A tale of 2009, heading into 2010

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Christmas and New year are times when you meet people who you don’t expect to meet again for some time, if ever, again. The result is that they are times for candid conversation with guards let down.

I had one such conversation over Christmas that seemed to summarise many similar snippets I’m hearing from a wide variety of sources. The person I was talking to (who will remain nameless) was referring to the attitude of senior management in the organisation for which she worked. As the person was, I established, very senior in that organisation, the observations were informed by an insider’s perception.

My conversational partner was disturbed. A mood of perverse bullishness had taken over the management of the organisation. This was not based on any market perception. Far from it. Nothing suggested that things were going very well out there in the real world. She was worried about this. But her colleagues were not. They were on acting as if on a high.

Their talk is, apparently, continually about how the staff now have to be grateful to them for having a job. They talk continually of making people redundant. Selected people are already being weeded out — new mothers seem to be the latest target. Two maternities and you’re out seems to be the rule. And despite the business remaining more than acceptably profitable the Christmas party was cancelled — as were bonuses. Except for the directors that was. They dined and bonused away — which they staff, inevitably knew because like it or not accounts departments and PAs. The resulting resentment is widespread.

But no one can say anything. The inner coterie (all male) of  bosses have complete power now: argue and you’re out is the message  they are giving to all.

The person with whom I was talking was in despair. She can see good people planning to leave — quite understandably. And even in this job market the best can always leave. It’s the weaker candidates who can’t. The business is heading for massive problems.

But she too can say nothing. Her own attempts at challenging the situation — arguing that people matter — have given rise to fairly direct comments that everyone, senior managers included, are expendable.

Well, of course that is true. And I only heard one side of the story. But I’m hearing it time and again — that some businesses are using fear as a weapon to a much greater degree because of the recession. This is management at its very worst. It’s privilege seeking to abuse. It is the example of the bankers transferred out into the wider boardroom. It is a belief that no one is as important as the person in charge.

It explains why the FT has reported that corporate optimism is at its highest level for six years but most people don’t share that view — the FT also noting the British as a whole are only beaten by the French for pessimism right now.

If the recession is to be an excuse to make the privilege gap bigger, the wealth gap bigger and the quality of life poorer then we’re heading for troubled times. And as my conversational partner gloomily concluded, this is the inevitable consequence of Thatcher — because she set out to destroy community, and did.