Employees get life sentences

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The Independent Online
The "job for life" is to be resurrected following its death over the past two decades. This, at least, is the message from facilities management company ISS Mediclean, which plans to offer its staff lifetime employment after scooping a 30-year contract to run a Scottish hospital. So what are its chances of success in such an insecure working climate? And is it really what today's employees want?

Staff at ISS - whose non-clinical roles include catering, security work and ground maintenance work - can take advantage of the unusual offer thanks to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), claims managing director Simon Cox. "The notion of the private sector putting funding into the public sector infrastructure - which is what PFI is really all about - is a fantastic way of getting long-term investment into an ongoing project where there would otherwise be very little," he explains. "And it is ultimately what has enabled us to offer full-time permanent employment."

The advantages for both employer and employee are, he adds, manifold. "It means staff have a long-term interest in understanding what their employer is trying to do whereas short-term employment can work against this. In addition, our employees will now be able to develop clear-cut career plans and take advantage of long-term benefits packages. We are also able to look at long-term policies and long-term working relationships with trade unions."

Professor Peter Herriot, consultant for CFA Management Consultants, agrees, adding that, "Fifteen years ago, employers had a `relational deal' with their staff in which both parties trusted one another. It was what made employees willing to commit themselves over and above the strict terms of the deal. But today, that has turned into a `transactional deal' in which it is often the case that only one party gains. It's as if most employers are saying to their staff, `Do whatever we want you to and in return you'll be employable in the outside world. Aren't you lucky?' No wonder so many employees are unwilling to go that extra mile".

Even when it's other people that get the boot at the end of a short-term contract, staff can suffer, he says. "It's called the `Survivor Syndrome' and consists of feelings of guilt because they survived."

When it comes to turning back the clock, however, Professor Herriot is sceptical. "Despite their benefits, life-time contracts belong to yesterday and are very unlikely to work today," he says. "A few organisations have made such promises over the past decade - including Rover - and they seem to have all failed in one way or another. Okay, some may have kept their word about stopping compulsory redundancies but in Rover, for instance, there seem to be an awful lot of white collar workers now working on the assembly lines."

The fact is, says Jean Balcomb, head of information services at the Industrial Society, that today's companies are simply not in a secure enough position to make lifetime guarantees. Take the prime example of Marks & Spencer, whose recent massive loss in profits has forced the company to axe the majority of this year's graduate recruitment intake. "Together with the fact that the wider economic climate is insecure, this means that the trend for short-term contracts is likely to increase," she says.

The bottom line is, says Mike Emmott of the Institute of Personnel and Development, that short-term contracts are here to stay. "Of course, this has some disadvantages," he says. "But rather than being wholly negative - or even something that today's staff are merely adapting to - it seems to be something that many employers and employees look likely to continue gaining from."