Frank talk at work sounds great - but it's not going to happen

Mon, Nov 28, 2011, 00:00

SOME YEARS ago I made a deal with a fellow columnist. If he thought my work was going downhill, he promised to take me aside and tell me so. Equally, if I thought there had been a falling off in the standard of his columns, I would do the same for him.

The reason such an ad hoc arrangement between colleagues seemed necessary is that you can’t always rely on your employer to tell you hard truths. The way the system works in most companies is that there are no nudges or hints dropped that you aren’t doing well, especially when you get higher up the pecking order. You only find out when it’s too late.

So far, neither of us has taken the other to one side to deliver this awkward truth. But now it seems we might never have to. The UK government said last week it was planning to change the rules to make it easier for employers to tell people they are aren’t up to scratch. My boss would be able to summon me for a “protected conversation” and tell me just how bad my performance was without fear that I would respond by seizing the phone to call my lawyer.

The unions, of course, hate the idea. They say it will make it easier to fire people at a time when the emphasis should be on creating jobs rather than shedding them.

But it seems to me an excellent scheme in theory, though in practice it may not make a jot of difference.

Protected conversations should be good for employers because they ought to make it easier to deal with poor performers, but they should also be good for workers.

One of the most important things you need as an employee is to know where you stand. You might think this was something everyone does know, more or less. But in my experience, despite all the pointless ritual of annual appraisals, it is something that most people have little idea about. And if you are the boss you have even less idea, as the higher you’ve climbed the less anyone is prepared to tell you the truth.

David Cameron has suggested that these protected conversations could work both ways, initiated by either boss or employee. I assume this means you could summon your boss and say: “I really don’t think your leadership style is working. Maybe it’s time to move on?” without any fear of being fired.

This sounds terrific – but there is one snag. It’s not going to happen in a million years, regardless of any changes in the rules. And neither will the blunt conversations happen the normal way round, where it’s the boss doing the talking.

There are lots of reasons why plain talk at work so seldom happens – and fear of the law and recriminations come low down the list. We aren’t frank mainly because it’s so much easier not to be. Telling someone they are useless is a miserable thing to do because they will get upset, and you will squirm and feel really beastly.

Furthermore, the very idea of a “protected” conversation is nonsense. For so long as people have memories, all unpleasant conversations have a way of rooting themselves forever in people’s minds and affecting behaviour long afterwards.

What is needed is not a system of protected conversations. It’s a matching pair of crash courses that everyone would have to go on. The first should be called Telling It Like It Is; the second, Taking It On The Chin.

Such blunt talk can be very good indeed. When she was 16, my daughter left her girls’ school and went into the sixth form at an old- fashioned boys’ school. She was used to having all homework returned with encouraging comments written at the bottom, and so, when her first history essay came back with the grade D/E (or “DIE”, as the boys called it) scrawled across the top, she had a nasty shock. Tears were shed, but socks were massively pulled up as a result.

Most professional workers need the DIE treatment. We need to be told plainly when our work isn’t good enough. We need to be told it not at the 11th hour, but at the very first one. And at every hour thereafter. This is not something that any amount of fiddling with red tape will bring about.

In the meantime, does this mean my informal deal with my colleague still stands? In writing this column I have come to realise something. The agreement doesn’t stand: it never did. If ever his columns stop being good I’m pretty sure I won’t find the moral courage to tell him so. And I don’t take much comfort from the fact he has so far held his tongue.

Silence means nothing. It will go on forever as neither of us will ever be willing to say DIE. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011)