With all the state-board convulsions underway, attention is on the political consequences. But employees of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are the ones caught in toxic work environments, where distrust and victimisation create anxiety, stress and frustration. No union has placed this issue atop its agenda, and of course no business or employer organisation is likely to be concerned. We should be.
Since 2010, all employees of SOEs have been bearing the workplace changes which accompany a change in government. Subsequently, some SOEs experienced changes in the line minister, and this usually causes shifts in policy direction, priorities, and board and executive management. And then, without having settled into those changes, a few have already, or will soon, experience partial or complete changes in board composition, and possibly executive leadership.
Not a lot of serious work gets done with so many changes taking place, and for employees, a lot of personal damage takes place.
It is not accidental that in the combative party-versus-party politics, the burden falls mainly on employees who handle purchasing, contracts, recruitment and corporate governance. With the change in government in 2010, the launch of forensic and other investigations in certain SOEs immediately fractured working relationships, pitting employees against each other. And in this new-found habit of going through email accounts and phone records, a level of toxicity is born out of distrust, gossip, profiling and other underhand means of weakening employees. With more gender equality in procurement, and an overwhelming majority of women in human resources and corporate secretarial practice, women in these positions in SOEs add the challenges of constant change to the constant challenge of being female in the workplace, and working mother and wife.
Throughout these changes, SOE employees, particularly those experiencing multiple changes, have to grapple with the conflicts which precede and follow. The party-versus- party changes at board level is typical and expected. The executive changes are not always necessary, but executives in SOEs must have accepted by now that change in government is a particular workplace risk, whatever the personal political affiliation or views of an executive. And the employees of SOEs, particularly those with at least a decade of service, know that political change brings a level of organisational fracture.
But along the way, you get the impression that when politicians ring out these organisational changes, planned or inadvertent, they do not weigh the consequences on employee health, morale, motivation and confidence. Politicians do not put a cost on the delays which are inevitable as board and management change, and they must be ignoring the real cost of switching plans and strategies mid-stream. There should be a plan on all sides of the political fence to minimise the employee impact of political change.
Until a sensible approach is struck, functions like procurement, human resources and corporate secretarial, because of their nature, will carry the weight of constant change. These functions are the target of investigators, professional or mischievous, and the likely effect is that employees in these areas simultaneously grapple with stress, toxicity and change. In the midst, some employees in these functions will leave, taking unemployment instead of stress. Some will be edged out, and a few axed. Amongst their replacements will be persons who were also at one time edged, pushed or axed, from that organisation or another.
Politicians, as master manipulators, usually have no problem using their state-sponsored access to sticks and carrots, to either foster distrust or reward co-conspirators. Political mailboxes become filled quickly, with envelopes bearing spy-versus-spy material and gossip.
It is not likely that these SOEs are capable of handling frequent organisational changes, fracture and toxicity. Even medium and long-term plans cannot adjust to the frequency and depth of change, especially when in some cases the change means a summary abandonment of a strategy or plan well underway. Still, politicians are consumed by the fact of change and not the need for it.
Some changes are thought necessary when line ministers are shuffled, but the more upsetting changes are those brought by the sudden and sometimes inexplicable shift of departments from within one ministry into another. This type of change could be particularly upsetting if existing departments, their functions and employees are being moved to a newly created ministry which is so new that it has no place to call home.
One current example is the shifts brought on by the creation of a new Ministry of Water Resources. The Meteorological Office and Forestry Division have been shifted from the Ministry of Public Utilities to this new ministry, which is itself not yet housed or operationalised.
Clearly, these are not matters considered by the politicians who oversee SOEs, and these are not priority issues for unions and employers' representatives.
But this is an unhealthy development. In each SOE caught in the conflicts of PNM/ People's Partnership changeover, and then minister and board changeover, employees carry the weight of organisational change, with their allegiance constantly questioned, their wills tested, and their willingness and ability to trust impaired. The ensuing workplace stress is the product of the workplace toxicity, which, left unchecked, is a source of danger.
These are not things politicians consider when they put SOEs into turmoil and keep them there, but it is the sort of thing which requires consideration as stress builds in state-controlled workplaces.
• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer