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Donkin on Work - Recruitment

November 2006 – Who wants work to be monogamous?

Suppose your boss dropped by your desk one day, brandishing a copy of the FT Appointments section, having ringed two or three interesting positions just for you. “Any of those would be really good for you. Why don’t you apply? It’s a no brainer,” she says.

How would you feel about that? Suspicious? Unsettled? How about flattered? The idea that our boss might be working in our interests is unthinkable to most of us. Yet in a new book, Strategic Human Capital Management, Creating Value Through People, * Jon Ingham, director in Human Capital Consulting with Buck Consultants, argues that employers need to develop a grown up relationship with their best workers to the extent sometimes of encouraging them to leave for opportunities elsewhere.

Yes I did say “best workers”. In all companies there are the highly valued employees and the not so highly valued. The less valued employees must take stock of themselves from time to time in the same way that they will be assessed by their managers. Some of them may well be encouraged to move on but that rarely happens to the star performers.

Moving is often resisted but is it fulfilling to plough along, restricting output and involvement to the basic needs of the job? In that kind of environment, the managers of less valued employees may have reached the ceiling of their own careers and might be equally content to maintain the status quo in a state of functional equilibrium, sustaining but hardly progressing the organisation.

The more ambitious among those less valued may seek ways of ingratiating themselves with management. Some - those aware of their weaknesses – will try to improve their skills or, alternatively, work in a way that complements their strengths. Yet others will seek work elsewhere for employers or clients who will place a greater value on their abilities.

The dividing line between highly-valued and less highly-valued, of course, can be subjective. Ask a group of people to pick their world’s greatest football team from the available talent at any one time and you would get many different combinations.

Some players, like Ronaldinho, for example, would probably feature in a large majority of choices but the selections in certain other positions would be less clear cut.

Even the best can only maintain their highly valued status for so long. David Beckham, for example, still admired by many football managers, players and watching enthusiasts, has seen his status transformed in a matter of weeks from first choice player and England captain, to international reject and substitutes’ bench with his club team, Real Madrid.

In football the best players are shown the equivalent of a series of ringed vacancies all the time. The choice of club can hinge on various factors – wages, team mates, the manager, opportunities for first team appearances and what remains of a relatively short carer. Not everyone can score goals in the Premiership at the age of 40 like Teddy Sheringham.

Sometimes - a point not always appreciated by fans of individual clubs - it can be in the best interests of both player and club, if one of the most talented players leaves. The move by Ruud Van Nistelrooy from Manchester United to Real Madrid this year and by Beckham in the same direction a few years earlier are two examples.

Just occasionally in football a player goes back to a former team. Sheringham played at Tottenham Hotspur for five years, leaving in 1997 for Manchester United, then returning for two years in 2001. Clubs, players and managers have their personality differences that intervene from time to time but, even if we rail at the wages, in football there is a visible market for talent, however imperfect.

The market among other employers is less transparent. It is reasonable to ask whether it exists at all. Companies will compete for the services of a particular employee whether at graduate entry level or as a senior headhunting appointment. There will be a honeymoon period when the employee can do no wrong. But at some stage, almost inevitably, there will be the career hiccup: a project that fails, a fall out with colleagues, or a shift at the top when assessments of individuals lower down the pecking order can change overnight.

Worst of all is that, too often, managements and employees maintain a kind of mannered, coded relationship, what Peter Scott-Morgan has called in his book of the same title, The Unwritten Rules of the Game. Sometimes these rules are so obscure it is difficult to understand them. I once had a job offered to me without understanding what was going on. It was only afterwards, when it was too late, that I realised I was being “sounded out” for the role.

This coded behaviour destroys what should be a healthy and continuing conversation about careers. Sadly, as Jon Ingham notes in his book: “the unwritten rules in many organisations state that if an employee identified as talent and their line manager see a marvellous job for the employee advertised elsewhere neither person can mention the fact that they have seen it.”

The employer might well take some action when an individual resigns, conducting an exit interview, tracking their appointment for a while. Some maintain an alumni network as a way to keep in touch. But most will say goodbye and move on. It is as if going back, for both sides, is a retrograde step.

Such reactions are understandable in the break-up of a marriage. But employment isn’t marriage. Employment is the engagement of an individual to do a job although Jim Collins, the US management writer, argues in his book Good to Great that putting together a great team is more important in transforming a company than working out what you want them to do.

“If you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company. Great vision without great people is irrelevant,” he says.

But people need to make their own decisions about their future directions. They should not be coveted by companies as “trophy employees”. People are not possessions. Bain & Company, the business consultancy, encourages its employees to take what it calls “externships”, six month career breaks working for someone else. The benefit works both ways.

“Bain staff benefit from externships by broadening their professional development and receiving hands-on experience in an industry in which they are interested. Bain increases its ability to retain promising employees,” writes Ingham.

“In addition, because externships are arranged to expand employees’ skills and experience, staff who have participated in one will have enhanced their value to Bain when they return,” he adds.

Ingham writes of “career partnering”, where people and companies maintain a relationship beyond the normal employment contract. Such arrangements may need to become more common in meeting the expectations of a younger generation of employees that has digested the message that a job is not for life and that may also have experience of gap years after school or university education. It’s a big world out there. Why should employment be monogamous?

*Strategic Human Capital Management, Creating Value Through People, by Jon Ingham, is published by Butterworth-Heinemann, price £24.99.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved