Why I can’t wait to stop work and what I won’t miss about work
When you are aiming to retire early you can spend hours thinking about what you want to retire to. But often the bulk of your thoughts are about what you want to retire from.
Some early retirees enjoyed their work but not their job and had a clear plan of what they wanted to do instead. Others grew to truly dislike their job and early retirement became all about escaping from their workplace.
When you are nearing the point of not working you are likely to find yourself digging deep into what your new goals will be in retirement. What post-working life will be like. Inevitably this then leads you into a spot of self analysis at where you are right now. What working for your employer has meant to you, how it has affected you.
I am at this point in my journey now. I am not usually into self analysis but just lately I have found myself analysing the effects work has had on me. What I have enjoyed about work and what I definitely haven’t.
The more I’ve thought about work in this way the more negative I have become as I have lifted my nose from the grindstone and looked about me. And it’s not just me but the people I work with as well.
Planning your escape
If you have similar goals to us, you’ll have been planning your escape from the workplace for some time. You will have spent years budgeting and saving every penny you can in order to achieve your long held dream of escape.
You may not have spent time searching for your forever home, nor inadvertently bought a 2nd house by mistake! But you will have been focused on the future and correcting mistakes you may have made in the past.
When you get to within touching distance of achieving your goal you may find yourself, like me, looking about you and doing a bit of self reflection. Reflecting on what has gone before can be a great way of preparing yourself for your new future.
Read on for my rant!
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Performance management joys
If you are a civil servant then you won’t be surprised to hear that the Performance Management System is probably the biggest bugbear for me.
The civil service has spent millions putting a new system in place, with glossy brochures, manager training events etc. It cannot be seen to be failing so it has to be made to work.
To quota or not to quota?
Trade unions are told there are no quotas but at the coalface we all know this is rubbish. Of course there are quotas! You don’t get 10% lowest performers, 20% top performers and 70% in the middle every year without quotas.
The written policy may state there is “guided distribution” but in practice quotas are very much alive and kicking and everyone knows it.
Let’s face it, my regional director gets hauled before her boss to explain herself if her region does not fulfill the guided distribution. It’s likely to be a career limiting discussion. Naturally that’s a discussion she won’t want to have. So guess what? Her region does not stray.
Repeat that across the civil service and voila you have a performance management system that is apparently working.
Manager must do’s
As a manager having to identify 10% of your team as being of the lowest standard and therefore requiring improvement can be completely at odds with how those team members are performing.
There are of course people who do deserve the lowest marking. They’ve had a bad year, taken their eye off the ball, not in the right job etc.
More than 50% of the staff I have marked as needing improvement in order to achieve my managers quota guided distribution were squeezed into that criteria. Because of the guided distribution requirements.
And it doesn’t feel good.
Getting such a marking has wide ranging repercussions. In at least one civil service department it means you won’t get any pay rise at all. Not even the fabulous 1% that all departments have been capped at.
Additionally you will start the following performance year on a performance improvement plan. God help you if you aren’t seen to improve and get off that plan pretty sharpish.
Because guess what? If you are still on the plan by end of quarter 1 you are then at high risk of being in the same position for the whole of that year as well. Rinse and repeat.
If you receive a low marking at the end of the year, it doesn’t matter if you know in your heart you deserve it. It doesn’t feel good and can leave you negative about your whole working life.
But if you receive such a marking and you do not feel it is justified then you are into a whole different world of negativity. I have seen people who received a poor performance marking one year due to the guided distribution system who go on the following year to deserve that marking.
Such has been the effect of that wrongful marking on their work ethic and abilities. How is that raising the standard of performance in the civil service?
The monthly pain
Managers are required to hold monthly performance discussions with every team member. From month 2 onward you are already having to start identifying who is likely to be your 10% lowest performers.
You spend the whole year and hours of your time looking for evidence to justify the bottom 10%. There is no way if you manage 10 people or more that you are going to be able to get away with not having a poor performer. If you did it would mean another manager would have to pick up your 10%.
We haven’t even discussed the bun fight of the top 20%, the highest performers. Sometimes it’s quite easy to identify your top performers but what if your team have a storming year?
They smash their targets and go above and beyond their ‘stretch’ targets. Do you get to award more than 20% as top performers? What do you think?
When you get to the end of year as every manager is unlikely to have identified their 10/70/20 performers, you get to sit in a room with your peers thrashing out your quotas until you have.
It’s called a moderation meeting where you are supposed to sense check expected markings, ensure all managers have the same standards.
What it actually turns into is a bun fight where you can end up being passive aggressive in order to protect your own team. You highlight the issues of other staff managed by your colleagues.
You have to contend with the local interpretation of the national policy. This often equates to – people need to do more than they did last year if they want the same performance marking.
Someone who received a top marking is therefore expected to do ever more if they are to achieve a top marking the following year. In comparison to their colleagues they may still be an obvious top performer but as a manager you have your work cut out trying to get them that top marking.
The whole thing becomes a passive aggressive battle of wills. Each manager fights for their own team by highlighting faults in others and glossing over or hiding their team’s weaknesses.
