Don’t blame the workers for low productivity

04 January 2016 -


With so many employers not living up to their training promises, is it any wonder that UK productivity is so poor?

Mark Crail

For those of us who recall how blame was dished out in previous economic hard times, this is a big change. In the 1970s, as well as go-slows, strikes and enforced three-day weeks, we also faced the sheer bloody-minded don’t-care attitude that meant if you bought an Austin Allegro made on one Friday afternoon, you knew that the wheels would fall off before you got it home.

But then, this was a decade of collective economic suicide.

While picket lines were the public manifestation of all that was going wrong, British industry also failed to invest in modern plant and machinery, and had scant interest in ensuring that managers or workers were properly trained; some companies even grew fond of provoking strikes to save wages.

Had the country turned left rather than right in 1979 and a revolution ensued, the Tooting Popular Front would have found little value in seizing what was left of the means of production.

Fast forward to modern times. It’s not long since the Centre for Economics and Business Research calculated that today’s office workers are twice as productive as they were 30 years ago (in spite of all those surveys telling us we spend much of our working time trawling the net for pictures of cats).

But over the past few years, and since the economy hit a wall, that amazing productivity growth has come to a grinding halt.

The most commonly cited reason is that poor performers (read unproductive employees) who would have lost their jobs in previous recessions have been kept on by employers who, rather than add to the unemployment figures, decided to ride things out until the upturn came. Which is all very noble. But is it true that low-productivity workers really are just bad at their jobs?

Leaving aside questions about investment in technology and equipment – about which I know little – there is still an important question about investment in people. For years now, XpertHR has run surveys about employers’ priorities for the coming year and their training plans, activities and budgets. And by far the most notable feature, year after year, has been the gap between aspiration and achievement.


Almost without fail, training is among the top three issues that employers plan to address in the year ahead. And, with almost equal inevitability, training fails to appear anywhere on the leader board when employers look at where they have put their efforts in the past 12 months.

Instead, other unexpected challenges emerge to soak up management time and training budgets, and nothing much gets done.

From the point of view of the HR department, as the historian Arnold Toynbee said, it’s “just one damned thing after another”. Or to put it more succinctly, shit happens.

None of which matters much while real wage rises are lagging behind inflation – as they have been for much of the period since the turn of the decade. After all, this means it is cheaper to employ the same people year on year.

That has now all begun to change. With inflation bumping along close to zero and pay rises steady at around 2% to 2.5%, the real cost of employing people is going up. It means that employers need to get better productivity from their employees if they are going to carry on making a profit.

So we are at a crossroads.

We face a choice between making training a priority that actually does happen – and which means pay rises can be afforded from rising productivity – or jumping on our space-hoppers and bouncing back to a 1970s’ approach that blames employees for endemic low productivity, and demands greater legal flexibility so it is easier to get rid of the shirkers and the work-shy.

Mark Crail is content director at XpertHR

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