Occasionally, you will come across something that blows your mind. A level of stupidity beyond reasonable comprehension. You’ll wonder to yourself “what exactly were they ever thinking?!”

A few weeks ago, I experienced this again. I was reading through a number of news articles, and one in particular jumped out at me. It was this article: Department of Human Services using ‘attendance plans’ to combat public service sickies (Canberra Times)

What are the Department of Human Services (DHS) thinking, trying to implement what they are calling ‘attendance plans’ to combat excessive sick days being taken?!

Controlling commands

Traditional organisations are often run with an iron fist. Accountability, loyalty, and ownership might all be part of their mission statement, and you absolutely know they will be keeping a keen eye on these things. Performance reviews and KPIs, audits, satisfaction surveys… the list goes on.

The beatings will continue until morale improves!

They often come encumbered with the usual justification “if you can’t measure, you can’t manage”. And I’ve talked about this before… many, many times. It is so very plainly wrong.

Traditional organisations keep plugging away at it anyway. They add more rules to their systems when things go wrong, to try and account for ‘all the things’. A never ending cycle of endless, needless complexity that spirals out of control.

Every single one of these rules needs to be met, managed, and maintained. All of a sudden, employees trying to work their way through the organisations’ own bureaucracy becomes a job in itself! Full-time employees find themselves spending over half of their day managing-up, to try and appease the management factory above. No one ever takes a step back, and looks at the larger picture – what is it that they are trying to do in the first place? What is their purpose, in their customer’s own terms?

The Department has forgotten their purpose.

Department of Bureaucracy

Taking a step back is simple with government services and understanding their big picture, their overarching purpose, is easy. After all, we are all their customers. Chances are, if you’ve ever had to deal with Centrelink, Medicare, child support, or domestic violence support, you’ve had to deal directly with an aspect of this.

If you’ve made a mistake on a form, you’ll have to start again. If the code on your claim is incorrect, you’ll have to start again. Change in circumstances? New set of forms. Need to visit a claims office outside of work hours… because you work? HA!

All of these ‘rules’ will have been created for various reasons, but it will usually be because one time, something has happened that created an issue. And the way to manage that issue was to put some tighter controls – turn the screws, so to speak – so the issue doesn’t happen again. Thus the “reject all mistakes” rule was created. Along with that rule, were other rules, such as how to manage and enforce the first rule… and training to help with staff who have to deal with customers pissed off by the enforcement of said rule. Then updates in training to manage changes in the ways customers react… and employment of more personnel to administer the rules, and the training.

Wow, things just seem quite complicated now. That is because they are.

This might have come around because a customer one time put their address in the wrong spot on a form, the staff member was having a bad day, the situation escalated, and boom, command and control rule-o-topia. Bureaucracy at its finest.

And the Department wonders why their staff always want time off…?!

Sick… of this shit

The management (and their overseers) at the DHS do not get it. They have created a beast, laden with rules, pissing off their customers, and making life living bureaucratic hell for their staff. Their staff, burned out in the never-ending nightmare, clearly do not want to come to work.

Sick days, and the counting of them, is an interesting conundrum. Traditional organisations want to try and maximise their employee output, and they can’t do that if their employees are not around – sick or not. To ‘manage’ this, they allocate some time to each employee for when they get sick, so that they can get rest, feel better, and come back and be productive again. Good luck if you get hit by a bus though, and need 4 months off because you’re in a coma… because comatose employees are not productive employees.

Workplaces also never want to admit that they are so shitty, bogged down, or overly-bureaucratic that they might be the cause of employee illness. The sad truth is that workplaces around the world every day cause so much stress in their employees that some even commit suicide. The causes of suicide, while well known, are nearly impossible to come by in statistics. We don’t want to talk about them, it seems. Maybe it’s because we might identify a stressful situation in our own organisation that is a listed statistical trigger… who knows.

Suicide is an extreme outcome of workplace stress; an outlier. Most employees would take some time, get out of the workplace, retreat to a place they find comfortable and destress. Maybe Netflix, or maybe partying it up, or shopping, or going for a run. We all escape in our own ways. The fact that we have to do it, from work, is the problem.

This is why I absolutely stand by the fact that excessive sick days being taken by employees are a symptom of a shitty place to work. As an example, the chances of people all taking Monday and Friday off – because of the flu – is infinitesimally small. Clearly, the staff don’t want to leave their escape on the weekend and come back to work.

And managers don’t bother to ask why! Instead, they resort to their traditional mentality of wanting to further tightly control the sick days, and use more tools and rules around people who take sick days. They don’t want to admit that the system, the organisation, that they are managing is utterly broken. Instead, they place further burdens on their staff by putting them on attendance plans.

How to be a numpty – 101

The article from the Canberra Times quoted a spokesman from the DHS. The spokesman had a few rather interesting things to say… let’s pull them apart.

The department said it did not know how many workers had been put on attendance plans had been and would not say how long the tactic had been in use.

The Department does not know how many workers it has used its tool on. A tool, developed to “support managers to work collaboratively with staff”, is seemingly being used undocumented in the Department. Or, maybe the Department really means ‘we know, but it doesn’t matter and we don’t care, because we’re doing it anyway’.

“Anecdotal evidence indicates, however, that the use of attendance plans can help staff, particularly when they are returning to work as a result of illness.”

“Anecdotal evidence”? They just got finished telling us that they didn’t know how many workers were onto the plans. I am pretty sure that one would need to understand the frequency of an occurrence before stating that their evidence is anecdotal.

I would really enjoy meeting this spokesman, and discussing the inaccuracies in not only the plans, the statement as well. If anyone knows this person, send me a message 🙂

Stop the counting

There’s clearly a deeply rooted problem inside the Department. The problem does not lay with the staff, and actually lays with the management. Their excessive rules, measures, and traditional command and control nature is causing extreme distress – and the organisation as a whole should be examined as to why.

It does not have to be the way it is.

Organisations that do this differently are a rare breed, but one solid example does spring to mind: Netflix. The global video behemoth does not bother to track attendance of any kind, let alone sick days. Want to have a vacation for 2 months? Do it. Need some time to take your dog to the vet? Do it. Sick child needs a bit of attention? Take the time, and look after what is most important to you, without question or hesitation.

When I tell people that Netflix allow this, and actively encourage it, most leaders’ reactions are that of bemusement. “Don’t people then just take the piss, and never show up?”

No, they do not.

You see, it isn’t a problem for them because everything else in their organisation is designed around making the lives of the employees simpler. They aren’t bureaucratic, and instead have implemented less rules, and withdrawn existing rules as they grew. Enabling employees to solve problems and find solutions on their own is empowering and satisfying. Ever felt good about something you’ve done at home, despite the fact that you weren’t sure how it was going to turn out beforehand? Imagine that feeling all the time, at work… and being given the freedom to make that change and solve that problem.

There’s absolutely nothing stopping the DHS from looking inward and fixing some of these problems. Being a government-run organisation, it might take longer to cut through some of the oversight that is mandated in the government statement of expectations, but it’s not impossible. Many government organisations around the world have done a lot of mirror-holding in order to better understand themselves and how they might change to more directly service their customers, and enable their staff to do that.

It’s about time a government organisation in Australia started doing this. The alternative is an increase in bureaucracy, not a reduction. Successive governments have have said they would “cut red tape” by implementing “tighter controls”. Which, as we now know, is an oxymoron – a bit like that spokesman.

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