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Trade Union :: Telecoms
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2 August 2014
In British Telecom the Communication Workers Union will shortly be sending out yet another survey on whether union members feel that since new national agreements came into being the application of performance management (PM) in the workplace has improved.
Furthermore, another two questions are to be placed before the membership: Do they believe that the September agreements need to be given more time to change the performance management culture in BT and, if members "wish to be balloted now for strike action on performance management".
This follows a debate at the national CWU conference where delegates, based on their branch experiences and caseload had already concluded that the national agreements were not working and that the process was still punitive with managers not being reined in. They opposed the Executive and demanded a strike ballot on the issue. This comes after the CWU has come within "a whisker" of an industrial action ballot two times in the last three years. Delegates' patience, reflecting pressure from members and lay officers, had finally run out.
BT for its part, has moved, it says, away from bald stats macro management to what is called "a good day's work", to Dwell, Delays and Delivery (3Ds measures) in response to this pressure. CWU members are no longer to be just measured on what they do, but how they do their work, how they adhere and subscribe to "new values".
CWU reps who have actively sought to determine what the measures are to be, and how the values are to be applied, have already been marked out under the new measures as, for example, "spending too much time focusing on union stuff and not doing their work".
So, the CWU survey is akin to a scene where a prisoner, tied to a chair is being interrogated mercilessly by managers. Rather than taking the cudgels away from the managers, the CWU executive officer asks for a break so that they can ask the prisoner if the interrogation feels better than the last beating now that new national agreements are in place.
What follows is a day in the life of a CWU rep in BT. It attempts to show what the regime is on the floor and how the current situation has arisen. It also attempts to explain what performance management is, as some CWU officers still think that because it has been around a while, members should just get on with it. Some also think that it is just another version of time and motion and that it is no longer possible to campaign to get a vote for action across all lines of business within BT group; in short, they lack confidence to campaign for a Yes vote as they mistakenly believe that some elements of PM can be progressive.
Think that is not the case? Now read on. Names have been changed, all scenes actually happen on a more or less regular occurrence, nothing is out of the ordinary. This is my workplace, this is the experience of a CWU rep in the telecoms industry.
A confidential meeting between a line manager and team member is taking place. Targets have been revised and raised. Now each member of the manager's team must hit 100% of expected job standards, but not to worry as the individual has achieved 130%; an increase of 30% . They are continuously improving and being Right First Time. However, some of the job activities have had their 'time allowed to complete' cut by 33%, and in others, 50%
Well done, no matter, the individual seems to be coping well with this new revision and is on track to meet expectations. But hold on there. The manager has been informed that within the 130% productivity, not enough risk is being taken. It turns out that 16% of that 130% should in fact be 30%. On that alone, the 30% increase in productivity and meeting targets must be put aside. It also turns out that on one occasion, when the manager wanted an Instant Messenger chat, the individual had been 10 minutes late back from lunch.
This same technology, the manager is informed, did not pick up the extra 20 minutes yesterday spent saving a job from ending up as a Service Level Agreement for the company. No matter. The member is told to watch their timekeeping, put on a development plan and is marked "Development Needed". When they had walked in the room they had been on a mark of "Achieving Standards".
Reports come in the tea break. Another manager elsewhere has marked all of his team as "Development Needed". For 30 minutes a pissed-off worker has been held back by team mates as he verbally berates this manager. The team member sits down exhausted, it is never ending, and they are always on your back. What's the point, no one is doing f-all about it.
Archie is screaming, swearing and kicking all his desk drawers. Everything is falling onto the floor. He is literally in tears. "What's up mate?" "F-ing software, cancelled out all my macros again. Got to get this job out 'cos I'm expected to do two jobs a day; they're on my back again". Poorly designed and replatformed software has meant that jobs get stuck in being processed on the web based computer tools. The pressure is on, for despite senior managers knowing full well of this known but unresolved problem, targets were recently raised. Archie is on a final warning and is desperate.
All these troubles will be taken home tonight. A family or loved one may have to suffer hearing about it. More often or not it'll get bottled up. It could end up in ill-health or even in extreme cases, of a suicide - many of the suicides over the last few years have been linked by other telecoms workers to the effects of performance management. Officially though, it is the establishment's line that "there may have been other things going on in their life.." That is certainly possible. But did they need this constant bullying and harassment, is what a lot of workers feel.
