Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Hawthorne Effect

Hi, it's me again!  Buddy, your friendly guide to conquering your fear of the corporate, to understanding the myriad ways of business, and the only guy willing to help you unwrap yourself after that Zen Yoga class where you actually managed to get your foot in your mouth.  Yes, yes, I remember, you don't want to talk about where you managed to get your other foot.  Did everything... un-stretch, I suppose... afterwards?
I see that you're sitting there composing a memo.  And you're using that unholy office-software program again.  I've told you, it'll give you warts.  Well, look, there may be no scientific studies proving that it does, but there's equally no scientific studies proving that it doesn't.  And does anyone ever come up to you and tell you that it's safe to use and doesn't give you warts?  I think you see my point.
Your memo looks quite interesting, I'm surprised that Clippy hasn't popped up to ask you if you'd like it euthanised yet.  I can see that you're simply trying to instate a sensible health-and-safety policy, but have you considered that the best policy might be no policy at all?  No?  Let me tell you a little fable.
Once upon a time in a busy metropolis, there was a shiny new office building in a Ballardian office park.  The park had a water feature, which was a lake that contained fish, birds of varying sizes, and the occasional drunken, naked employee of the surrounding office buildings, who was invariably quickly fished out by security patrols and first dressed up and then dressed down.  In one of the many buildings, where the view looked out to the centre of the Metropolis and the landscape was dominated by increasing numbers of tall buildings, there was a Human Resources manager who cringed at the idea of Managing Resources when he should be relating to people and who spent much of his day attempting to undo the damage that senior management felt could be inflicted on the people who worked there.  For senior management, people were not resources of course, they were nothing more than the transitionary stage between headcount and bodycount.
One day, while the Human Resources manager was attempting to implement a policy against Bribery and Corruption that didn't explicitly state how the loopholes could be lined up to drive a very large, solid gold truck full of hospitality gifts, house-warming presents and illegal immigrants through, he received an email from the Evil Queen, who preferred to be referred to as the Company Secretary.  The email declared that in the interests of cost-cutting in departments that were unrelated to the Company Secretary's aims there would be a mandatory blood donation scheme set up, and the proceeds (i.e. bags of blood) would be sold at an amusing profit on the black market.  Employees were to be told that they were making a valuable contribution to society, and posters of starving children working in Chinese-looking fish-canning factories were to be put up in all public areas to encourage employees to feel guilty if they didn't give blood.  Employees with rare blood diseases, sexually active lifestyles, or conscientous grounds for not giving blood were to be sacked as quickly as possible and anyone who protested this treatment was to have their name left discretely in a "suggestion" box in the canteen and absolutely nothing would be done with that name.  Honest.
The Human Resources Manager sighed heavily, reading the email over and over again, then checking the date to see if it was April Fool's Day.  Sadly it was the middle of Autumn, and the email appeared to be entirely serious.
The HRM did not in fact, do any of these things, because he was a good manager who understood the importance of relating to people.  Instead, he sent round an email telling all employees that there would be a preventative blood test done that required their attendance because of a recent outbreak of water-borne disease that might have a home in the lake in the Ballardian office park.  These tests would repeated on a regular basis until such time as the company was sure that the risk was gone, and would be carried out entirely at the company's expense.  He made no effort to sack anybody, reasoning that people buying black market blood were already taking a risk, and there was no good reason for him to mitigate that risk.  He put up no guilt-inducing posters at all, but instead spoke casually to many, many people around the office asking after symptoms and generally showing a caring and considerate attitude.
This had the effect of getting a 99% take-up rate for the blood-drive, with the 1% of abstainers being primary Senior Management, and the Employees looked entirely happy about it all, little knowing that their pints of blood were selling for a little over fifty pounds sterling each on the black market.  This effect, that of doing nothing other that telling people that you care about them and still getting results, was named after that HRM and is therefore known as the Hawthorne effect.
Oh, the HRM ousted the Company Secretary in an internal coup based primarily on the success he'd had getting the employees to give blood, and when he went through her email he discovered that there were another forty-five ways to monetise the employee base without reducing their health below what was required to attend work four days out of five and he set about finding ways to get the employees to actually volunteer for these services.  I think he's retired somewhere now.
The moral of this story, as you can no doubt tell, is that you should never assume that something is biowaste when it can be handed out to the gullible and rich on the black market.

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