Why did you fire Charles?

“Sir, why did you fire Charles?”

The question was flat, neither aggressive nor amiable. The only other expatriate in the team had left the room, leaving just the Nigerians, eight in total, all men between 25 and 50 years of age. They looked at me sat at the head of the table in expectation. Legally they had no right to ask the question, but under Nigerian social norms they felt obliged to. Moreover, I was obliged to answer. The room fell silent and they waited.

Charles was an engineer I’d inherited from my predecessor, and I quickly found he wasn’t up to the job. I’d begun spotting mistakes in his work, serious technical errors that should never have been made. I asked him to explain them, giving him an opportunity to tell me of any mitigating circumstances of which I might be unaware. You’d be surprised what external factors can impact an engineer’s work in a country like Nigeria; family obligations are deep and far-reaching, and more than capable of intruding into a workplace. But Charles provided none, and after several iterations it was clear he simply didn’t have the knowledge and skills to do the work to the required standard.

I sat for a few seconds, gathering my thoughts. I’d been ambushed by my own team at the end of a weekly meeting, and I wasn’t prepared. Although they didn’t enjoy the protections of Nigeria’s infamously powerful labour unions, I couldn’t simply brush off the question or make a glib response if I expected to manage them effectively in future. They’d obviously conferred, elected a spokesman – a large and confident man by the name of Deji – and intervened in the hope of protecting their erstwhile colleague’s job, or at least seeing justice done. I’d need to choose my words carefully.

“The truth is,” I began. “Charles couldn’t do the work. He was making mistakes, lots of them. For example, I sent him to do something offshore and he got the measurements all wrong. This is simple stuff.” Nobody’s expression changed, so I went on. “Look, all of you here are experienced professionals, and you can do the work because you put in the necessary years of training and practice. Charles, for whatever reason, hasn’t done that; he’s never spent the time and effort to learn the basics of his trade. You guys have, but he hasn’t.”

One or two heads nodded slightly, and bodies relaxed a touch. I continued. “What he needs to do is find a job where he can learn the basics, with all the necessary training and support. Unfortunately, this isn’t the place to do that: we need experienced engineers who can deliver immediately, and we hire on that basis. That’s why you guys are here, and not a bunch of students. Charles is in the wrong job.”

I fell silent, letting them process what I’d said. After a few seconds Deji spoke up. “Sir, we understand, but can’t you give him a second chance? He has a family.”

I adopted the most sympathetic tone I could, and replied: “I can’t, for two reasons. Firstly, as a manager I’m paid to look after the company’s interests. I draw a salary in return for making decisions which are often difficult and at odds with what I’d like to do personally. Yes, it would be nicer and easier to let Charles stay, but I’d be failing in my own job if that happened. There’s a human aspect here for sure, but the job of a manager is to weigh those against the interests of the company. You guys understand that, right?”

“Yes sir,” Deji said. “We understand.”

“Okay,” I said. “And the other reason is this. You know how coveted the jobs are in this company, how many thousands of people in this country would kill to have your jobs. Somewhere there’s a guy out there who has put in serious time and effort to acquire the skills necessary to get a job here, but never got the opportunity. He’s standing on the street, unemployed or in a rubbish job, praying he gets a chance to work here. But he can’t, because the position is taken up by someone who isn’t up to it. How is that fair? Yes, Charles has a family but so has this other guy. You guys all earned your positions here; how would you feel if you were shut out because your posts were filled with people who lacked the basic skills for the job?”

“You make a good point,” Deji said. Everyone nodded in agreement.

“Charles will be replaced by someone more suited to the job, and more deserving of it,” I said. “Is that fair?”

“Yes sir, it is. Thanks for your time, and explaining it to us.”

“Okay, good. But guys, I can’t be ambushed like this every time I make a decision. I don’t mind justifying my decisions to you some of the time, but I’m not obliged to, and I can’t do it all the time. If you have a problem with something tell me, but don’t put me on the spot like this.”

“Okay sir,” Deji said. “That’s noted. Thanks again for your time.”

There are times where one needs more than the blunt instrument of authority to manage a team effectively. See also here.

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Conquest’s Second Law, Netflix Edition

Back when he was blogging, the Oilfield Expat wrote a piece on the management of Netflix in the early years (it’s worth reading the whole thing). His post was based on an article describing the techniques employed by the CEO Reed Hastings, according to the lady who was their chief talent officer between 1998 and 2012. Underneath, commenter dearieme added this remark:

I dare say that if netflix survives long enough to become a “mature” corporation it will become just as bad.

Well, Reed Hastings is still the CEO but this didn’t fill me with confidence:

Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are teaming up with Netflix to produce films and TV shows.

Netflix say the former US President and First Lady have “entered into a multi-year agreement” with the service.

It says the “films and series” will “potentially” include “scripted series, unscripted series, docu-series, documentaries and features.”

“Barack and I have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire us,” said Michelle Obama.

Presumably there is a shortage of seasoned professional TV producers forcing Netflix to recruit former politicians and their wives. Or, it’s simply a way for wealthy liberals to bankroll the Obamas’ lifestyle to which they’re now accustomed:

This is third-world stuff, and I think it’s safe to say sensible management practices have left Netflix, along with the smart money. Give it a year or so and they’ll have gone full SJW.

