Smoke & Mirrors: Winning the war on talent

Will some nifty footwork by the comms chief see off Smokehouse's unwanted HR boss?

by Guy Browning
Last Updated: 02 Jul 2015


Apparently there is a War for Talent among top businesses, which continually escalate their benefits to attract and retain the best and brightest. In that war for talent we are Switzerland, in that we don't really get involved.

I once mentioned employee engagement to Lynton Spivey, our bewigged CEO, and he asked who the lucky person was and suggested we send them a bottle of champagne. Once I'd explained the concept he suddenly decided that we had to have total employee engagement by the end of the week and that I should send an email round demanding it. I think we probably lost the War for Talent when we appointed him.


Another reason we don't have any talent is our HR director, a litigious troll called Clothilde Liversedge. She's known as M in the company not because of James Bond but because everyone says 'erm' before attempting to pronounce her name. M has amassed an incredible amount of legal and professional expertise, all designed to prevent her being dismissed.

She spends her days hiding in her office wearing a suicide vest marked employment tribunal and daring anyone even to mention the world 'competence'. Naturally, she's the shop steward for all the major unions and can get a bloc vote in seconds to call a strike at the drop of a hat, the threatened drop of a hat or anything deemed to be disadvantageous to any form of headwear.


Spivey reminded me that we've got to have talented, engaged employees by the end of the week. I went to see M but she seems to have barricaded herself in her office with heavy pot plants wedged against the door. Instead, I spent some quality time on the internet and discovered that all the talent in our industry works for the competition, which may have some bearing on our market share.

One particular company, Prosthetica, seems to be stuffed with young thrusting talent. I pointed this out to Spivey and he cleverly noticed that its share price was temporarily depressed by some minor health and safety infringement. He decided we should buy the whole company, steal all its talent in one go and hopefully they would bring their engagement with them. When it comes to kicking people and companies when they're down, Spivey really is the Golden Boot.


I'm thinking about engagement. Really the only time some of our people are fully engaged is when they're concentrating hard on getting their socks on in the morning. Then it's downhill all the way until socks off. I'm not sure how we can improve engagement. We already have this amazing job-share scheme running, where it takes 10 people to do one person's job. Sadly, those 10 people are all paid full-time salaries. Then we introduced performance-related pay, where we offered them a certain level of pay and if they made a performance we reduced it again.

We once offered seven years' unpaid maternity leave even if you were just thinking of having a baby so we could get someone decent in for seven years as 'maternity cover'. Later I phoned our customer service team 15 times to see what they thought but they were always engaged. Nice that somebody is. But it did give me an idea and I made another call.


After some frantic activity I just made it to the board meeting in time. Clothilde announced that she had been approached by a competitor with an offer she couldn't refuse. There was general wailing and gnashing of teeth round the table, principally to disguise the whoops of unrestrained joy. We agreed that she could go on immediate gardening leave and that for security reasons it would be best if she left the meeting.

We watched her leave through our tears of laughter and happiness, and then moved on to the next agenda item, which funnily enough was the acquisition of Prosthetica and the sad but inevitable job losses that would follow, especially in its HR department. I felt a warm sense of engagement spread around the table. Another victory on the War on Talent!

Guy Browning is the author of How to be Normal: A Guide for the Perplexed, published by Atlantic at £12.99. He can be contacted at

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