(Not) Getting Sacked

Not getting fired

At the moment I find it highly unlikely that I will ever get fired; made redundant almost certainly, sacked, exactly the opposite.

This is both because I consider myself to be a hard worker and fairly good at my job but also because I am a local government worker and sacking one of them is an absolute nightmare. I therefore find myself in the odd position of supporting the sentiment behind the policy suggestions put forward by venture capitalist and Conservative Party donor Adrian Beecroft who has argued that unproductive workers should lose their right to claim unfair dismissal.

I’m sure this post is about to prompt a flurry of upset from our readers as a member of staff who occasionally has to work alongside the incompetent (or the indifferent) I simply beg to differ.

One of my good friends still shudders when we mention his first management job in local government. He took over a team which had been radically under-performing and as a young (ish) manager he was managing people older than him who had been in the council for quite a while.

One of them was more than just a coaster; she was chronically incompetent. After spending six months trying to work with her to improve her performance, all of which was thrown back in his face, (including towards the end using the official council procedures) my manager decided that it was time to start the long process of removing her. What followed was a flurry of grievances, the threat of tribunals and intermittent periods of stress related sickness (for her not him). The process lasted a staggering 16 months (I think this included the first 6) and right at the end the member of staff resigned so that she wouldn’t be fired.

The whole process was grim for all involved and almost made my friend leave the sector (he now has). He’s not alone. I’ve known of an incompetent member of staff passed around the council to work on ‘projects’ as no-one can work out quite how to fire him. I’ve also known more than one manager brought close to tears trying to deal with their one bad member of staff and the crazy processes that surround getting rid of them.

As Mr Beecroft so accurately points out:

The rules both make it difficult to prove that someone deserves to be dismissed, and demand a process for doing so which is so lengthy and complex that it is hard to implement.

This makes it too easy for employees to claim they have been unfairly treated and to gain significant compensation.

On these cases I’m sure even the most sympathetic trade union official will agree that eventually it is best for all for the person to leave the council.

But what about the wider problem; that of the ‘coasters’ identified by Mr Beecroft.

I’m not talking here about the person who comes in, does their job and goes home again without any ambition to go beyond it. I’m talking about the person who does the bare minimum to get by; spends hours looking at ebay (or BBC news), has more cups of coffee than your average Costa Barista and generally cannot be relied on for anything. Everyone knows that their work is below average and that they don’t really deliver but there is nothing the manager can do if the person doesn’t want to respond.

I don’t know if the threat of the ultimate sanction of them losing their job would make any difference but it might do and to be honest anything that could help us manage our workforce in a positive way would make a positive difference.

Last year the BBC reported that:

In the Department for Work and Pensions, one of the largest parts of the public sector, in 2009/10 1,131 people were sacked – almost 1% of the workforce. The year before another 1,192 were sacked.

But of all these people, just 43 were sacked for capability.

Or take Doncaster Council, which in April 2010 the Audit Commission branded “failing” and incapable of making improvements.

Yet in the last three years just 10 people have been sacked for capability – out of almost 7,000 to leave the council.

I would imagine the picture would be similar across the public sector and whilst many local authorities are currently making use of their redundancy process to get rid of their failing staff surely we should be aiming for a long term solution that doesn’t rely on costly restructures and an acceptance of coasting.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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10 Comments on “(Not) Getting Sacked”

  1. I think you are assuming that because a local authority struggles to dismiss for poor performance that has something to do with employment law. I don’t think it does. It has more to do with the employee relations culture, over complicated internal procedures an an u willingness on the part of HR and senior management to grasp nettles. Unfair dismissal law requires the employer to behave reasonably, that is all. There is no legal reason whatsoever for the process to take as long as you describe.

    I don’t see why employees across the country should lose the only real protection against unfair treatment that they have just because local government is rubbish at performance management.

  2. Squiggler Says:

    I have also been in this situation. Trying to manage an incompetent and bullying employee in a local authority. The internal processes were ridiculous. It took 6 months to build a case. It felt at the time that she had more protection than I did. When I proposed taking this person down performance management (after doing my homework) my boss asked me to think about it- and that I maybe the one that comes under ‘fire’.

    Compare this to the private sector. If you are bad at your job- you go. Dead wood is removed so that the wheels can keep moving. This maybe the alpha female in me- but aren’t we here to support the public? If we are spending thousands on HR processes, staff time and stress related illnesses- how is this value for money?

  3. Mr Trebus Says:

    As an active trade union rep, I fully support the sentiment of this post. When I see and represent members through the performance process, my job is NOT to make sure they keep their job, but to make sure the performance process does ITS job. To improve performance.

    If an employee still doesn’t improve, then they should go. I have to think of my other members who are carrying the workload of the under performing employee.

    Nettles need grasping. Processes need speeding up, and performance needs to be managed.

    Finally, Councils should introduce clear and transparent performance measures and standards for each job. In the private sector, if you are employed to make 12 sprockets a day, and consistently make 10 you get sacked, and you know why. Why should it be different in local Government?