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Collateral Damage

Back in January I wrote a post on the demise of Carillion, which generated so many good comments underneath it I wrote a follow-up post to discuss the points raised further. Of particular note was the fact that Carillion was notoriously bad at paying its suppliers and subcontractors, who were about to get clobbered. As regular commenter Bardon predicted:

The tragedy here will be all the competent subcontractor/suppliers that have been providing good services that simply will not be paid or at best get pennies in the pound for their debt in two to three years if they can survive that long. Just imagine that you have been strung along by Carillion and are now in 90 day arrears, had put in your December claim, paid all your staff and your suppliers including Christmas holidays and finding this out. And that is how it tends to go down.

This morning I read this:

Self-employed suppliers were among those most harmed by what a new joint report from two Commons Committees calls ‘recklessness, hubris and greed’ at Carillion.

Carillion was well known for its poor payment practices, extending its supplier payment period to 120 days despite signing up to the Government’s Prompt Payment Code. As the report notes, although it relied on its often self-employed suppliers, Carillion ‘treated them with contempt. Late payments, the routine quibbling of invoices, and extended delays across reporting periods were company policy.’

IPSE is calling on the Government to help stop this malpractice by expanding the powers of the Small Business Commissioner to include fining habitual late payers.

Self-employed suppliers will also lose significant income from the collapse of Carillion. The new report reveals that the company ‘owed around £2 billion to its 30,000 suppliers, sub-contractors and other short-term creditors’. They will get little back from the liquidation.

They don’t call him Bardon Soothsayer for nothing, you know? So what to do?

IPSE is calling on the Government to ensure self-employed workers cannot suffer from such a corporate catastrophe again.

Dave Jackson, Chair of IPSE’s Construction Advisory Committee commented: “If one good thing can come out of this review into Carillion, it needs to be better payment terms for those on public contracts.  Waiting up to five months to be paid impacts on everyone in the supply chain and is felt directly in the pockets of the freelance builders. The government needs to take action now and deliver on shorter payment periods on their contracts.”

Simon McVicker, IPSE’s Director of Policy, commented:“Carillion’s treatment of self-employed and other suppliers was nothing less than a disgrace. The company’s poor payment practices have even left many self-employed people out of pocket long after its collapse. At IPSE, we wholeheartedly back the report’s calls for urgent action to stop this ever happening again.

In the comments of my follow-up post, Bardon had this to say:

Australia has very effective laws to stop clients stuffing around with payment. Once an invoice is raised the client has two weeks to advise in writing on any deduction and reason to the claimed amount. The supplier then has two weeks to dispute the deduction by lodging a fast track adjudication. It takes a few days for an adjudicator to be appointed and both parties submit within two weeks. The adjudicator decides on the matter in say two weeks, based on the submissions and costs, the decision are binding on each party. I have used it a number of times and found it very effective, low cost and fast and haven’t lost one yet. The big guys are scared of it as the decisions are on the public record and it has stopped the whole scam of holding out on payment until the other party goes bust. It is a common threat that we use as well as long as you know what you are doing and dont submit spurious claims it is a fair system.

Will the UK adopt something similar? Probably not, in all honesty. The sorts of spivs who run outfits like Carillion have close, personal ties with the political classes, and if anyone is relying on the current Conservative party to pass sensible legislation to help independent suppliers deal with sprawling behemoths who boast of working “in partnership” with government, God help them. With their endless regulations and insanely bureaucratic outsourcing policies, governments are largely responsible for creating companies like Carillion and encouraging their behaviour in the first place; the government is therefore unlikely to step in and provide a solution now.

Instead, small, independent suppliers need to get smarter. It’s usually been the case that big companies dictate payment terms (and everything else) to their suppliers, who just have to accept them. The mentality in big companies has always been that contractors are desperate for the work and if they refuse to buckle under, they’ll just find another and there are always plenty more. However, I think as professionalism, competence, and delivery shifts from large companies to small suppliers, the latter are going to have more leverage than in previous eras.

In this new economy, it’s going to be imperative that small contractors can pick and choose the work they know will pay, and turn down jobs they know won’t. This is easier said than done of course, and all independent contractors dream of getting their first major contract with a big player especially if they have families to feed and bills to pay, but they’re going to have to get smarter if their clients are like Carillion. I once worked for a service-provider who refused to do lump-sum work for Korean companies because they simply wouldn’t pay. If the aim of the business is to make money, it is imperative you walk away from jobs which don’t. Another option is to insist on time-reimbursable work, or up-front payments, but this must be backed by a willingness to walk off the job if the client doesn’t pay the invoices on time. Naturally, the client will squeal and talk of blacklists, but in practice this rarely happens. I once had an absolute cretin of a manager who loudly told everyone he’d make sure I’d never work in the oil industry again. He seriously thought this sprawling global industry filled with charlatans, incompetents, serial liars, chancers, grifters, and arse-lickers was going to listen to what one man had to say about another. Unless you’re in an extremely niche industry with a small global footprint, you’re unlikely to find yourself frozen out for insisting a client sticks to the terms of the contract. And if are, then you ought to be hedging against this happening on every contract.

One obvious approach for small contractors is to keep their overheads very low, enabling them to go through lean periods. Another is for individuals to diversify their income sources, perhaps using the same skills but in different industries, so if there is no work in one area you can still be productive in another. There are obvious practical difficulties with this, but then there are practical difficulties with your client going bankrupt leaving you a hundred grand out of pocket, too.

Whatever the case, as these giant corporations become ever-more dysfunctional and prone to sudden collapse, the small fish feeding off them are going to have to get smarter. They should start by being more careful who they work for, and under what terms.

