Admittedly not the most positive or reassuring admission for a HR professional to make but it's true. In my early days working in HR, back in the mid 1980’s I did cause a strike to happen.
Working on the mantra that the first time is a process of learning, and it only becomes a mistake if it happens again this incident was for me an exercise in learning. Actually I learned two lessons, the importance of communication and the importance of perception.
I was working as an HR Officer in Manchester for a business that warehoused and distributed high value consumer products, principally TV’s and VCR’s, Video Cassette Recorders the prequel to today's DVD players.
The warehouse distributed the TV’s and VCR‘s to retailers across the north of England by lorry, large 40 foot trailers that were loaded with products the value of which ran into several tens of thousands of pounds. A lot of money now, a fortune 30 years ago.
One afternoon, it was a Wednesday about 3.00pm, we received a call that one of the lorries fully loaded, had been stolen. The driver, we’re call him Joe for the purposes of this article, had stopped off in a café for a cup of tea, something he always did, and when he returned to his waggon it had gone.
The Police were called and an investigation began. Our immediate view was that it was a carefully planned and thought through robbery. The thieves had familiarised themselves with Joe’s routine and taken the opportunity to act when he was having his tea.
We did not for one moment think that Joe, a trusted and long standing employee, was in any way implicated in the theft. All he could be blamed for was following a routine.
When he arrived back at work he was absolutely distraught. He was close to tears and visibly upset about the theft of his lorry. It was not the time to question him in any detail about what had happened, that could wait for another day.
News of the theft had by this time reached the warehouse and rumours and speculation about what had happened were running wild.
My principle concern was for Joe’s welfare. I knew that as soon as he left my office he would be seized upon by his well meaning colleagues all anxious to know what had happened and ready to offer their opinion. He wasn't up to that degree of exposure, he needed to get home and be with his family. My task was to find a way of getting him out of the building without his being pounced on by his colleagues.
And that is where I made my mistake. As I referenced at the beginning of this article it has in hindsight become a learning point but at the time it was a mistake, a mistake that led to a two day strike.
Pause for a moment, consider the circumstances described above and ask what was the worst possible thing I could have done?
I could have changed my mind and allowed Joe to leave my office on his own. I could have asked one of his colleagues to make sure he got home safely, I could even have (reassuringly) walked him to his car myself.
Or, I could have arranged for one of our Security Officers to escort him off site without any consideration as to the impression of guilt that such an action would convey.
So what did I do?
Yes I arranged for one of the security team to ensure that Joe left site in as smooth and least disruptive a way as possible. Or so I thought!
The first inkling that I had made a serious error of judgement came the next morning when I received a telephone call in my hotel room just after 6.00am. It was from one of the security officers telling me that rather than coming into the depot that morning the drivers were stood on a piece of waste ground opposite the entrance huddled around their legendary brazier.
They were on strike.
An awkward standoff took place for rest of that day.The Distribution Manager and myself went to speak with the drivers to ask “what was going on” - as if I didn’t know. Their shop steward told us that they were taking this unofficial action because of the way that Joe, who was standing with his colleagues looking suitably embarrassed, had been “treated like a criminal”.
No that wasn’t the case I explained. I had arranged for a Security Officer to escort Joe from site for the best of intentions.
“Well that's not the way it looked” was the curt reply.
The unofficial “wildcat” action lasted for another 24 hours. Having made their point and lost 2 days pay the drivers agreed to return to work on Monday. In fact I remember their shop steward saying that “the lads” would willingly come into work on Saturday (for which of course overtime would be due), to wash the lorries. The offer was politely but firmly declined.
Lessons to be learnt
Who was to blame for this situation developing as it did, me or the drivers?
I believe it was me. It would be easy to blame the drivers for being unreasonable and reckless, for acting in the way that they did without being fully aware of all of the facts. Whilst all this is true it misses the point.
A manager is responsible for managing. That means assessing a situation, deciding on the appropriate action to take, taking it and then communicating the decision made and if necessary the reason for making that decision. That latter point is not justifying the decision but explaining the reason why it was made.
Here I had failed to properly assess the situation, I had not thought about how my actions would be perceived by Joe’s colleagues. I made a wrong decision and compounded this by not communicating the reason for my decision to the relevant third parties, that is Joe’s colleagues or in particular his shop steward – who was in the depot that Wednesday afternoon. The culture at the time was that management did not communicate their decisions to the unions. Communication was seen as an act of management weakness.
So what should I have done? Having assessed the preliminary facts, I should have spoken with the shop steward, briefed him on what had happened, what I intended to do and why and asked him to see Joe off the premises.
The objective (getting Joe off site) would have been achieved, the reasons for my positive and correct action understood and their would have been no misconception about why I had done what I did.
Actions, communication, consequences and perception
As I said at the outset of this article I learned two important lessons as a result of my actions. The importance of communication and the importance of perception.
But perhaps the biggest lesson I learned was that as a Manager it’s only by being truly honest with yourself that you can really learn.