Posted by: scottishboomerang | June 10, 2008

The Five HR Responses to Workplace Bullying.

When it comes to workplace bullying and its attendant issues – because it never arrives in the workplace alone – there are distinct stances adopted by HR Departments. Like yoga positions, they can be categorized.

1. The Mafioso:

Perhaps the worst stance, the Mafioso HR Department knows there is a problem with workplace bullying and actively participates or supports the abuse by bringing false, fabricated or unnecessary proceedings against the targets of bullying, supporting the culprits, joining in “the fun”. Their typical way is to issue threats to targets and abuse procedure. They are the harbingers of doom to any firm and and they ride in on the pale horse.

Oh, yes, you know who you are. And so do we. We can tell by the attrition rates, the number of lawsuits, and the fact that you can smell the fear and tension the moment you walk through the door.

2. The Ostrich:

Identified by somewhat sandy and muffled responses to questions on respect at work with.“We don’t have a problems with workplace bullying, nor are we ever going to have one” or even “We take respect at work seriously”. The muffled responses get all the fainter when one tried to identify how, exactly, they are taking it seriously. They achieve the same result as the Mafioso except passively, not actively.

3. The Firefighter:

This HR position involves leaping from crisis to crisis, from formal discipline/grievance proceeding to proceeding, from court room to court room. There’s no time to implement good practice – they are too busy putting out fires.

4. The Bureaucrat:

This HR team loves writing policies that look good on paper and then stuffing them in a drawer, and scheduling expensive training which doesn’t tackle the problems. Failure to monitor and audit procedures lead to a failure in implantation. But hey, they look good, even if you don’t achieve much. Often accompanied by Firefighters or Ostriches.

5. The Tinker:

The Tinker is perhaps the least glamorous respondent to the challenge of workplace bullying. They might not look good, patching here and there, but they only step in occasionally when a rare crisis emerges. For the most part, their conflict resolution and workplace harassment policies and procedures work so well they can get on with other stuff – like hiring, succession planning, and increasing the firm’s knowledge base. They do this by practicing preventative medicine in the work place, continually, monitoring and checking for signs of bullying and workplace toxicity. They actively work to reduce the number of grievance and disciplinary proceedings, and attrition due to mental ill health. They keep their stats in order. Quietly.

You know the burning question, don’t you? Which one of the five positions is YOUR firm’s HR adopting in response to Workplace Harrassment?

Posted by: scottishboomerang | June 10, 2008

How to create a Mentally Healthy Workplace

Of course, its not HR any more. It’s Human Capital Management. While many firms are fond of saying that “our people are our assests” the truth is they don’t really behave like assesets. They behave like investors – of money, perhaps, but also of their time, goodwill, expertise, and yes, their career path.  Any manager with an ounce of common sense is going to want to capitalise on that investment, and with any luck, encourage their people to invest more. In a nutshell, Human Captial Management should be what HR is all about. In the next few blog articles on The Scottish Boomerang, I’ll be exploring how encourage good pactice, and repair bad practice, in order, with the grace of the angels, to stop things becoming ugly in your workplace.

Workplace bullying is a serious, endemic threat in the modern workplace. It is insideous, it creeps up, it poisons working enviroments, decreases productivity and is hideously expensive. The Fields Foundation puts the cost of workplace bullying to the UK economy at roughly £3.8 billion a year – and rising – and obviously, we want to avoid it.   Workplaces which allow individual bullying to go on soon find the problem becomes endemic and instutionalised – even to the extent where, like racism of old, it becomes embedded in policies, practices and procedures.  A toxic, pathological workplace fails its people, its customers or clients, and ultimately society. Few of these survive in competative market (no surprises then to learn that its in the public and voluntary sector where workplace bullying is at its worse). Unions are often ineffectual (or have their own internal bullying problems). In bullying-riddled workplace, HR usually spends its days hopping from grievance to grievance, from meeting to meeting, putting out the fires and crisis manageing, rather than turning its attention to positive, collabourative management strategies.    However, with a little foresight and front-loading of Human Resource policies and procedureIn the best firms, the work of HR is a light-handed work, stepping in only occassionally when the need arrises.