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Sabotage as Standard Practice

Again via Phil B, who appears to be angling for a coveted Research Assistant position, is this link to a manual written by the US office of strategic services in 1944 advising people how to bring occupied Europe to a grinding halt. Phil B says:

It seems to have been discovered by the HR and Managerial types as a template for good management practices, not as a way of destroying an organisation.

Is he right? Have a look at Section 11 which deals with the “General Interference with Organizations and Production” and judge for yourselves:

(a) Organizations and Conferences (1) Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

(2) Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate “patriotic” comments.

(3) When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.

(4) Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

(5) Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.

(6) Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

(7) Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

(8) Be worried about the propriety of any decision — raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

At this point my jaw is on the floor at how well this describes major oil companies. Numbers 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8 are hard-wired into temployees and management within weeks of joining.

(10) To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.

Which neatly describes career progression in a modern organisation.

(11) Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

A practice perfected by governments everywhere. Climate change jamborees, anyone?

(12) Multiply paper work in plausible ways.

(13) Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

(14) Apply all regulations to the last letter.

Any budding saboteur would have his work cut out finding departments of a modern government where this behaviour was not already obligatory.

(1) Work slowly. Think out ways to increase the number of movements necessary on your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one, try to make a small wrench do when a big one is necessary, use little force where considerable force is needed, and so on.

(2) Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can: when changing the material on which you are working, as you would on a lathe or punch, take needless time to do it. If you are cutting, shaping or doing other measured work, measure dimensions twice as often as you need to. When you go to the lavatory, spend a longer time there than is necessary.

Forget tools so that you will have to go back after them.

Are they describing sabotage techniques, or the local council?

(8) If possible, join or help organize a group for presenting employee problems to the management. See that the procedures adopted are as inconvenient as possible for the management, involving the presence of a large number of employees at each presentation, entailing more than one meeting for each grievance, bringing up problems which are largely imaginary, and so on.

Deployment of these techniques was so successful in occupied France they forgot to abandon them when the war ended.

(b) Report imaginary spies or danger to the Gestapo or police.

Such as Nazi pugs?

(c) Act stupid.

*Splutter*

(d) Be as irritable and quarrelsome as possible without getting yourself into trouble.

To be fair, I do the first half of this. I’m not so good at the second part, though.

(i) Cry and sob hysterically at every occasion, especially when confronted by government clerks.

…and demand safe spaces.

So who’s responsible for handing this to governments and organisations and telling them it represents best practices? If it was the Soviets, I’m going to credit them with winning the Cold War hands down.

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Europe’s choices over Iran

A response from Germany following Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that Europe can no longer count on the United States to protect it, urging the continent to “take destiny into its own hands.”

“It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands. That’s the task of the future,” she said during a speech honoring French President Emmanuel Macron, according to Agence France-Presse.

This will be music to the ears of many Americans, who are wondering why the US remains committed to defending Germany from…well, who? Russia? Germans have made it quite clear they prefer Putin’s Russia to Trump’s America, and who else is there? Oh, but wait:

German defense spending will fall far short of levels demanded by President Donald Trump’s administration for years to come, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s defense minister said.

Those levels are actually NATO commitments; Trump’s demand is merely that Germany meets them. The problem Germany has is that it is dependent on the US for security (assuming it is actually required) and hates it, but they don’t hate it enough to reach in their pockets and pay for it themselves. Like a spoiled teenager who hates the rules in their parent’s house, they don’t want to move out either because that would involve hardship.

What will be interesting is the response of Germany, France, and the UK to this:

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was in Moscow on Monday, as Russia tries to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive in the wake of Washington’s pullout, pushing it into rare cooperation with Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was scheduled to discuss how to try to save the nuclear deal with Zarif, the Interfax news agency reported.

Zarif’s tour also took him to Beijing at the weekend and will see him visit Brussels later in the week, as the international backers of the 2015 accord scrabble to save it.

“The final aim of these negotiations is to seek assurances that the interests of the Iranian nation will be defended,” Zarif said at a news conference with Lavrov.

Lavrov, meanwhile, said Russia and Europe had a duty to “jointly defend their legal interests” in terms of the deal.

A few months ago, Russia was accused – perhaps fairly – of conducting a chemical weapons attack on British soil, and there were expulsions of diplomats and lots of tough talk from European leaders about solidarity with Britain. Then a few weeks ago Russia’s client in Syria allegedly used poison gas against civilians and everyone went mental, with Britain and France joining the US in launching missile strikes against targets in Syria. Russia was a pariah nation run by a gangster regime, we were told, so it’s going to be very interesting whether the commercial interests of European businesses consign all this rhetoric to the dustbin. It’s going to be particularly interesting to see what Britain does, given Boris Johnson and Theresa May’s recent criticism of Russia. At least nobody is pretending it’s about nuclear security any more.

Something the media has failed to mention is the difficulty of doing business in Iran even without US sanctions in place. I can’t find the link now (Google search results are swamped by recent developments) but a few years ago one of the big Chinese companies effectively walked away from an Iranian oil and gas project having utterly failed to make any progress, citing the intransigence of the locals as the primary reason. Anyone who has read the history of Iran, particularly the bit concerning Britain’s dealings with Mohammad Mosaddegh over BP, will get a clear idea that doing business there is fraught with difficulties, not least because the Iranians are severely tough negotiators. There has been nothing preventing Chinese, Russian, or Turkish firms making hay in Iran in the absence of American and European countries for decades, but they haven’t, and for good reasons.

