Each Year, the British Psychological Society's Division of Occupational Psychology makes a Lifetime Achievement Award. In September 2011 I was chosen as the winner for that year.
Overseas travel meant that I could not receive the Award in October 2011, and it was eventually presented to me on 12th January 2012 during the Annual conference of the Division of Occupational Psychology held in Chester.
Because some of the issues that I raised may be of wider interest, the comments that I made when I received the award follow. Further, as the content says something about me and what matters to me, the information may be helpful to anyone who is thinking of seeking my advice.
'Little time has been allowed for me to respond. Did the organisers fear the kind of tired and emotional response common among actors and actresses at awards ceremonies? But extreme brevity could be equated with indifference and that's not how I feel: I am genuinely pleased to receive this Award for three reasons.
First because my work has been at the ‘practitioner coalface’ and such work tends to go unnoticed. Second because this award was not the result of any canvassing on my part. And third because Dr Dick Buzzard, Director of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, was my first boss. It was Dick who proposed and founded the Division of Occupational Psychology and I’d like to acknowledge the help that he gave me at the start of my career.
My origins are relatively humble. My father was a police constable and my mother a full-time housewife. I passed the 11+, attended grammar school, and while at Hull University, survived financially on a County Council Grant. I then made my way by a combination of some ability, mentoring from some excellent managers and sheer hard work – for two years this included attending the Occupational Psychology Course at Birkbeck College for three evenings a week’ .
Given my own background it always been important to me that selection methods are objective and fair but, in recent months, anecdotal evidence suggests that these ideals may not be shared.
First some employers are now closing application lists when they have a sufficient pool of applicants rather than on a fixed date. Clearly such a process will favour those applicants who respond quickly because they are ‘internet savvy’, who have a good social network. The policy may be efficient but is it fair?
Second, many young people now work without pay as interns in the hope of being offered paid work in the future. Again, simply getting to know of such opportunities can depend on family and other connections, and few can afford to live and work for months without pay. Is that fair?
Third, I heard of a Senior Manager who was told by his Director that a new member of staff would be joining his team although he had no vacancies. Discreet enquiries of her previous employer revealed serious concerns about the potential newcomer’s suitability, and the Senior Manager shared these concerns with his Director. For a while all went quiet, but then the Director appeared waving a piece of paper and saying that, now that she had obtained a good reference for the individual, the appointment would go ahead. That certainly was not fair
I’ve also heard of a senior professional who was appointing staff on merit. But among the applicants were relatives of top managers in his organisation and they were unsuccessful. He was forced into early retirement.
Recently the Independent Newspaper described a potentially worrying trend in the use of psychometrics. A senior UK investment banker told journalist Brian Basham that, at one major investment bank, psychometric testing was used to recruit social psychopaths because those characteristics exactly suited them to senior Corporate Finance roles. Given what has been reported about the management style of some CEOs it would seem that banks are not the only organisations that have taken that extreme view. Read Professor Fred Luthan’s work on Positive Psychological Capital, John Kotter’s work on Management, or listen to American Coastguard Admiral Thad Allen describe his team-based approached to disaster management in New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, and you will hopefully come to different conclusions about the qualities needed in successful leaders. Or at least consider the findings from studies of successful psychopaths by staff of the School of Psychology at Glasgow University who spoke at this conference yesterday.
My concerns support those who see the re-emergence of a two tier society where the priorities of some top managers are the size of their salary and their bonus, and the opportunity to employ their relatives and friends. How can some people be appointed to top public jobs when their highly suspect track records are well-documented in the magazine ‘Private Eye’? It's the same two-tier society which has allowed some large corporations to pay less tax than small businesses and individuals. And while the rich who don't pay their taxes and VAT can make discreet private settlements with the Revenue and Customs, the poor are often taken to court for stealing relatively small sums
Our profession encourages transparency, objectivity and fairness based on scientific evidence. Those who pass a professionally designed selection procedure are likely to do the work well, while those who are rejected can have confidence in the integrity of the decision and any associated ‘feedback’. They then know where they stand and can decide what to do next. If my anecdotal examples reflect current trends, I fear it marks a return to recruitment decisions based on wealth and patronage. At a time when we need to engage as many people as possible in getting this nation out of debt, I think it is important that people from all backgrounds and classes should at least have some hope that their talents will be recognised and developed and their efforts fairly rewarded.
Looking beyond selection, I see a profession in which much effort is being spent on discrete issues. If you were in a senior post in a large organisation, where would you direct your psychological and HR resources, and why? In my view it would be good to investigate and evaluate high-level systems thinking in our field, and I think that last year’s Award Winner, Professor Gerry Randall, would support this.
I hope that this Award does not mark the end of my career although my comments may have diminished my few remaining prospects. Our field of work is changing rapidly and the diverse papers at this conference reflect some intriguing new issues and challenges. I hope to be around for a while longer to help take stock of these trends and contribute some views about whether and in what ways our profession should respond
Shortly after I learned of this Award I was walking with my wife on a coastal path in New Zealand. Chalked outside a hut selling refreshments was the following notice:
‘Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.’
Before people here start rolling their eyes because I have gone over time, I am going to finish by thanking the Division for this prestigious Award, and my wife, family and former colleagues for their invaluable support.'