A Chief information officer friend just called in a state of excitement that reminded me of a five-year-old on Christmas morning. "I'm allowed to hire someone, Simon," he enthused. "We're adding a whole, new, permanent person to the payroll. We'll need a new desk, a new chair. Pencils. Computer. The lot."
In response, I offered my commiserations, a response that drew a half-grumpy query about why I could not celebrate my friend's return to expansionist management techniques.
"Well," I replied. "The anonymous corporation wherein Headspace toils has done all right during the global financial crisis. We battened down early, announced a headcount freeze, let a few folks work four days a week. Then we promised the team that if we started buying the cheapest instant coffee imaginable, we would save so much money that there would be no lay-offs."
"How did that work out?" my friend asked.
"We've noticed three results," I said. "One was that the cafe at the bottom of the building put up the price of coffee and doubled its revenue.
"The second was that morale went sky- high, because everybody stopped worrying about losing their jobs in the middle of the GFC and got busy spending their salaries on discounted consumer goods and cheap air fares. We got an office full of well-dressed, well-tanned people with new iPods, which certainly doesn't hurt when we put them in front of clients.
"But the thing that caught us by surprise was that people who didn't really want to be here and would usually fall by the wayside as part of natural attrition decided to stay for the job security.
"All the shirkers, corner-cutters and misfits stayed. We've ended up warehousing malcontents, crazies and Facebook addicts for a year now. They're driving everyone crazy because they're just not motivated and treat the place like a welfare agency.
"As soon as you let them out of your sight, they start to look for every little rule about the things the company supposedly owes them and spend more time figuring out their entitlements than actually working. It's got to the point where we just don't put them on project teams, because they're poison to the people who do want to work here."
"That's not good," my friend replied, before uttering a small sound I interpreted as the noise of mental gears grinding. "So what you're telling me is that anyone who needs a job right now is probably one of the duds you'd like to do without?"
"Spot on," I said. "The people who stayed for job security are in a death spiral, because they're too lazy and disgruntled to do any meaningful work here, but half the time all the effort they put into work avoidance means they have trained themselves to become too lazy and disgruntled to be employable anywhere else.
"But with all the good economic data around, they're finally starting to take the plunge and look for a job. So good luck, my friend, because over the last year we've found out who's really bought in and who's worth keeping and we're going to make sure we hang on to the good ones. The folks we wanted to lose before the GFC are headed your way, with an extra year of rusted-on bitterness and misanthropy!"
"They can't all be bad," my friend responded, tremulously.
"Oh, yes, they can," I warned. "I swear one of the people we would love to lose will only perform tasks involving the options on three menus of a single piece of software. It's just about got to the point where if you ask him to look at the fourth menu, he rolls his eyes at you, pulls out his job description and says he has a dental appointment in three minutes."
"Oh, that's very common," my friend replied. "It's bizarre how many IT jobs these days consist of not much more than remembering which box to tick in a piece of software. In fact, I swear there are whole degrees now in router control panels."
"Is that your way of saying that hiring a graduate is not much more palatable than hiring a known malingerer?" I responded.
"I suppose so," my friend acknowledged. "What's the point in hiring a kid when after two years they either disappear to London or another job?"
And then he gave a hefty sigh, before asking me what on earth he should do to fill his newly created position.
"I've no idea," I said. "Let's face it, about six months from now we'll have the skills shortage on our hands all over again and we'll be happy to hire anyone who can spell SAP, never mind anyone who can use it effectively. So go ahead, place that ad, buy that desk, unwrap that chair. Chances are it will be empty in a year anyway."
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