Category Archives: Unfair employment

Walking the corporate tightrope without a golden parachute

7 ways to create a workplace safety net 
There have never many guarantees in life as a corporate employee. But now, despite employment protection legislation, there seem to be even fewer. We live in turbulent and changing times and no one is immune.  So it’s not just necessary to be strategic about career advancement, but to always have a safety net in place in case of an unexpected fall. Even minor changes which at one time might have produced a little stumble, might send you crashing to your knees. These could be anything from a promotion disappointment, a take over, a new boss coming in,  or even an economic blip that might  unexpectedly impact results and performance.  No one is indispensable. And sometimes our faces, from one day to another, simply don’t fit. It’s not only high-profile CEOs who get fired over the phone.

Fired
In the last few weeks I have had  two clients, who have been basically, summarily dismissed. For some reason, out of the blue, their contributions were deemed to be below par. Within an hour they have been placed on notice, told to clear their desks and  instructed not to return to their place of employment. Access to their company email accounts and records has been immediately blocked.  Had they committed some grave offence or were guilty of gross misconduct: hit the boss, lot a few  billion,  or sworn in front of a client? No they hadn’t. There seemed to be no obvious reason to either of them, nor was there any traceable record of any “sackable” offence, or even communicated under-performance. They both had contracts of employment. For some reason they were both surplus to requirements at one given moment in time and were  “let go”, to use that hateful euphemism. Neither were senior enough to negotiate a golden parachute.  

Regretfully, they have both found themselves in a void: hurt, angry, confused and wondering what their next steps could be.  

Commonalities
The take away lessons to both these clients were signficant and there were some commonalities. They realised with that great gift of 20/20 hindsight that when the going was good, they had taken it for granted and had not taken even basic precautions.  Under- performance had been cited in both cases as reason for termination  and in reviewing their next steps,  the only way both individuals could support their own version of events was verbally  and anecdotally.  If considering legal action, this can be problematic.  With future employers it might also be useful to have support documentation to hand. 

 7 Precautions

  • Always store personal professional information outside the office. Both used their office computers for personal use and had not stored key information privately, or as hard copy.  They had no access to vital correspondence on other hard drives,  once access had been denied. 
  •  Always ask for annual goals and targets against which your performance will be assessed in writing. Keep a record of that document or correspondence.  Neither had done this.
  •  Save copies ( in either a personal email account or as hard copy)  of the good stuff! Any positive  feedback or success stories. Once outside the swinging doors, neither had any record of their achievements or access to them, even previous performance assessment documentation where they had received strong ratings.
  • Keep copies of requests for support and document any tricky problems as well , especially the methods you used to overcome them. Neither had  hard or soft copies of ignored  requests for support and advice,  or  any conflicting instructions  they had received. 
  •  Ask for recommendations from peers and superiors within your company  to support your success stories.   These can be posted on an online professional profile for the whole world to see. 
  • Look for a mentor or sponsor within the organisation you can turn to for advice. Both felt isolated.
  • Carry on building an external network.  You never know when you will be unexpectedly on the job market.

This may all seem very cynical, but change doesn’t have to be cataclysmic to produce a massive personal downside in today’s cyclic job market.  Organisations will be equally vigilant in maintaining their records.  Unless you have negotiated a golden parachute  as part of your contract of employment, having a net under the corporate tight rope is simply a basic and very necessary safety measure.  

 You’ve heard of driving defensively –  well  regrettably, although far from ideal,  we now we have to work defensively too.

What other precautions would you suggest?   

The enslavement of Gen Y

Unpaid interns: A new form of slave labour
We are all very aware of different forms of exploitation in the corporate world. I’m not even talking about sweat shops  or fields in emerging markets , but something that exists  in businesses right in front of our eyes, on our high streets and in our business parks and industrial estates.  In some cases these organisations are well-known household names: we watch their programmes, read their newspapers and magazines,  wear their clothes, go to their galleries or shops and buy their products.

I’m talking about the explosion of unpaid interns
One of my most popular posts is  “Unpaid internships: Opportunity or Exploitation? ”   As a result of this article I receive mails regularly  from interns, graduates, unemployed young people as well as parents, all commenting or asking about this issue.  I have a strong  interest in this as subject my son is currently working as an unpaid intern,  so I am tapped into that generation on a  very personal level. It also means that many of  my friends are supporting their graduates in these ” opportunities” with subsequent personal sacrifice. They actually feel, (as I do!) that they are  contributing to the bottom line of sometimes large and profitable international companies. Professionally, I coach and mentor some entry level graduates and see and empathise with their dilemmas.

Exploitation
Not only are these young adults working for nothing , some are not even getting reimbursement of their travel expenses or a sandwich at lunchtime.  The only light at the end of their very dubious tunnel is the promise of a reference, rather than a permanent job opportunity.   In many cases there are no training  programmes or even supervisory arrangements in place.   One graduate I am in contact with is being supervised by another unpaid intern  who has only 6 weeks more work experience  than he does!  The phrase the blind leading the blind comes to mind. Overtime is frequently demanded and he is pressurised to meet tight deadlines for specific commercial projects by working from home. One intern was even asked to bring his own computer (desk top)  into the office. Another graduate is working in an organisation where over 75% of the staff are made up of unpaid interns. Many graduates are now moving from one unpaid internship to another.  Increasingly, this seems to me  simply a way of getting some of the brightest and best of our young talent to  contribute to these organisations for free !

