Slavedriver Rudd fails the exploitation test

My good friend Stephen Stockwell asks whether, after a week of reports that our new Prime Minister is driving his public servants too hard, we could call Rudd the Australian Federal Government’s answer to Jason Calacanis? Perhaps he’s onto something.

In The Age today, author and lawyer Dr Mirko Bagaric reckons the ultimate test of character is when a person has unchecked power. “That is why at work you can get a pretty good gauge of the character of your bosses but not your underlings,” he says. “They are too busy being nice to you to try to get ahead.”

So what does Bagaric make of the many, many reports of public servants complaining that Rudd has turned their lives into a “nightmare” through overwork? Bagaric says, “Rudd has spectacularly failed the exploitation test.”

In a well-argued essay, Bagaric writes:

One trait is even more offensive than using others: hypocrisy. Trying to get credit for what you are the opposite of, is an egregious insult to fundamental tenets of natural justice.

Before the last election, Rudd said he empathised with the plight of time-pressed working families and that he recognised the need to restore “fairness into the workplace”. The 60,000 people who make up the federal public service are every bit as entitled to be treated with respect as the rest of the community.

Yes, helping the PM run the country is an important job, but we are not in a war zone. There is no demonstrated need for people to work manic hours, no major crisis; and the PM’s ideas and effectiveness deficits don’t constitute a catalyst for anyone else grinding themselves into the Canberra dirt.

So, what should the PM expect of his troops? He should be telling them exactly what social scientists have known for decades about the connection between employment and leading a fulfilled life. Work is important to leading a fulfilling life, but rarely should you let it define you (unless you are genuinely passionate about it), and it certainly should never defeat you.

Moreover, more is often less. There are only so many productive hours (about eight) that one can consistently complete each day. Anything beyond that is just about presenteeism — looking to do something instead of actually doing it. It has nothing to do with effectiveness.

Spending time reflecting, contemplating, revisiting decisions, redrafting, consulting with others is usually dead time. There’s a lot of truth in the observation of former Nine chief executive Sam Chisholm that “losers have meetings, winners party”.

I’ve been in my own self-induced schedule crunch this week, and have yet to reflect on Rudd’s first six months in office. But as I emerge and see what others have been writing, I’m not impressed. Just don’t get me started on the Bil Henson saga!

15 Replies to “Slavedriver Rudd fails the exploitation test”

  1. I’m all in favour of 360 degree appraisals in the workplace, but I’d like to add a couple of points to the bottom line — bosses should be evaluated on the basis of how many sick leave days their staff take and how many people leave. My organisation would not be doing well on those criteria at the moment.

  2. @Quatrefoil: Right on! Workplace attrition rate reflects directly upon the quality of senior management and nothing to get all smug about with this oft-repeated, “they couldn’t take the heat” bullshit.

  3. Oh please. Every time someone (usually a manager) wants someone else (usually a worker) to do some hard work in order to achieve great results, people moan, whinge, threaten to leave, ridicule the boss and argue.

    What ever happened to putting in the “hard yards” in order to receive the “glory”? It tastes much sweeter when you’ve had to work for it.

  4. @Quatrefoil and @Stephen Stockwell: In the corporate context, it is of course illegal for the directors and managers to do anything other than maximise the profits of the company — provided that whatever other exploitative or polluting actions they take aren’t in and of themselves actually illegal. There is no such excuse in the government sector.

    @bojan: Welcome, I like new people making comments. In your knee-jerk reaction, though, you’ve managed to commit three logical fallacies all at once: the straw man, the false dichotomy and hyperbole. Well done!

    1. No-one is saying that people shouldn’t work hard to achieve results. What we’re talking about here is inappropriately hard work over extended periods to the point where health, family and social lives suffer. That can’t be good — for individuals or Australia.
    2. Your false dichotomy is that there’s only unhealthy overworkers or whingeing slackers. There’s also the healthy middle ground.
    3. Your hyperbole is that “every time” someone wants someone to work hard, “people moan”. “Every” time, eh? Perhaps I should also say that “every time” I or someone else writes about having balance in life — so people are healthy and can work hard when it’s really needed — some whingeing martyr brings out the whip and attacks everyone who isn’t killing themselves through overwork.

    Thanks for joining us, but I reckon more sophisticated reasoning is required. Just where is Dr Bagaric wrong?

    [P.S. Not leaving a real email address is pretty gutless, IMHO. Have the balls to stand behind your words, mate.]

