Talent nurturing tips the HR Department can learn from TV’s Call Centre

by Scott Douglas

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

Nev - colourful Call Centre bossA version of this article first appeared in the Daily Record’s Edinburgh Now supplement

It must be tough being in human resources. Tough in the same way as it is being a health and safety officer.

Everyone knows there’s a kernel of good sense at the core what they say and do, but for the rest of us, what we really see is a bureaucratic force dedicated to rules that are either glaringly obvious or entirely nonsensical.

This is what happens in a world where we are constantly trying to rigidly define common sense. We get officials dedicated to ensuring bananas are straight and insisting the sack race is too risky for school sports day

My guess would be that in many workplaces the HR department is the place with the killjoy reputation – where faceless HR people are viewed with suspicion as the ‘fun police’.

They’re the people who send out a memo the week before the staff Christmas party warning that drunken fumbles or bust-ups with colleagues could result in formal disciplinary procedure.

And yet, when an employer wants to sack a lazy, divisive ne-er do well who has been badmouthing the business, it’s the HR people who step in to insist that what is actually needed is a soul-sapping six-month performance review.

All of which makes car crash reality TV show The Call Centre an invigorating watch from a business point of view.

What are business people and employers to make of grey and inflexible HR advice when Nev, the millionaire boss of a basket case Swansea call centre rides roughshod over every rule in the book – and the whole thing is celebrated in glorious technicolour on the Beeb?

If you haven’t seen The Call Centre, do yourself a favour and get it on iPlayer. Often the best bits about these programmes are in the trailer. But no 30 second pre-roll can do full justice to the jaw dropping antics of staff at Save Britain Money.

Nev is a man who models himself on Napoleon in the belief that the diminutive, syphilitic megalomaniac was some sort of likeable dictator. An early scene has him cheerfully admitting that the HR department despair of him. Little wonder.

Interview techniques include walking potential new recruits through the packed office floor and asking if anyone fancies them and if they should be given a job. There’s more to come for those lucky enough to be chosen as seat warmers in the burgeoning phone-pestering business.

A hulking fifty-something, Nev introduces staff to the company by forcing them to take part in group karaoke sessions, warning those who don’t sing could face the sack.

If that doesn’t make for a memorable first day at work, then there’s the unforgettable sight of your new boss throwing missiles at anyone who dares stifle yawn. Nev throws whatever comes to hand, including pens, notebooks and even sausage rolls and pasties. Yum.

Longer-serving staff don’t miss out either. In most workplaces the complications of inter-office relationship are a terrifying HR minefield, but Nev has no such inhibitions.

When one of his loyal admin worker’s performance dipped after a traumatic relationship break-up, our man had the answer – a giant speed-dating night out for his entire workforce. Then he carefully engineering her into the arms of the bloke he deemed most suitable.

If you’ve not quite got the picture yet, Ricky Gervais Tweeted: “Watching The Call Centre. I’m starting to think that David Brent isn’t so cringeworthy after all.”

No doubt The Call Centre is a workplace with ‘industrial tribunal’ written all over it. HR lawyers up and down the country must be rubbing their hands, while greedily calculating the cost of a move to Wales.

But isn’t that worse than what BBC3 audiences are witnessing on the goggle box, even if they are watching between their fingers?

Do we really need workplaces greyed into dreary conformity because hiding the teabags amounts to bullying, telling off-colour jokes constitutes sexual harassment and using swear words is likely to cause the kind of stress that requires a month of paid leave to cure?

Despite the healthy doses of buffoonery, cheese and theatrical excess, there is something fundamentally likeable about Nev. Even his fiercest critic would have to grudgingly admire the success of the business he has built in a few short years.

There is a basic reason for that. Nev, in all his Little Emperor-imitating, karaoke-singing, missile-throwing, off-colour pomp is a man dedicated to nurturing and rewarding talent, rather than drawing up rules that either define or defy common sense.

How many HR departments can say the same?


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