Intern explosion
The word  “intern” has slipped into global biz speak to convey some sort of traineeship or learning situation, replacing the older word apprentice, which had become slightly outmoded until very recently, when it re-surfaced on a  popular TV show by the same name. As the  stories of these young people unfold,  I begin to question the morality of a situation which seems to me to be a flagrant abuse of the economic downturn for corporate gain.  There seems to be a regression to the same exploitive employment practises that existed throughout the centuries, which ironically generations of campaigners have actually fought to eradicate.  Currently it seems that unpaid internships are exploding without restriction.

History
The history of apprenticeships  comes from the earliest times. In Egypt and Babylon, training in craft skills was organized to maintain an adequate number of craftsmen  and as a way of passing on skills to the next generation   In Europe in the Middle Ages families signed apprenticeship agreements and  sometimes paid stipends for their offspring to learn a trade to protect their long term economic well being.  But this was at a time when most children did not have access to formal education, when the number of apprenticeships a ” master” could hire was controlled. There was also another darker aspect of  the apprenticeship  system  where  “indentured servants” were simply exploited to provide a free service to their masters. But even these poor souls received some sort of board and lodging.

Legal situation
I know from my network that the intern system is internationally used and abused and although the implementation seems to be fuzzy, the legal framework seems to be clear! In the US, the Department of Labor has applied certain stipulations. The basic principle behind legal unpaid internships is simple – they should be for the benefit of the intern and the work should not involve anything operationally vital or replace the job of a full time permanent employee. This could include any basic tasks that helps support a business,  including routine administration work.    Mark Cuban owner of the Dallas Mavericks makes a valid point when he wanted to hire unpaid interns  “ Thus we would have to create work that is useless to us if we choose not to pay them.   How silly is that?” . . . Indeed interns themselves want to do something useful. But it begs the point why couldn’t they be paid – something at least.

According to Annabel Kaye,  Managing Director, Irenicon Ltd ,  a firm specialising in employment law based in Croydon,  Surrey, said  ” in the UK,  anyone performing work (whether as an employee or a worker) is entitled to the National Minimum Wage (at an appropriate level) unless they fall within specific and limited exemptions.  

 These include:  1) On specific government training schemes, or  2) On European Social Funded or Government funded placements of less than six weeks or 3) Volunteers working for a charity, voluntary organisation (such as a local community organisation) associated fund raising body or statutory body or 4) Students on a course involving  work experience of not more than one year.

 Individuals on an ‘internship’ leading to paid employment are often entitled to minimum wage throughout their ‘internship’ and paid employment period.   ”

Penalties for employers
There is no  doubt that this system is being abused. So are there deterrents?  Annabel told me that they are indeed quite significant in the UK at least ” If an organisation has underpaid minimum wage then the penalties are quite high once the wheels are in motion , apart from having to pay the intern the appropriate wages (going back over 3 years to all underpaid employees) ”    plus additional penalty payments.

However, a complaint has to be made,  not necessarily by the employee.  The young people themselves, fear reprisals and will not step up.  Her concern is  that  any complaints  about abuse will reduce the number of internships available “  The exploiters of interns will  bring down an enforcement regime , that will ultimately reduce the number of ‘good’ places as well as ‘bad’.”

I am not taking a stance on unpaid internships per se. There are excellent reasons why internships when entered into in the spirit they are intended can bring positive results for both  business and intern alike. Companies can benefit from fresh new talent and test them without going through an  expensive hiring and perhaps firing process.  This is especially helpful with new technologies,   giving  organisations access to knowledge and skills that would cost signficantly more if they used a normal consulting company.  Interns gain insights into the workings of their chosen sector and get used to a work structure after several years as students.

It can be a win/win. But  if the fine line between use and abuse is crossed,   it is no different from some historic forms of exploitation and slave labour.

What do you think?

Note :  For UK interns only :   Annabel suggests that anyone who is being (or has been) under paid can call the Pay and Work Rights Helpline on Tel 0800 917 2368. They take complaints from workers, employers and third parties 

Anyone on job seekers allowance (JSA) can undertake voluntary work as long as this does not detract from their job search or availability for interviews. The Government have made specific provision for unpaid internships of up to 13 weeks,  which can run alongside claiming JSA. Reimbursement of limited expenses should not affect Job Seekers allowance but should be declared to the Job Centre Plus Office. 

You can download a booklet on this from : http://www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk/jcp/stellent/groups/jcp/documents/websitecontent/dev_015837.pdf

Special thanks to Annabel Kaye, Managing Director,  Irenicon Ltd : Airport House, Purley Way, Croydon, Surrey, CR0 0XZ , Tel:  08452 303050