  5. I’m sure that the perception (whether true or not) that K07 is whipping the public service into shape will do him no harm in the general electorate, at least amongst those who buy into the slack public servant stereotype.

    I’d still like to know a bit more though. Are they working harder than the equivalent positions (based on salary, responsibility, etc) in the private sector? In other words, is there any substance to the complaint?

    We’re all working harder these days. At least I’m sure I remember reading that somewhere on my lunch break … back when I used to have lunch breaks.

  6. Working “inappropriately hard” is subjective — this is why we have the problem in the first place. By nature, *most* people (now don’t misinterpret me a second time) don’t want to work. That’s just the way it is. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just the way it is. Usually when someone imposes a more challenging work ethic, people whinge.

    And yes, more often than not “every time” someone wants to up the ante, you’ll have resistance. Have a look inside most corporations and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Again, this is just the way it is.

    P.S. Regarding your last point… I don’t need to give you my email address to stand behind my words! My words are my words, my email address has nothing to do with my words. And I like to minimise the opportunity for spamming.

  7. @ bojan I’m a manager, btw. And I work in the public sector, though not the public service. I’m currently working upwards of 10 hour days (frequently 12) without breaks in a stressful environment, and trying to shield my less-well-paid staff from having to do quite as much. I’m now at the point where I’ve been more or less continuously unwell for the last three months. I’m paid for a 7 hour day, so this is bringing my hourly rate down to a really unacceptable level for my skills and experience. I’ve no objection to working hard, and am happy to put in the long hours every so often in a crisis or to meet a deadline. But why would I want to do this to my life and health on an ongoing basis?

    Overworking staff is simply bad management, and in today’s boom economy, counter-productive. I’m ready to leave and take my corporate knowledge and experience with me. The fact that I’m being flown interstate for an interview tomorrow (the only job I’ve applied for) indicates that what I have to offer is pretty marketable, so by not allowing me a reasonable work-life balance, my organisation is really losing out.

    As for wanting people to work hard to achieve great results, as a manager I expect hard work from my staff. I also expect good quality work, which isn’t achieved when people are tired and unwell. In my view, no-one’s doing their best at the wrong end of a ten or twelve hour day.

  8. Interestingly, in today’s Crikey Bernard Keane writes, in part:

    Forgive the grizzled veteran act, but I worked under the previous Government, on some fairly high-profile legislation. I never did 35 hours straight [as one public servant was reported to have done recently] but I recall times when I returned from Parliament late at night after spending the day there helping with the passage of a bill, and sitting down for several hours to go through my in-tray which had filled up during the day. Then coming back at 7am because there was a raft of amendments to work through before Parliament reconvened later that morning.

    It’s not ideal but it’s what you get paid for — paid pretty well, at senior levels — in the public service. And you can’t beat the feeling that you’re genuinely contributing to key policy decisions. Not to mention it looks bloody good on the CV.

    Moreover, it’s in the very nature of the public service, especially in policy areas, that there are times when things aren’t quite so busy. Or in fact busy at all. Work tends to balance out over time.

    That’s the thing about the public service. It can be a lottery. There are, undoubtedly, many pockets of the APS currently where you can forget about this talk of everyone being overworked. Primarily in line departments, especially in areas where they’re waiting for the Prime Minister’s office to make up its mind on an issue, or where they run programs that can be left to tick over.

    Others areas will be flat out, but it will partly be because of the APS-wide difficulties in attracting and retaining staff.

    The only Departments that are likely to be uniformly under the hammer are the central agencies. Finance staff are permanently overworked — it’s just part of the reality of working there, although there’s usually plenty of leave taken there and in Treasury after the exertions of the Budget, which also demand a lot from public servants. And everyone knows that PM&C, in the direct line of fire of 24/Kevin, is running on No-Doze.

    But don’t have too much sympathy for public servants. There’s a new government with a big agenda to implement, and a Prime Minister fascinated by policy. This is ostensibly what a public sector career is about. And if they don’t like it, well, unemployment in the ACT is 2.8%. Changing jobs has never been easier.

    Indeed. In a time of record low unemployment, when Australia has a shortage of skilled workers, I think businesses would be better off thinking about how they can encourage people to stay rather than squeezing more juice from the lime.

    @Alastair: You’re right, we don’t really know which sort of people employed under what sort of contracts. However I tend to think that after years and years of “productivity improvements” under governments of various colours the “slack public servant” is an outmoded stereotype.

    @Quatrefoil: You’ve written much of what I would’ve said about bad managers not understanding that overworked people are not productive. This was in fact the core of Dr Bagaric’s essay.