So how to create this positive, mentally healthy, bully-free environment? The work of this falls on our often unappriciated and overstetched HR Officer.   I recommend the following formula:

  • Recognise the need for change, and the rights of everyone in your organisation (including you!) to work in a safe and healthy environment.
  • Redraft policies which aren’t working,  policies such as Repect and Work/ Dignity at Work/Grievance procedures to see where they need tightening or changing. Obviously, if you don’t have an anti-bullying policy, now is the time to draft one.
  • Review and monitor your policies. Indicators of workplace bullying include things like higher-than-average attrition rates, sickness rates, lawsuits, tribunal hearings, disciplinary hearings and grievance procedings.
  • Record all your grievance and disciplinary hearings properly, noting down if personal disputes or conflict in the workplace is at the source. Pay special attention to the signs of workplace bulling.
  • Retrain managers and staff in mentally unhealthy teams. Remember that HR also needs this training from time to time.
  • Remove managers and staff  shown to be involved in bullying. Not shunt them sideways, and for goodness sake don’t promote them: sack them or ask them to resign.  They make your workplace unsafe and are a liability.  Make bullying as serious an issue as theft.  Make attrition rates part of the performace appraisal for team leaders and yes, senior managers too.
  • Renew your effors annually. Audit your workplace bullying. Taking it seriously means doing stuff to stop it and keep it out of the workplace.

In addition,  employees who become the targets of bullying are often the most competent and capable in your workplace.  Those that can, do. Those that cannot, bully others to cover up a sense of inadequancy.  In the toxic working environment incompentance and lack of productivity reign supreme.   Acknowledge as best you can, when interviewing bullied employees who have become to ill to continue, that they are not to blame, and that you will take concrete action to ensure their workplace is safe. Above all, do not blame or threaten your employee – a target of this kind of abuse is not to blame. Do this, and you might be taking the abuse from the personal to the corporate level, thus making your organisation legally liable.

It might not be fair, but the buck stops with HR much of the time in these sorts of disputes.  As an HR Officer, you do have a choice about whether to act positively by creating a bully-free, mentally healthy, safe environment for employees or to continue with an expensive and destructive status quo. Decide in favour of the latter, and you should examine your conscience and your balance sheet.

As I’ve written elsewhere, bad business ethics is really, really bad for business.

In the end.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | May 26, 2008

Fare Thee Well, O Televison.

Silence on The Scottish Boomerang recently should be attributed to the horrendously stressful time of sitting lawyers accrediation exams in London ( for US readers, that’s a bit like the Bar, but without the friendly multiple choice format), and trying to relocate to Suffolk from Scotland. Exams having been sat, I am now sleeping on a Korean-skyle bedding arrangement on the floor of my empty appartment in an anglian market town, meditating on the fact that it is cheeper, far cheeper, for me to relocate 10,000 miles accross the world than to move from one end of my tiny island to the other.

So, in an effort to save money, I took the decision that I will not have a TV in my home. You see – aside from the cost of the set and add-ons itself, Brits have to pay a tax on their TV, a licience which costs them about 135 GBP (thats about US $270) for the privilage of having the blessed thing in your house in the first place. Attempt to watch the google-box without it, and you’ll face a $2000 fine. However, many people simply cannot do without the beloved cyclops, and so pay up.

But for me, the decision to go without a TV makes a lot of sense. I don’t watch sports, game shows, soap operas, home improvement/property development shows, cop shows or reality TV you see, and that means that 90% of the programming is totally, utterly irrelevent to my life. There is nothing a TV can do for me that I cannot get from elsewhere, especially the net, and my film buff tenandcies are better spent getting one of those “all the holywood crap you can watch and more” cards from the local cinema. And lets not discount Radio 4, intelligent, informative, but as dull as dishwater as Radio 1 is lightweight and stupid. Radio 4 is the last bastion of the 1950s. I defy you to find another.

So what do do then, with no TV? Well, for one thing it gets you out of the house. It struck me after a while that many people I know use the TV as a substitute for friendships.  The lack of it makes you hunger for human company, for conversation and discussion of ideas.  I’m begining to formulate an idea that revolutions cannot occur in countries where most of the population have access to 50 or more TV channels.  For I have more time to think. And therefore I am more myself, if you follow my Cartesian reasoning.

At any rate, my house is an oasis of calm, punctuated only by the dulcit tones of the theme to “The Archers”, which airs on Radio 4 at least, oh, every hour or so, and is the most soporific soap opera known to man.

I can’t wait for broadband.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | March 19, 2008

Gunners Don’t Get Called On: Making Sense of the Socratic Method

 

 This guy looks a bit like one of my professors…

Anyway,

I am the first to admit my legal education has been…er…unorthodox.

