Saturday, February 04, 2012

Private Lives

I have just spent a week working on a farm owned by gypsies, in a remote part of the Weald that seems to have its own subarctic microclimate. On the first day I wore a t-shirt, corduroy shirt, Fair Isle sweater and fleece, thinking that this would be perfectly adequate.

It wasn't.

By yesterday, I had so many layers of clothing on that I moved like an Apollo astronaut. This made it difficult to sort through the boxes of books that were housed in a barn, but at least my teeth were no longer chattering.

Perhaps the most useful things I bought with me were a Russian hat - particularly important if you're thinning on top - and some antibacterial handwash (some of the boxes have rat droppings in them). Next week I'll also have some skiwear, so I should be okay.

The other morning I was alone in the barn when a ruddy-faced man appeared at the door and started talking to me about the state of the floor. I politely said that it was nothing to do with me and continued sorting through the books, but he didn't take the hint.

After telling me the same thing for the third time, he introduced himself as Bob and I caught a very strong whiff of alcohol. My heart sank. This wasn't going to be easy.

For the next hour I tried to get rid of Bob, but the drink had reduced his short-term memory to four seconds and he seemed to be operating on a loop, reintroducing himself to me every few minutes. In the end, I gave up and said I was going home.

The next day the owner of the farm came up to me. "I see you've met Bob then." I nodded. He shrugged his shoulders, adding "Well, he is what he is."

I liked the owner's philosophical attitude. As far as he was concerned, as long as Bob got the job done, that was all that mattered. It was such a contrast to the modern workplace, where HR departments rigorously do everything they can to observe employment law and equal opportunities legislation, but often end up with an environment that doesn't accommodate people's eccentricities.

I think that this is due to a blurring of the line between the public and private parts of our lives.

In the 1950s and 60s, my parents worked at the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank in Kew. It was a huge building that employed hundreds of civil servants in vast offices, lined with rows of desks.

According to my parents, the bank was run in an uncompromisingly strict way. Lateness and absenteeism were not tolerated and people's personal circumstances were regarded as irrelevant. When I was born, at 3.30pm on a cold March afternoon, there was no question of my father being allowed to leave work an hour early, or even make a phone call outside the allocated break times.

What a contrast to today's workplace.

But there was an upside to this. If your personal life was irrelevant, it also followed that there was no attempt to own your soul. As long as you were punctual, diligent, hard working and honest, your political views and personal opinions were of no interest to an employer. It didn't matter whether you were a team player and believed in 'brand values' or not.

As a result, the Savings Bank employed a selection of people that was, in many ways, more 'inclusive' and 'diverse' than many modern workplaces. That's putting it politely. All human life was there, from battle-scarred war veterans to people who would now be diagnosed as autistic. The one thing they all had in common was an aptitude for numbers.

My mother said that her colleagues were usually quite circumspect about their personal lives, but when you worked with the same people year after year, little snippets of information gradually built up into a whole picture.

My mother knew that Mr Fortescue occasionally had blackouts and thought he was back in the Burmese jungle. She also knew that Mrs Clutterbuck was afraid of being contaminated by germs and that Miss Snellham and Miss Havering had a 'funny friendship' (my mother's expression). But it was no-one's business. Privacy was respected.

There was one notable exception - my mother didn't know that Mr Christie in room 17B was a serial killer (a man that my father described as "a very quiet chap who kept himself to himself"). That was one example of a private life being a little too private.

I wouldn't want to turn the clock back. I'm grateful that there is legislation that protects people from discrimination and recognises that their personal circumstances should be accommodated, wherever possible. I'm glad that Miss Snellham can now expect compassionate leave if Hiss Havering's mother dies.

But I do mourn the loss of a private life and a growing culture of conformity that would have branded some my mother's colleagues as unemployable.

When the last company I worked for created a human resources department, the new HR manager decided that she needed to foster a 'team' culture. Weekly meetings were set up, with the most excrutiatingly embarrassing team-building activities: "Okay, today I want you to write what each person's strengths and weaknesses are on a post-it note and stick it up on the wall..." (apparently I was 'friendly' and 'polite').

We were also asked to talk about our personal lives. On the one hand, I was moved to discover that a young man in the warehouse lived in a family of drug addicts and loved his job because he wanted to make something of himself, but I could also see how uncomfortable he felt.

I liked the HR manager and respected her motives, but felt terribly exposed by her attempts to make us bond.

