If councils can sack all their staff and only take them back if they accept a pay cut, then surely they can get away with anything? Former director of community services Blair McPherson imagines a possible future scenario
Managers had been highlighting the problem since April but they had cried wolf too many times before for the senior management team to take their claims seriously. Naturally with one in four management posts cut and all management vacancies frozen those remaining would claim that they were struggling with the workload and cover.
There were a lot of leaving dos in March as those taking early retirement or voluntary redundancy said their goodbyes. The process of reshaping the management structure was well underway by June. The alarm bells didn’t start ringing until July when it was realised that due to the school holidays there wouldn’t be enough managers at work in August to run the department.
You can run a skeleton service on bank holidays and for that week in between Christmas and New Year but you can’t do it for a whole month. Without managers’ budget approvals elderly people would not be able to be discharged from hospital. You might be able to leave one manager covering a number of day centres for a week but a whole month? Better to close them down than take risks with vulnerable clients and unsupervised staff.
Without line managers’ authorisation vacancies could not be advertised, let alone filled, yet neither could overtime be authorised or the use of agency staff approved. Leaving social work teams without proper management cover for any length of time would be very risky.
What if a vulnerable client commits suicide and the staff are accused of missing the signs or failing to ensure they took their medication, a tragedy? But the staff say they were left totally unsupervised and unsupported as they had no manager!
What if staff failed to respond to reports of abuse of someone with a learning disability due to the volume of referrals and the absence of a manager to prioritise?
The director had no choice. He cancelled all annual leave for mangers for the month of August. All hell broke out. People had holidays booked and paid for, bags were packed and the kids were excited. People were entitled to a holiday, their manager (since left) had approved it months ago. They wouldn’t be able to get a refund.
The trade union challenged the decision, claiming it was unreasonable. HR reminded them that annual leave had to be approved by a manager and that if the senior management team felt that vulnerable clients would be put at an unacceptable risk then in the interests of the service it was within their power to cancel leave.
They also reminded the trade union that custom and practice was for managers to arrange cover for their absence and this clearly hadn’t happened. To which the trade union responded by saying how could cover be organised when a quarter of the management posts in the department had been got rid of, the restructuring process was still not completed, all vacant management were frozen?
Half the frontline managers don’t have a manager and don’t know when they will. At which point someone from HR was heard to mutter well it doesn’t help that you have instructed your members not to cover vacant posts.
Things got really unpleasant when it emerged that the director and at least one member of the senior management team were planning to take annual leave in August. The director protested that he had arranged cover with other members of the senior management team as he did every year but this did not appease the aggrieved.
Things got nasty when the director’s car was vandalised in the staff car park.
The leader of the council announced on local radio that none of his senior managers in social services would be taking annual leave in August and that managers had to accept that the needs of the service came first and no one had a right to insist on taking their annual leave in school holidays. After which he flew out to Spain to join his grandchild at their rented villa.
Blair McPherson is author of Equipping Managers for an Uncertain Future and People Management in a Harsh Financial Climate, both published by www.russellhouse.co.uk
(Pic: xlibber on flickr)