Come in Spinner: The PR justification for toxic workplaces

One of the PR industry’s most problematic activities is dreaming up justifications for toxic workplace practices imposed by psychopathic managers.

This week three unconnected incidents reminded me of the problem. First, the PRIA sent me an email promoting an internal communications seminar in which the two words most likely to reduce productivity – ‘change management’ – were used; then the latest issue of the Australian Institute of Company Directors journal, The Director, spruiked the need for government to take on board business ‘nous’ to improve its performance; and, finally a report by a Melbourne University academic estimated that the annual cost of work stress was about $730 million through the impact on individuals of depression.

It was no doubt a PR person who dreamt up the phrase ‘change management’ as a euphemism for destructively turning workplaces upside down, sacking people and generally changing things without making any positive difference at all to an organisation’s outcomes or outputs. In my last book (How PR Works: but often doesn’t) I included a plain person’s guide to change management which said: “Over the past two decades a generation of change managers has set out to transform organisations – from universities and companies to charities and government departments.” The guide said ‘change managers’:

  1. Announce soon after arrival, and before any analysis which might cloud judgments, that the organisation must face up to the new competitive environment and must change to survive.
  2. Sack significant numbers of incumbent managers and replace them with friends and colleagues from previous jobs.
  3. Increase the number of both middle managers and management levels giving new managers titles such as Organisational Capability Development Manager.
  4. Ensure none of the new managers have definable line management accountabilities or job descriptions written in English.
  5. Objectify the people the organisation is set up to serve. Eg citizens become customers of government departments while students and courses at universities become clients and services.
  6. Announce a major re-organisation to affect change and confront the challenges of the competitive environment.
  7. Identify another agency or group with which to merge, form strategic alliances or generally hold meetings with.
  8. Retrench as many operational staff as possible, singling out in particular anyone with detailed knowledge of how systems actually work.
  9. Introduce a culture based on continuous meetings and managerial Newspeak while insulating all managers from any operational realities.
  10. Identify any centres of excellence or international best practice in the organisation, close them down and outsource the function to someone more expensive and less effective.
  11. Promulgate changes to any systems which effectively meet client/customer needs.
  12. Introduce a completely untried IT system designed to integrate all existing systems and produce massive productivity savings.
  13. Sack any operational staff who had not previously taken redundancy packages for the failures in these changes to systems and the IT implementation.
  14. Announce another major re-organisation to enhance effectiveness and focus more effectively on change.
  15. Move on to next job, before the organisation goes into critical state and after including in CV details of change management expertise, to start the process all over again.

Speaking to PR people about change management and its destructive impact you always get rueful agreement on how it works and why it’s bad – but most PR people go along with it because that’s the way to keep your job.

The Melbourne University study, written by associate professor Anthony LaMontagne, found that 1.5 million workers have, or have had, depression with the condition caused by job strain in the case of 13% of men and 17% of women. The annual cost of this $730 million and this is probably a small part of the total cost of lost productivity from toxic workplaces and mindless change.

At the same time the AICD is advocating more business ‘nous’ for the government sector – presumably the same sort of ‘nous’ which has given us the GFC; psychopathic (sorry I mean charismatic) CEO’s who sack people and urge the government to cut spending on social programs to pay for the cost of cleaning the GFC mess up; and, appeals for ‘reforms’ which always leave most people worse off.

All these business claims have become conventional wisdom as PR platoons spruik the platitudes which promote them and politicians and the media uncritically accept them.

The interesting thing about this conventional wisdom is that it is buttressed by an arrogant certainty that the proponents of change are right and that there is no alternative. GE CEO, Jeff Immelt, during his recent visit to Australia didn’t shy away from organisations’ need to change (GE is no angel in the retrenchment field) but argued that managers need to listen to others and that “No matter how much you think you are listening, no matter how much you think you are in touch with markets, you can always do better. I think remaining extremely humble about what you know and what you don’t know is crucial.” (AFR 2-3 October)

Listening, of course, takes time. But people rushing to move on the next position before the damning impact of their changes becomes apparent, are also the ones most notorious for arguing that change must be speedy.

RITUAL DECLARATION OF INTEREST: The author has worked on change management programs in the private and public sector but no longer does.