Do we always need to have a team spirit in the workplace? What does it actually mean? A culture that once valued experience, honesty, diligence, reliability and maturity has been replaced, in some workplaces at least, with one that rewards conformity, youth, extroversion, enthusiasm and energy. We need a balance between the two and a recognition that a bad team player might nevertheless be a valued employee.

We've legislated against racial and sexual discrimination. Now it's time to protect those who are shy or just odd. Don't make them go tenpin bowling unless they really want to!

We also need to redraw that line between the personal and the private.

Perhaps I'm just saying this because I'm now in my 40s, well on the way to becoming an old git. How can I compete with a 22-year-old who is "hungry for success" (a friend of mine recently heard a young colleague say this without a hint of irony) and untainted by the experience of working for tossers?

Luckily, I'm self-employed, but the tiniest possibility that one day I could find myself in a room full of people again, talking earnestly about 'brand values' (or even worse, a 'brand wheel') still brings me out in a cold sweat.


Sarah said...

I can understand that. It's a double-edged sword, revealing yourself at work. You never know if your situation/weaknesses will then be used against you by the more unscrupulous member of your haha team.

Rog said...

The Savings Bank sounds like the place iPhones are made in China.

I used to work with Bob....

Little Nell said...

...and the role play, spare me the role play.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

I used to dread the team-building 'fun' days at the multi-national I used to work for, and the motivational courses where you had to assess yourselves and others. I never treated them seriously enough, which is probably why I never got anywhere!

Canadian Chickadee said...

Amen. You have given voice to something I've long felt. Often what passes for conversation in today's world comes under the heading of what texters refer to as 'TMI" -- too much information!

I always tried to keep my private and my work lives separate, but as you can imagine, this didn't always work. But I tried!

Martin said...

You paint a scene I know too well, and miss not one jot.

Kid said...

I'm always suspicious of the type of person who want to be "team leader"...or any kind of leader, in fact. Sometimes you'll hear them describe themselves as a "born leader", which one wag once described as "someone who's too scared to go anywhere by himself." Great post.

Kate Richbourg said...

This post really rang true with me.

I also left my "safe" job recently and am experiencing the roller coaster of self employment. I like the freedom of calling my own shots and creating my own work environment.

Glad you are posting more often. You always write something worth reading.

Steerforth said...

Sarah - Agreed. I've often had discussions with bosses about promoting staff and invariably, people's personal circumstances are mentioned. Employees should have the right to ask for flexibility when personal problems arise, but shouldn't be compelled to give information about their private lives as a matter of course.

Rog - That's why I don't share some people's unreserved adulation for Steve Jobs.

Nell - Do you remember the documentary about some executives who were sent on an outward bound course in Dartmoor? One man refused to join in because he asserted that it had nothing to do with his job. He was the one that got promoted.

Annabel - I could never take these courses seriously either and used to see what I could get away with, using the role play to subtly ridicule the course. It annoyed the trainers but kept the rest of us sane.

Chickadee - Yes, that's what I try to do now. It's easier as I get older, as there isn't the same pressure to be friends with colleagues. One lesson I have learned is to avoid socialising with the boss.

As far as separating working and private lives, it used to be called 'being professional'. Good for you for trying.

Martin - It was your example and those of others that helped to convince me that self-employment was worth the uncertainty. I can't stress what a relief it is to no longer have to pay lip service to corporate attitudes.

Kid - Yes, the very fact that someone wants to be a leader usually makes them unsuited to it.

Kate - Self-employment is a bit of a roller coaster and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who's up to their neck in debt. I hope the roller coaster analogy doesn't include suddenly plunging down after reaching great heights!

Grey Area said...

Human Resources departments are the single, most significant factor in the collapse of British industry, in my experience.I generally get to see them from the outside ( but alas, not always ) and the fear, misery and dissension they create is depressing and destructive, and they have SUCH POWER! It's also strange that they are populated with people who appear to have no social skills whatsoever. I'm sure that there are very responsible, well trained and committed HR folk out there doing their best, but they are a tiny minority. Most of the ones I have had the misery to meet are motivated by loathing of their fellow men. One of the problems is that they don't actually 'do' anything for an organisation. They don't produce anything, create anything or contribute in any way to industry or the economy - so go to a lot of trouble to stop anyone else from being able to.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Hear hear! I often dread socials with my colleagues, not because I don't like my colleagues but because they have such radically different tastes to me. My idea of hell is a tribute band night or an amateur abortion of 'The Sound of Music' at the local musical theatre. An hour's bowling followed by a chinese meal is just about do-able, but any other activity they come up with makes me flinch!

John Peacock said...

1. "Human Resources" has always sounded to me like a euphemism for "slaves". Perhaps that explains a lot about modern corporate culture.

