Thursday, 12 July 2012

do the right thing...

I actually felt a little bit proud of my company yesterday.

I know I’m quick to have a moan and to portray my workplace as a Kafka-esque nightmare world of meaningless bureaucracy – which it often is – but they did something yesterday that genuinely made me feel proud.

Over the last few months, I’ve been increasingly given some responsibility for looking after our various intake schemes: graduates, apprentices and the like. I don’t have anything much to do with their recruitment, but I’m now the guy whose job it is to make sure that they are given challenging placements to make sure that they get the best opportunities to develop and so on. I always used to think that I wasn’t really much of a people person, but I’ve realised over the last couple of years that this couldn’t actually be further from the truth, and this is a part of my job that I really enjoy and I think adds some value. I genuinely do care to make sure that these bright, talented kids don’t just get stuck and get every opportunity to fulfil their talent. It probably doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is a clear response to my own relative lack of career progression…. Well, whatever… it’s hard work and is all in addition to my actual day job, but it’s challenging and it’s enjoyable.

Anyway. Our next intake of graduates is due to join us full-time in September, but they’ve got a “keep warm” day with us on Friday, where we will give them a little more detail about the things that they will be doing when they join us and to get them a bit more excited about their new job. Yesterday, we received a letter from one of these guys; very eloquently he explained how he would be unable to take up his place with us because he had been experiencing some serious health problems. This guy is probably about 20 years old and he has been experiencing stroke-like symptoms: drooping face, partial paralysis on one side of his body, debilitating headaches…. It sounds awful, and as he undergoes diagnostic testing, he wrote to tell us that he doesn’t feel able to commit to moving down to Nottingham and starting a new job as he doesn’t think it would be fair to his new employer. He's sorry to let us down, but there it is. Very sad.

As a result of this letter, I was called into a meeting at short-notice to discuss the stand-by candidates – people who were not offered a job after the lengthy selection process, but who were next in line. The idea was to choose one to see if they were still available to take up the now-vacant position.

We chewed around the candidates for a while, focusing on the various reasons why we didn’t pick them in the first place and debating whether we should make up the numbers or just go with what we had. After a while, the discussion focused down on how, as well as feeling desperately sorry for the guy who had dropped out, we were so disappointed as he was by far the best candidate we had and we were sorry to lose him.

In his letter, the guy talked about how he didn’t feel he now met up to the medical standards required by the company. As I have MS, this caught my attention immediately. What conditions were these? What happens to me if/when I don’t meet those conditions? So much for equal opportunities, I thought.

You know what we decided? We decided that we really wanted this guy to work for us and not someone else. We also decided that we weren’t the kind of company that was just going to cut him loose because he was going through a difficult patch and didn’t know if he would ever be able to come and work for us (or, indeed, anyone). We decided that we would get back in touch with him and that we would let him know that we felt he was an outstanding candidate and that we would be prepared to wait for him: if it takes a month, six months, a year or even longer, we would hold his place for him and he should join us as and when he felt able to start work... part time or whatever.

I know all too well what it feels like to experience strange, unexplained symptoms and to not know what is wrong with you or whether you will ever recover. In fact, the not knowing is almost worse than the symptoms themselves – it was for me, anyway. My physical symptoms were unchanged by my eventual diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, but from the moment my symptoms were given that label, I also felt much better able to know what I was dealing with and to steel myself for the battles ahead. Knowledge is power, after all.  I can only imagine what this poor guy is going through, but I would think that he’s probably scared about what his future holds and that he has far bigger concerns than his future career as the doctors try and work out what’s wrong with him… hopefully he can now focus on getting well without worrying about a job.

You know what? I’m really proud that we took the human decision here. We could have cut this guy off and moved on with our graduate programme without him, but we didn’t.  Neither are we just ticking a legal compliance box by reassuring him that we would have taken him but accept his decision.  Instead we’ve gone further and given this guy the message that we think he’s brilliant and that we’ll wait for him to be ready, however long it takes.  We genuinely mean it, too.

It’s moments like that - and they don’t come along very often - that make me proud to work for this company. It’s maybe not the hard-nosed, ruthless business decision that some companies might have made, but it’s the right decision.  I'm proud to have been a part of it.

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