Australians like to work hard and have fun while they do.
AHRI research confirms this but also shows Australian working men and women have never worked harder and are subject to much more workplace stress than ever before.
2010 Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry reminded us that one in five people suffer a workplace illness each year and it’s one in two over a working lifetime. So more than ever, bosses on the job should be conscious that whilst they expect a lot of their people, these workers also want to be cut a bit of slack at a personal level and to be dealt with on the job sensibly, professionally and respectfully.
Australians have many things of which they can be proud and BHP Billiton is one of them. It is our largest company, and the world’s biggest resources firm with an array of very low-cost resource deposits containing an abundance of materials that seven billion people on the planet want more of. But BHP doesn’t feature very much in surveys of the world’s most admired companies, or in the top lists of great places to work. And that’s more than a little surprising. Every now and then the ears prick up with evidence that things may not be all well there.
A recent page one story in the Australian Financial Review described an eleven page clean desk, food and flower usage policy at BHP. The good news for BHP employees is that it absolved them of any need to think about, or to exercise their judgement on those matters at work in future. Chief executive Marius Kloppers and his colleagues have set that all out in their clean desk policy. If you’re an employee, all you have to do is look, absorb and obey. As long as you don’t look a bit messy, munch audibly or be caught in the company of a politically incorrect odour. Having read the fine print on this one during paid employment time, the workers at the company’s coal face could justifiably be asking themselves two questions: “What on earth are they thinking about up there in the executive suite?” and “Do they have too much time on their hands?”
Clean desk policies aren’t new, but how they are constructed betrays the top management mindset. The best practice policies I have seen focus on three principles:
- The workplace environment must be professional and appropriate to all reasonable expectations of those who work and visit there
- It should support a culture that’s high performing and equitable
- It should reflect an employer’s duty of care in providing a safe, healthy and fit-for-purpose workplace.
Beyond that a lot of autonomy is devolved to teams to decide what clean-desk principles mean. Prescriptive rules from the top aren’t usually part of that best practice approach and often drive anomalies where sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.
Let’s take a couple of examples to illustrate the problems which BHP’s lofty clean desk policy tablets may have visited on the workers of the company further down the mountain slopes. At a micro-management level, workers are allowed only one A5 photo on their desk. That may or may not be enough to accommodate a picture of the spouse, the kids and the dog. And if there is a photo of your work team celebrating a memorable success on the job, does that not justify an extra pictorial place alongside the loved ones?
Another anomaly could be as follows. Does the BHP clean desk and food policy apply at board level? The writer has graced a few top 20 boardrooms in his lifetime as a guest or as a presenter, and I am pleased to say that the boards of our largest corporations are particularly hard working. Often their sugar levels drop a bit as a result, and they also need a bit of extra room some days to spread out their papers and i-pads. At times like this does the CEO shoot them with an evil eye? Directors often work through tea breaks. But it is usual for tea, coffee and biscuits to be served to replenish depleted reserves. In my experience the butternut snap seems to be the biscuit of choice in this style of workplace. Will the boss have now rounded up all the butternut snaps and the iced vo-vos and consigned them down the lift wells into oblivion? And are the board sugar levels dropping as a result? Or do the board members sensibly ignore ridiculous prescriptive policies, chew on a biscuit when needed and get on with their jobs?
A more serious anomaly concerns the increasing number of workers with diabetes. As we know, diabetics need an occasional snack to boost sugar levels and it can be a matter of life and death if they don’t. Another mainstream example is the worker who is engaged on a job 10-11 hours straight who is not allowed to eat at the desk, only later to stand up after meeting the deadline, faint and hit the head on the way down. That could lead to a successful workplace injury claim against the employer. Does the 11 page policy cover these situations? If it does, I would be surprised.
For forty years after the Second World War “command and control” leadership styles ruled the day until the late 1980s. The top business schools taught them. Many of their graduates are now our leading CEOs and board chairs. The more contemporary servant-leadership approach of ‘first among equals’ is described in books such as Daniel Goleman’s Working with Emotional Intelligence, Bill George’s Authentic Leadership, and Vineet Nayar’s Employees First, Customers Second. Surveys of the ‘world’s most admired companies’ reveal that firms with this management style outperform in shareholder value growth in the order of 7% per annum.
The Big Australian’s clean-desk policy is a giant backward step in the genre of modern leadership.
It’s time for this clean-desk policy to be despatched into the dustbin of history or the electronic recycle bin, as appropriate. Such a move will likely prompt cheers from BHP workers that will be heard from Perth, to Melbourne and Johannesburg – even from those with their mouths full of illegal foodstuffs, working hard on the job.
Peter Wilson AM is the national president of the Australian Human Resources Institute.