In the UK, the accepted way of training a lawyer is to sit through an LLB whereby you are taught law like any any other academic discipline in the humanities. You are expected to become a jurist, an intellectual, a legal philospher.  After that, you do a one year legal practice course in which you learn stuff like oral advocacy and contract drafting. Then you have to take a 2 year training contract (for would be solictors) or a one-year pupilage (for would be baristers in which (as the celebrated legal blogger Baby Barista put it) you make coffee for the rich and powerful, and and a summer job at Starbucks would probably be of more practical value than the LPC or the BVC.  Of course, there is much merit in this way of training. Theoretically at least, it ensures that there is sufficient oversight from experienced legal practicioners over new ones at the start of their career.  The drawbacks I have discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Accustomed to the grecian graces of European academia, I had no reason to suppose that the academic environment of an American style law school would be any different. And I was on a Masters programme. No one was training me to be a lawyer.  I went in a scholar, and came out as a practicioner.  Sitting on many of the modules I took were Juris Doctor students and the classes had a distinctly JD flavour. I learned here about the Socratic Method, US Style,  the preferred way of making sure that students do the reading before class.

Allow me to explain.

Socrates was a Greek philosopher whose teaching style greatly influenced European universities in the way they teach the humanities. A form of philosophical enquiry, it involves two speakers – usually the teacher is the Questioner although in a Socratic dialogue between peers both speakers question and answer each other. In fact I would say that I am involved in a socratic intellectual enquiry everytime Mr Boomerang and I have a discussion on anything.  When I studied philosophy at St Andrews, the lectures or tutors would use this method to explore various moral or ethical topics. The Socratic method, though, is not often employed in US undergraduate education ( and sadly, its getting that way in our schools and universities too).  The chief benefit of  Socratic enquiry is that it develops critical thinking skills.

In US Law Schools, the meaning of the Socratic Method has more restrictive meaning. You can hear some students complaining about it in this video:

At the Love&Justice interviews, talking about the demands of the LPC and holding down a full time job, I mentioned I had held down full-time teaching while attending 16 hours of classes a week, all of which required case-briefing.  My fellow applicant asked me what case briefing was. I explain that before each class in a US law school (at least, this was the case in Handong) we were given five or six controling judicial opinions to read, which we had to summarise,  identify the issues, the holdings and the controlling and emerging rules of law, and if the professor was feeling particularly vicious, also research the subsequent case activity as it was applied through the courts. The lecturer would then pick students at random to brief the case before the class and grill them on the case for up to forty minutes.  If you hadn’t prepared, you were asked to leave. She looked at me in horror.  I asked how she had been taught during her British LLB. “Well, you know, we sat in a lecture.”

It’s clear that the Socratic Method employed in US law schools is far more agressive than anything gentle, ironic ol’ Socrates would have done himself, and a far cry from the Socratic Enquiry used in my many philosophy sessions at university. (Remember too, that red wine would come into the European enquiries a lot more. My tutor liked to hold his tutorials in the pub, like a good British academic. But I digress).  For  me, I enjoyed the challenge. It also clear that there’s nothing like it for training a legal mind or developing specific skills in oral advocacy and legal reasoning, and most students find the process traumatic. If ever I’m in the position of being a professor, I’m going to use it, or a modified version of it (obviously I am not going to traumatise my students. This is Blighty after all, and it just wouldn’t be cricket).

I lamented – and perhaps I still do – the lack of jurisprudence and real intellectual enquiry in the American legal training. This is perhaps why the best scholarship in law comes out of Europe, and not out of America.  But the American method is first rate in training deadly advocates.  I’m supremely glad I get the best of both worlds, studying under the solid academic training provided in Europe and the razor-sharp adovacy and reasoning skills you get with the American system.

The lack of intellectual pursuit (no-one has time to look into the deeper meaning of the law when you have 50 pages of cases to brief) and the pressure results in a shrinking of ones circle and universe. It was particularly acute at Handong, where we were also walled up on a campus in the middle of rice paddies with no where to go.  What this video says about law school is true of Handong apart from the sex and booze – because basically we lived 4 to a room and there was no alchohol allowed on campus – about the high-school like mentality. The gossiping and bullying drove me nuts. I refused to participate in it and was “punished” by being made the target of gossiping and malicious rumour as a result.    Apparently its the same at other US-style law schools too (although I do think the distinctly Korean flavour of mine, coupled with its geographical isolation, would have made these law schools look like a cake-walk in comparison).

