The People Manager
All posts from: October 2010
There is a unpleasant smell of hypocrisy as the French government is condemned by other European governments for its mass expulsion of Romany Gypsies.
Gypsies are a recognised ethnic minority group but as anyone who works in the public sector knows, people are openly hostile towards them in a way that they would recognise as racist if the same prejudices and negative stereotypes were aimed at the Asian or African Caribbean community. Local authorities struggle to balance the rights of Gypsies and Travellers against the concerns and complaints of local residents. Health agencies struggle to tackle health inequality issues. Mistrust and misunderstandings characterise the relationship with officialdom.
There are some examples of successful engagement which provide a way forward for working with a range of groups who have in the past been described as hard to reach.
Esmeralda is well travelled. She has been to the Appleby Fair and travelled the length and breadth of Lancashire. She is much admired wherever she goes. Mayors, local councillors and community leaders all want to meet her.
She wears a dress made by a group of teenage girls from the Travellers’ community. Part of a project run by the school’s Travellers’ unit and staff from the library service, the dress is made up of pictures which illustrate the girls’ life as Travellers.
The dress is on a mannequin. She is called Esmeralda; in her back pocket she has a CD and a CD player which tells the girls’ stories in their own words. Esmeralda speaks with many voices. Esmeralda has long flowing hair made up of words and phrases that have significance within the traveller community.
For those who made her, she is the product of their creative skills and an expression of what it’s like to be a Traveller and lead a Traveller’s life. For a senior manager, she is a model for how to go about engaging with hard to reach communities.
Gypsies and Travellers are the most disadvantaged minority within our society. They are officially recognised as an ethnic group. A long history of prejudice makes them very wary of officials. Infant mortality and mental health rates are higher and life expectancy significantly lower (10-12 years lower) in the Gypsy - Traveller community. Travellers face major difficulties in accessing healthcare. The reluctance of some GPs to register Gypsy and Traveller families has been as a result of a perception that they are demanding patients who miss appointments and don’t comply with treatment plans. Bullied at school and a tradition of working with father means that formal education often ends at 11 with the transfer to secondary school. Discrimination and lack of formal education means job opportunities are limited. The schools Travellers’ service aims to continue education and the library service seeks to promote literacy. Together they wish to present the friendly face of officialdom.
There are parallels with other minority communities. The focus on family values, marrying within the community, traditional roles for women as mothers and wives, attitudes to sex outside of marriage, different fractions or groups within the community who don’t get on, myths, negative stereotypes and discrimination.
So what can we learn from Esmeralda about engaging with minority communities? We can recognise that the way into communities is through those who are already accepted, that it takes time to build up trust and progress is slow so expectations should be realistic. That we need to find creative ways of listening to people and helping them express themselves. We need to find ways of helping them to educate us about their lives. We need ensure colleagues understand and support what we are trying to do. Encouraging youngsters into the library and museum could have fallen at the first attempt if the staff who work there had reacted to the noise and boisterous behaviour with a ‘not in here you don’t’ attitude. Instead time was taken to raise staff awareness about this community, what to expect and why it was so important to be welcoming and understanding to people who are expecting to be rejected and ejected.
We can learn that it takes a lot of effort, creativity and time to engage with minority communities but not necessarily a lot of money. Esmeralda was created out of a budget of just £200.
Blair McPherson is author of An Elephant in the Room, an equality and diversity training manual, and People Management in a Harsh Financial Climate both published by www.russellhouse.co.uk
In the end it won’t be lack of money that does for the public sector. It won’t be the loss of skills or the lack of experience due to early retirements and redundancies. It won’t be the increased role of the private sector and a greater reliance on faith, community and voluntary groups. It won’t be the erosion of the public sector ethos as a more business like approach takes over. No, what will do for the public sector is pessimism and cynicism.
Pessimism and cynicism are corrosive. If you don’t think things will get better, if you believe there is no hope for improvement and even that things can only get worse, then why would you struggle on? If you start to believe that the real motivation for change is self interest, career advancement and some well paid jobs for a select few, then why would you try harder, work longer or do anything other than as little as possible?