One of the main problems facing western companies concerns the ownership of Iranian companies. As is to be expected under such a regime, pretty much every major company is in some way owned by the government or powerful individuals connected to it. In many instances it is the The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which controls the company. From Wiki:

IRGC first expanded into commercial activity through informal social networking of veterans and former officials. IRGC officials confiscated assets of many refugees who had fled Iran after the fall of Abolhassan Banisadr’sgovernment. It is now a vast conglomerate, controlling Iran’s missile batteries and nuclear program but also a multibillion-dollar business empire reaching almost all economic sectors. Estimates have it controlling between a tenth and around a third of Iran’s economy through a series of subsidiaries and trusts.

The Los Angeles Times estimates that IRGC has ties to over one hundred companies, with its annual revenue exceeding $12 billion in business and construction. IRGC has been awarded billions of dollars in contracts in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, as well as major infrastructure projects.

Last October Donald Trump sanctioned the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, independently of the nuclear deal. Leaving aside the difficulty of executing major projects in Iran without falling foul of US sanctions on the IRGC, can you imagine having an IRGC-owned company as a partner or contractor? Would they carry out the work as per the contract? To whom would you turn if they didn’t? It’s hard enough doing business in Russia with companies run by well-connected gangsters; now imagine what it’s like contracting with the private army of the Ayatollahs.

Major European nations risk creating an enormous political and security rift with the US over this Iranian nuclear deal, all for the benefit of a handful of companies who reckon they can make money in Iran. The way they’re talking, and the way it’s being reported, you’d think the money was already in the bank. It’s not, and probably never will be. Politicians should heed this point.

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A Shell of their former selves

Yesterday I received an email from Shell containing more diversity mumbo-jumbo than I thought possible:

We have just celebrated International Women’s Day, when women are recognized for their achievements regardless of age, race or beliefs.

This sentence reads as though it was written by a committee. Why not just stop after “achievements”? What have age, race, and beliefs got to do with women’s day?

The value that women have in the workforce is truly immeasurable.

Is it? Could you not apply the proportion of women in the workforce to the overall value added by the company (“profits”)? Cross-reference this with the total women’s wage bill and you’d have an order of magnitude at least. You could refine things further by assuming whichever women (and men) were involved in writing this press release represented negative value to the tune of their salaries.

At Shell, the unlimited potential in each woman is considered one of our greatest resources.

Considered by whom? I bet investors are a lot more interested in your production rate, reserves, and cash pile. And “unlimited potential in each woman”? Does each man have unlimited potential? Or only those who went to Delft?

They then provide links to various webpages, which contain such gems as:

Shell promotes a culture that is gender balanced. This extends to the way we hire and develop our female talent. We run leadership workshops designed specifically for women.

Nothing says gender equality quite like leadership workshops designed specifically for women.

In the last five years, Shell has increased female representation on our Board of Directors from 8% to 33%. We have also seen the representation of women in senior leadership positions rise from 16% in 2012 to 22% in 2017.

I for one will be extremely interested to see how this pans out. It’s not that I don’t think women can be leaders, it’s that when a company adopts progressive initiatives based on politically-driven social science papers originating in the lunatic fringe of western academia, they’ve lost all perspective. Pepsi’s CEO is Indra Nooyi, an Indian woman, and they pointedly don’t make a big song and dance about it because she is undoubtedly there on merit alone. I worked in and around Shell organisations between 2004 and 2009, and there were plenty of capable women doing very well there, some of whom were in senior positions. There didn’t seem to be any impediment to women back then, they were just fewer in number for the most obvious and natural of reasons. If Shell now believes it’s necessary to artificially inflate the number of women in senior positions in the way they’ve described above, it’s a sign they’re less interested in oil and gas production than social engineering.

For us, this is just the beginning.

The beginning of the end, I suspect. Shell will survive for a long time on its legacy production, reserves, and vast cash pile, but I’d hazard a guess that very little it has done or will do since the oil price crash in 2015 will contribute to its long term future. Applying the “clogs to clogs in three generations” analogy, Shell’s latest generation of whizz-kid managers are eyeing up their next Ferrari while the factory falls into disrepair.

I’ve an inkling I might yet be young enough to write the obituary of Big Oil. As many predicted, their demise won’t be due to a lack of oil in the ground.

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The Whitby RNLI story is not about mugs, or even the RNLI

MC in the comments alerted me to this story, which has now blown up on social media:

A lifeboatman who served with the RNLI for 15 years was sacked alongside his junior colleague for having mugs with naked women on them in the office.

Whitby crewman Ben Laws and his workmate Joe Winspear were allegedly sacked over the phone on Tuesday.

The pair are reported to have swapped the ‘jokey’ tea mugs for Secret Santa presents.

One featured Mr Winspear’s head superimposed on a naked woman’s body.

When a senior female member of staff found them at the headquarters in North Yorkshire, their jobs were brought into question.

The pair were initially told to destroy the mugs and that they would face no further action.

But the men, who are not paid for their work with the RLNI, then had to go through a disciplinary hearing that looked through their private Whatsapp messages.

According to the newspaper they were told they could no longer work at Whitby’s RNLI branch because the mugs could have been found by schoolchildren, which posed a ‘safeguarding risk’.

Okay, that’s the Daily Mail’s version. Here’s what the RNLI has to say:

We are restricted in what we can say, however we can confirm the investigation focussed on the production of inappropriate material of a sexual nature and associated social media activity directed at an RNLI staff member. We are aware of speculation about the issue on social media but we want to stress that this was not a trivial matter.