I am though, still a scholar at heart, interested in the bigger picture, in the deeper questions. And I suppose that’s why I recognised myself in the video below, as the “Gunner” at law school. Scholars and Practitioners are not always the best of pals.

But something else is also true.  Gunner’s don’t get called on in class.

I’ll suppress the urge to blow a raspberry at all those kids in that video.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | March 14, 2008

I got the Stranger Blues: Reverse Culture Shock

I feel rather downcast today as I realise that I am experiencing reverse culture shock a little. To be honest, it was way too easy to leave Scotland, and aside from my family, there is nothing here that I find inspiring other than the odd Celtic music festival (and lets face it, Ireland’s just next door).  I was the child and grandchild of migrants, and therefore, in the pedantic tribalism that makes up Scottish culture in general and Ayrshire culture in particular, I have always been at the natural edge of things. A wiegukyin, outlander, in fact.  I have often been given cause to reflect that the things that drove me bonkers about the Koreans – the tribalism, the inner circles, the extreme distrust of everyone and everything, but especially outsiders, are also sharply present in Scottish society except to a lesser degree.  We invented golf and freemasonary, for crying out loud. Exclusion is our second nature.

Today I went to Glasgow and realised that the move to England will be psychologically very easy. I will be the migrant again, this time within the boarders of the UK, which has meaning only for politicians, journalists, soldiers and diplomats.   Fragments of India, even bits of Korea with its sad beauty, still more of Mexico and Colombia, have wedged themselves in the fiber of my soul, and my soul has grown over them like bone over titanium.

And the words of the blues song, echoing at the back of my mind since the time I heard it:

I’m a stranger here /A stranger there Lord knows that I’m a stranger everywhere

I would go home/But I’m a stranger there.  

But if you ask me where I would give anything to be right, now, at this moment, it would be sitting in the courtyard of a little slum school in the Me Quejo district of Barranquilla, Colombia a place which probably isn’t on the map, watching the boys fly their prisoner kites, all hope on the wing.

Me Quejo means “I cry”, or, more figuratively “The Neighbourhood of Tears”, but it struck me today, watching the people I once identified as my people, their faces twisted with strain, and stress and debt and fear, that I always saw them laughing and smiling: those desplazados who had lost everything to hired thugs with guns.

Would that they would lend me some of their irrepressible hope, their unquenchable spirit right now. Because its us, not them, that inhabit the country of tears.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | March 13, 2008

The Casino Wheel Classroom Management Tool

A recent email sent to me asked if I could explain more about the Casino Wheel class formation.

Essentially the Casino Wheel is a classroom management tool which allows the teacher or trainer to vary student pair work and different tasks in a task-based learning environment. It’s based on progressive social dances (think a Cuban Rueda or Canadian Barn Dance) or, if you like, gym circuits where students move between activities.

In the classroom, of course, it looks a bit different. Here’s a short video on it:

I’ve used it most often with young adult and adult learners in Asia and its particularly effective if you have to manage a large number of students. It’s a great way of ensuring that everyone works with everyone else in your class at some point, and (especially for classes with young people) controlling large groups. It’s also a good way of getting over the problems you have in some cultures where students do not want to work with other students of different genders, ages or social class. Let’s discuss the formations first, and then the different kinds of activities you can use with this formation. There are a number of variations.

Version 1

The first is the kind demonstrated in the video, and is best with groups of about 12 students, and the students need to use tables for books, handouts or equipment. Two lines of desks are placed so that the students are facing each other (this is actually my preferred way of organising the classroom because I use pairwork so much). Students sit next to their friends but work with other students during the activities. Students move around the desks in a clockwise fashion every time the teacher shouts “Change!”. The teacher can vary the speed of the activity with a stopwatch, and the number of places that the students change by calling out “Change [3] places!”

casinowheel1jpeg.jpg

Version 2

This version is probably best with a larger class (say about 20-30 students). The students are positioned face-to-face over desks with an inner circle of students and an outer one. The teacher changes the pairs by calling “Outside people change 5 places” or “Inside people change 3 places”.

casino-wheel-2-jpeg.jpg

Version 3

This version is best for activities where you don’t need desks. The students are seated like the spokes of a wheel. The inner and outer rims move at the teacher’s direction in the same way as before. This is great for a game called “scramble” where at intervals the students get to sit randomly, a bit like musical chairs.

casino-wheel-version-3.jpg

Activities

There are many activities and tasks you can do with the Casino Wheel. For example, using version 2 you can do a market negotiation exercise with the play money (see Teaching Resources) where the students negotiate over the hidden price of a product (I use disposable paper cups with the product written on the base and the price written inside. Student A must get a bargain and student B must make a profit. Alternatively, you can do a currency changing game where each station is a different country. Student A is the teller, and Student B the tourist. You can also have different worksheets.