2. It's also odd that department called Human Resources employs so few actual humans.

(So far I've had to submit this form four times each with a different Captcha. Nothing went wrong, apparently that's just the process. I bet they've got a great Human Resources department at Google.)

Steerforth said...

Richard - Like you, my experience of the HR world has been largely negative - people who contribute nothing to a business and justify their positions by creating a lot of unnecessary, time-consuming work.

However, in fairness, I've also been lucky enough to work with two HR people who were a model of impartiality, compassion and honesty. If only they were the norm.

Laura - I agree. My personal time is my own. I really don't appreciate being coerced into giving up an evening to spend time with people I have nothing in common with. Why do we all have to be friends? Isn't professionalism and mutual respect enough?

John - I bet Google has a lovely HR department, populated by people with smiley, bobbing heads who say 'Hey!' when they meet and talk about Google's brand values.

I wonder if you're able to leave at 5.30 without feeling like an outsider.

I've no idea, but so many companies and corporations remind me of descriptions of life in the USSR, where it wasn't enough to work hard and obey the law - you had to share the same values as the Party, otherwise you were an Enemy of the People.

It's odd how so many businesspeople, who generally expound rightwing, libertarian views, run their companies like Soviet Russia.

I'm ranting now. My apologies.


I have always worked in female-dominated workplaces. The cat fighting, tantrums and back-stabbing (just from senior management)constantly got in the way of progress. HR had to get involved in some really petty staff disputes, such a waste of their time.
I never went out on the staff nights out lest they see the real me. I've said it before, I miss NOTHING about having a job. Every day in my last job, I walked in knowing I'd get nothing constructive done. After 7 years it kind of gets you down.
I envy those who get enormous satisfaction ordering £11.99 worth of tat from the Book People in the staff room and eating a ham sandwich, yoghurt and ready salted crisps every day. No, I don't really. I envy those who enjoy their work.

zmkc said...

The last time I was sent on a day's team building, we did all become much fonder of each other by the end, but only because we all encouraged one another to get progressively sillier and to send up the team building man, who was a jerk, but I still felt we were rather meaner than we should have been to him. On the other hand, he was, as people who do that kind of job really have to be, extremely bumptious and almost totally insensitive, and I think he just decided we were all some kind of weird category of personality that he'd read about in some training manual, which had warned him that the only thing to do with that type was humour them. He may have been mildly disappointed that he never persuaded us to all jump in the air, whooping, like those people in your picture. I would have been prepared to give it a go in an ironic way but others said that, even in an ironic way, it would be the thin end of the wedge, and in hindsight, I realise they were absolutely right.

Biscuit said...

I agree with every word in this entry. Repeatedly.

Also, the John Christie angle actually made me gasp.

Steerforth said...

Lucy - It must be wonderful to be one of those people who end up earning a living from something they're passionate about, rather than regarding each day as a sentence. I don't know how people can stand jobs like working in a call centre, or sitting at the checkout of Tesco for seven hours.

I'm pretty happy with my current job, but I'll be even happier when the money starts to come in.

zmkc - Yes, I think these courses do produce a 'Dunkirk spirit'. I feel a little guilty about the way I behaved on some occasions, but everyone has their breaking point.

I remember one course in which someone droned on incessantly about the importance of keeping a folder in the office of weekly fire safety checks, so that if the place burned down the employer could avoid liability. My question was innocent enough: "If the building burns down, won't the fire safety checks be destroyed?" But from that point on, I was the troublemaker.

Biscuit - I think it caused quite a stir at the time, particular as an innocent man was hanged before the police caught up with Christie.

Richmonde said...

Two things I don't miss from the days before mobile phones and email: 1) colleagues spending hours on the phone talking about the minutiae of their life. Everybody listened, and discussed what they'd heard. 2) People phoning me and going on for hours either just bending my ear or trying to pressure me to do things.

Not much work got done!

Again, my colleagues used to listen to my end of the conversation and laugh at what I said and the way I said it. (That's a third thing I don't miss.)

The people who rang me up and talked at length never quite believed that I occasionally did some work at work.

Donna McKinnon said...

You know, I read your column all the time, and I'd like to say something pithy...but all I can think of is that I love your writing. I absolutely love it.

Steerforth said...

Donna - So much for leaving a comment. I always wonder if I've written complete drivel and it's a huge relief when my posts strike a chord with others.

Richmonde - I'd forgotten about the phone problem, with colleagues playing to the gallery so that we could all hear what a remarkabe life they had. Awful. We still have it on trains though.