Category Archives: Work

Pretty as a picture?

You’ve got to feel sorry for poor Alexander Carter-Silk, the senior partner at a law firm who was taken to task by a strident feminist when he mistook the business networking site LinkedIn for a dating website. It’s an easy mistake to make. In response to a connection request from human rights barrister Charlotte Proudman, he messaged back, ‘I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!!’ The hapless Carter-Silk – whose over-zealous use of exclamation marks surely reveals his benign intent – was promptly outed by Proudman on Twitter for his sexist behaviour. Can’t a lady take a compliment?

Carter-Silk gave his online audience an insight into the subtle workings of his legally-trained mind when he sought to clarify his intentions: ‘Most people post pretty unprofessional pictures on LinkedIn, my comment was aimed at the professional quality of the presentation on LinkedIn which was unfortunately misinterpreted.’ Let’s gloss over Carter-Silk’s sloppy comma splice and incorrect use of a subordinate clause, not to mention his gutless refusal to accept responsibility for the offence he caused. Could he just explain why he acknowledged that it might be viewed as ‘horrendously politically incorrect’ to make what was, after all, an innocent observation about the professional quality of Proudman’s photograph?

As Proudman rightly pointed out in her response to Carter-Silk, comments like his are a means of exercising power over women and detracting from their professional achievements. Objectifying a woman for her appearance is just one example; I could cite many instances of blatant sexism from my own working life. Once, at a job interview, a recruitment consultant enquired as to whether I was married. When I asked why this was relevant, he explained that my husband might be annoyed if I had to work late. On another occasion, a senior civil servant suggested that a post in the Department for Education would be ‘a nice job for a lady lawyer’, the implication being that HM Treasury or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were strictly for the chaps.

There are a thousand other ways in which women are judged, stereotyped, undermined and silenced at work. Those who say they have never experienced workplace sexism might consider how often male colleagues have talked over them or ignored their presence at a strategy meeting or a client drinks party. When women are sidelined in this way, a small internal voice whispers that it’s because they have nothing interesting to contribute: must try harder. By contrast, the standard male response would be simply to turn up the volume.

The subtle, pervasive nature of the attitudes revealed by such incidents is the reason why idiots like Carter-Silk need to be called out. I’d like to think that he has now been reprimanded by his firm and that his fellow partners will seek to distance themselves from his comment. Knowing how the law works, though, I fear this incident will simply bolster his client following and furnish him with an amusing dinner-party anecdote (cue much male guffawing at the humourless feminist who dared to speak out). In the meantime, he might want to take some advice from a PR consultant on how to frame an apology, as well as a refresher course in the basic rules of grammar.

The poshness test

If you were in charge of recruitment at a law or accountancy firm, who would be your job candidate of choice? A slightly diffident applicant with a regional accent, a clutch of dodgy A-levels from an inner-city comprehensive, and a first-class degree obtained as a mature student at a former polytechnic? Or an urbane ex-public school boy with an air of easy assurance and a solid 2:1 from a Russell Group university?

New research by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reveals that working-class applicants struggle to gain access to the best jobs. In some solicitors’ firms, trainees are five times more likely than the population as a whole to have attended a fee-paying school. The Commission concludes that firms are applying a ‘poshness test’, excluding bright young people simply because they come from the wrong side of the tracks.

At this point, I’ll come clean: I’m one of the privately educated elite to whom the report refers. At my fee-paying girls’ school in Manchester, we had elocution lessons – misleadingly timetabled as ‘speech and drama’ – the sole purpose of which was to eliminate our flat northern vowels. But there are degrees of poshness, and I was always aware that my parents – a teacher and a receptionist – didn’t move in quite the right circles.

These days, parents like mine can’t afford to pay for their children’s education. Research published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2010 revealed that school fees had risen at nearly three times the rate of household income since 1992. Average day-school fees now stand at more than £12,000 a year, well out of the reach of the average teacher, let alone a cleaner or call-centre worker. Private education, it seems, is increasingly the preserve of the very rich.

When I started university, I mixed with students from schools that were even posher than mine. You could spot the public-school brigade easily – they were immediately on first-name terms with professors, chatting unselfconsciously at sherry receptions about gap years in Nepal and summer placements in their fathers’ firms. At the age of nineteen or twenty they were already plotting out their career paths, joining clubs and committees and effortlessly forming the connections that would guarantee success in their professional lives.

After graduation I joined a national law firm, where for every clever solicitor from a state school, there were ten affable but academically less stellar public-school types. Pitted against these people at interview, the working-class candidate doesn’t stand a chance. From the moment he walks into the room, he sends out a thousand tiny signals that reveal his background.