One popular ESOL game I do is a segmented semi-controlled speaking practice using and ordinary pack of playing cards. The aim of this excercise is to get the students practicing new vocabualry in a grammatical model (they need to use the word 87 times to remember it) while manipulating, blending and segmenting it.

1. Place a dialogue on the board.

A: I’m going to _______[CARD]___________ on vacation.

B: Wow! That’ll be __________________.

A: I know! Do you think I need to take anything for the trip?

B : You need to take: _________________________

2. Elicit four countries from your class as vacation destinations. Then elicit adjectives. Then elicit what you would need to take with you on a vacation to these countries. Place the vocabulary in a table like the one shown below.

casinowheeltable.jpg

3. Model the dialogue with a student.

The student draws a card from the pack. The suit will tell you which column from the table to use. Insert the vocabulary words into the dialogue.

4. Get the student to practice in pairs. Then shout “Stop! Put down the cards. Change 3 places!” The students leave the cards on the desk and move round in a clockwise fashion. They practice the dialogue with their new partners.

5. After one minute shout “Change!” again. This time, erase some of the language from the table. This forces the students to remember it.

6. Keep the game going, erasing more language until the board is completely empty.

I’m sure that creative teachers will be able to come up with other uses for the Casino Wheel. Please let me know how you get on.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | March 8, 2008

Off the Record: Is Occpational Health bad for Public Health?

hellforwomen.jpg

I was thrilled to be offered a new job recently, my first ever paid legal job, with legal NGO somewhere in England. Let’s call it LoveAndJustice Ltd*. The job is one I fit like a glove, and which I can’t wait to get my teeth into. Finally, someone wants to pay me for my legal skills. I was – am – ecstatic about it.

Everything was wonderful until my expensively, legally trained peepers got a shifty at Occupational Health’s Medical Questionnaire. In the UK, the Company Doctor works for an independent Occupational Health company under contract to ones employer. These companies are supposed to advise their clients, employers, on how best to look after the health and safety of their employees. Lately though (and we’re looking at the last 5 years) they have become risk management firms weeding out potential risky employees before they even start work. The Health Questionnaires gone really beyond the scope of occupational health: determining current fitness to do the work. And what they demand is complete, unfettered access to your GP and to your Medical Records. LoveandJustice Ltd had hired Dial-A-Doc Ltd* to do this very work. And while LoveandJustice Ltd is a passionate defender of human rights, Dial-a-Doc perhaps does not share their passion with equal intensity.

Dial-a-Doc’s Medical Questionnaire hardly inspired trust. It is perhaps one of the most virulently intrusive questionnaire I’ve ever seen, with many questions clearly “risk assessment” questions rather than “health” ones. In fact, the questions on it went well beyond the scope of determining my fitness to do legal work with vulnerable groups of people. The usual questions were there about smoking, drinking, eyesight and hearing. But then everything got a lot more personal. Had I ever had a Sexually Transmitted Disease (none of the current political correctness about “Infections”). Did I suffer from heavy periods? What about my family history? Had I ever been refused Life Insurance, a pre-employment medical? Had I ever been treated for anxiety, or depression? Did I feel appreciated at home and at work? Oh, and sign here and here so we can have permanent carte blanche access to your GP and your medical records. I wondered if this form had been sent down to the Mortal Soul department of Hades, with a post-it note from old Screwtape, baring the enthusiastically scrawled words “Learn, chaps!”. The veiled threat was that if I didn’t sign, then the job was no longer mine.

Signing away access to your medical records is something you have to do these days, it seems, to get a job. But essentially this “sign or resign” ultimatum, however veiled, is a form of coercion which exploits the fact that new employees are especially vulnerable and not in a position to fight for their rights, even though the law does protect you to some measure. And of course, you sign away your rights to medical privacy “voluntarily”.

This is of course rather problematic as the pressures of British life, and a lamentable culture of bullying causes more and more people to be treated for stress and anxiety. If anything is wrong with your reproductive system, facilities are in place to prevent stigmatisation on sexual health issues by allowing people to keep their sexual health records separate from the GP, but no such provision exists in the health system for mental health. Arguably, there is far more stigmatisation and discrimination against people with mental health problems in our society than against those with sexual health problems. And that, if the stats are to believed, involves 1 in 4 of population.