I doubt this is only about the mugs, and I suspect there was a little more to it than that. However, I expect whatever took place was done with the full consent and involvement of everyone concerned – men and women – and the complaint came from someone who caught wind of it in passing. I would bet a year’s salary that the “senior female member of staff” was a visitor to the office, a corporate functionary who had about as much to do with lifeboating as I do ballet dancing. As to whether it was a trivial matter, I suspect to any normal person it was, but to a modern corporate manager it was up there with the eruption of Krakatoa. You can glean the mindset by what follows:

The lifeboat station should be an environment where people can expect to be treated with dignity and respect. We cannot allow bullying, harassment or discrimination in what should be a safe and inclusive environment and there will be serious consequences for anybody who demonstrates this behaviour within the RNLI.

By challenging this behaviour, we are standing up for the thousands of volunteers who are committed to doing the right thing as they operate our 238 lifeboat stations, saving lives at sea around the clock, 365 days of the year. Our dedicated volunteers represent the values and principles of our organisation and we will not allow any behaviour that brings the work of the RNLI and our people into disrepute.

This is meaningless, empty guff which could have been pulled from the website of any one of a thousand corporations with a household name. I am sure the RNLI once embodied admirable values, but these have been replaced with a dreary morality code worthy of an organised religion, only imposed on people who worship at an entirely different altar. As I said recently:

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that being an employee is no longer about fulfilling what’s in your job description, but adhering to a vague set of moral values which are policed inconsistently by the sort of people who’d dob you in to the council for putting out the wrong bin.

The issue here isn’t the mugs or “the production of inappropriate material” any more than heretics being burned at the stake was a problem in itself; both are mere outcomes of a much larger problem. The CEO of the RNLI is one Paul Bossier. Here’s his CV:

So he’s one of those intelligent types who carved out a career in the highly bureaucratic Royal Navy, an organisation in which career success is driven by backstabbing and arse-licking in equal measure (with apologies to Jason Lynch and Surreptitious Evil). He also went to business school, where no doubt he learned all about power-point presentations, opaque decision-making, dubious ethics, top-down heavy-handedness, and poorly thought-out corporate procedures. The traditional values of the RNLI disappeared the moment somebody on the board of trustees thought this is the type of man they wanted to head their organisation. I suspect he wooed them with all sorts of guff about “efficiency” and “modernisation” and told them how the RNLI brand could be used to bring in millions more in revenues. I bet they mentioned actual lifeboats and the sea about once: as organisations, the Royal Navy is about as similar to the RNLI as Patel’s Taxis are to the McClaren Formula One team.

This latest incident in Whitby isn’t the first controversy the RNLI has had under Bossier’s watch. Here’s a story from last November:

THE States and the Island’s Harbourmaster knew the RNLI was going to take St Helier’s all-weather lifeboat back to the UK, it has emerged.

In an open letter published online, the UK chief executive of the charity, Paul Boissier, said the decision was not taken lightly and local authorities were briefed to ensure contingency plans were in place.

He also described the RNLI’s decision to shut down the St Helier station last Friday as ‘justified and the right thing to do’.

The shutdown followed a breakdown in the relationship between volunteers and the charity which finally boiled over after months of simmering in the background.

Days before, the crew had signalled their intention to set up an independent lifeboat service separate from the RNLI.

Mr Bossier, a former Royal Navy serviceman, said that because of the broken relationship with the volunteer crew the RNLI could ‘no longer rely on their continued commitment’ and the only choice was to close the station.

Speaks volumes, doesn’t it? How many years were these lifeboatmen risking their lives at sea before this Cambridge-educated ex-Royal Navy business school graduate turned up and started imposing cack-handed, top-down corporate policies on them from afar? And note that not only is Bossier taking the all-weather boat back to the British mainland, but:

Speaking about almost £7 million of donations held in a bank account for use in lifesaving in Jersey, Mr Boissier said: ‘There is a restricted fund balance of nearly £7m for Jersey.

Nice, eh? The good people of Britain cough up the money for an all-weather lifeboat and £7m surplus cash so some brave Jerseymen can do what they can to save lives, and it’s now being purloined by a bloke on £162k per year as if they were any other corporate assets. I don’t know how many other incidents there are like this, but the public fallout over the incident in Whitby is having people cancelling their donations in droves. Good.

As an organisation grows and gets more wealthy, parasites in the form of professional “managers” come in and use the excess cash to feather their own nests and set about building their own little empires. In effect, the organisation splits in two. You have a ruling class, sitting in plush air conditioned offices pushing progressive agendas and advancing their careers; and you have everyone else, including those tasked with fulfilling the core function of the organisation. In the modern era, the disconnect between the two is so large they might as well be entirely separate entities on every measure except the logo and the last part of everyone’s email address (there are sharp parallels here with the political setup in western societies, too). Bossier could have just as easily gone to manage any other bloated, overfunded organisation as the RNLI: to these types, and those that cling to their coat-tails, the actual outfit they join doesn’t matter one jot. What matters is that it provides a vehicle for personal enrichment and career advancement. If Bossier quit tomorrow and became head of Birmingham City Council, to be replaced by the guy who sent Carillion into bankrupcy, would anyone be surprised? Would anyone notice? These people are as interchangeable as they are dangerous.