The truth is that it feels safer and less threatening for privately educated interviewers to recruit in their own image. That’s why so many law firms are full of clubbable chaps and chapesses who obtain partnership primarily on the basis of their ability to schmooze clients. A group of them once poured scorn on my suggestion that our firm should seek out and offer assistance to socially disadvantaged job candidates – they were against positive discrimination, but they failed to recognise that they had benefited from a far more subtle and insidious form of it over the years.

Still, it seems unfair just to blame employers – in truth, the divide opens up decades before that first job interview. Middle-class parents confer all sorts of benefits on their children, simply by virtue of their money and social capital. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to have poorer language skills when they start school, whereas middle-class children, who grow up listening to dinner party conversations and Radio 4, seem to absorb their parents’ high expectations.

To compensate for social disadvantage, it’s clear that intervention is needed at an early stage. How unfortunate that the Sure Start programme, with its emphasis on quality childcare and early education, has been undermined by funding cuts, with many centres forced to close down. Another progressive initiative is the pupil premium – school funding targeted at children from disadvantaged backgrounds – but its future is uncertain under a government that has already announced a real-terms cut in the education budget.

There are other, more radical solutions. I don’t suggest that it would be practicable to dismantle the private education system but I do think reform is possible, given the political will. Changes that could go some way towards redressing the balance include removing private schools’ charitable tax status; obliging them to offer a certain number of well-publicised bursaries; or imposing a quota system so that the proportion of privately educated students at the Russell Group universities bears a closer relationship to the seven per cent of pupils in the general population who attend fee-paying schools.

Another means of redress is discrimination law. The Equality Act already rules out recruitment decisions based on a candidate’s sex, race or disability; why not make it unlawful for employers to discriminate on grounds of socio-economic disadvantage? While none of these suggestions is uncontroversial, I believe they deserve to be explored.

Meanwhile, those of us who have benefited from a private schooling, and who now act as gatekeepers to the best jobs, need to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Has our privileged education opened doors that would have remained firmly closed if we’d attended the local comprehensive? Do our recruitment decisions reveal an unconscious bias towards those who look, sound and act like us? And are the qualities we value in a job applicant – such as eloquence, confidence and polish – simply a convenient shorthand for posh?

This article was originally published as a guest post on Mumsnet.

All aboard the mood elevator!

As a homeworker, I’m normally able to maintain a certain distance from the patronising initiatives that our bosses periodically roll out (their phrase, not mine), so it can be a shock when I’m confronted by the bunkum that my colleagues have to endure. On a recent visit to the office, I was bemused to find myself sitting at a hotdesk opposite a wall of motivational posters, the management equivalent of ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps.’ One of them instructed me to ‘Be here now’, an injunction that, far from achieving its purpose of focusing my mind on the task in hand, created an earworm that led me to waste a good half-hour tracking down old Oasis songs on YouTube. ‘Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out,’ burbled another. Well, duh, as my nine-year-old would say.

Alongside these pearls of management wisdom was a poster illustrating a vertical scale. The top half was labelled with upbeat words such as ‘resourceful’, ‘creative’ and ‘flexible’. ‘Sense of humor’ had been lobbed in there among the adjectives, demonstrating a cavalier disregard for UK spelling conventions and grammatical consistency, and contributing to the impression that the diagram had been scribbled out on the back of a beer mat five minutes before closing time. The lower half of the scale was reserved for a range of negative emotions towards which I felt myself rapidly gravitating – among them, ‘irritated’, ‘angry’ and ‘depressed’.

This is the mood elevator, an essential tool (so I’m told) for creating a healthy and fast-paced working environment and managing our corporate culture. The premise is that negative thought-patterns generate low moods, which impede our effectiveness in the workplace. It’s a neat solution, absolving employers of responsibility for their workers’ well-being. Never mind that you’re bored shitless on a minimum-wage, zero-hours contract, working for a boss who passionately believes in this kind of crap: just change your way of thinking and – ta da! – problem solved.

Initiatives like this are beloved of senior executives, whose bonuses and sense of self-worth depend on forcing underlings like me to waste our working hours attending culture workshops and goal-setting meetings. I wish I could just do my job, instead of filling out endless self-appraisal questionnaires and 360-degree feedback forms. What’s the appropriate response? To sink into an even deeper depression, or just shrug and go along with it?

One option is to be quietly subversive, playing the system while privately acknowledging its inherent absurdity. In her bestselling critique of French corporate culture, ‘Bonjour paresse’, Corinne Maier advocates various ways of subtly undermining our bosses. One of my favourite tips is: ‘You’re not judged on merit, but on whether you look and sound the part. Speak lots of leaden jargon: people will suspect you have an inside track.’