Allowing your employer or a firm hired by your employer to access your medical records can be problematic in so many ways. Firstly, few people actually know what’s in their records. I know I don’t. Doctors err, and when those errors are written down in your records, they are there for ever. One recent and tragic case was a teacher. Some twenty years before, a student doctor had written does patient have schizophrenia? in his record. A question. Not even a diagnosis, and certainly with no basis in fact. And there it stayed, with no basis in fact, until the employer, via Occupational Health, was given carte blanche access to the records. The teacher was suspended and the information got out into the public domain via his employers. Having lost his job, and being persecuted in his small community, the strain became too much and he committed suicide.

On top of this, there are the frequent scandals of the loss of sensitive data by government agencies. There are extremely serious social consequences to granting carte blanche direct access to third parties.

There are other public health conerns. Such incidents underscore the need for indirect access only to medical records by a third party. As soon as it becomes generally known that their medical records will be “sullied” if you seek help for a mental health problem, to the extent that it will affect employment, then people will not seek help at all. And that’s when it becomes very bad for public health. This was precisely the situation which resulted in family planning clinics being able to keep their records separate from GPs.

Anyway, I don’t just need this job. I really want it. Nothing for it. I signed.

Most Scots are sarcastic bandits though. I was sorely tempted to answer to the Sexual Transmitted Disease question with a sardonic “Heck, yeah. Riddled with the a virulent strain of Asian galloping clap, I am. But I don’t think sleeping with my clients is part of my job description this time round.” I thought the better of it at the last moment.

But, as I was pondering this at length, while trying to think of ways to keep their grubby paws off my records while at the same time being as gracious and cooperative as possible, the solution occurred to me for people who wanted to keep mental health issues off their lily-white medical records.

See a gynaecologist.

______________________________________________________

*Names changed to ficticious ones.

**No part of this article shall be interpreted as medical or legal advice.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | February 29, 2008

Getting the better of Rip-Off Britain

The life of the ordinary Britisher is one long merry-go-round trying to  prevent greedy corporates whacking you with extra charges, in an effort to keep the spiraling cost of living down. Part of this is of course our own fault. Unlike the French, who will merrily overturn a bus or block a highway in order to voice their protest, the British are a hopelessly law abiding accepting bunch, who put up with stuff, moan about it, but rarely every involve themselves in direct forms of negotation with the Powers that Be, who are more often than not corporates, rather than government agencies.

It’s my hope that Brits become more “turning worms”. Things are just too expensive here, and needlessly so. But its all the sneaky extra charges – from vending machines and bus drivers that never give you change, to those premium rate numbers  you have to call to get any kind of customer service (these days, I fax their head office with my efax or write an old fashioned letter to their legal department, not their customer service department.  Oh yes. They ALL have legal departments).  I come back to Britain and am depressed with the situation.

But when you score a point against the system, it feels good. Damn good. Like this Tuesday, when the ticket barrier at Liverpool Street Station let me through, but ate my ticket.  Other people were given back their tickets. Mine was eaten. My train due to leave for Standsted Airport in in a few minutes. I boarded the train. (The cynic in me thinks that these ticket barriers are set up to randomly swallow tickets to get more money from passengers, but let’s give National Express the benefit of the doubt).

When the ticket inspector came round, I said.

“I’m sorry, the ticket barrier ate my ticket.”

The inspector was about to start on the standard ” you must have a valid ticket to travel” speech when I stopped her dead in her tracks:

“But thats ok, ” I said. “Because you have CCTV footage of me at the station at 7:30am buying my ticket, and at 7:35 putting my ticket in the barrier and walking through the open gate, and at 7:36 trying to get my ticket out of the barrier. So there’s no need to charge me for another ticket, is there?”

There wasn’t.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | February 28, 2008

The British Travel Experience: A BAA Complaint.

The trouble with knee-jerk regulations is that they are the product of panic, and are usually done for political reasons rather than to ensure safety. Of course, our safety on flights IS political, but flying anywhere is becoming so gosh-darn unpleasant that I’m wondering whether it really is cheaper, easier (and possibly quicker) to take the train. They are also a wonderful excuse for Airlines and BAA to employ tactics to relieve travellers of their cash at the airport.

