Discipline and fear

Letwin - hoping everyone has got the fear.

I couldn’t let this go without at least writing a short blog post about what this means to me.  In case anyone needs reminding, Oliver Letwin said the following about the public sector:

“You can’t have room for innovation and the pressure for excellence without having some real discipline and some fear on the part of the providers that things may go wrong if they don’t live up to the aims that society as a whole is demanding of them.”

The implication, of course, being that the public sector workforce are complacent and unproductive and, as such, require a bit of fear up them to force them to be more productive like, say, the private sector.  Well, I have worked in the private sector and I want no-one to go through what I went through.  I experienced what it was like to work in fear and it certainly made me less productive (and prompted me to leave).

It all happened a few years back when a new manager took over the store I worked in.  Up until his arrival, I had had a good reputation amongst other managers.  I was earmarked by my manager at the time as a future store manager and had embarked on a development programme to achieve this. Things were looking good and secure and I felt like I was finally going places.  All that was about to change.

Initially we got on fine.  Like I said, I had a good reputation so this obviously had some bearing on our relationship.  Then, at some point, things seemed to change.  I have always sought to offer my opinion on the decision making process.  Always constructively and always accepting whatever final decision is taken.  I also liked to talk things through with my manager to help identify ways of addressing staff performance and improving the department I ran.  Soon, however, I got the impression that he didn’t really enjoy talking things through, especially difficulties that needed facing.  And what was once a productive relationship, soon became cordial at best.  Then came an unexpected development.

I discovered, through another store manager I knew, that my manager was trying to put me out on secondment to another store, ostensibly to help pass an examination I needed for my role.  I was reluctant to do so and informed my manager that I felt I would be more successful if I remained with my team and completed the qualification at a later date – particularly as I was already on the management training programme. I felt that I should complete the programme first before embarking on any further training.  However, I was pushed into a corner and had to accept the secondment.

So, for the following six months I was seconded out to another store.  During this time I suspended myself on the training programme so I could commit fully to the examination I needed to pass.  During this period I didn’t hear from my manager once, which was rather odd considering the nature of the secondment.  I knew something was up when, a couple of weeks before I was due to return, the area manager came to see me.

I was shocked to discover that they wanted me to stay put, take a pay freeze and no longer work in my existing role.  As this was a secondment I knew I could say no, so I insisted on returning to my store.  This was accepted and I was told that I would need to improve my performance upon my return.  That no-one had ever questioned my performance before wasn’t mentioned, and in hindsight I probably should have raised it.  That said, I was young and intimidated and just kept quite.

Upon my return I was asked to see the manager in his office.  As I sat there he proceeded to tell me that I was being taken off the programme as I ‘didn’t contribute’ on any of the sessions (people who know me will no doubt be laughing at that one).  Silent from the shock of that revelation, the manager then slammed his folder on the desk and demanded that I gave him my full attention.  At this point I was really scared.  In my mind I had done nothing wrong.  I had worked hard and had shown full commitment to the programme.  My performance was never raised as an issue before my secondment or whilst on the programme.  But again, I was young and scared.

The remainder of my time there was hell.  It was clear to me that my manager felt put out that he didn’t get what he wanted by my refusal to stay at the store I was seconded too.  He made it quite clear to me I wasn’t wanted.  During the subsequent weeks and months I was told by colleagues that members of staff had been asked to ‘spy’ on me and report back to the manager.  Furthermore, I would often receive phonecalls from the manager (who often liked to work from home – I worked in retail, go figure how that is even possible) threatening me with disciplinary action if I didn’t action something or other by the time he saw me next.  To say it was an uncomfortable period in my working life is a bit of an underestimate.  I found it extremely difficult to motivate myself at work and I was constantly looking over my shoulder, worried that I might put a foot wrong and face disciplinary action. It still affects me to this day and I will never forget the treatment I received during those last few months.  Thankfully, I had some very good friends that helped me through it and their friendship during that time will always be very precious to me.

Luckily, I got my big escape into the world of libraries and never looked back.  Handing in my notice was quite the most pleasurable experience of my life.  In some ways I wanted to stay and fight.  My union rep said I had a very strong case for harassment in the workplace in light of my treatment going right the way back to the secondment.  However, sometimes it is best to ‘cut and run’ and in this regard I have no regrets.

I would not want anyone to go through what I went through.  Fear and discipline do not lead to increased productivity.  They lead to stressed, unhappy and intimidated individuals who are scared to act creatively and productively.  If Oliver Letwin and his fellow ministers want a productive, successful nation driving the economy forward, it is not fear and discipline that is needed in the workplace.  It is respect and freedom.  Only then will this country truly prosper.  In every sense of the word.


8 thoughts on “Discipline and fear

  1. It sounds to me as if you were unfortunate enough to me a thoroughly unpleasant bully, and it is a style of behaviour which some politicians strive to emulate.

  2. One of the hardest things for a manager (especially if they’re new to management or otherwise feeling unsure of themselves) is to hire (or inherit, in this case) staff who have skills they may not have, or who are all-round good performers, despite the fact that assembling a team of high-performers is actually the best way for the manager themselves to shine!

    It sounds as though the new manager you experienced felt intimidated by having a successful, aspiring, well-thought-of person in their new team and used increadibly underhand methods to rid themselves of a ‘rival’, as they probably saw it – oh well, it was their loss!

  3. My experience was not entirely different from others who worked there. If he wanted someone out he would manipulate the situation to is advantage. The fact that this was never picked up by his line manager was deeply depressing and added to the sense of despair felt by many of my colleagues.

  4. By claiming thousands of pounds in expenses for repairs to his private tennis court, that he definitely wasn’t entitled to claim, Oliver Letwin certainly didn’t live up to, the aims which Society as a whole expected of him. In fact many people wondered why he and others like him were not prosecuted for embezzlement of public money. Now he has the barefaced cheek to lecture us about high standards in public life.

  5. Although you were able to make a new start in libraries, I’m glad you had the support of the union rep while you were still in that difficult situation. I’m weighing up which union to join myself – lots of positive reasons to sign up, but also a sensible back-up plan, as even the best employees can find themselves in this kind of situation, as your story shows.

  6. It sounds like a terrible experience and I’m glad you escaped it. But unfortunately bullying isn’t entirely absent from the public sector – I have come across (although not experienced personally) one or two bad examples in academic libraries over the years, and worked with some unscrupulously ambitious people, although I’m sure it is far more prevalent in the private sector

    • Hi Pete. Yes, it is certainly not something I would want to go through again. I agree that this isn’t exclusive to the private sector. I’ve heard stories in the public sector too but I always felt that in the private sector, with weak unions, there was nowhere to turn when things got difficult. But then, who is to say that the union is always helpful!?

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