Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Permission To Spend A Penny

People who are put in charge of other people in the workplace have two responsibilities. One is to effectively manage those people to obtain the most productive use of their labours. The other is to protect the wellbeing of those people by respecting their rights and providing safe and amenable working conditions. It should be obvious that the two responsibilities are complementary, and work best when it is recognized that each duty actually enhances and supports the other. Unfortunately there have always been some people who see them as competing or conflicting interests, and attempt to squeeze more productivity out of people by abusing their rights and pushing them aggressively.

The news that managers at a Medicare call centre in Parramatta were not only imposing a three minute toilet break limit, but were even following staff into the toilets to hurry them along, is a perfect example of such counterproductive behavior. It seems that staff members were required to log all toilet breaks in a compliance diary to keep track of time away from the phones. The log also counted time doing paper work and processing customer claims as time away from the job of answering phones. While the policy was no doubt intended to keep track of workers and their efforts, it should be obvious that such measures are actually restrictive, punitive, and likely to be counter productive.

But, just because something should be obvious doesn’t mean that it can be taken for granted. This sort of draconian regime is characteristic of the petty Bonaparte mentality which occurs when inexperienced, inadequate and insecure people are put in charge of other people. When petty minded people are promoted to positions of authority it seems that the only way that they can exercise that authority is to push people around, and to place unrealistic demands upon them. It is as if they must justify their position by demonstrating the power that deep down they know they really don’t deserve.

Medicare has made a statement that this practice was not a nationwide policy and it has been discontinued. Presumably, whoever was responsible has been “counseled”. But it remains an important issue because it is not the only example of such practices, and not only in the call centre industry. The truth is that any workplace can become the fiefdom of a mean-minded mini-Mussolini who believes that the key to personal success is to keep subordinates not only at heel, but under it. Every office and workshop, every factory and store, can fall victim to the sadistic practices of people promoted above their ability who are terrified of losing control their slaves.

The sad truth is that three minute toilet breaks are pretty mild compared to some of the things that can and do happen in the workplace, and that is not only bad for employees, but it’s also bad for business. People who are treated with respect and dignity are far more likely to be both loyal and productive. Those who are not will be fairly quickly found out anyway, regardless of whether or not any sort of dictatorial rules might be inflicted upon them.

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