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Are your employees skiving?

Innovative approach in Scotland dealt with problem of workers slacking off

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.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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  • RE: Canada is not UK
    Thursday, February 14, 2013 4:33:00 PM by Brian Kreissl
    Wow! I disagree on several levels here, not least of which is I'm not from England (and although I was born in Scotland I spent the vast majority of my life here in Canada (34 of my 41 years)). My next post will explain my thoughts on this further.

    Brian, I read your blog every month when it comes out - plus the other ones here. They are usally quite good. But I have to say: I get it. You're from England. Yay for you. But Canada is not Scotland. Things are different here, and your approaches would be disastrous in many progressive Canadian settings. They may work in an auto factory, or during the industrial revolution, but not today.
  • RE: You. Loved yer article on skiving! Pure dead brilliant by the way!
    Wednesday, February 13, 2013 11:25:00 AM by Brian Kreissl
    Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

    To me, the main takeaways from this story are: (1) when it comes to management and leadership, sometimes doing things other than strictly according to the "textbook" can still yield positive results; and (2) management style is highly dependent on context - especially with respect to organizational and local/national culture. Again, I'm not advocating this type of approach - especially not in Canadian workplaces in 2013!

    I chuckled reading your piece on "skiving" (what a great word)just thinking of the Glaswegian accent! No one's suggesting that we take up those practices. That was a different time and, quite frankly, a different culture. Like anything else, we take it & build on it. Thanks for sharing; I'm sure we can take away something positive.
  • RE: Innovative approach?
    Tuesday, February 12, 2013 5:26:00 PM by Brian Kreissl
    I agree up to a point, but did you miss the second part of my post? I wouldn't use such an approach myself in a million years, but the effect was interesting at the time.

    It was interesting to see how effective such an approach was under the circumstances. Somehow, this helped to drive employee engagement - I believe through humour, because the person in question definitely wasn't 100% serious (although people didn't get it at first). In case you might want to argue it wasn't employee engagement, I disagree. I know what employee engagement looks like, and I worked there and was highly engaged at the time.

    At first, it was a clash of cultures in a way, with people not understanding the humour. But once they got that it was essentially a joke, like me, most people kind of laughed it off - while still trying to avoid being called out for wasting time. And although the manager did raise his voice, it wasn't like other managers I've had who actually screamed at people at the top of their lungs with a beet red face while threatening employees with physical violence. Now that's bullying!

    I was somewhat disappointed my editor (even an editor has an editor) changed my "print deck" to suggest there was something inherently "Scottish" about this approach. What we call the print deck (the secondary headline) originally read, "An innovative approach to combating ‘slacking off’ in the workplace." And I definitely wouldn't refer to this as "Scotland's practices," since, as I have noted, there were organizational and regional variations at play here too, as well as an element of individual management style.

    Of course, I did use that "innovative" word in my original suggestion for the print deck, and at the time (it was 20 years ago) and in the place (the industry, not so much the country) it seemed to work. I noted further down in the post that this type of approach wouldn't work with today's workforce - and certainly not in a white collar environment either. It's just an interesting story about human nature and different ways of dealing with slacking off. I actually intended on discussing some high profile cases of "skiving" in the news these days, but I ran out of space.

    I also think there are some people who would suggest I might be stereotyping Glaswegians. While I don't believe I was, I did deal with some of the stereotypes that do exist about people from Glasgow. And, in a way, I believe that manager was using some of those stereotypes to his advantage. I also think it's worth recognizing that the culture of Northeast Scotland is different from that of Southwest Scotland, and I do believe that played into it as well.

    I wouldn't really call Scotland's practices an innovative approach to human resources management. Bullying and harassing employees who are suspected of slacking isn't a best practice and should be highly discouraged - without mentioning the legal troubles employers can find themselves in for engaging in this type of practice. Managers should try to engage workers and provide them with interesting projects that keep them busy and set deadlines for tasks that are time sensitive to avoid slacking.