For as long as I can remember the bell of doom has been ringing for the so called job for life. The apocryphal story of the man who starts by sweeping the floor working his way up to Managing Director (smoking a cigar in a plush office) belongs in some kind of Old Testament to the new world of work. The truth though is that much of the old thinking and machinery that supported that experience of the workplace remains and needs be challenged.
You start as clay, without form or function. The organisation teaches you and moulds you and you, in return, serve it well. Day after day, month after month, year after year you return again to continue to work. With each pay packet comes more pennies in the pension pot. With each year comes more security as your entitlement to employment rights and redundancy payments increase. Don’t look outside, don’t leave, don’t walk on the grass and you will be rewarded further. Promotions become possible, car park privileges that are worth more than silver and gold and a gentle narrative telling you that however dysfunctional this place is compared to other workplaces you are ok here. People know you, you won’t be caught out here.
More years pass and your annual leave entitlement increases. Your pay packet is gradually increasing as you move up the pay spine year after predictable year. Now when you do look at other workplaces you can see that leaving would put you at the bottom of the ladder again. You will be in the new pension scheme rather than the more generous one. You will get less holiday. You will be at the back of the car park queue and you will be at the bottom of the pay scale. So you stay. And sometimes you wonder if people in the building across the road, looking out of their grimy windows at your building, are having the exact same thoughts.
Years pass and you are the oracle now. This place couldn’t tick without you. You are special, salt of the earth. Somebody somewhere completes an order form for a carriage clock or wristwatch. If that’s been modernised a computer will be printing an envelope containing John Lewis vouchers to reach you on the 25th or 30th anniversary of your first day. Somebody senior will stand up and give a speech that includes the word ‘Loyalty’.
I spoke to a very senior Director in a public sector organisation a few years ago who seemed, for want of a better word, disengaged. Or, in the words of a former colleague of mine, “his get up and go, had got up and gone.” This person was in a key leadership position with responsibility for a complex operational area that was screaming out for change. When I challenged him about whether or not he was up for this and why he didn’t look for other opportunities, he gave me a string of wooly answers before finally saying the ‘P’ word: pension. As it stood, he was four years from being able to retire and simply could not bring himself to take the hit in his pension that he would need to. This wasn’t somebody being greedy. It was somebody thinking about the income for him and his wife and the support he would be able to give to his grown up children. I felt for him.
This whole system costs organisations and it seems the right time to ask what it is buying them and, particularly in the public sector, what is it buying the society that we exist to serve. Are we encouraging loyalty (and are we clear what that even means) or are we effectively chaining people to jobs and organisations that they have outgrown?