Welcome to the working world where for the working week, in the world's oldest 'democracy', an absolute dictatorship of the employer tries to rule the floor. It is suffocating.
Along with the introduction of performance management in Telecoms has come job restructuring. What was regarded as 'skilled' is now being broken down into component parts as software and technology develops.
In the wider world, a recent European Social Survey showed that a quarter of British workers are now having to do less interesting work. The 2012 Skills and Employment Survey showed that British workers are now having to work with far greater intensity than before the world financial crisis of 2007-08. Also, that from 2006, the proportion of jobs requiring high pressure, high speed and hard work rose significantly (Guardian, 23.12.13 "We need to focus on the quality of our life at work" by Ha-Joon Chang)
With figures like this, it is now no wonder that for many line managers who are instructed to implement performance management, the job is becoming increasingly unpalatable. Especially when they are seen as both victim and perpetrator.
A survey in April 2013 by the managers' union Prospect showed that for their members in BT alone, 73% agreed that performance management was damaging the company; 70% disagreed that it was helping productivity; 80% agreed that it damaged employees' wellbeing. The most damning figure was that 79% of managers had been instructed to mark their team down, regardless of how good a member's figures were and that 47% had been told that they too, would be marked down if they forcibly did not mark their team down.
At the Scottish Trades Union Congress in 2009, both the Communication Workers Union and Unite the union (Financial Services Sector) argued that performance management was now commonplace in both the public and privates sectors, being a central element in Human Resources policy and practice. The Scottish TUC unanimously agreed, based on delegates' experiences, to commission a report that would examine the costs and effect that performance management was having on workers across the various sectors.
That report has now been published, titled "Performance management and the New Workplace Tyranny", written by Professor Phil Taylor from Strathclyde university. It is essential reading for union members and reps in advance of any management proposal to introduce performance management where previously it has not been in place.
Far from being benign, the report shows that the policy is a particularly brutal method of making workers behave and react to business and sector policy. This is compounded when linked to pay.
'People management' has led to workers being compelled to do more for less, seen pay held down and sick absences increase alongside a growth in 'managed exits' (the so called "car park conversations"). The CWU alone has recorded an increase in workers suffering from stress and depression. Other symptoms recorded are lack of sleep and irritability at home due to the pressures and worries that performance management brings.
The report acknowledges that this policy has not just dropped out of the sky. Since 1987 employers have taken advantage of the socio-political climate, so PM has not developed in a vacuum. And, since 2008, not wanting to 'waste a good crisis', employers in both the public and private sectors have gone on the offensive.
It can be no accident that, for example, one to one discussion is now deemed under Con-Dem coalition legislation as "protected discussions". Legislation has developed in favour of the employer. So this makes it far harder for unions to use them in employment tribunals.
Hence the development of the policy called "forced distribution". This is an anchor of performance management.
Managers are required to conform to a prescribed ratings distribution template. At any one time they must have 10% of their team marked as underperforming. 15% must be failing to meet expectations. 50% must meet expectations. 15% must be above expectations and 10% marked as excellent. This means that however well a worker is performing, a certain percentage in advance must be deemed as failing. So in effect managers are being asked to discriminate against certain workers, or conversely, choose their favourites!
Recently, the CWU discovered this was official guidance for managers on a certain telecom company's intranet and demanded it be immediately withdrawn.
If a manager was deviating less than 10% from these figures they were in turn marked Gold; by 10-15%, Silver and by 15% or more, Bronze. The end result according to the CWU was that at any one time, 20% of their members in teams affected were marked as failing.
Performance management is therefore nothing but an employers' charter, a stick to beat the workforce with. It is nothing more than an instrument to bully selected employees, hoping that they can be got rid of on capability grounds for little or no cost to the employer, or demoralise and stress them so much that they leave voluntarily. Workers' lives can be hell on earth with inevitable health consequences for those affected.
To avoid the workplace becoming a place where workers fear to go every day, trade unions need to adopt a fighting stance in defence of their members which must include the willingness to use industrial action to improve working conditions. Sadly, many union leaderships whose workers suffer from performance management are not up to the task. Defeating it goes hand in hand with the need to transform the unions.
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Article dated 2 August 2014
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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