They Don’t Like It Up ‘Em

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I recently spent a convivial evening in one of London’s better pubs with a diverse group of commentators on the world of work and on people in work.

It was my first experience of meeting in person, and en masse, people from my social media network. With a few notable exceptions, I had not met them in “real” life before. However, it swiftly became apparent that there was a shared sense that a new perspective is required if we are to move the dial on the way we approach the evaluation of personal performance, if indeed we continue to do so in any procedural sense.

As we were talking, it occurred to me that one of the reasons we are collectively struggling to get organisations to treat the assessment of individual contribution differently is that we might be dealing with something that dates back to the era of the Home Guard, conscription and National Service. By the time of the Second World War, the sun was already setting on Britain’s empire, yet the military was still organised in an arcane, byzantine and hierarchical structure that would have been familiar to Wellington. In 1937 there were 200,000 soldiers in the British army. When war broke out in September 1939, Britain could still only raise 875,000 men including those who volunteered. Clearly, this was never going to be enough so conscription was introduced and by the end of 1939 more than 1.5 million men had been invited to the party.

Unsurprisingly, not all welcomed the call up. In his own inimitable style, Spike Milligan recalled receiving his papers in his memoir “Adolf Hitler – My Part In His Downfall” thus:

One day an envelope marked OHMS fell on the mat. Time for my appendicitis, I thought.
‘For Christ’s sake don’t open it’, said Uncle, prodding it with a stick. ‘Last time I did, I ended up in Mesopotamia, chased by Turks… Weeks went by, several more OHMS letters arrived, finally arriving at the rate of two a day stamped URGENT.
‘The King must think a lot of you son, writing all these letters,’ said Mother as she humped sacks of coal into the cellar. One Sunday, while Mother was repainting the house, as a treat Father opened one of the envelopes. In it was a cunningly worded invitation to partake in World War II, starting at seven and sixpence a week, all found. ‘Just fancy,’ said Mother as she carried Father upstairs for his bath, ‘of all the people in England, they’ve chosen you, it’s a great honour, Son.’
It was now three months since my call-up. To celebrate I hid under the bed dressed as Florence Nightingale. Next morning I received a card asking me to attend a medical at the Yorkshire Grey, Eltham. ‘Son,’ said Father, ‘l think after all you better go, we’re running out of disguises, in any case when they see you, they’re bound to send you home.’ The card said I was to report at 9.30 a.m. Please be prompt.’ I arrived prompt at 9.30 and was seen promptly at 12.15. We were told to strip. This revealed a mass of pale youths with thin, white, hairy legs. A press photographer was stopped by the recruiting Sergeant: ‘For Christ’s sake don’t! If the public saw a photo of this lot they’d pack it in straight away.’
I arrived in the presence of a grey-faced, bald doctor.
‘How do you feel?’ he said.
‘All right,’ I said.
‘Do you feel fit?’
‘No, I walked here.’
Grinning evilly, he wrote Grade I (One) in blood red ink on my card. ‘No black cap?’ I said. “It’s at the laundry,’ he replied.
The die was cast. It was a proud day for the Milligan family as I was taken from the house. ‘I’m too young to go,’ I screamed as Military Policemen dragged me from my pram, clutching a dummy. At Victoria Station the RTO gave me a travel warrant, a white feather and a picture of Hitler marked ‘This is your enemy’. I searched every compartment, but he wasn’t on the train. At 4.30, June 2nd, 1940, on a summer’s day all mare’s tails and blue sky we arrived at Bexhill-on-Sea, where I got off. It wasn’t easy. The train didn’t stop there.

With characteristic lack of imagination, the army dealt with this massive intake of uninitiated young men by codifying and categorising them from the outset in an attempt to start to bring some semblance of order. Swift assimilation into the khaki machine was obviously of paramount importance, but, as we see time and time again in the world of work, the assessment of people in a purely procedural manner has often arbitrary results that doesn’t necessarily end with the right person in the right role at the right time and with the right training.

Amazingly, conscription did not end until 1960, with the last men leaving the service in 1963. A generation of young men spent their formative years in strictly hierarchical structures, by the numbers, classified by rank and graded for fitness. Some saw the continuing military service as an opportunity to keep an otherwise idle youth from descending into anarchy (think David Cameron’s “Big Society” in uniform) whilst ostensibly bolstering our defences against the emergent Soviet threat. Still young when de-mobilized, they entered industry and business and brought with them this same structural sensibility which they then sought to replicate as managers at work. It is just possible that one unintended and as yet unremarked legacy of this policy remains with us today in the entrenched processes that beleaguered workforces will recognise as the annual performance review.

*I hesitated before including the Milligan piece because I was worried that it would make my writing look deathly dull in comparison, but ultimately left it in because it’s just too bloody good not to.

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