I made an internal journey by plane, using Ryan Air. I flew from Glasgow Prestwick to London Stansted, for an appointment in London, and the following day I flew back. I had with me one small wheeled overnight bag, such as is commonly used by travellers for cabin baggage, one small handbag/briefcase, which had (among other things) my anti-nausea medications for the flight, and a blue folder with my reading material. That is all. I had dutifully put all toiletries (gels and liquids) into a ziploc bag in advance. It should be noted that I am a frequent flier. I never have ANY problems when I fly directly to Scotland from Europe. The problems always arise in English – and dare I say it, London Airports.

This time was no different. Apparently my briefcase and my wheeled bag was dangerous on the way BACK to Scotland, but not on the way DOWN. The attendant at the Ryan Air ticket desk didn’t seem to think my briefcase broke regulations. When I tried to enter the security, an uppity, nasty BAA attendant told me I couldn’t take my briefcase through. I asked her who made the rule. She told me (wrongly) that this was an airline rule. To save time, I tried to consolidate my baggage there (oh, she didn’t like that!) and I said that the rule was ridiculous, inconvenient and humiliating (and I didn’t berate her or raise my voice, or make a personal attack in any way) she actually stood up, while I was on my knees, and aggressively barrated me because she “didn’t like my tone” and it was “your airline’s fault”. Then she decided that my luggage was now “too big” to be allowed through as hand baggage and sent me back to Ryan Air.

Back at the Ryan Air desk, I was told that to check my cabin baggage in would cost £12 (that’s about $24). I told them that that was ripping their customers off and I would not pay it. So I made a lengthy show of repacking my suitcase again, while I was waiting for their manager. I took my blue folder out my bag and asked if taking reading material on the flight incurred an extra charge was well. She replied that I could take it. The manager then came and informed me the one-bag rule was BAA, not Ryan Air, (but the decision to charge passengers £12 for checking cabin baggage was ryan air’s rule, wasn’t it?) and that I should complain to BAA. I asked them why, as BAA’s clients, the airlines didn’t complain to BAA. He then said ” Your smirking. Stop smirking! I’m not going to talk to you any more because you’re smirking!” And he stormed off, leaving me to wonder whether he had some sort of autistic spectrum disorder which rendered him incapable of reading facial expressions. Certainly a smirk is used when you have got the better of someone, not when you are making a complaint.

Having repacked my bag, and tucking my folder under my arm, I got through security. When I got home I tried to complain to BAA and to Ryan Air. Mysteriously though, there are no central complaint numbers for either organisation. Both organisations have been informed that I have placed material on the web and invited their press offices to respond.

So for BAA, (don’t worry, Ryan Air, I’ll deal with you separately) here are my questions.

(1) Why do we have a one-bag rule?

It’s stupid, it’s not uniformly enforced in the UK and Ireland and certainly not enforced elsewhere in the world. It does not make security checks quicker, or more effective, it makes things much harder for families or parents travelling with children. I does make security slow and unpleasant, and stressful for the staff and the passengers. There is NO earthly reason why, as before, we cannot take a handbag/briefcase, a wheeled cabin bag, and reasonable reading material for the flight. I would remind BAA that women’s clothing does not have pockets, as men’s clothing does, and therefore when you deprive us of our handbags you make our passports, boarding cards and travel money less accessible. This holds everything up. In London airports (but no-where else) you scream at us coming off long-haul flights to consolidate our baggage, yet make us remove toiletries and laptops for the check. So why don’t you just be sensible and allow the laptop bags to go in separately of wheeled cabin bags? Or is there something wrong with your x-ray machines that you cannot see through a few millimetres of canvas or leather? I also notice that since the Duty Free started protesting and sales of airport-bought goods started plummeting, you are now allowing people to carry on their shopping. So much for having our safety at heart, when it might hurt your commercial enterprises.

2) Have you lost your bottles?

A truly determined bomber (and most suicide bombers are pretty determined) will not be put off by the fact that you restrict liquids to 100ml. And in fact, there was a recent Channel 4 dispatches programme where an explosives expert combined two innocuous 100ml of clear liquid together and blew the side of an aircraft. Now, you may be screaming RISK ASSESSMENT at me and other passengers, but basically, you know, and I know, and the terrorists know that you can’t test every bottle going through security, regardless of whether it contains 100ml or not.

3. The Little BAA who cried wolf…

BAA might just have to accept that you hand terrorists a victory with every knee-jerk, ill-thought restriction it places on travellers, and also diminish how seriously we take you. And this is very bad, because security threats DO exist in airports, and really, you want to be believed when you say there is a real one.

Might I suggest a return to the following:

Each passenger is allowed one cabin bag, one handbag/briefcase/laptop bag, and reasonable reading material for the flight.

