Since the dawning of the age of sentimentality, which probably took place in that year of Blair and tears, 1997, there has been a self-consciously caring attitude towards employment. Staff and personnel have become valued human resources, whose individuality and rights are valued and protected.
A vast industry has developed around the increasingly complex area of employment law. Industrial tribunals are busier than ever. Organisations, public and private, have taken to issuing codes of practice about values, respect and diversity. "Ethical employment" and "corporate responsibility" are managerial buzzwords of the moment.
The events of the past few weeks have revealed how bogus this boastful spirit of concern is. The great human resources revolution has been a sham. Now that hard times have hit – that is, the moment when decency is most needed – employers have behaved, if anything, worse that they have done in the past.
The 2008 method of managing staff is swift, insensitive and, wherever possible, indirect. The BBC has just provided an example of modern executive practice by getting rid of a senior presenter by rumour. Last Thursday, Ed Stourton, a corporation man for 20 years, the last 10 of which he has spent as co-presenter of the Today programme, was rung by a journalist who asked if it were true that he had been fired. When he rang his editor, Stourton was told that he was indeed to be replaced. Put on the spot, the BBC elected to lie, claiming – falsely, according to the soon to be ex-presenter – that he was leaving to "pursue other interests".
The crass behaviour of employers in television and the press is no worse than that in any other sector – indeed, Stourton has been treated much more gently than employees in the rough world of commerce – but it tends to get wider, and more heartfelt media coverage. As jobs are lost, there is enough of a wider pattern in the way employers behave to suggest that redundancy is being handled rather worse than it was in the days of Thatcherite brutalism.
The new style of management is marked by a cold, bean-counting mentality. The codes of practice and the prattle about employment ethics have often meant that unkind, idiotic mind-games surround dismissal; the spectre of litigation has meant more, not less, callousness in the way employees lose their jobs. It is as if work has become so obsessively important that there is no connection between the office or factory and the outside world. Different standards pertain; the effects of unemployment on lives, marriages, children, health and sanity barely percolate into the world of work. From there, the person stripped of a job is not only less important, but also less human.
The moral effect of this kind of heartlessness reaches beyond the workplace. It shows the experienced that loyalty is a one-way street, that selfishness is the only way forward. The young discover that you can be as graceless as you like but, so long as the letter of the law has been obeyed and the right meaningless words intoned, then ethics can go hang.
Somewhere along the line, managers may also have lost the knack of communicating with people. The words, emailed, texted and Blackberried into their lives around the clock, have become a sort of white noise, engaging one part of the brain while more important decisions are made elsewhere. For this new kind of employer – bureaucratic, ambitious, viewing and communicating with the world through a computer screen – a job is a statistic. The idea that an employee might depart with sympathy and dignity simply does not compute.