The Peter Principle and the newly unemployed

A rhino I met once

I recently asked a local government councillor if he could advise on a local issue. He was of no help whatever. Firstly he didn’t seem to understand the problem and secondly he wanted to pass the buck to someone else. Maybe he was having a bad day, though his emailed reply to me was barely coherent.

You know who this guy reminded me of? One of those people who work in large organizations and who have been promoted beyond their ability in accordance with the Peter Principle. This states that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. We can’t blame these people for their failures. They just can’t help it.

Of course undue promotion may not just place people beyond their technical ability. Often their actual technical ability may lead to promotion beyond their managerial ability. When I worked for a large firm of accountants there were managers and partners who were technically excellent but entirely incapable of looking after human beings. They didn’t understand at all how to relate to them, get the best out of them or manage their needs. They were insensitive or maybe had the skins of rhinoceroses.

Serious geeks like these people need to be left to get on with what they are good at and of course reward them properly. Not everyone is cut out to look after people or indeed to make management decisions; decisions which affect the future of a business.

I worry about those types who are coming out of employment rather sooner than they might have expected. Either they will be bored to death on their possibly reduced pensions with the current low annuity rates or they will feel impelled to go freelance but won’t actually have a clue how to talk to the people they need.

You cannot run a small business if you do not know how to deal with people. Will coaching help with this? Would someone who is not a people-person always realise their inadequacy in this area, or just blame everyone else for their failings? I don’t know the answer. Do you?

On-line personas and future job seekers

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Most of us who run our own businesses and have an on-line presence are very much aware of the need to stay professional. This means that we are careful with our language at all times including when talking to each other on Twitter and Facebook. I do have some friends, especially on Facebook who are not in business on their own account, but employees and to be fair to them they are pretty sensible. However, I have noticed that some of their friends on Facebook, who are not my friends or connections, are much less careful. I see bad language and some pretty stupid comments.

I am not a prude. I have been round the block, been down the pub, and travelled all over the country supporting a well-known football team, so I have heard everything. None of this bothers me.

I just wonder what is going to happen when some of these whose careless remarks are there for all to see on Facebook are looking for a job. People talk to other people, and it doesn’t matter if privacy controls are very tight, word will get out. Also, imagine a person who is foul-mouthed on-line or even criticises their boss is asked by that boss to add them on Facebook. Either they do so to avoid embarrassment or they ignore the request, and the boss cannot understand why. There is going to be a difficulty.

It is important for those who wish to work until retirement that they realise that more than ever, walls have ears, and especially in the digital age. Be sure your sins will find you out. You can be more sure than ever that they will.

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Budding entrepreneurs should take care of their redundancy payments

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With many firms downsizing there are many people, often in their late forties or into their fifties who find themselves unexpectedly with time on their hands and also a fat cheque as part of their compensation package. Some may have several tens of thousands in their bank accounts.

Few are happy to retire and put their feet up. Spending more time with the family may be a convenient euphemism for politicians who have been kicked out of office, but actually for people with active minds, boredom soon sets in. It is then that there is a danger of being lured into something which may eat some or all of that redundancy payment without any lasting benefit.

There may be an attractive offer for a franchise with “guaranteed income”. There may be an alluring advert in a weekend newspaper offering training as a “consultant”. There may be an offer of high returns from a property business. All should be viewed with perhaps not suspicion, but at least with healthy scepticism.

If you are looking at an opportunity to start a business:

  • Think whether it would suit your skills
  • Consider whether you can meet the demands on your time
  • Ask for references from other people who have gone down that road
  • Check that the income suggested in the blurb is being received by those other people (they may be embarrassed but if they are you have your answer).
  • Consider whether any turnover-based levy from “Head Office” will eliminate any profit unless you work 24/7.
  • Remember that if something seems too good to be true….

You may find just the right thing, but do be very careful and choosy. Keep your money until you are absolutely sure you are doing the right thing. Remember that very plausible scammers roam amongst us. Have you tripped over any?

(C) Jon Stow 2010

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Are we pre-conditioned for our working lives?

I was listening to a discussion on a news channel this morning in which there was a debate about the new British Coalition’s proposals to get unemployed people to where the work is by helping them re-locate, and how this sat with the review of the current range of benefits, particularly unemployment benefit (known as JobSeeker’s Allowance) and Incapacity Benefit for those deemed unfit to work. There is quite a lot of debate about Incapacity Benefit. Of course the majority who receive it are those for whom it is intended, but there was a suggestion that some long term unemployed receive this benefit because the State currently has no other options.

I do not want to debate these complex issues and there must be people much better able to comment than I. However, what was interesting to me was the general agreement that unemployment in young people in deprived areas was often a culture derived from their parents and sometimes their grandparents; possibly third generation unemployment. One commentator said that she felt that the problem was partly in failing to encourage the young to get a proper education; to pay attention at school. Some parents feel that school didn’t help them to get work so they do not encourage their children.

