Thursday, January 13, 2005

first of the year

Blimey, almost halfway through jan already. Still, it’s only now that things are returning to their normal rhythm and I have time for faffing on the internet: Amy is back at school and the Christmas busyness is over at work.

Good things at the moment are Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey, How to be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson, dancing my ass off (well, wiggling slightly while sat in a chair) to the CD bro made me for Christmas, Tim visiting last weekend, finally getting promoted at work (it was actually quite a productive appraisal too), days out with amy last week (oh, how I envy that 2 week holiday!), producing issue #4 of Longshore Drift (it will be appearing online later today), and probably lots of other stuff too.

Bad thing at the moment is primarily the story about a chap called Joe Gordon who has been sacked by Waterstone’s over some fairly innocuous comments he made on his blog. There appears to be no libel, no ‘big story’ as would be the case, for example, of someone taking a newspaper to court over unsubstantiated personal allegations. This is one of those stories that cuts right to the heart of free speech issues, the control that employers have over us and corporate behaviour as a faceless machine. Instead of being handled with humility and reason on a personal level it seems to have been blown out of proportion. I can only presume this is due to some kind of personality clash between Joe and the boss who has magnificently inflated the situation. Naturally the fact that I also work at Waterstone’s makes the story particularly pertinent.

I’ve written on here before about how I hate work, all work (here, for example), a necessary evil in our current puritanical capitalist hard-work society (thanks to How to be Idle for that one!) but one of the things that makes it bearable are the people you work with. Most people who work for Waterstone’s are intelligent and interesting, this is a policy the company pursues by mainly employing graduates. After all, if you’re going to deal with books it helps to be literate and thoughtful. Accepting this, why do you then start trying to run the shops as identikit retail outfits? The beauty of the chain used to be in its personality and individuality – people like Joe make this possible. But here is the schism, the psychosis at work between the shop floor and the board room: the personality that brings difference and specialization and character is completely at odds with modern, uber-efficient corporate management. Thus our jobs are at once both high skilled yet low-paid, the people with the most ideas that have the most to add are those that get bored and want to leave the quickest, the atmosphere and ethos that is encouraged by books and free-thinking is removed by heavy handed rules and overreactions.

So it is that any small company becomes a major chain, so it is that joy is sucked from us, so it is that people who clearly love what they’re doing but still have bad days to moan about lose their jobs while those who plod through inoffensively but without panache come to rule.

In some ways I feel wrong writing this. To constructively criticise implies a certain level of care, love even, that I feel I do not have for my job. How can anyone come to love a company? How can anyone be proud? I have to work, that is the bottom line, the least odious job wins but this doesn’t mean that the company is suddenly like my family. This is the feeling attempted with corporate talk of ‘loyalty’ and ‘teams’. But people like Joe do seem to have this quality. Sure, they have bad days (who doesn’t) but, at root, they put a lot of effort in, posses a lot of skill and knowledge and do a good job. As a Border’s employee commented on Joe’s blog:
“The irony of all this is the fact that you must have loved (as I do) certain aspects of your job as a book seller - even if the company you worked for sometimes (often/usually/always) treated you like shit, you were prepared to stay because of your passion for books and because you loved recommending your favourites to customers who came back to read that particular author's entire back-catalogue simply because they trusted and liked those recommendations of yours. Waterstones are the losers, they have lost a great deal.”
It is completely wrong that people are treated like this, and end up feeling like this, yet what do companies expect? They can’t have it both ways, they can either be good at what they do and respect their staff accordingly, or they can be faceless corporations and have staff who don’t give a stuff. They can’t be both, yet they keep trying to encourage us with the carrot-and-stick in the left hand while beating us down with a club in the right.

Enough with the flaws in corporate structure, what about the free speech issue? This is the more pressing aspect for most people, particularly anyone else who blogs and mentions their work. I don’t see why your employer should have any say over your private life. Perhaps if you were mounting a specific campaign against a company you worked for they’d have grounds to fire you, then again you’d probably have already quit if that were the case. But talking about your day on a blog is nothing like this, particularly as the accusations that Joe defamed the company’s name supposes that he has a large readership and an axe to grind, neither of which seems to have been the case until he was sacked and the media picked up the story. Similarly personal accusations posted online might just about warrant some kind of apology, but again this doesn’t seem relevant as Joe’s comments are generally pretty impersonal – no names are mentioned – and pretty mild. In short, why shouldn’t you be allowed to discuss your day and your opinions as you see fit? I find it incredibly sad that people are writing about how they now feel the need to go back through old posts and remove mentions of work; self-censorship in this way can only stifle creativity and free-expression, and is in some ways worse than external censorship as it implies the existence of a culture of fear and thought police.

Time to conclude before I start repeating myself. In fact, I’m just going to quote Hal Duncan’s comments on Joe’s blog:

“As a citizen of Glasgow I have been a customer in your Sauchiehall Street and Argyll Street stores on numerous occasions. In buying Christmas presents last year, in fact - somewhat ironically - I deliberately chose to buy from your store rather than from Borders, having personally known individuals who had suffered from that chain's "corporate American" management style and the concomitant devaluation of its employees. Waterstones seemed to offer an alternative, a company which was not part of the bullying and exploitative culture increasingly prevalent in the service industry, one where specialist knowledge on the part of staff and management was encouraged and where real and pragmatic customer service might be expected as a result - rather than the all too familiar blank, forced smile of fundamentally disinterested, disenchanted workers. Clearly, however, this is not the case. Clearly a long-term employee with a deep knowledge of, and respect for, a certain field is worthless to yourselves. I must say that I am at a loss, however, to understand exactly what it is that is more valuable.

To be frank, the reasoning behind Joe Gordon's dismissal escapes me. I can appreciate that public criticism of the company by an employee would be frowned upon, and I assume that a posting on a personal blog is, to yourselves, on the same level as, for instance, writing an article in some high-selling national newspaper. One might have thought a warning, a request to withdraw such criticisms would be understood and accepted. To Waterstones, though, this is an outrage beyond the pale. Others might well compare a blog entry to someone letting off steam over a pint at their local with some friends, but clearly as far as Waterstones is concerned this is much more than that. A calculated Machiavellian act of sabotage, no less. A savage attempt to destroy the very company from within. Gross misconduct, no less. Bringing the company into disrepute. Petty, spiteful vindictiveness.

It seems to me, though, that if anyone has sabotaged the company's sales, brought Waterstones into disrepute, acted out of petty, spiteful vindictiveness, it is the manager who sacked Mr Gordon. The man has single-handedly destroyed Waterstones' credibility for myself and God knows how many others. Honestly, I think it would be extremely foolish to underestimate the implications and ramifications of this one act in the opinions of writers, readers, bloggers and genre fans across the country. It would be extremely foolish to underestimate the bad publicity, the way this will play in the media and in the writing, blogging and SF and Fantasy communities. What this tells us is not just that Waterstones is as contemptible in its attitude to its staff as the call centres and fast food chains that a huge portion of the book-buying market - young, educated, intelligent, middle class, liberal - will know and revile. What this tells us is that Waterstones is contemptible in its attitude to writing itself, happy to exploit consumer appetites for sharp-toothed, anti-corporate satire from the likes of Michael Moore, but utterly intolerant when it is made the target of even a few inconsequential jibes. Satire is worthless to Waterstones except as a commodity. Free speech is worthless to Waterstones except as a commodity. Writing is worthless to Waterstones except as a commodity. To Waterstones, in fact, such outspoken satirical writing is simply abhorrent… when it is not a product they themselves are capitalising on. I find it difficult to stress just how repellent I consider this act, just how far it lowers your company in my opinion.”


Blogger paulhd said...

I suppose my connection with you is one of the ways it's easy to find out where I work isn't it!? This makes me wonder what kind of protection assumed names and ommiting company names can really do.
One thing springs to mind reading your post -
Why are the people shocked by this? Singling Waterstones out as the 'bad' company is pointless. I may be wrong but if its' a chain store of any kind it's probably not as fun to work at as people might think and there's a fair chance that H/o does not have the shopfloor staff's best interest at heart. People claiming they won't go to Waterstones are deluding themselves, unless they go to a second hand book shop or an independent then all they are doing is taking there custom to a place that treats their staff exactly the same. It's doubtable that staff in indies or even second hand bookshops (or whatever) are always well thought of.
By all means people should make their feelings known, but sending a letter of protest and remembering to be nice to the staff next time they buy something might be far more helpful than seriously damaging the takings of a shop therefore placing the staff in jeopardy.

14/1/05 6:50 pm  
Blogger paul said...

Totally agree with you on the chain store issue, having looked at blogs from other retail employees (I especially like my life as a morrisons employee) it's clear that any comments about corporate structure can be taken pretty generally to apply to any chain – hence the pointlessness of people pledging to shop at borders or ottakars instead (although there were many comments on Joe's blog linking to indie sites). From my point of view I find the whole corporate thing a bit odd and depressing as many of the head office people I met while in Ireland were really nice, yet everyone seems to adhere to the same structure once they're placed within one of those jobs. I suppose there's a certain accepted way to run a company and people aren't interested in investing etc if you want to do it differently, ergo corporations suck and serve to stifle most people, even those near the top. Maybe... there are probably lots of arseholes involved too.

The other thing I only briefly mentioned above was the personal conflict with Joe and his boss. The more I read Joe's blog the more it seems that his blogging comments must have looked like a convenient way for the manager to fire a member of staff that he didn't get on with. This still makes it totally wrong, but perhaps not such a free speech issue – unless this sacking sets a precedent for other companies to follow.

15/1/05 9:24 am  

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