The answer to this problem is hinted at in this passage from an excerpt above:

Days before, the crew had signalled their intention to set up an independent lifeboat service separate from the RNLI.

If you want to rescue people at sea then you must join an outfit which rescues people at sea, not one that roams the land identifying problematic mugs. As I’ve argued before on this blog, I believe the future lies in small, independent entities made up of a handful of people doing the actual work that needs doing, feeding where they can off the bloated carcasses of organisations headed by people like Bossier. The more people who realise this, and start to avoid interacting with large organisations for any other reason than fleecing them, the better.

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Diversity Uber Alles

Over the past few years, various executives of blue-chip corporations have taken to writing articles on LinkedIn. I rather like them, not because I think executives can write or that speaking directly to the masses is a good idea, but because of what they unintentionally reveal. Yesterday I came across this article by Bo Young Lee, who is the Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Uber.

Now before I begin, a little history. Uber’s entire business model was to go into cities worldwide and disrupt powerful, vested interests – namely, the licensed taxi industry – by exploiting grey areas and loopholes in the law. They were quite happy to kick over apple carts which had stood unshaken for decades, and brazenly face down or shrug off the inevitable outrage that followed. Acting in this manner takes a certain type of character, and you can be sure the original founders of Uber were shitlords of the first water. They saw an opportunity to make money providing a service people were denied yet crying out for, and they didn’t care who they upset along the way. If they’d been any different, the company would have fallen at the first hurdle.

It was therefore unsurprising that in 2017, eight years after its founding and by then a household name worth billions, revelations emerged that the culture in the company was one of a bunch of shitlords acting as they pleased. As Wiki puts it:

In early 2017, Uber was described by insiders as having an “asshole culture”.

Well, yes. What followed amid allegations of sexual harassment was a shakeup of the management, including the departure of CEO and founder Travis Kalanick. The board, eager to gain the approval of America’s moral guardians, decided the asshole culture was problematic and needed to change. To this end, they hired Bo Young Lee, an Asian lady who started her professional life as an Accenture consultant and thereafter spent 15 years working in diversity-related positions, in the new role of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. Now, a few months later, they’ve let her write an article on LinkedIn. Let’s take a look:

The first thing I do when presented with a new job opportunity is assess an organization’s potential for change—that’s more important to me than the amount of change that’s required.

Modern executives like to foist major changes on organisations whether they’re required or not, because this makes it easier to justify their appointment and hefty salary. Ms Lee has been well schooled.

I look for a few key markers: a commitment from leadership, an understanding of the business case for diversity and inclusion (D&I), and a mutual agreement that D&I must and will touch every facet of the business. It cannot simply be a silo that lives within HR.

In other words, she tries to identify which organisations are ripe for totalitarian reform along progressive principles that were until recently restricted to the lunatic fringe of American academia.

Throughout the process, I saw an organization that was clearly committed to change but could use help on how to accomplish those changes. Despite some uncertainty around the “how,” when I spoke with Dara and learned about his passion for the “what” and “why,”

So the company wanted to change, but didn’t know how, so they created the position of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer.

I knew quickly Uber was a company where I’d want to be.

I bet you did.

That’s not to say the process didn’t come with its challenges. In many ways I’m a classic introvert, so when news of me joining leaked to the press, I wasn’t quite ready for the influx of questions about me.

Such as what value you bring to the stakeholders.

The attention accompanying my announcement forced me to give some serious thought to whether I wanted to introduce that level of scrutiny into the work I was doing.

So you know you’re a grifter. I find your honesty refreshing.

In order to understand the dynamics of D&I, you have to look at the underlying drivers of exclusion. Organizations have challenges with D&I because society has challenges with it.

Want to promote more women working in East Asia? You need to start with the history and entrenched gender norms women face in Korea, Japan and China.

Another frank admission: this is less about improving workplace conditions and shareholder value than social engineering on a global scale.

On a practical level, it’s important to not just redesign a system or a process, but to give employees real developmental opportunities that will help them expand their skill sets to promote inclusivity. Otherwise, they’ll simply find ways to undermine the new system.

Translation: it’s important we don’t adopt systems and processes whose benefit is self-evident; instead we’ll put in whatever makes us look good and force our employees to accept them.

Too often, we tell people to be inclusive without really showing them what that looks like.

Perhaps because every example of inclusivity put forward doesn’t appear very inclusive to those who aren’t willfully blind.

For example, many companies (Uber included) have expanded parental leave to create more equitable policies for mothers and fathers. While well-intentioned, when a company changes a policy without addressing the surrounding cultural norms, it can backfire.

So rather than running a business in a manner suited to prevailing cultural norms, Uber will henceforth attempt to change society.

If fathers don’t feel encouraged to take advantage of longer leave—but mothers do—these policies can have an unintended negative outcome and reinforce existing inequalities.

Previously we ignored social norms in order to pursue progressive policies, but we only made things worse. So we’re going to double our efforts while still ignoring reality.

To change attitudes toward something like parental leave, companies can (and should) do things like recognize managers that have promoted equality between male and female parental leave.

I don’t have a problem with this, actually. The time when managers were recognised for experience, competence, consistency, honesty, transparency, and integrity has long gone. They therefore might as well recognise whatever the hell this woman is trying to describe.

From my first few weeks at Uber, I’ve been encouraged by the amount of pride people take in what they do and their genuine desire to do right by fellow employees, drivers, riders, and cities.

Where do investors sit in this hierarchy of charitable feelings?

