Who’s fooling who?

first_imgTrust between employers and staff is the key to boostingaccountability and responsibility in the workplace, but in reality neither keepto their side of the bargain. Worse still, the techniques used to foster trustoften have the opposite effect. Stephen Overell looks at the latest researchSeveral centuries before the era of suspicion and performance indicators,the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal noted that “mutualcheating is the foundation of society”. Maybe he was thinking about work.A recent survey of 400 employees from the online recruitment firm Fish4Jobssuggests expenses fraud is rife.1 Outrageous cheats include the marketing director who bought his weddingshoes on a company credit card, the office manager who sold a laptop computerhe left out of a firm’s audit, the worker who took his dry cleaning on abusiness trip to have it charged to his employers, and the business consultantwho extended a work-related stay at London’s Savoy Hotel. In addition, a majority of office workers said they had taken home officestationery or put personal letters through the company mail system. There is no other word for this apart from theft, yet it has become sonormalised and so widely accepted that it seems faintly priggish to think itwrong. According to some studies a third of people steal from their employers2– infinitely more than the rate of criminality in the population as a whole.Yet such fiddles are rarely perceived as crime. They are either seen aslegitimate perks or as ‘wages in kind’ for other dissatisfactions – a form ofpre-emptive revenge. All fraud is a mixture of motive, opportunity and personal rationale. Andthe belief that employers are fooling them one way or another with hollowcommitments acts as a powerful driver for employees to cheat. Promises made atwork operate on similar logic to fishing quotas: there is no greater incentivefor over-fishing than the conviction that no one is abiding by the quotas. Soit comes as little surprise to learn that just 11 per cent of workers believewhat their employers tell them.3 As Onora O’Neill argued in this year’s Reith lectures,4 the methods manyorganisations now use to encourage accountability and responsibility at work –regulation, targets, mission statements, performance indicators and penaltyclauses – actually seem to be achieving the opposite. They foster mutualdistrust and suspicion of being cheated; the prevalence of tools designed toensure trust indicates its absence. Double-dealing by employers, meanwhile, takes two forms: it emerges eitheras massive greed and venality, of the sort now being uncovered on Wall Street;or it comes as institutional crookedness that employers tend to get away with,such as fiddling the rules when they are inconvenient and underhand, or unjustHR policies. The 28 per cent pay rise FTSE 100 chief executives have awardedthemselves certainly figures on the duplicity radar – as do the on-goingscandals in the City of London about unequal pay between men and women. Perhaps more common is the way that best practice principles are quietlyjunked whenever they clash with short-term contingencies. Expecting commitmentfrom employees, but not feeling obliged to offer job security, for instance. Orthe way so many organisations claim to advertise all positions in the name offairness and open recruitment, but wangle favourites into choice roles when thewhim strikes. For practical reasons of ‘he who pays the piper’, employer cheating isunder-surveyed by the usual gaggle of workplace pundits and soothsayers. Yet itis interesting that today’s fashionable credos of ‘living the employer brand’and ‘corporate social responsibility’ make great play of ethical behaviour as asource of differentiation. Different from what, exactly? Old corruption? Naturally, trust is one of those milksop notions that everyone would likemore of. Post-Enron, much is being written about building trust with employersrightly expected to take the lead. Yet in many ways understanding of thesubject has evolved little since Douglas McGregor (of Theory X and Theory Yfame) first began to look at it in the 1960s.5 It was McGregor who first showedhow much trust was a long-term project in which words play a limited part – twofactors that make it difficult for modern organisations. “Trust is adelicate property of human relationships,” he said. “Even a singleaction – perhaps misunderstood – can have powerful effects.” What is trust in the context of work? McGregor put the standard very high:”Trust means ‘I know that you will not – deliberately or accidentally,consciously or unconsciously – take unfair advantage of me’,” he wrote.”It means ‘I can put my situation at the moment, my status and self-esteemin the group, our relationship, my job, my career, even my life in your handswith complete confidence’.” Today this sounds a little 1960s. Surely a more limited form of trust isenough to make work function efficiently? But the emphasis on trust as a‘doing’ word, denoting activity, is perhaps the most significant legacy. Ofcourse, words written down, or spoken are very important in business. But thereis only one way to increase trust and it has little to do with eithercommunications strategy or employment contracts. It is, of course, easy to be too downcast about the less noble aspects ofemployment relations. For all the fraud figures and the sense that everyone islooking after number one, the CIPD maintains that, overall, the state of thepsychological contract is “fairly positive”.6 Organisations see aclear link between how they manage promises and commitments to employees andhow the employees respond and behave. While that link is obvious, self-interestshould play some role in generating trust. After all, saying you don’t trustmanagement and being unable to place any trust, are quite different things. So what should be the guiding philosophy of employment relations? A coupleof years ago, TUC general secretary John Monks went through a phase ofsuggesting in speeches that workplace relations should ideally be run along thelines of the Christian golden rule: ‘do unto others as you would have them doto you’. A bit preachy, perhaps, but it is very hard to think of a betterordinance for workplace relations. In the meantime, many might sympathise withSamuel Johnson that “it is better to be sometimes cheated than never tohave trusted”. 1 www.fish4jobs.co.uk; June 2002 2 Why Employees Commit Fraud, by Joseph T Wells, American Institute ofCertified Public Accountants, 1997 3 Mori poll on behalf of Smythe Dorward Lambert; November 1998 4 2002 Reith Lectures homepage at www.open2.net/trust 5 The Professional Manager by Douglas McGregor, McGraw Hill, 1967 6 Employer Perceptions of the Psychological Contract, by David Guest andNeil Conway, CIPD, 2001 Research Viewpoint plusRead related articles on this topic from XpertHR’s extensivedatabase free. Go to www.xperthr.co.uk/researchviewpointJoin the Xperts take a free trialBy calling 01483 257775 or e-mail: [email protected] is a new web-based information service bringing together leading informationproviders: IRS, Butterworths Tolley and Personnel Today. It features a newButterworths Tolley employment law reference manual, a research database andguidance from 13 specialist IRS journals, including IRS Employment Review. Related posts:No related photos. Comments are closed. Previous Article Next Article Who’s fooling who?On 2 Jul 2002 in Personnel Todaylast_img read more