Wednesday, 3 August 2005

Feedback frolics

I winced as the shrill sound of the office phone disturbed my peaceful daydreaming. As I lifted the receiver I cursed the long decayed corpse of Alexander Graham Bell. My most famous ancestor, Robert Whitehead, was largely responsible for inventing the torpedo, a weapon the Germans later copied, dubbed the blackhead, and used to sink millions of tons of British shipping. His creation was unfairly given the moniker ‘the devils device’ yet I feel this adjective has more resonance when it is applied to the telephone, that most loathsome of instruments that connects me with the outside world.

‘Good morning, Ideal Oppotunities…How may I help you’ I recited robotically into the headset. I had uttered the words with about as much passion and enthusiasm as man who has been sentenced to life imprisonment in a Siberian Gulag. ‘Hi there, I was just enquiring about the retail academy’ came the voice on the other end. I hurriedly pressed the recall button and redirected the call through to one of my superiors, the whiney voice on the other end stuttered briefly and then stopped abruptly as the call was patched through. I sat back with a sigh of contentment: my phone had been temporarily exorcised of annoying members of the public asking questions I haven’t the foggiest how to answer. With the click of a mouse I went back to reading the BBC news website and counting down the seconds until 5.00, so it goes in the modern workplace.

In the beginning there was the working class, strong, noble and defiant, the very engine of the British Empire, toiling and sweating to produce goods that would be sold around in every city of the world. Then the manufacturing sector collapsed, jobs moved elsewhere and the long established professions of the lower classes became worthless amidst the new service economy. And so, the powers that be looked down and said ‘look at all these new office jobs being created, and look at all these unemployed people, if only those people had the skills for those jobs, then all would be well in this country!’. A great idea had been conceived, the problem being that most wonderful ideas - communism, universal health care and freeing Iraq from tyranny- are somewhat flawed when it comes to the actual execution.

Working in an office requires some basic fundamental ‘skills’ such as the ability to work in a team without causing vast amounts of friction, a basic understanding of Microsoft Office, and to be able to communicate ones views without offending everyone in the building. Quite a few of the people that get selected for our courses shouldn’t even be remotely contemplating working in an office because they can’t do any of these things, and yet that is what the job market dictates. Hence I now find myself drafting patronising ‘feedback reports’ for these poor buggers to tell them exactly why they failed the assessment: it’s a somewhat tragic task but, with my cynical outlook, its also one I thoroughly enjoy.

I find writing these things very similar to those awful school reports I was subjected to throughout my pre-university education. My father insisted on reading these out to me on the sofa, purposefully adopting a woeful tone of voice, that made every achievement sound like a disaster and every bad comment sound like he was announcing the death of a close family member. ‘Humphrey….has been improving in maths’ he would read, dragging out the ‘has’ in order to extract every ounce of cynicism from the sentence possible. ‘BUT THERE IS ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT IN HIS GRASP OF ALGEBRA’ he would continue, dramatically, as if this phrase alone were enough to put an everlasting stain on my character. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and I find myself writing these ‘feedback reports’ for grown adults: whoever said it was childhood that held the most pleasures.

On the assessment day one woman in the ‘teamwork exercise’ had been thoroughly rude, shouting her ideas out over the rest of the group and staring with a look of outrage and disgust at any other team member who dared say anything. You would have thought the word ‘teamwork’ would have given her some clue as to what was required. We had had a meeting after the assessment to determine which of our candidates would be selected for recruitment; the notes I had taken for this particular client read ‘domineering, rude, arrogant and overbearing’. I struggled to think of subtler wording to convey this to her. Having pondered the matter at length, I decided upon ‘In her enthusiasm to communicate her views, the candidate dominated the discussion at the expense of other team-members’. Then I added –laughing my head off as I did so- ‘Effective collaboration within a team requires listening to the points of view of other members of the group and encouraging them to contribute’. I was beginning to spout Human Resources like a born bull-shitter.

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The next failed candidate I turned to proved more problematic. My notes read ‘clearly mad, started talking about “crystallisation”, rude in the team exercise’. I struggled for something nice to say and decided upon ‘Throughout the assessment, the candidate was pleasant and approachable’, this, I find, is an incredibly useful generic term; heck, even Idi Amin was pleasant and approachable if you were on the right side of him. I then advised the blighter to ‘develop his communication skills’; not going on insane, psychedelic rants during the interview stage might be good place to start. Hopefully work will throw up yet more opportunities to be a patronising bastard.

Disclaimer: All characters and events in this story are fictitious, and any similarity to a real person or city council, living or dead is entirely coincidental and unintended by the author.

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