This seemed to me a worrying view, but when I thought about it I could see the point. It struck me that there is also a culture of employment which tends to make people think that should be their lot. Things have moved on since I started work, but at the time I went for a job in a bank because both my parents worked for banks and it was agreed to be the right thing to do. I only ventured into business on my own account when I lost my (well-paid) job and couldn’t get another of any sort due to a downturn and my more mature status. Running your own business needs a whole different mindset.

I applaud at least one local school which I understand does give near-leavers in the sixth form some time to study independent business – being self-employed – but I wonder how much we are conditioned through parenting and education, or lack of it, to be employed, self-employed or unemployed?

What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Dispatches from the front – age discrimination

Some of you may have seen a Channel 4 Dispatches episode this week about age discrimination, mainly not in the workplace (which is covered by Government legislation) but discrimination preventing more mature workers from being taken on in the first place. The whole thing was pretty educational, but the first few minutes concentrated on a qualified accountant in his fifties and his trainee accountant daughter. They both applied to specialist recruitment agencies. Despite the chap in his fifties having vast experience the agencies just tended to lose his records and CV, and did not bother to interview him whilst his daughter was invited in for meetings and had emails from agencies with which she had not even registered. In putting older candidates off, they are told that the role is “dynamic”, that they would be bored because they have too much experience, or they would not be suitable for such a junior role.

None of this surprises me in the slightest, of course, as it reflects my experience, though I am now very happy to work for myself and have my own business. I was turned down for HMRC’s tax legislation re-write project a while back because I did not have a university degree. I was surprised as I would have been ideal. As an eleven year old I won a free place at a “posh” school where learning the strict rules of English Grammar was considered essential and I also have an ‘O’ Level in Latin to remind me of the importance of grammar and the origin and structure of our language. This may be a surprise to those of you who think I write in a quite casual way but I would have been an ideal candidate given my technical background too. I realise that this was only one of a number of possible excuses for not putting forward such a mature candidate.

However, I will mention that when I started work for the first time a good while ago I was eighteen. Most new recruits joined banks, insurance companies and accountants straight from school between thirty and forty years ago; some even joined their employers in these sectors at sixteen. That was the “baby boomer” way and to require a university degree is a pretty good age filter for those whose parents could not afford to put them through university. Not having a degree from thirty-five years ago is hardly an indication of unsuitability, especially with a long and respectable track record in between.

In these hard times it will be easier for employers to discriminate and use younger trainees in accountancy etc. to provide cheaper labour than that perhaps thought to be expected by more experienced job candidates. The tragedy is that the trainees will get older, qualify and have a few good years. Then their careers will founder on the “Rock of Ages” in the same way.

For the present, there will be more older candidates seeking positions due to the economic downturn and the huge losses to their pensions pots, and they will have to compete against much younger qualified people who have also lost their jobs.

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Realism, job seeking and cats

I heard a feature on BBC Radio Five Live this morning which related to the newly unemployed. There was a lady made redundant from the the Findus factory in Newcastle which closed down a few weeks ago, Christine Tinling, who was talking with Katja Hall of the CBI and Sarah Veal of the TUC.

Now I can understand that Ms. Tinling is still in shock, so she was resistant to being put forward for jobs worth £13-14K per annum when she was earning a lot more prior to losing her job. However, she was advised by Ms. Veal that she was quite right to hold out for more because employers would be looking to get labour on the cheap. So on the one side, Ms. Veal was overlooking the fact that cash-strapped employers might be having difficulty in keeping their businesses afloat and on the other hand she was encouraging someone to scrape along on benefit, which she had said she could not afford to do, in the hope of getting something else. At the same time she contradicted herself in a way by saying what we all know: that the longer you are out of a job the lower your prospects of getting another one, let alone a decent one.

The discussion was not taken a great deal forward by Ms. Hall suggesting that Job Seeker’s allowance of £60.50 per week was enough for basic living whilst one is looking for work. Living on another planet?

I have been along the path. I found myself unemployed with no warning whatever. It takes a while to realise that the ideal job is hard to come by when you do not already have one.

This blog is not called “On Our Bikes” for nothing. There comes a point quite soon where you have to have some earnings coming in even if you had some savings, and believe me they evaporate quite quickly with a mortgage, council tax, utilities and food to pay for. So my wife and I did things we would not have considered. We were prepared to do anything, and did. We started a cat-sitting business to allow people to leave their cats at home whilst they were on holiday. The money wasn’t great, but it was a help whilst we were getting on our feet with other businesses, and we were so appreciated that my wife and I still have loyal customers so the business still lives and is seen as a valuable service. If you live locally to us and need your cats cared for in their own home, you know where to come.

Everyone newly unemployed might all have plans to get back into “their” sort of work or build a business, but in the interim and to keep active and committed, take or do anything you can get. Anyway, if you are out and about meeting people that is natural networking which might lead to more rewarding work. Don’t just sit at home and think this or that job is beneath you. You will be more admired for making the effort.