And to put the cherry on the cake, part of that meeting will also be your own manager pointing out that if you can’t do your job (of identifying lowest, middle and top performers) then guess what? You are a low performer as you’ve not done your job properly!
My support network?
Never mind all the passive aggressive behaviours displayed in these meetings. As managers you must be a cohesive team, supportive of each other, senior managers and all your teams.
Yet you end up unable to have honest conversations with your peers about difficulties you might be having with a team member. You fear it will be thrown back in your face come moderation meeting time.
Nor dare you share your own insecurities about your work as you can bet that will get back to your manager too. Supportive peers? Maybe, but with strings attached. I am not going to miss my “support network”.
After you have survived the bun fight moderation meeting you then have the joy of imparting the final performance markings to your teams.
But of course it’s not straightforward and can’t be done at the end of your meeting. No, all management team markings have to be fed into your region. The regional director has to ensure her region has achieved the quotas guided distribution.
Only once the regional director is happy are you then allowed to give your people the good news on their performance marking.
The fact it usually takes at least 3 weeks from when you hold your moderation meeting to markings being released to teams just makes the whole process unsavoury.
We are saying there are no quotas yet cannot release performance markings for 3+ weeks for what reason? All staff know when the moderation meetings are. They know that decisions are made at them yet we keep them hanging on for another 3 weeks.
You can see why morale in many departments is not great!
As a manager you start the new performance year issuing last years markings which usually causes a whole bunch of ill feeling. Then you have the joy of setting up those performance improvement plans for your 10% who need improvement. And you start the whole merry-go-round again.
And what does this achieve in the grand scheme of things?
Perhaps when the system first came in it did weed out the genuine poor performers. But in the years since my experience is that it hasn’t.
I don’t know of anyone who has been sacked for poor work performance. I am sure there are people who have been sacked but they are a tiny minority.
What we do have is a significant number of people who fear and loathe the performance system. People who have been financially disadvantaged by the system. Who detest the unfairness and impact the system has on their colleagues.
Teams spend the 1st quarter of every year with people annoyed at the marking they got. Annoyed at the marking their colleagues got and annoyed at the managers for inflicting the markings on them.
As a manager you tend to spend the 1st quarter keeping your head down and tiptoeing around the more volatile team members.
Then to add to the poor morale in the civil service we have a yearly staff survey where managers are often held responsible for their team’s results. The staff survey is anonymous but results are drilled down to management teams.
Managers are required to spend a significant amount of their time undertaking “people engagement” activities with the end game of a better outcome in the staff survey.
That the majority of the negativity is directed at government/head of department decision makers seems to be lost on the powers that be.
I have no control over national pay processes and the performance management system. Yet I must influence my team so that they respond positively once a year to questions that surround their pay and working conditions.
And then you have some departments going through huge reorganisations, and closing local offices. Departments moving work into contact centres and regional sites. Losing your job or being required to travel an extra hour or two a day will affect how you respond to the staff survey. Who knew?
Then we come onto targets and key performance indicators which support those targets. Every year civil servants don’t know their targets, what they are aiming for, what their performance marking will be based on until almost the end of Q1.
Regardless of what was achieved the year before targets will be higher, more stretching. I don’t have a problem with targets that on their own support the common good. “Get X people a new job” or “help X children receive a 30 hour childcare place”.
I’ve made these up but bet they are not too far off the mark for some departments. These targets help the taxpayer in their daily lives.
The problems start when the targets don’t fit or are out of kilter with what is possible at the coalface. What if you don’t have that many children in your area that would be eligible or want the 30 hour childcare place?
What if your area has very low unemployment in comparison to the national average?
Guess what? You still have to achieve those targets or your looking at that needs improvement performance marking. You face the wrath of the regional director because you and your team are letting the side down.
Targets drive behaviours
So you start skewing your behaviours, how you claim a point towards those stretching targets. You get creative in what you count as achievement. You spend hours looking at other offices stats to see what they are doing and can you nick their “good practices”.
Of course they are not necessarily good practices. Just skewed behaviour which doesn’t fit with the morals behind the original target. It is effectively condoned by the higher echelons of management because what they want is target achievement, not excuses.
The hoo-hah that surrounded the DWP/JobcentrePlus’ sanction regime for Jobseekers Allowance a few years ago would seem to be a case in point. I am sure the manager’s letter to their staff would have caused a few problems for DWP ministers.
If you get sanctioned and lose your benefit, you are more likely to sign off and therefore unemployment figures fall which helps government targets.
Skewing the way you work and what you claim you achieve is not good for the personal feel good factor.
FIRE here I come
In summary, I know what I won’t miss about work. Why I can’t wait to quit my job. I want to do something more real and honest with my time. Reading the above back it sounds like I truly dislike my job. I don’t, but boy do I hate the politics of it.
I enjoy working with my team and my colleagues most of the time but that’s about people interaction, it’s not about the job. You won’t find me saying I miss my job. I will miss the people interaction but I don’t need a job to replicate that.
The day I hold my last monthly performance meeting cannot come soon enough.