Workplace tribalism

In the week that we learn from the CBI that 38% of small businesses have laid off staff in the last quarter of 2008. Workplace tribalism many of us will feel uncomfortable over the strikes at the oil terminals and elsewhere over the employment of foreign labour. At times when the economy is weak and there are job losses, workers of larger organisations tend to blame the foreigners for their problems, whether or not the local labour force is qualified to do it; indeed as we know in more recent and prosperous times foreigners have been doing low paid jobs that resident workers (not just British workers) have not been prepared to do because the pay was not good enough. At the Lincolnshire oil refinery where the recent wave of strikes started the workers brought in are from an Italian contractor. I suppose it is pointless to mention that these workers have freedom of movement within the EU and British citizens are entitled to work in Italy if they wish. There would be arguments over the effect on family life but no doubt these issues have already been addressed by the Italian families providing the contractors at the Lindsey plant.

I do not want to get into the issue of prejudice. That is a touchy subject and one on which I am hardly an expert, though I was once shouted at in racist terms (no, twice, come to think of it) and it is pretty unpleasant to be on the receiving end.

What the whole business of apparent xenophobia in the workplace does bring into focus is the tribalistic “we are all in it together attitude”. In a large business the workplace camaraderie is often a great asset in ensuring that all workers pull in the right direction. In the same way that the print industry skiving which existed up to the seventies was proliferated by its own culture, it is also true to say that such sticking together can make for better and greater productivity and less shirking on the basis that the lazy let everyone down. At the same time an unsatisfactory work culture can lead to a lowering of morale and lower productivity due to a loss of respect and loyalty for management. I have seem both ends of this spectrum when an employee.

Anyway, a workforce that sticks together is admirable, but because employees become used to a stable environment, when something goes wrong there is a need to apportion blame. I have written recently about those in charge taking responsibility. We in our own businesses know that we are largely responsible for our success and avoiding failure. However, sometimes accidents happen; at least events over which we have no control even if we think Governments or regulatory bodies ought to have had. I do not think we could quite have imagined in 2005 or 2006 (2007 perhaps) that a steel producer providing material for ships, cars and particularly construction would suddenly find itself short of orders. It is no good blaming the company or its orders. They had a niche in the economy producing materials that were needed and they were hostages to fortune. It is not their fault if they have to lay off workers any more than it is the car manufacturers fault if they have to close for months because no one is buying new cars. In as much as these companies and their workers can be, they are victims of an accident. It is human nature to blame those closest but if there are culprits they are further away.

The point is that as employees we are paid weekly or monthly. We know that the money will appear and while we might do our work diligently we only have responsibility to ourselves and our comrades. The fear over the potential or actual loss of a job is terrifying. How can we survive? You need someone to blame close at hand. I know, I have been there, but lashing out and soft targets is not the way.

Small business owners are making hard decisions over job cuts and have to face the music and their workers. Some businesses could not be viable with less than a certain number of workers if the work is hands-on. I saw an example on television this morning of a small bakery down to a core of five staff. For many there is just a minimum number of workers without whose output the business cannot pay the rent and make any money. It is even harder for small business owners to make tough decisions because they are close enough to their workers to be part of the “tribe”. However when out of a job you are out of the tribe which is a terrible shock, and an owner letting an employee go is at risk of being out of the tribe or family too depending how the other employees take the loss of their comrade.

Despite my comments about taking responsibility, I am not going to say that laid off workers should all start their own small businesses. That would be absurd, especially given the current economic climate. Some may and I wish them all the best. Doing something for yourself rebuilds self-esteem which is the biggest loss when you lose your job. Nor is this a “be positive” pep-talk though It does help to be happy with what we have. As a population we will not be as badly off ever as in the only two Third World countries I have visited where the level of poverty and especially poor sanitary conditions was shocking for me even though I thought I was prepared. No, we have to stick it out, help families who have no incomes through taxation of our own and future incomes as we can. This is not a sermon, so I will not say we should be thankful; just remember that we are better off than many, no matter how long the recovery takes.

Just look past the tribal culture and be tolerant. Almost the whole world is in this economic mire and we will not solve anything by using our valuable workplace tribal culture to bash foreigners. If we have to let people go, handle the matter as kindly as possible and if we do know of any niches with our friends, businesses, see if we can facilitate a move through our network.

© Jon Stow 2009

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