This could be summed up as a loss of faith. No longer believing you can make a difference, no longer believing others are motivated by the same desire and no longer believing that what makes the public sector different is the aim of doing what’s best for the wider community rather than making a profit.
Maybe this doesn’t matter when it comes to emptying the bins. If the private sector can do it cheaper and make a profit then why not give them a contract for refuse disposal or office cleaning? But is it right and proper to increasingly give over the care of frail and vulnerable older people to companies whose primary aim is to do it as cheap as possible in order to make as much profit as possible? If that is acceptable presumably it’s acceptable to do the same with the care of people who have a learning disability and the care of people who have mental health problems? And what about child protection services?
The vulnerable are by definition not able to stand up for themselves. They need people and organisations whose overriding motivation is to help them enjoy a better quality of life. Already many local authorities no longer directly provide residential care or home helps instead placing contracts for these services to be provided by a range of businesses. And what is the difference between a foundation hospital that takes private patients and a private hospital that takes NHS patients?
The danger is that pessimism and cynicism leads to people being unable to distinguish between the private and public sector at which point why have a public sector?
Ben had since adolescence felt uncomfortable in a man’s body, so after much careful thought and counselling had decided to have a sex change. As part of changing her life and preparing socially and emotionally for the operation, she made it know that in future she wished to be called Barbara. This was accepted by her work colleagues as Barbara was a popular and longstanding member of the team. Other people in the office were less accepting, unkind comments and hurtful remarks were made behind her back. These people acknowledged she could call herself what she wanted but were unhappy when Barbara started wearing a dress to work and drew the line at Barbara’s decision to use the female toilets.
Management came up with a compromise and suggested Barbara use the disabled toilets as these were unisex. Barbara was unhappy with this suggestion as she said she wasn’t disabled and understandably she didn’t want to use the men’s toilets. Under protest she used the disabled toilets but not long after she resigned saying she did not feel management had supported her and had colluded with some staff’s discriminatory behaviour. She initiated proceedings to take the trust to an industrial tribunal claiming constructive dismissal and stating that she had been forced out of her job by the failure of management to address the prejudices of some staff.
In the organisation, views were divided. Some managers and staff felt that Barbara had herself been insensitive to the feelings of others and been inflexible over what they thought was a reasonable compromise. Others within the trust felt that this whole episode exposed the shallowness of management’s commitment to equal opportunities and human rights. They felt whether the issues were race, gender or sexuality, managers said the right thing but failed to challenge inappropriate behaviour or back up the trust’s polices with strong actions to support the individual and confront staff.
HR advised a settlement prior to tribunal and a revision of polices to specifically include transsexuals. Legal did the deal. No one was happy
Blair McPherson was until recently a senior manager in a large local authority and is author of An Elephant in the Room, an equality and diversity training manual. www.blairmcpherson.co.uk
You need three ingredients to be really unsuccessful. You need to be blind, you need to be blind to the fact that you’re blind and you need to have very selective hearing. That’s according to Sir David Varney and he should know - he has recently resigned after only six months as chair of the worst performing NHS trust.
As a highly respected and experienced troubleshooter, he has held senior posts at Shell and British Gas and was adviser to the previous prime minister on public service transformation. He learnt the hard way that senior management teams need to see the bigger picture, be aware that they only ever have a snapshot of what going on and accept that they don’t always know best.
Varney refers to his experience of working for Shell during the Brent Spar fiasco when Shells plans to dispose of the oil platform at sea provoked a very high profile environmental campaign and resulted in an embarrassing and expensive climbdown. In an interview with the Guardian, he states that “we didn’t see at an early stage that what was a technically correct answer was not politically acceptable. Then we insisted on going ahead despite the fact that we had evidence that we shouldn’t. And then when voices started to say internally this may not be the right thing to do, people tended to define the issue in terms of loyalty to the organisation”.
