Inspector! Where’s the manual?

Yesterday I drove home from a long journey up country through treacherous roads that, according to weather forecasts, would have been safer today. I hurried home because my wife had to be back to work. She had previously booked today as part of her holiday, but when the it was discovered that today was to be inspection day, my wife’s holiday was cancelled. She had to be in the office to make sure everything was running smoothly for the inspection.

My wife and her coworkers are certainly doing all they can do in the allotted hours. In fact, from what I am told, I believe they are working under huge duress. But sometimes the allotted hours are just not enough, and my wife will put her and her family’s life on hold to work overtime to get the work done. This has often been quite disruptive. She is paid well for her overtime, but life vs. money is often a tough trade-off. And it’s not as though she can leave the work. She works a hospital lab, and work not done can cost lives. LIVES! So she does the overtime. Has to. Must. And after she does, it’s really irking for her to have to face finger-wagging and tongue clucking from above because overtime is generally frowned upon – but I digress.

There is so much work to be done that certain aspects of the job that seem irrelevant in the day-to-day routines, get put to the back burner: the reading of policy manuals; small policy details regarding storage;  paperwork or maintenance. These can be overlooked because there simply is not enough time allotted in a day for them. Then comes the inspector and it’s time to scramble! A list of things to be inspected is posted and panic sets in. Everyone has been so busy that some of the list items have not been addressed.

Now if the boss could afford to be exceedingly brave, he or she would say, “Screw it. The inspectors will have to find out that we simply haven’t had time address all of the list items.” And in a perfect world, that’s exactly what the boss would do. In a perfect world the boss would be confident that the inspectors would presume the workers are competent and ethical. In a perfect world the inspector (who also has bosses) would recommend that more resources be invested in the workplace so that these missing list items could be checked off… in a perfect world.

But of course, the world is not perfect, and there is no presumption of competence or ethics. If things go bad, it’s not the health ministry that’s on the hot seat; it’s the chain of command. Of course compliance is not preached; in all the seminars we are always taught about transformational leadership, collaboration and the moral the ethical responsibility to stand up for what is right. So one might think that the happy result of a failed inspection would be recognition by inspectors of a need for more resources. In fact, the opposite is true.

Inspectors are looking for potential improvements in efficiency. Built into the idea of efficiency is a presumption that more can be done with less. And the corollary presumption is that more than enough resources are already in place to allow the workers to meet all of the expectations on the checklist. Ergo, failure to meet expectations = failure in competence. The boss may not be able to articulate this idea, but intuitively she knows it, and all of the workers know it. So for weeks before the inspection date, everyone scrambles like never before so that a tight ship can be presented. Fear is a good motivator.

The consequence? My vacation is curtailed. But there are more serious consequences. Morale suffers, and worker loyalty suffers. Stress increases. Job satisfaction decreases. Authoritarianism corrupts the spirit of camaraderie. Unfortunately, this problem is rife in all organizations. Human beings have human needs that typically go beyond the organization’s scope. The organization has narrow goals into which the human being doesn’t factor.

This disjunct between the organization and the person is a huge problem in our world. And in order to be happy, healthy societies we need to change it. After all, our work is a big part of our life. It should be where we have our human needs met: the need to be productive, the need to be social. Corporations would like to believe that they have no responsibility other than the bottom line. This is not true. Why can’t the success of their workers be a measure of their success? More’s the disgrace when this business efficiency model is applied detrimentally to government workers. Is it not the role of government to take care of people? I say it is, and furthermore, I say that it should be well within the role of private corporations to take responsibility for the well-being of their employees.

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