In the end, though, my ‘sense of humor’ fails me. Perhaps I would be able to laugh if it weren’t all so insidious. Taken seriously, many of these corporate mind-control games strip us of authenticity, turning us into cynics and manipulators. Once I was sent on a networking course, where I was taught various techniques for working a room. So now I know that the person who is rather creepily mirroring my body language has been on a similar course and is trying to establish a rapport, while ‘Can I get you a drink?’ is code for ‘Thanks, I’ve got what I wanted from you and it’s time to move on.’

My company trumpets innovation as a core value, and yet the one piece of blue-sky thinking that it’s not prepared to countenance is the suggestion that these initiatives are a massive waste of time. Another oft-cited value is diversity. Odd, then, that our bosses seem intent on making corporate clones of us all, drumming out the mavericks and weirdos who refuse to modify their ‘behaviors’ and simply want to get on with their work.

There’s no sign of any let-up. Today we received an e-mail encouraging us to create a special break-out zone in the office where individuals can contemplate their emotional well-being and mark their current level on a blown-up, laminated copy of the mood elevator. I think you can guess which adjectives I’ll be circling. Here’s a plea to management: let us be ourselves. We sell you our labour, not our identities; what we do for a living isn’t the sum total of who we are. Who knows, our productivity levels may even benefit from this refreshingly hands-off approach. Perhaps I should present it to our gullible executives as a ground-breaking new management theory.

Bringing it all back home

When I tell people that I work from home, more often than not I’m met with surprise. ‘How can you do it?’ they ask. ‘Are you not lonely? Don’t you feel isolated?’ In short, I’m regarded as a bit of a freak. I’m bemused by this reaction, because I rather like my arm’s-length working arrangement.

The moment I return from the school run and shut the front door behind me, I feel a sense of relief. Alone in the house with the smell of ground coffee and the child-free hours stretching before me, I can focus on the tasks that matter. It suits my introverted nature, and above all, allows me to avoid an awful lot of the crap associated with the modern workplace.

My would-be office – on the rare occasions when I put in an appearance – resembles a call-centre, with its banks of workstations and fluorescent glare. The hot desks, break-out zones and refreshment hubs are designed to foster collaboration but seem to have the opposite effect. Perhaps it would work better if we were beardy creatives bouncing ideas off each other, or upbeat sales reps making calls all day. But our work is solitary, requiring us to concentrate for long periods, and the people it attracts tend to be slightly mis-socialised.

The physical environment exposes my office-based colleagues to scrutiny, obliging them to be polite and restrained. It’s stifling, exhausting and infantilising to have to work like this, always keeping yourself in check. An awkward silence descends as everyone taps away at their keyboards in enforced proximity; social interaction is restricted to a tight-lipped smile over the water cooler. At home, meanwhile, I can hum, scratch, grimace, gurn, argue out loud with myself, excavate bogeys – even lift a buttock and let rip, should I so wish. Try that in an open-plan office and see what happens.

Another advantage of being based at home is that I don’t have to engage with all the corporate blather. Recently, curiosity prompted me to attend a lengthy meeting at which a group of senior executives talked about innovation, brand perspective and the company’s go-to-market capabilities. We were instructed to ‘own that vision’, engage with our stakeholders and focus on the company’s organic growth strategy. Questions from the audience were designed, not to challenge the speakers, but to demonstrate how on-message (and therefore deserving of financial reward) the questioners were. I understood not a word of it.

How did we get here, to this upside-down place in which management is regarded as a profession in its own right, elevated above all others? How can it be that chief executives are paid two hundred times as much as employees in possession of specialist, technical knowledge – the people who make the product that the customers buy, bringing in the money that pays for the bosses’ big, fat salaries?

They’re like a dungareed tribe of overgrown toddlers, these executives, forever drawing up new corporate strategies with their glittery washable marker pens, and making up nonsense words to denote divisions and directorates within their tinpot organisations. They shift their coloured building blocks around the boardroom table to represent acquisitions, restructurings and redundancies, with no regard for the effect on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. They strip away our collective bargaining rights and impose performance-related pay to incentivise us, forcing colleagues to compete against each other for a share of a finite pot of cash that amounts to a tiny fraction of the executives’ bloated annual bonus.

Welcome to UK plc. Of course, I’m not completely protected from any of this by my home-working arrangement, nor am I so precious as to suggest that I could never work in an office. I could if I had to: I have in the past, and no doubt at some point I’ll do it again. It’s just that, in the words of Bartleby, that notoriously reluctant office worker, I would prefer not to.