As a former senior manager in a large local authority, I recognise this scenario all too clearly. The determination to bring about radical change can result in leaders and their senior managers forcing ahead, ignoring information that doesn’t support their view and being dismissive of those who ask awkward questions or put forward alternatives. When the changes are unpopular it is all too easy to see all opposition as motivated by self interest and dismiss it as “well they would say that wouldn’t they” or “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”.
A willingness to listen does not show a lack of resolve. The ability to take on board criticism without appearing defensive and the willingness to explain decisions shows true confidence without arrogance and the recognition that sometimes even the right decisions have to be reversed shows insight and courage. This is very difficult in the political environment in which the public sector operates where party political point scoring can get in the way of good management and the media don’t let the facts get in the way of a good human interest story.
The harsh financial climate in the public sector requires the highest quality of leadership - managers who can take unpopular decisions and can deliver change - bu if you are part of a senior management team you have a responsibility not to become so hardened in your resolve and so certain of your beliefs that you can’t see alternative views.
Blair McPherson is a former senior manager in a large local authority and author of People Management in a Harsh Financial Climate published by www.russellhouse.co.uk
Managers in the public sector are often not well equipped to manage an increasingly diverse workforce. Many managers have not acquired the necessary confidence and skills to deal with situations which regularly arise in the modern workplace when these situations have a racial dimension or involve a gay or disabled member of staff.
In the past the response has been a short recruitment and selection course to ensure managers follow procedures designed to reduce the risk of unintended discrimination supplemented with an equal opportunity training course aimed at making managers more culturally sensitive and aware. However, this limited training does not equip managers to manage a diverse workforce, to deal with people who hold different values and views, who spend their time outside of work very differently. It doesn’t equip managers to resolve conflicts between members of staff which may or may not be to do with their race or sexuality. It doesn’t equip managers with the necessary people management skills.
Managers need to recognise that people bring into the world of work their experience of the wider world. If that experience is of prejudice and discrimination, of constant negative stereotypes in the media, then when they are overlooked for promotion, when they are unsuccessful in gaining a place on a course, when they are excluded from conversations or believe people are talking about them behind their back they will ask themselves, is it because I am black? If the response of management is dismissive, then these staff will take this as further evidence the organisation does not recognise prejudice and discrimination except in its most blatant forms. However, if management appears to willing to interpret any complaint by a black member of staff as evidence of racism then the staff group as a whole will lose confidence in management and lose faith in the fairness of the organisations procedures and policies. What’s true about race is also true about sexuality, gender, disability and faith.
Management is about managing people and the more diverse the people the more challenging the task.
If a manager lacks the skill and confidence to address an issue of poor attendance when faced with a member of staff who claims this is harassment; if a manager struggles to deal with a member of staff who responses to being taken to task for failing to meet agreed deadlines by claiming bullying - how much more difficult will they find it to deal with a member of staff who responds with allegations of racism, complains of harassment due to their sexuality or accuses the manager of insensitivity to their disability.
The individual may well perceive that their treatment is because they are black or gay or disabled but that does not make it so. The manager needs to have the skill and confidence to manage a diverse workforce, to be sensitive to issues of race, gender, disability, faith, age, and sexuality yet not to let poor practice go unchallenged, inappropriate behaviour go unchecked or tolerate lower standards of work.
To gain the skills and confidence to manage a diverse workforce, managers need to develop their people management skills. This can best be achieved through management development programmes that emphasise 360 degree feedback, coaching, mentoring and action learning sets. These support / learning forums can then be used to explore scenarios based on the type of situations managers find themselves in. Either with their mentor or in their learning set, managers can work through scenarios such as dealing with an attendance issue when the member of staff has a disability, dealing with a conflict between two members of the team when one is black, responding appropriately to a member of the team who claims they are being excluded and people are talking behind their back because of their sexuality or dealing with resentment arising out of a member of staff’s request for annual leave to fit in with religious festivals.
Blair McPherson was until recently a senior manager with a large local authority. He is author of An Elephant in the Room, an equality and diversity training manual, and People Management in a Harsh Financial Climate, both published by www.russellhouse.co.uk