Aug 19 2015

When your people are not your greatest assets

Using offensive language may affect people’s view of your industry sector, but if you’re wearing clothing bearing your employer’s name, it can also damage the reputation of the company.

It has become something of a cliche: “our people are our greatest assets“. This and similar phrases are used by many UK construction industry businesses, sometimes with justification – in the professional services sector, for example, the skills, experience, knowledge and creativity of individual engineers, architects and other professionals will often be the critical factor in deciding between different company’s teams. However, there can be times when the attitudes and behaviours of employees can be a liability….

A quiet pint

Not a quiet pint

I stopped off for a quiet pint in my local southeast London pub yesterday evening and found a table not far from two middle-aged white men talking about their work – though, if I’d quickly realised how loud and foul-mouthed they were going to be, I would have found another place to sit.

From their accents, they came from the West Midlands, and from their mentions of ductwork, wiring, switches and other kit, it was clear they both worked in the building services sector. However, both men peppered their conversation with expletives: just about every sentence included “f***ing” this or “f***ing” that, with fellow workers, company processes, managers – and the pub: “it’s like a f***ing bistro now” – all disparaged.

No wonder most nearby tables were empty, but at one that wasn’t I noticed a man I vaguely know who had evidently just finished a meal with his elderly mother. As the expletives flowed, he caught my eye and shook his head; he and his mother left the pub shortly after; I soon followed. (I bumped into him again today, and he told me that he and his mother had been appalled by the workers’ stream of “industrial” language – “typical builders”, he said. Ouch.)

As someone who cares about the poor image of the UK construction industry and wants to improve it, this incident just showed how construction people’s own behaviours can reinforce negative stereotypes. Such inconsiderate language can easily offend people, but direct impacts on the reputation of individual businesses will be rare.

However, I noticed both the off-duty workers were wearing company polo shirts embroidered with the name “J S Wright & Co Ltd“. Not only were they creating a negative perception of the construction industry, they were doing it while wearing their employers’ name and logo. This is a long-established Birmingham-based company proud of its heritage, but managing director Marcus Aniol’s website talk of staff who are “ever courteous and helpful” wasn’t borne out by my experience yesterday.

In its values statement, J S Wright & Co says it wants people in its team who “understand that people are our most important asset“. Sorry, Mr Aniol, on this occasion, two of those ‘assets’ were, at least so far as I was concerned, anything but.

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