By Brian Kreissl
Like last week, this week’s post focuses on a term many people will be unfamiliar with. However, this time, I’m not actually going to discuss a new and trendy HR buzzword or catchphrase.
Instead, I’m going to discuss an old British slang word for avoiding work that I think captures the essence of the concept better than any term we have in North America. That word is “skiving” — meaning slacking off of work.
One experience of the word I remember vividly relates to a large supermarket I worked at in Aberdeen, Scotland, nearly 20 years ago. At the time, the store had just been bought by a Glasgow-based supermarket chain and most of the new management team had moved up from Glasgow.
Not to stereotype anyone, but while people from Glasgow are generally known to be friendly and outgoing, they also have a reputation of being rather loud and brash at times. And unfortunately, Glasgow has a not entirely undeserved reputation of being a somewhat violent city.
The new assistant manager at the time was a Glasgow transplant, who — while a rather dapper fellow who was always well-groomed and impeccably dressed — was quite loud and outspoken. Contrary to what some might think, an assistant manager at a large supermarket is actually quite a senior-level position.
That’s important because the assistant manager would use a little fear and some intimidation, albeit in a humourous way, to get more work out of people. He would often walk around the store, point at people and shout: “You. Are you skiving?”
(He would also sometimes do the same and say in a booming voice: “You. You’re working late tonight. Think of the money.” That was his way of asking people if they wanted to work overtime that evening.)
Because this was a very different management style from what employees were used to under the previous regime, people were rather taken aback by his approach. I believe part of it related to the culture of the new organization, but also subtle cultural differences between Aberdonians and Glaswegians (even though the two cities are only 217 km apart).
Nevertheless, I began to realize there was a fair bit of humour in the assistant manager’s approach, and some of it was actually a little tongue-in-cheek based on his position and trying to cultivate a bit of a reputation as a “Glasgow hard man.”
Once I got to know him, however, I began to realize he was actually a nice guy. He would even socialize with us sometimes after hours.
You could argue he used somewhat inappropriate methods — including bullying and intimidation — to ensure people weren’t slacking. But it was interesting just how effective his approach actually was.
People really did work harder knowing the assistant manager might come around and accuse them of “skiving.” Even if many people began to realize he wasn’t being entirely serious, for some reason they didn’t want to disappoint him either. And never before or since have I felt such a degree of camaraderie as when I worked nightshift at the store that summer.
Dealing with skiving at your organization
In all seriousness, however, whether you call it time theft, slacking off, skiving or an obscene metaphor involving a dog, people wasting time on the job doing something other than what they’re supposed to be doing is a real problem at many organizations. And while people obviously skived back in 1993 in Scottish supermarkets, there are far more diversions in today’s workplaces — especially technologies such as email, the Internet, games and text messaging.
It’s also true that, as the workplace becomes more flexible, it’s much more difficult to ensure people aren’t wasting time. Flexible hours, virtual teams and telecommuting make it more difficult to supervise people to ensure they’re not skiving.
Today’s managers need to focus instead on the quality and quantity of deliverables rather than direct supervision and ensuring people are being productive 100 per cent of the time. After all, no one can be working every minute of their workday.
On the other hand, in light of unpaid overtime litigation and an increasing awareness of employee rights, it’s not appropriate to allow most employees to waste large amounts of time on the job because many will leave right on time and not try to make up the time afterwards. And “You’re working late tonight. Think of the money” isn’t likely to work these days either.