Working life is full of phrases like ‘walking the talk’ and expressions like ‘delivering on potential’. With our suits on, we exist in a world where promises are meant to be kept, and reputations can rise and fall on our ability to maintain this code of honour. A little remarkable, given that we’re all at least old enough to dress ourselves and navigate our way from duvet to desktop: as far as the reliability of promises goes, that’s surely old enough to know better – whether that comes to making the promises, or believing wholeheartedly that they will be delivered upon. But whether we are being naïve or not, our working expectations, hopes and aspirations often start with the promises that are held out or presented to us. And turn a little bitter when the delivery doesn’t follow. We may be older and wiser, but we can still wind up like the little kid who keeps being told they’ll get a new bicycle for Christmas. Just not which Christmas they’re going to get it.

This is the territory of the psychological contract – the subtle and largely unwritten pact between employer and employee that says something like ‘do what’s expected, go the extra mile, show willing – and the odd initiative, but nothing too wild – and we’ll do our best to be nice too’. (I oversimplify, but I am old and jaded.) Many employers are admirable in their efforts to meaningfully engage and inspire their staff and to make the work as positive and life-enhancing an experience as possible – just as some are utter scoundrels who will receive little sympathy at the tribunal hearing or in the pages of Private Eye.

It strikes me some of the best have an approach to ‘transparency’ that encourages them not to build elaborate delusion smokescreens that help them convince themselves that they are blind to the sense of disappointment it would be frankly unnatural for some of their staff not to feel from time to time. Acknowledging that ‘being at work’ and ‘being human’ are not mutually exclusive states is a good thing.

But many organisations have had a couple of tough years already, and now face several more. Delivering on that psychological contract isn’t about to get any easier, and the world is putting new obstacles in their way. Consider the following from one of my favourite bloggers, theHRD, in a recent posting, Chase the passion, not the pension:

The age for receiving a state pension is to increase to 66. The average life expectancy in the UK for someone born in 2008 is projected to be 79.9 years. Which doesn’t sound too shabby and fits with the headlines about living longer etc.    But hang on for a second.  What are we missing here?  Well that life expectancy won’t play out until 2088….at which point our current crop of two-year olds will be pondering pushing up the daisies. If you go back to someone born in 1960, then the average figure falls to 71.1 years.  Which means 5 years of pension for all those years of National Insurance contributions and years of hard work…sounds like a good deal right? 

And on top of that they are talking about increasing the pension age further to 70….”

As someone born in 1960, I’m left reading theHRD’s posting title not as some Patience Strong-style HR Dept crie de couer, but as a recommendation that I should jack in this game of soldiers and have some fun before 2030, when someone will tell me I’ve not made enough NI contributions. Not that that feeling is the HRD’s fault: he seems a witty, bright and reasonable man. Younger than me I suspect (damn his hide), although I have groovier shoes (and paid much less than that for them, so that I can save for my pension while I chase my passion in my mid-life crisis trainers).

And I’m being jocular, but I’m also thinking about two friends in their early 60s who’ve recently found out they’ll be working longer than they’d planned. Possibly for smaller penions. Unless they get made redundant on newly reduced terms in the suddenly extended meantime. None of this the doing of their organisations’ HR departments, of course, but it will make the challenges those departments face in inspiring the full engagement of their experience and wisdom in those remaining years a little more daunting. Still, chin up, eh?

Management Today’s website recently published a News item, Nick Clegg needs you, that referenced the Deputy Prime Minister’s promotion of the Government’s new Your Freedom website, which is seeking the public’s suggestions for which laws we should repeal. My jaded synapses twitched lethargically as I noted another ‘consultation exercise’ being jumped upon by professional communities as a chance for special pleading – is it me, or are we increasingly moving into a way of thinking that says what’s good for business is automatically good for us as citizens? – before something kicked in and my inner Devil’s Advocate suggested a missing comment.

The sacrilegious comment my little inner demon whispered in my ear something like this. A Government that does want to help businesses and employers (even public sector ones) might be encouraged to swap all the laws that those with the most Facebook friends will now clutter its new website with for one new law: make it illegal to introduce legislative, policy or procedural changes that impact negatively on employers’ ability to engage with their staff. (And if all these cuts go to plan, maybe we can treat ourselves to a second law: acts that impact negatively on employee engagement – even those committed by the employer themselves – will become illegal. Well, we are all serious about employee engagement, aren’t we?)

But pensions are only one example. Another favourite British blogger offered his thoughts on ‘life expectancy’ (and I’m not talking about longevity there) earlier this year in a post we’ve already cited as part of our Fresh Crackers series, but a paragraph of it bears repeating here. Although the author of Flip Chart Fairytales sees it as the continuing disillusionment of approaching seniority, the sense of what was promised remaining forever out of reach is undeniably strong:

It was the same when I started work. Just as I got to the grade where you were allowed to have your own office, the company decided that offices were old-fashioned and went open-plan. When I reached the point in the hierarchy where you were entitled to a fat-cat gas-guzzling car, the firm went all eco-friendly and decided that we should all travel by train. Eventually, I got to the level when, in days of yore, executives spent their afternoons playing golf or having long boozy lunches with clients. Alas, I soon discovered that those days were gone. Instead, I had people bending my ear about ’making the numbers’, ‘shareholder value’, ‘the quarterly report’ and all sorts of other tiresome things. The old buffers who were the senior executives when I started work never seemed to worry about stuff like that.”

Whether or not Your Freedom does turn out to be a vehicle for a listening government to ‘consult’ with us all – be it as employers, employees, social media campaigns, pressure groups or even mere citizens – the coming months already promise a combination of escalating unemployment, “changes” to benefits (including those some future recipients have a case in arguing that they have been ‘paying for’ for many years), cuts in public services and real difficulty for graduates joining the job market. (The latter having built up personal debts pursuing the ‘promise’ that previous expansions to higher education would bring them.)

Employers’ hands are often tied – not just by legislation they might now have a channel through which to appeal for its repeal, but by prevailing convention and the attitudes of key individuals or functions within their own organisations. But I can’t be the only one to have noticed Today programmes interviews about the likelihood of a ‘summer of discontent’ and of possible strikes and unrest ahead. In a year where much is being made of the need for ‘fairness’, the impact on those who feel that fairness is not what they’re receiving might just be something worth bearing – prominently – in mind. As it should be for anyone responsible for managing any organisation’s employee value proposition whatever the weather. Resentment never makes the heart grow fonder.

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