    @bojan: I’m not particularly interested in spamming anyone, so you’re safe there.

    If a business wants to extract more work from its employees then, yes, of course there will be resistance. Employment is an exchange: the employee’s time and effort, based on the skills they bring, in exchange for money. If the employer simply wants more work but offers nothing in return, that seems a poor offer.

    I’ve always disliked the term “work ethic”. It’s spin. Like “team player” and all the other euphemisms. “Do as I say, without question. Everyone else has submitted and so shall you.”

    Is it people’s experience that “treating workers as disposable meat-assets”, to use a phrase I’ve used before, is more common in large corporations than small business?

  9. Steering away from the choppy waters of management philosophy for a moment and towards Stilgherrian’s mention of the Henson kerfuffle. I am finding (being somewhat lazy at heart) the whole thing rather useful as quick character assessment device – i.e. you meet someone new, drop it into the conversational well and see what floats up (at the first mention of ‘protecting the kids’ I know it’s time to start talking sport or… management techniques).

  10. My experience of “disposable meat-assets” mentality is state public service. “Front line” health administration actually. It was under resourced, it was bullied from on high (external to the “front line” org), there was blatant lying and CTA (Cover Their [political masters] Arse) was the only game in town. It made me waay run down, depressed to the point of multiple suicidal ideations, and brought out my pre-existing latent alcoholism.

    By contrast, my over-work in a large money-grubbing institutional banking division was a challenge, but I could always say to the boss “I’m giving her all I got Captain” (can’t write in a “Scotty” accent), and warp factor 8 (instead of 11) would be acceptable, or other resources would be found to help out.

    @bogan – U mix in sad circles if you think that *most* people dont want to work, and I would never have guessed that you don’t vote labor…

  11. Is it people’s experience that “treating workers as disposable meat-assets”, to use a phrase I’ve used before, is more common in large corporations than small business?

    Nope. At least in my experiences with small business, a lot of the bosses want more while they pay you less. Not that I’ve found big corporations to be better in terms of demands, but they do pay you more and there are other benefits. There are good to great small business owners out there, but they are most definitely in the minority (might explain the high fail rate of SMEs)

    bojan – When you start with crappy premises like “most people don’t want to work”, you’re fighting a losing battle.

  12. Looking at the big picture, it’s clear that society’s had slave masters like Rudd and Calacanis since…well, at least since actual slavery was a major cog in the ancient world economy (there’s a pretty old yarn about it in the Book of Exodus). The workplace, its rules and rhetoric may have changed many times over since then, but the same old, “Just work harder” theme has seldom ever been very far from the surface.

    What is relatively new though, is this emergence into the mainstream of sensibilities concerning time management and the health & wellbeing issues behind finding a balance between work, rest, leisure, diet and quality time with our loved ones. So I think what we’re seeing these days in western countries, with the sort of work/lifestyle ideologies that were being fought in last year’s federal election, is an approaching point of critical mass between the Old World, “Be a good worker: sacrifice all for The Company” mentality, and the newer, more sustainable, “Hang on: if we lead a healthy lifestyle today, we’ll be back to do a good job tomorrow” mentality.

    Now that’s all well and good, except that on this particular issue, the Prime Minister has snookered himself between both ideologies. He was the bloke who railed against the slave master fabric of Howard’s WorkChoices in order to win government, remember. And now he defends, “Burning the midnight oil” as par for the course.

    You did it all by yourself, Kevin.

    @bogan: Oh, fuck it. I won’t even bother.

  13. @Speedicut: The furore over Bill Henson’s photographs was just stupidity. Anyone who automatically equates images of naked people of any age with sex and therefore pornography needs psychiatric help, in my opinion. Your “character test” is superb, thank you.

    @bernard and @Snarky Platypus: I actually agree with bojan on one point: Most people don’t want to work. They’d much rather be on the beach sipping margaritas, or whatever their idea of a good time is. B

    But they still commit to their jobs because they see the benefit: they get paid for it.

    @Stephen Stockwell Yes, it’s the short-term thinking which shits me. So many businesses fail to comprehend the simple point that staff who are treated like humans will be more motivated.

  14. @Stilgherrian: I wonder…is our society’s overall definition of what it means to be ‘treated like a human’ in the workplace actually rising (with aforementioned holistic lifestyle ideologies coming to the fore in mainstream debate)…or lowering? (given the general decline in job security across most sectors and the increasing demand for longer working hours.)


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