the time I worked for them.

    In the US, it’s common for people to send you 50% up front in case you need to take on more staff etc. I wish it was more so in this country. We seem to have taken on so many other US practices, like the zero hours contracts for example.

    I wonder what the hell the unions were doing while this happened? Not been a member for years because I work for myself, but isn’t this what they’re for?


    • Yes, Francis, I wonder what the unions were up to. I used to be a union rep for a blue collar union many years ago and I left because I found them something of a rabble – preferring to spend time discussing ideology and the Tolpuddle Maytyrs than actually serving their members. I told them this and pointed out that, like it or not, the HR department at least all stood together when it mattered and that gave them strength. They looked shocked.

      Yes, bad times produce sh…its and yes, we have copied much bad practice. I really loathe having to get tough, but it turns out I’m rather good at it. It’s not difficult but it’s not nice etc.


  3. Just wondered if Employees at Medway Council would be classed “full time” on a zero contract? Or, allowed to take on other jobs to supplement their earnings.

    These are clearly ways to demotivate employees rather than engage them.


  4. “Has anyone else experienced bad business ethics in challenging times?” Mine is way more serious than your example 😉 Why when I order something which comes with sauce and McDs do they nearly always forget the sauce! I’ve paid for it, its mine… put it in the bad. Sounds silly but these silly things mean lost income and that’s not something that you need at times like these.

    On a more serious note, zero hour contracts are the best way to getting zero hour workers! Before I was self employed, I would often stay until things got done but when the business comes up with daft time management rules… not a minute more! Its human nature.

    Ow! Something more personal. Employee of a business wants a website because there current website does not meet standards, so pays me to develop a website. New person now working for business, though I’ve done most of the work, they can’t see the point and want the money back. Should I suffer because your project can’t hand over projects or find the document from their standards body?


  5. I do work for the biggest private employer in the country (also a union rep) and I’ve noticed scrimping on spending, but a total refusal to accept any link between morale and performance. The blanket statement is that ‘morale is high anyway’. When they get results from staff surveys which do not reach a high enough mark, instead of addressing the issues they simply repeat the survey and put their efforts into persuading people to give better responses!
    I find that the further down the company chain,the ethic behind company policy can all too easily get watered down by individuals on the ground,
    cheers, Gordon


  6. You and I have shared a lot of tales of service found wanting. I enjoyed reading this, because in part, the way to better service is through shining a light on the crappy practice currently in place.


  7. Why do bullies do what they do? If there is ever a way NOT to get somewhere, it is by setting a standard below the belt. I have worked with some wonderful people over the years. Many will always be dear, and others remain friends forever. In management I always tried to look after the people I had responsibility for – but my mistake was sometimes sticking up for some who others were responsible of. You live and learn. It was “being human”.
    Unfortunately greed, envy and the errors of a system driving people by targets all add to the pressures to stand out. It all leads to competition, protectionism (can’t think of a better word), cronyism and intolerance.

    I am sick of seeing bullies getting away with it.

    None of that really benefits the customer does it?


    • I have found in business, when a manager behaves in an unattractive way there is always a reason — and the reason usually have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. For an example — many years ago I worked for two patent attorneys in a large British company, Unilever. One had 10 pages to his docket and was always working feverishyl, my work load on his behalf was staggering. The other rarely gave me work but was always complaining.
      One day he came in an unloaded on me about, really, nothing — work he had given me and said do anytime. So I finished it by the end of the day, and next day he was still out of sorts and complaining. I was really perplexed.
      So I had a conversation with the office manager and wow! what I found out. He was the acknowleged expert on a patent of importance to the company, he had been head of the department, and was demoted because he wasn’t performing. The day before, the department head called him in and assigned him to defend a major lawsuit. And, as he disliked work, he was going to make sure everyone around him suffered — meaning me.
      Believe it or not, that conversation put the whole thing in perspective for me, I no longer cared what he said, I just did my work and minded my own business.


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