There’s also a sense of humility at Uber that’s unexpected; no one seems to be defensive about the past or makes excuses for what happened.

I expect anyone who was involved in them left, pockets full, along with the CEO.

My vision is to help make Uber a place where amazing talent from every corner of society can thrive and grow and where each employee has the ability to achieve to their highest potential. I want colleagues from different backgrounds feeling safe enough to share their real world experience.

These corporate visions remind me of Communists describing the utopias they intend to build, and they’re about as achievable.

I want employees who are equipped to have tough, challenging, and constructive conversations with one another

I’m sure James Damore heard similar sentiments at Google, right before he sent his memo.

and I want leaders who can speak truthfully to the fact that our diverse teams are our greatest asset and a competitive advantage—because they are what drive our innovation.

Erm, the company’s greatest and most ground-breaking innovation came long before the position of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer existed. Its one and only competitive advantage was a management team that really didn’t give a shit what anyone thought and was prepared to take on deep-rooted vested interests, and they’ve since been fired. If diverse teams were such a great asset, competitive advantage, and driver of innovation companies wouldn’t need to ram totalitarian diversity and inclusion policies down the throats of their employees.

In order to do this, D&I needs to be something that every single employee at the company has a stake in. We talk about D&I in such abstract ways that teams don’t have a sense of what they can do, but I want to teach every Uber employee that inclusion (or exclusion) happens every day, in both small and large ways

Compulsory, ongoing diversity and inclusion training for every employee. I bet they can’t wait.

Simultaneously, I want to utilize data to make big, bold moves.

I suspect this means quotas.

Like many first-generation immigrant families, my parents wanted me to become a doctor, lawyer, or an accountant. When I made the choice to work in D&I after completing my MBA, my parents just couldn’t wrap their head around the career choice.

I can understand their disappointment.

For many years my father would say, “so you fly around and teach people how to be nice to each other?” When I took the job at Uber, the announcement was picked up by Korean news and my parents were inundated with phone calls from friends and relatives.

Including Kim-Jong Un, asking if you’d be interested in a position in his government.

I’ll admit that I was happy that, for the first time, my parents understood what I do.

Oh, I’m sure they understand it by now. Whether they’re pleased about it is another matter.

Meanwhile, mainstream perceptions have also evolved during the nearly two decades that I’ve been working on D&I. When I finished my MBA in the early 2000s, the field wasn’t considered a serious thing to devote your career to, and it certainly wasn’t a role that would ever warrant a “Chief” in the title.

That’s because they’ve invented these jobs to keep the over-qualified but largely useless products of the American college system in employment.

And while we’re still at the very beginning of creating real change, I’m proud that this is now a topic that’s being prioritized.

I’d have thought returning investor value, providing the best possible service, and avoiding costly lawsuits and city-wide bans would be prioritised, but what would I know?

Apparently Uber is planning an IPO sometime in 2019, but my guess is it won’t happen: the smart money got out a long time ago, and only a complete idiot would invest in it now.

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Employers, Employees, and Free Expression

From the Washington Post:

In the hours after Barbara Bush died Tuesday, even those who didn’t share the former first lady’s political views expressed their condolences and recounted warm memories of the Bush family matriarch.

But a creative writing professor at California State University at Fresno had a blunt message for those offering up fond remembrances:

“Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal,” Randa Jarrar wrote Tuesday night on Twitter, according to the Fresno Bee.

In another tweet, the professor wrote: “I’m happy the witch is dead. can’t wait for the rest of her family to fall to their demise the way 1.5 million iraqis have. byyyeeeeeee.”

None of this is remotely surprising to anyone familiar with political discourse in the US over the past ten years. The story continues:

Jarrar’s words — and others that she used as she argued with critics for hours during an overnight tweetstorm — sparked a backlash that would soon prompt the university to distance itself from her remarks.

School officials also said they were reviewing the tenured professor’s position, and the university’s president and provost have rebuked Jarrar.

The professor taunted those attacking her, sharing a contact number that was that of Arizona State University’s suicide hotline, and said she was a tenured professor who makes $100,000 a year.

“I will never be fired,” she tweeted.

Fresno State originally responded to the controversy with a statement by Castro that said Jarrar’s words were “obviously contrary to the core values of our University” but that they “were made as a private citizen.”

Leaving aside comments from the masses on Twitter, almost every prominent conservative commentator who has weighed in on this has specifically said she should not be fired. This is good: as I’ve argued in the context of Juli Briskman flipping the bird to Trump’s motorcade, I don’t think employers should have the right to fire employees for political (or any) remarks they make in private without first demonstrating actual, lasting commercial or reputational damage has been done to the organisation as a direct result. American lawyer Ken White, who goes by the name of Popehat on Twitter, has done a good lawsplainer on the Jarrar case, which is further complicated because the government is her employer. It’s worth reading in full, but here are the bits I found most interesting:

Generally, the First Amendment prevents only the government, not your employer, from punishing you for your speech. But what if the government is your employer? Well, then the First Amendment offers you some protection from being punished by your employer for your speech. That protection is governed by a multi-stage analysis.

The second stage of the analysis is another question: was the government employee acting as a private citizen, or as part of their job duties? If they were speaking as part of their job duties, the First Amendment doesn’t protect them.

Here, it seems clear that Professor Jarrar was not tweeting in the course of her duties as a professor. She was apparently on leave at the time and the scope of her duties do not include Twitter. Fresno State proclaimed in a tweet that she was speaking in her private capacity. (That was a clear reference to this analytical structure.)

