Council gets tough on time-wasters?

Carlisle City Council briefly got tough on time-wasters before it caved in and apologised.

According to a report in the CIPD’s People Management magazine (but also reported world-wide) two team leaders in the City Council’s benefits department got fed up listening to staff wasting time talking about things like the weather, holidays and babies.

So they sent out an e-mail accusing staff of treating work like a holiday camp and suggested that if they wanted to talk about non-work stuff they should clock out and do it in non-work time. According to the Cumberland News they said; “In order to ensure maximum output is produced, the working ethos within the office will need to change. Staff should be aware of the reason why they are here, which is to work and not to treat the office as a day-to-day holiday camp. It is not a requirement for you not to talk to your fellow colleagues but you should ensure that non-work conversations are kept to a minimum.”

They continued: “Staff should log into systems first thing and not ‘catch up on the gossip’. Smokers are required to clock out when they want a cigarette. Surely it is not unreasonable to expect you to clock out if you wish to have a 10-minute conversation with a colleague about the weather?” The email ends: “The way we have worked previously cannot be sustained in the current economic climate and we must all change our ways.”

The email listed examples such as conversations about holidays, babies or pets, looking at photographs and social networking, sport or fashion websites, and postings on chat, for-sale or wanted websites.

Perhaps predictably Ged Caig, regional organiser for the GMB, said: “I’ve been doing this job for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s unbelievable. Morale is rock-bottom already because of the threat of redundancy. For managers to issue this is disgraceful. The workforce feel threatened enough. The city council prides itself on being a good employer but this isn’t the action of a good employer. If any staff want to make representations, I will be pleased to take it up on their behalf.” Is he really going to represent a member of staff who admits to internet surfing and blog posting on the Council’s time?

Dr Jason Gooding, the council’s deputy chief executive, said:“On this occasion the approach to managing staff has fallen a little short of the high standards the council has rightly come to expect of its team leaders and managers. Discussions on performance and capability should generally be conducted face to face with the relevant members of staff – not through general email communication. We will be working with managers and staff to ensure positive lessons are learned following this experience. This is an isolated incident and does not reflect the management style we are working hard to develop.”

He didn’t actually say what that style was (and sometimes I wonder  about the public sector) and whilst I agree that individual poor performance should be dealt with face-to-face where there is a pervasive culture of skiving it seems appropriate to send out a general warning, a “shot across the bows”. And does the Council have a policy about personal internet use or are they happy for their employees to conduct their private business in works’ time? I don’t think there are many private sector managers who would disagree with the sentiments expressed in the e-mail and the council tax payers are probably unhappy as well. David and Neil, you might even get nominated for “managers of the month!”

If you have ever worked in an office where people seem to spend more time chatting or surfing than actually doing any work then you would understand the team leaders’ frustration. (And is it any wonder managers turn to drink?) I am not against staff having breaks and socialising, as it’s an important part of being at work and helps maintain work-life balance, but where do you draw the line?

The public sector is often criticised for low levels of productivity and high levels of sickness absence and the Carlisle City Council was criticised for its high levels of sickness absence in its 2009 organisational assessment and met only minimum requirements in the way it managed resources (a score of 2 out of 4). It was also criticised in the local press for re-employing a senior manager only weeks after making him redundant.

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