An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Sunday, July 24, 2005  

Aer Lingus

This week's column on Tom McEnaney's great story about the Aer Lingus 12-point plan to make their staff miserable.

Is crushing your staff an idea that has wings?

Marie stood in front on the mirror and for the first time saw what we saw. Scraggy hair, the T-shirt emphasising her saggy bosom, the ridiculous skirt, the hideous Doc Martens. She hung her head in shame. Trinny and Susannah, the presenters of What Not to Wear, supervised. “Marie, where is your self-esteem?” Susannah demanded. “Who has taken it away?” Probably her employer, if it’s anything like Aer Lingus. Last week, the only surprising aspect of the airline’s 12-point memo detailing its use of “environmental push factors” to get rid of employees is that somebody was stupid enough to write down exactly how horribly they could treat staff.
Of course, psychology can also be used in a positive way, even if the purpose of increasing productivity is still the goal. A charismatic manager can create a vision behind which the company can unite. When I worked for Esat Telecom 10 years ago, Denis O’Brien established an environment in which every employee devoted themselves to breaking the monopolistic force that was then Telecom Eireann.

Most of us were persuaded that we had missions rather than jobs and voluntarily worked long hours for low pay. The company of young and ambitious graduates was encouraged to eat, drink and breathe Esat. We ate in the office, got drunk at frequent and lavish parties and in between the occasional tantrums, O’Brien took a paternalistic interest in his workforce.

If you stuck it out long enough you got to cash in, handsomely. If you burnt out and left a gibbering mess of nerves, as I did, you bit your lip when you watched former colleagues become millionaires. You couldn’t begrudge them the money; they had earned every last penny. If a trade union had come within a mile of Esat, they never would have made it.

And this of course has been the problem for workers in the private sector. We have all seen the devastation wreaked by unions who have turned self-esteem into destructive levels of selfishness. In the public sector the unions can crush the slightest attempt by management to improve productivity or introduce accountability. Millions are wasted in this country annually because public sector workers know that their employers can’t fire them and move the operation to China.

It is no wonder that €120m is squandered by the Department of Health on a payroll system that doesn’t work. As a manager in another government department told me last week, “if someone has a pain in their toe, I can’t ask them to work for six months”. Of course, it could also be argued that co-operation is low because those same workers know that they will get no reward or recognition for any extra effort they do make.

Since the industrial revolution, employers from Henry Ford to Michael O’Leary have been united in a single quest: how to extract the maximum level of work at the cheapest cost from their employees. Along every step of this crusade they have met resistance from the workers whose goal is diametrically opposite: to perform the least amount of work for the maximum amount of money.

So the workers form unions and persuade governments to pass tight labour laws. These are sidestepped by employers, who realise that psychology is a more effective weapon than a P45.

A wronged worker will only sue if they feel worthy of better treatment. By crushing their self-esteem, they’ll go home grateful that they have a job. You can persuade them they are not entitled to a pay rise, nobody else will employ them and if they don’t improve their productivity they’ll lose the job they have been lucky enough to secure. Only somebody with pride will tell their boss to stuff it when petty and demeaning strategies are implemented. Anybody with self-respect will simply leave and the management are left with a compliant workforce.

When Ryanair told staff last April that they would no longer be permitted to charge their mobile phones at work, a spokeswoman said nobody “batted an eyelid”. The decision to ban the charging of phones was more related to work ethic than cost-cutting — though “obviously there is a small saving”.

Since charging a phone requires nothing more than plugging in a device, it can’t possibly damage productivity. One consequence of such a move is to produce a cowed workforce who’ll consider going to the toilet a waste of company time. Aer Lingus management was clearly taking notes.

Back on What Not to Wear, Trinny and Susannah bought Marie some very flattering new clothes, cut her hair and accessorised. The transformed woman wept when she saw the new her in the mirror. So did Trinny. So did Susannah. So did I.

Unfortunately, it will take more than a pretty dress, or in Aer Lingus’s case, a pretty uniform, to transform the abysmally low self-esteem of that company’s crew.

PS A tear did come to my eye while watching What not to Wear. That happened once before with a woman who wore terrible 80's clothes all the time. When they asked her why, she said it was because she was happy in the 80's. Since then her marriage had fallen apart and she'd been divorced for 3 or 4 years but still wore her wedding ring. At the end Susannah persuaded her to take off the rings. We all cried again. I don't care what anyone says, I think its the best programme...
Also it was really sickening not getting to cash in on Esat but what can you do? How some of those people stuck it out is beyond me. It was constant high pressure and a love/abuse cycle from O'Brien. Obviously it depended how closely you worked to him. I reported directly to him so every uncrossed 't' came under his notice. But so did several others....nerves of steel....Still I did get huge experience and a f***ing legal bill.....Still haven't paid it. Suppose I have to wait for the Tribunal to finish and pray that they'll take pity on me. Not much hope of that I'd say. And they're taking ages anyway...oh well...

posted by Sarah | 22:08 1 comments
The answer to the Aer Lingus issues is pretty simple: ban voluntary redundancy schemes in the public sector. Whilst they appear more palatable than their compulsory counterparts, voluntary redundancy schemes always result in trouble, either before or after the actual redundancy.
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