If you make a security rule at one British Airport, enforce it at all of them, not just at London. For example, if you want people to take their shoes off, have them take their shoes off everywhere, every time. That way, people will know to wear slip-ons when they come to the airport.

Remember that not everyone travelling through airports is a single man. Consider applying common sense to families. They have enough on their plate without you making it harder.

Before you make a security rule, consult frequent fliers of both genders, and with families, to find out how those rules are likely to affect things on the ground.

Be aware that London culture is a rotten, hard-bitten, aggressive, rude one. That aggression is displayed by your staff, which you hire locally. This culture is not representative of the UK and those of us from outside London object to being treated like that. That your airports are busy is not an excuse.

Finally, do not expect your staff to deal with complaints and place firewalls up between decision makers and your service-users. Train your staff to forward customer feedback to you regardless or not of whether a formal complaint is made. I consider my complaint to have been made the moment I speak to your staff. I don’t have the time to find the “desk”. Encourage feedback from the airlines,. who are your clients primarily. Act on the information you receive. I was not in any way impressed that when I tried to make a complaint there was no central number I could call, and the number that did exist was a premium rate one. Customer Complaints lines should be central, and they should be free.

BAA (and Ryan Air) made what should have been a simple, one hour flight an absolute misery. BAA should bare in mind that the very first people that foreigners meet when they come to Britain are BAA staff. What kind of first impressions do they get about the UK?

The BAA press office is particularly welcome to respond.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | February 22, 2008

Contracts and culture in Korea.

Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that a western-style contract is best for any sort of international business relationship or transaction. An unambiguous, detailed contract is the best way to ensure a great working relationship with your employer anywhere, but its especially important when there are language and cultural barriers between the parties. Ideally a formal description or reciprocal duties and responsibilities, the primary purpose of a written employment contract is to ensure that the transfer of services and money runs smoothly, minimizing the likelihood of disputes. I can’t wait for the day when the concept of using a contract as a conflict-prevention tool enters the minds of Korean employers.

If you are a migrant worker – such as an ESL teacher, or factory laborer, your employment contract may be less than desirable. In Korea, an employment contract is drafted by the employer, and most employees are either not in a position to negotiated the terms or are unaware that they should negotiate. The drafing of these agreements is usually left up to employers, who often have a limited awareness of their responsibilites under Korean Law. The result is predictable. Korean contracts for migrant labour are riddled with ambiguous language, omissions, errors, and illegal clauses. The conflicts that arise frm them keep Korea’s overburdened labour boards and civil courts very busy all year round, with the State footing the bill in most instances.

Contracts usually reflect the culture of the country from whence they originate, and many of the problems faced by migrnat workers stem from the fact that there are many unfamiliar things which form part of Korean working relationships which are taken as given by the employer and presented as a fait accompli to the employee.

In Korea (and other Confucian cultures), the employer generally has a much greater degree of involvement in the life of the Employee. Far more details are worked out between the parties orally than in a western business relationship. Generally speaking these details are dictated orally by the employer rather than being a true negotiation. Absolute obedience is expected by the employer, who, in the traditional Confucian model, also has absolute, paternalistic responsibility over the employee. Under normal circumstances, an employment contract constitutes a mere formalization of this Confucian relationship, with all that it implies (for this reason employment contracts in Korea tend to be much shorter and simpler than their western equivalents).

With foreigners, however, the Confucian model breaks down. Absolute obedience is still expected, of course, but the responsibility side of the social equation is not generally though to apply to non-Koreans, as the cultural concept of foreigner in Korea is literally “outsider”: one to whom normal mores do not apply. This is an accident of history, as foreigners were generally occupying military or the agents of aggressive empires coveting Korean territory.
 This has causes a peculiar dichotomy to emery in the national psychology which means that a different set of social and cultural mores apply to foreigners. This dichotomy can creep into the working relationship. In addition, few foreigners can tolerate the levels of paternalism present in normal Korean employment relationships. The potential for conflict or discomfort on both sides, even when substantial good will exists between the parties, is very high unless both the employer and the employee are aware of how their respective cultures affect teh way they approach the relationship, underscoring the need for clarity, and detail in their working arrangements.
This basically means writing it down. Western style.

[The Author] holds an MA in International Law from Handong International Law School in PoHang. Nothing in this article shall be interpreted as legal advice.
This article first appeared on Tuesday 5th February 2008 in the Expat Living section of The Korea Herald.]

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