sabotage their systems and steal their stationery ...

... or why not try a spot of 'underperforming'? Or how about a good, old-fashioned strike? Alex Spillius reports that even in the downsized Nineties, disgruntled employees are discovering they still have the power to bite back
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
It is undoubtedly better to have a job than not, but there has probably never been a worse time to be employed. What with the Damocles' sword of dismissal, the emasculation of trade unions, the instability of short-term contracts, more work for the same pay, gagging clauses, higher stress levels, and bosses still demanding a happy, smiling workforce, it is reasonable to ask who in their right mind would want a job in Nineties Britain? We've never had it so bad.

But despite all this, employees have not become mere toothless fodder. By a variety of means - some responsible, some deviant - they are still able to assert their rights, their disapproval, or hit employers where they feel it most - in the pocket.

There is little doubt employees are now more prone to bite the hand that doesn't feed them properly; that deviancy in several forms is increasing. This might involve stealing stationery from the cupboard, taking more time off "sick", fiddling expenses, deliberately underperforming, or sabotaging products and software. Or, if you're a disgruntled former employee in America, returning to your place of work and spraying it with bullets. Happily we haven't yet had that sort of case here, though there was the secretary who, fed up with being patronised and leched over by her boss, inadvertently almost polished him off by adding typewriter correction fluid to his coffee (a teaspoon is sufficient to kill), while a junior medic laced his nursing instructor's cuppa with a laxative that kept her on the toilet for 10 days.

Gerald Mars, professor of management at Bradford University, whose books include Cheats at Work, says: "There is a vast hidden economy of material crime that amounts to 7 per cent of GNP, and probably more. Cheating, pilfering and bending the rules underpins all jobs, and has to be appreciated as part of any organisation. It applies equally to professionals and plumbers."

In the service industries, where the essence of the job is to give that little bit extra, employees (more often than not, poorly paid) can exert considerable power by giving that little bit less. A curled lip from a check-out girl or the telephone manner of a Neanderthal can adversely effect the image of companies desperate to hang on to customers. Factory floor workers commonly bite back by playing dumb, or withholding knowledge from management, according to research carried out by David Collinson of Warwick University's business school.

"At a lorry-making factory in Manchester, planners had got the size of a part wrong. The workers knew this and knew it would cause a problem with the lorry, but they said nothing. They said they had tried to talk to management before and had never got anywhere. If a company assumes people only work for money and treats them as such, it becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy." Accordingly, disillusioned staff will take longer over piecework or, having reached a daily target, whittle away the final hour of the day hanging around in the toilets.

Perhaps the greatest scope for sabotage lies with technology, where a few possess encyclopaedic knowledge while most are barely literate; such as the computer programmer dismissed by a London mail order business for lateness who left behind a time-triggered program that turned vital files into irredeemable babble.

A programmer at a leading City bank confesses: "Most people leave their passwords hanging around, so it is easy to get into their system. You can delete months of work because many companies don't do proper back- ups. Part of your power is that management don't know how much power you have. It would be easy to sell a list of transactions and customers to rivals, and you hear of this being done. Or else there are more simple means of disruption such as pouring a cup of tea into the back of the computer, which ruins the hard disk, or just pulling the plug when someone hasn't logged off properly. We all practice how to corrupt files, and so on, at college."

Technology is one of the few arenas not governed by the fear of dismissal casting one into the wilderness. But in the view of Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Umist, there are plenty of other fields where higher scale employees have more muscle than they think.

"The level of insecurity is so high that many are frightened of job-seeking in case their firm finds out. But people don't understand that organisations have downsized or relayered, or whatever you want to call it, so much that the remaining staff are critical to the business, and so they have considerable negotiating power."

And despite the legislative dilution of trade union potency over the past 15 years, strike action can still be efficacious. Dockers in Merseyside have maintained an unofficial strike for 23 weeks, begun when six workers were sacked in an on-the-spot dispute over overtime arrangements and 500 others walked out in sympathy. "Everyone's amazed and to be honest I was at the beginning," says Bobby Morton, a strike leader. "It is very hard to take official industrial action so the only way forward for us was unofficial. Unlike the union, I haven't got any funds to sequestrate, so I can get international support for our cause."

Ports around the world have refused to receive ships bound to or from Liverpool, while a major US shipping firm is contemplating a switch to another British port. Fear of losing trade in a highly competitive marketplace has forced the Merseyside Docks and Harbour Company to the negotiating table.

Working-class solidarity has also prevailed at JJ Foods, a north London fast food distribution company, where a worker was dismissed for belonging to a trade union and all 40 others walked out. An industrial tribunal ruled the dismissal illegal and ordered the reinstatement of all staff.

On a smaller scale, a sub-editor at a national magazine which does not recognise the National Union of Journalists, reveals how several staff - all on personally negotiated contracts - told each other what they were earning. "There were huge discrepancies, as much as pounds 6,000 for people of the same age and experience. We went to see the appropriate director and he was absolutely furious. Not only did the lowest paid get the imbalance reduced, we had the satisfaction of infuriating management."

