REALITY BITES: - We have a Trades Descriptions Act protecting consumers from being mis-sold a product. How about an Act that does the same for jobs?

by Richard Reeves, a consultant and business writer
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We have a Trades Descriptions Act protecting consumers from being mis-sold a product. How about an Act that does the same for jobs?

Like all dysfunctional relationships, the one between British employers and employees is riddled with lies. Both sides are guilty - CVs can embellish the truth; but then 'your jobs are safe' often means a downsizing, restructuring or - my personal favourite - 'ventilation' is imminent.

The density of deceitfulness is highest at the beginning and end of an affair. Over the second candlelit dinner, we all pretend to be smarter, more cultured and better-connected than we are. And when romance turns to ruin, we'll say: 'It's not you. It's me. I'm just not ready/over the last lover/good enough for you (delete as appropriate).'

Likewise, there is never less honesty than at the points of hiring and firing. Companies spend a fortune convincing new recruits that if they commit to them, they will enjoy a fabulous, glittering career involving international travel, a perfect balance between work and life, and ethnic and gender diversity. It must be true: the brochures say so. The reality is one of Stakhanovite hours, months with a client in Leeds, and a senior management team and prevailing culture that is male, pale and stale. We have a Trades Description Act that protects consumers from being mis-sold a product: how about an Employment Description Act to do the same for jobs?

One of the reasons that firms wooing graduates try so hard to present convincing credentials on issues such as work/life balance, diversity and CSR is that surveys consistently show that Generation Y cares about them. (What will happen to our trendspotters when they've used up the alphabet? How they must curse Douglas Coupland for not calling his book Generation A.)

We have to treat these survey results with caution. After all, actions speak louder than tick-boxes, and every year a third of the graduate population apply to work for blue-chip management consultancies, where the hours are long and the social purpose necessarily vague. Two explanations present themselves for this paradox. First, these bright young things fall for the sales pitch. This seems unlikely. Anyone with any nous knows what life is like in these firms.

I once asked a senior partner in one of the big consultancies if its new graduates didn't burn out after two or three years of 90-hour weeks.

'Sure, some of them do.' So what then? 'We get some more.' This is difficult logic to argue against on business grounds. Most of the young turks know that this is what they are in for - but they are prepared to put up with it in order to get a good name on their CVs. Even if they bail out, or get thrown out, their career is off to a good start once they have McKinsey or Accenture branding. If there is lying, there is also plenty of collusion.

Graduates also convince themselves that they'll only sell their soul to the corporate devil for a few years: just long enough to pay off their debts and save a bit of money, and then they can buy a cottage in Dorset and become a potter, or dig wells for poor villagers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Those who go to the City are most prone to this manana mentality. But this self-delusion is the biggest lie of all.

Very quickly, these erstwhile student union demonstrators acquire the mortgage, clothes, car and expectations of a wealthy person. When you have a BMW Z4, loft apartment, holidays to the Caribbean and apparently glamorous lifestyle, the transition to the African village starts to feel a tad more difficult. And while the work is demanding, much of it is also enjoyable, you form a social network with your new, equally bright, well-groomed peers and strut like a Master or Mistress of the Universe.

And then, somewhere down the line, comes The End. It is required that both sides lie at this point. Individuals have to say on leaving a company that it is only because they have another exciting opportunity They cannot say that it is because the job stinks, their boss is an incompetent buffoon and their colleagues are a bunch of losers - not, that is, if they want a good reference.

And on the other side, employers will act like a lying lover. Redundancy as a result of restructuring is the equivalent of 'it's not you'. Fear of unfair dismissal claims makes companies shy away from the difficult path of firing an employee because they are simply not up to the job.

If someone has been underperforming for years but no-one has addressed it, to suddenly announce that they can't cut it is a short-fire way to end up in a tribunal. So redundancy becomes the way to avoid tough conversations.

This mutual dishonesty is bad for all of us. Companies can only get better if disgruntled exes tell them how. And individuals can learn which areas they need to improve on only if the real reasons for their departure are spelled out. This may be an area where the laws protecting jobs are having the perverse effect of inhibiting personal development.

If we can't have a new broom of honesty in British workplaces, at least let's learn to lie with a bit more style. As Groucho Marx said: 'Sincerity is the key to success. If you can fake that, you've got it made.'

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