HOME TRUTHS: Whichever lawyer hit on the idea of promoting stress as a reason for not going to work could hardly have done more damage to our work ethic

HOME TRUTHS: Whichever lawyer hit on the idea of promoting stress as a reason for not going to work could hardly have done more damage to our work ethic - Let's call it the Claims Direct culture. I refer to the insidious trend in Britain towards seeking s

by JEFF RANDALL, BBC's business editor
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Let's call it the Claims Direct culture. I refer to the insidious trend in Britain towards seeking someone else to blame when things go wrong.

In an uncertain world, where events conspire to make earning a living more difficult than we would like, it is inevitable that sometimes we suffer misfortune's slings and arrows. Life is not fair, and those who expect it to be so have missed the point.

Yet, many are no longer prepared to accept that, as a movie criminal once put it, 'shit happens'. Far from it. With Claims Direct and its rival ambulance-chasers telling us 'where there's blame, there's a claim', those who have been the victim of bad luck are increasingly encouraged to find a 'culprit' to pay compensation. This corrosive process helps to rot Britain's social fabric, corrupting positive values, such as taking full responsibility for one's own actions.

The desire for self-exculpation cuts across class and income boundaries.

At the top of British industry, company directors will often perform intellectual back-flips rather than own up to having dropped a clanger. Something out there in the vast unknown has confounded their masterplans; so who or what can be blamed?

In recent years, the public relations industry has developed the manufacture of excuses into a perverse art form. Britain's railways cite leaves on the line for late autumn trains, a furniture group claims we stopped buying sofas because of national depression over the death of Princess Diana, and a range of non-agriculture businesses blame their underperformance on the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

Recent brazen excuses included a cracker from British Telecom chief executive Sir Peter Bonfield. Having paid pounds 10 billion for a third-generation mobile telephone licence (looks expensive now, doesn't it?), he lashed out at the Government over the auction process.

Sir Peter complained that 'everybody has been surprised at the amount governments in Europe have extracted from our industry'. True, and none more so than British chancellor, Gordon Brown, whose Treasury coffers banked an eye-popping pounds 22 billion from the 3G auction. But this was no state-sponsored mugging. BT was not compelled to bid and could have walked away at any stage.

Yet to hear Sir Peter grumbling that 'obviously we will get a lower return than we were originally thinking', you could be forgiven for believing that Brown had staged a smash-and-grab raid.

The hunt for a culprit to pay compensation is no less intense at the other end of society, among the ranks of hourly-paid workers. The key word here is stress. Whichever lawyer first hit on the idea of promoting stress as either a reason for not going to work or a way to make others cough up could hardly have done more damage to Britain's work ethic than if he or she had arranged a quintupling of dole payments.

Call me old-fashioned, but I used to believe that wages were what employers offered in order to persuade us to perform unpleasant tasks; or, at least, to give up our time when we would prefer to be doing something else. Inherent in that proposition was an understanding that some jobs involve stress - but not, it seems, any longer.

Teachers, police officers and civil servants are filing and winning lawsuits because they have suffered stress through work. That's all very well, but what about those who soldier on manfully; those who force themselves into the office or factory, endure the aggravation, and deliver without complaint? Where is their incentive?

We are so inured to hearing failure blamed on others that it often comes as a shock when public figures own up to shortcomings and take defeat on the chin. Last year, when England lost 1-0 at Wembley to Germany, coach Kevin Keegan did the decent thing and resigned. Not that surprising, you might say, but it was the manner of his exit that really amazed. No, it wasn't the players' fault; the supporters didn't let him down; and the football authorities hadn't undermined him. Keegan simply admitted that he wasn't up to the task.

In one respect, Keegan walked out a loser, a football manager who couldn't make it at the highest level. But as a man, he remains a winner. He left with his dignity and integrity intact, offering a lesson to us all.

It is sad, but Britain has an unhealthy obsession with failure. In America, not succeeding is seen as the flip-side of having a go. Here, however, a stigma attaches to those who drop short.

This is particularly true in business, where bankruptcy, even today, carries a whiff of scandal. Businesses go bust for all sorts of reasons; in recession, it is an alarmingly common occurrence. Yet polite society likes to put them in a box marked 'dodgy'. That is a serious disincentive for would-be entrepreneurs.

Like it or not, most new businesses do not stay the course. The attrition rate is brutal. But honest failure is nothing to be ashamed of. How that setback is handled, though, is what really sorts the men from the boys.

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