  4. Ed Hammond Says:

    Absolutely, completely agree (should stress that this is my personal view, not necessarily that of my employer, etc…)

    I have encountered surprisingly few manifestly incompetent people in my time in local government, but where they do exist, they can quite easily destroy the fabric of a team. In my view it’s as much to do with the council’s performance appraisal regime than anything else. All councils will now have a six monthly / annual appraisal system but, while this is often used to (completely arbitrarily) decide on increments and performance related pay, it’s not often used to kick-start, and speed up, disciplinary procedures for poor performance. Clear performance targets set jointly by employer and employee – and stuck to – make it much more difficult for the terminally incapable to wriggle out of being sacked.

    Management also needs to understand its own culpability – there’s a lot of wilful burying of heads in the sand over this kind of issue, and employers need to have the confidence that, if there is evidence that a member of staff is performing way below the standard expected, and repeated attempts to improve that performance have failed, it is absolutely appropriate that they should leave the organisation.

  5. Pete McClymont Says:

    I think you might be comparing apples with oranges: lawful (or unlawful) dismissal applying across all sectors against the internal rules that apply within an orgnaisation,.

    I’ve worked for 25 years in the public sector so know a bit about time-wasters, coasters and incompetence. However, in my short time in the private sector I’ve come across the same types who never seem to be dealt with properly by management.

    No organisation should tolerate bad employees. But, I think that a lot of the problem is weak management, badly equipped to deal with staff issues. There’s plenty of that in both the public and private sector.

    In my experience – and I hold my hand up here – managers become managers not because they can get the best out of staff, but because they’re smarter, better educated or filling dead (wo)men’s shoes.

    Within parts of the public sector – the civil service is a lot better than when I joined in 1984 – perfomance management needs to be at the heart of the organisation and should be the mechanism for dealin with poor performance. Plonking appraisals in an HR filing cabinet is just not the thing to do any more.

    I doubt very much that changing the law on lawful dismissal is going to improve matters in organisations with highly structured dismissal procedures and/or poor management.

  6. Rick Says:

    I don’t think there is anything legal that prevents public sector managers from dealing robustly with poor perfromance. Public employees have no more protetcion than anywhere else.

    The problem is the way that the law is interpreted and applied in the public sector. The CIPD found that public sector managers are more reluctant to use discipinary procedures and, when they do, they take much longer to make decisions.

    But this is because of processes public sector organisations have chosen to adpot over the years, not because of anything they are compelled to do by law.

    Beecroft’s proposals are, therefore, unlikely to change much.

  7. benlowndes Says:

    There are time wasters in all walks of life; and some of them are a lot better rewarded than those who underperform in local government.

  8. IWroteThis Says:

    A couple of years ago I tried to start a voluntary org on road safety/pedestrian crossing infrastructure awareness.
    Trying to get thick, overpaid, people to do their jobs properly at Traffic Management in a pleasant way was unbelievable.
    Just simple things like obscuring the view of a main road at a Wait Box by putting hanging flower baskets over the railings. When I spoke to the people who were responsible for doing this from the Council it was blatantly obvious that they hadn’t any common sense at all. And when they did move them eventually, they reappeared a week later

    Eventually the last straw was when they replaced all the signal boxes and removed the green man. The manager responsible for buying the new boxes at the council argued that it was safer because ‘people shouldn’t rely on them to cross a road’.

    And when one Council Manager sees what they are doing at the Council in a nearby rown they copy without any real knowledge or skill. Instead they have a Road Safety Unit that ‘educates’ children in schools Because kids lack the experience to challenge what they have to say.

    There is little point in starting a voluntary org of this nature when the various Council Departments are just crap.
    They have no idea what they are doing and when I see the salary the Director of Engineering gets – it’s nothing short of criminal.

  9. Wolfie159 Says:

    I have moved from the private sectr to the public sector straight into the arms of a team manager who is a nice enough person but fits the stereotype of lazy public sector worker. Worse is that he knows this and jokes about it. He’s an expert at looking busy without doing anything and grabs any opportunity to avoid work (“Oh, I suppose I’d better go buy the biscuits for the team meeting” is common every month. The shop is one minutes walk away yet he disappears for an hour each time).

    I’ve raised this a couple of times with his manager to no avail and put in a formal complaint. I was told in no uncertain terms that my complaint would not get past first stage as it would look bad on the department. Instead, I should support my manager (I already do about half his job) and work with him to improve his performance.

    Isn’t that HIS manager’s job and not mine?

  10. Hello Says:

    There is the other side to this as well… a bullying senior manager desperately trying to pursue a personal vendetta against an employee who comes up with too many ideas and stnds up to bullying, cronysm, general managerial incompetence manifest through complete lack of grip and clue about the basics of project management. Using every opportunity to contrive and invent disingenuous pretexts for a disciplinary, so they can keep their cronies in place, and the status quo of indolence and incompetence undisturbed.

    I can sympathise with the frustration of a talented manager with helpful ideas about improving productivity and staff and team morale and engagement, but imagine the frustration of the situation being reversed with the line management being incompetent, and the staff being utterly frustrated and demoralised because they can do little about it – and even get targetted to campaigned against to be removed for suggesting even something as revolutionary as a team meeting and a deadline for a job to be done by!

    It goes both ways, both staff and managers need to be focussed on delivery, productivity, and accountability, as well as empathy, good communication, and objectivity.

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