But increasingly the pattern of dispute in the Nineties has moved from the collective to the individual. If you can't beat them, sue them, seems to be the idea. In a landmark case last year a social services manager successfully sued Northumberland County Council in the High Court for not taking due care over his mental health. Having suffered one nervous breakdown brought on by having to do the work of three people, the manager was promised a full-time assistant upon his return. The assistant was moved elsewhere after a few months and the manager was again overwhelmed by stress. When dismissed for poor health he recoursed to legal action.

Also, for the first time last year it was possible to bring a case of breach of contract to tribunal. In just six months, 3,000 cases were heard, indicating that employers are having to keep their side of the bargain in the new working environment. In 1994, 79,000 employees brought their grievances to tribunal, on the grounds of gender or race discrimination, under-payment or unfair dismissal, compared to 49,000 in 1989.

"People are becoming more aware of their rights and more willing to take the legal route to get some sort of satisfaction," comments Peter Syson, director of strategy at Acas, the arbitration service. "It is only in the last few years that sex, race and wages legislation has come into its own."

In the good old days of a job for life, companies could rely on an employee's loyalty if there was something fishy going on, but the individualisation of work has made those brave enough more likely to report poor safety, fraud or anti-competitive practices. The charity Public Concern at Work has received 3,000 inquiries from potential "whistle-blowers" in just two and a half years since its inception.

"Organisations will probably become more open because people will move on if they see things badly wrong. Sufficient big companies have got their fingers burnt by things being covered things up - the Mirror Group, BCCI, Exxon, British Airways - to realise it's better to sort things out first," says director Guy Dehn. "Management see this as complaining or grievance, but we see it as responsible behaviour and think management should be responsible enough to investigate genuine concerns."

Time will tell if his optimism is justified. A brave new world of work could be just around the corner, where buzzwords such as consultation, teamwork, partnership and stakeholding become realities. Until then, the disgruntled will continue to add to their collection of pencil sharpeners.

how much do you hate your job?

BEN, security guard: Of course I hate my job. Everybody who does security work hates their job because it's a crap job. You ask them, they'll all tell you it's crap, especially lately, with the risk of being blown up by the IRA. I started this job when the ceasefire was going on, so I never knew what it was like until the other week with the bomb in London. Now we're on alert all the time.

DR GEORGE McGAVIN, assistant curator of entomology, Oxford University: I find this the most exciting job in the world - every day is a thrill. I have so many roles: curation, teaching, writing, research. I feel sorry for people who have to do their jobs just for the money.

JO, retail manager: I've been in retail four years and I'm trying to get out. It's all about targets. You get Christmas out of the way and the sales people come around telling you it's only 50 weeks to Christmas. They've read the company handbook and swallowed it. And then there's the customers. What can you say? I'm the manager of the menswear department and I still get men asking me: "Can I speak to the manager?" I am the manager. They think if you work in a shop you've had a partial lobotomy.

DEL WITHERS, high-rise window cleaner: I love it. We're our own governors, we have a laugh up in the cradle, but it gets a bit scary in the wind when you get blown around. There was this geezer called Ernie - he was so scared he had a bucket on his head.

SARAH, BBC Radio production assistant: I hate it because there's a huge amount of paperwork. It's grown so much in the past five years that my job no longer has any relevance. I came into this job to make radio programmes, not to sit at a screen writing memos. And when a job opportunity comes up, you know those with an Oxford or Cambridge background are more likely to get it. I'm thinking of changing career completely.

ROGER, British Gas employee: Jobs are something you have to do to survive. Only a few have the privilege of enjoying going to work. Most days I don't even think about my job, even when I'm doing it, but on mornings when I do, I usually think, "Oh God, not another day at work".

CHARLOTTE HINDLE, Lonely Planet travel guidebook author: All Lonely Planet writers love their jobs. We do get to travel but it's not a holiday. You've got to be in love with timetables. There's a lot of hanging around bus and train stations. It's certainly not glamorous - I'm researching the North Downs Way at the moment and the other night I turned up at a railway station covered in mud and thought I wasn't going to be sold a ticket for the train. When I was, I got on and everybody stared at me as if I was mad. I knew what it felt like to be a tramp.

RICHARD, defence lawyer: I deal with some real toe-rags sometimes, like kids who enjoy burgling houses and stealing cars, but you can't let your emotions get in the way. As soon as you do that you better start looking for a new job.

EMMA DAVIES, probation officer: I believe in my job, it's worthwhile and I think society needs this kind of work. It's rare that I find people that scare or revolt me. Many are keen to change and the cause of their crimes is as complex as the solution. I find it difficult to be part of a system that is discriminatory - that's when I feel uncomfortable.

JONATHAN, mortgage adviser: I hate telling people what to do with their mortgages, it's so boring. It used to be a real girl-puller, saying you're this yuppie with a flash car and pots of money. Now girls just want to know if you've been rock climbing or scuba diving or something exciting like that. But it's a job, isn't it? More than most people have, I suppose.

JOHN GOSLER, freelance illustrator: The actual work is enormously entertaining. Waiting three months to get paid, waiting for the phone to ring - it's that kind of thing which is irritating. But it still beats working for a living.

Matthew Brace