So, the law recognises the difference between speech delivered as part of their job duties and that of a private citizen. This is important.

The third stage of the analysis involves a balancing test: the interest of the public employee against the interest of the public employer in promoting the efficient delivery of public services. This is by far the most touchy-feely part of the analysis. Can the government employer show that the speech in question so disrupted the workplace that it interfered with orderly business in a way that outweighs the employee’s speech rights?

And this for me is the crucial test that ought to apply to any employer who wishes to terminate the contract of an employee for speech which is wholly unrelated to their duties or profession. Today this only applies if the government is the employer, but I’d like to see this applied more widely as a matter of straightforward contract law. Popehat concludes:

Professor Jarrar was speaking as a private individual on a matter of public interest. It would be difficult for Fresno State to establish that the tweets about Barbara Bush themselves caused the sort of disruption of the school’s business that so outweighs her free speech interests so that it would justify her termination.

Which I agree with.

Now some of you will argue that Jarrar’s comments bring Fresno into disrepute, as many people now see what sort of morons that insinuation employs as professors. This is entirely correct, but it’s not the employee’s fault; the problem is the university for hiring morons as professors in the first place, not the employee for acting like a moron in a private capacity. Fresno obviously has no problem hiring people like Jarrar, and probably encourages opinions like hers in their lecture halls while simultaneously culturing an atmosphere which is openly hostile to conservatives. Their problem is this has now been widely exposed and they’re being subject to ridicule, but I don’t see why the employee should bear the brunt of this. If a university wants to go around hiring lunatics, they can’t then blame the lunatics for publicly expressing opinions which are met with approval in the privacy of their own corridors. Note that Fresno seemed quite happy with Jarrar and her performance until this episode, so why would they fire her?

I expect as time goes on and we see more instances of employees being dismissed for expressing unapproved opinions in a private capacity, many cases will reveal enormous failings on the part of the management who should not have hired this person in the first place, or should have got rid of them for professional reasons years ago. If the employee is good, his or her private opinions shouldn’t matter. But the same is true if the employee is poor. Most of this is the result of weak or bad management, which appears to be widespread. It’s time it was improved.

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Incompetence Breeds Malevolence

There’s a good article over at Conservative Home about the Home Office catastrophe involving the descendants of the Empire Windrush. The thing that always enrages me about governments is they are doubly shit at performing vital state functions: murdering scumbags go free and innocent people get banged up; police harass citizens over trivial matters while serious crime remains a problem; jihadists are let into the country to carry out terrorist attacks but Canadian right-wing journalists are turned back at the airport and banned for life.

I  may have said this before, but the reason nobody minds draconian laws and policing in Singapore is because it works: the city is clean, safe, and orderly. What Britain (and a lot of other places) has managed is to have all the drawbacks of an overbearing state but none of the advantages. What appalls people so much about the latest case of people who’ve lived peacefully in the UK for decades being deported is not simply the injustice, which is bad enough. It’s that at the same time we cannot deport lunatic hate preachers from the Middle East with a hook in place of a right hand because it’s against their human rights. Oh, and we need to pay for his four wives and eighteen children, too. I exaggerate, but not by much. If the state is not going to do any good, they at least ought not to do harm.

This is the basis of the Conservative Home article which tries to find out whether the Home Office is actively malevolent or simply incompetent. Their conclusion:

The reality, sad to say, is that the output of the Home Office appears to be a disastrous mixture of both of these problems. A system that combines deliberate obstructiveness, apparently in a last-ditch attempt to massage numbers down by placing illegitimate barriers in the way of legitimate residents, with a blundering inability to administer its own systems and rules reasonable or efficiently, is the worst of both worlds.

The author describes his own experience in dealing with the Home Office on immigration matters (emphasis mine):

Was this incompetence? Undoubtedly; the Home Office’s officials should know its own laws and policies, and it should be able to securely hold basic data. I was dealing at times with supposed professionals who expressed fundamental misunderstandings of even basic aspects of UK immigration policy.

Was it deliberate obstruction? Again, yes; it would be easy and straightforward to cross-check the state’s own data on its own residents at the outset of such cases, but instead the system involves forcing applicants to jump through a lengthy series of hoops in order to extract from the state then resubmit to it the exact same information that it already holds. That is a choice.

This is depressingly similar to my own experience of dealing with a French prefecture.

As I get older and become increasingly exposed to the workings of government, commerce, and industry I find myself continually surprised by the levels of blithering incompetence I encounter. Although there are certainly some vindictive people out there, I generally find it is incompetence which induces the malevolence. This is what I wrote about here:

In my wanderings through the land I hear a lot of complaints about somebody’s unreasonable behaviour, normally from a person at their work. It can take the form of angry outbursts, inconsistency, micromanagement, pettiness and a host of others, but the complaints are always the same: why the hell is this person behaving like this? It’s making my life a misery!

Why indeed? I decided to start asking some questions each time I heard this, and most of the time the person in question was in a job they were wholly unsuited for. Their knowledge, experience, or – more often – their character, personality, and temperament was completely inadequate for the position they were in. That’s not to say they were stupid or useless, simply that they were in the wrong job.

I suspect a cursory run through the Home Office would reveal the vast majority of its staff, through experience, competence, or personality, are simply in the wrong job and hopelessly unable to execute their duties to a professional standard. Nothing can demonstrate this better than looking at who is in charge of it now, and who has been in charge in the recent past.

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