The Productivity Problem

I was in my early twenties and managing a team of shelf stackers for Marks and Spencer. It was my first role managing people and I looked after a shift that operated after the store shut. I was on my own, looking after about 40 people. A mixture of students and working mothers.

I had 3 disabled members of staff. Officially.

On my first shift I was introduced to Tarquin by his mother. His mother worked in the same store and had done for 30 years.

Tarquin, it was explained to me, ‘wasn’t disabled’ he was just a very special boy who was ‘slow’ and ‘occasionally lost track’ – but definitely wasn’t disabled. It was my job not to let anybody use any words like that. He was ‘special’ and it was my job to look after him and his mother trusted me as ‘everyone says you are a nice polite young man’.

Over the new few weeks it became clear that Tarquin really couldn’t do the role as well as anyone else. He couldn’t follow any instructions with any level of complexity and had a habit of getting distracted and just going for a walk around the store. So even if he was placed on a simple task he couldn’t do it without being accompanied.

The only thing I ever did with Tarquin was swallow the hit for his productivity to keep his mother happy and because it sort of felt right. Everyone else was required to step up to cover his work and everyone appreciated that fact. Occasionally they were frustrated – but they got it.

Everybody in that environment cared for each other. HR used to occasionally chat to me about it. It was a nod and a wink conversation that avoided any reference to the subject of disability.

How is Tarquin getting on?
Well, you know…
We do – his mother really appreciates it and we appreciate you looking after him

I’m glad I worked for a company that took that approach. 15 years on I’m still not sure if I did the right thing.

I’m not sure if the option I took would still be open to me. I don’t know if I’d be as infinitely and openly human as the HR team that advised me (or avoided it on purpose).

I don’t know if I did the right thing commercially or ethically. I don’t know if I’d have done the same thing if my shift was struggling or in a recession. I don’t know if there is a right answer.

I just know that sometimes we can’t be all about the productivity. Sometimes people can all agree, together, that it can just be about the people.

Please note: Tarquin obviously wasn’t called Tarquin.

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6 thoughts on “The Productivity Problem

  1. I don’t think everything is just about productivity (even these days) – I do think that showing care and consideration for employees and colleagues (and even carrying the weaker ducklings) can actually enhance overall performance, through a sense of teamsmanship and a realisation that individuals are appreciated and valued (which implies that you are too). in many situations carrying one or more team members (with the team’s knowledge and agreement) brings people together and provides an extra sense of purpose – I have been in sales teams that have carried non-performers because we knew the market would turn and their sector would one day support us, and have run HR teams that knowingly carried individuals with disabilities (whose work was deteriorating due to ill-health) and we shared the extra work between us and were proud to do so. Much depends on whether the team appreciate that everyone is giving of their best, given their abilities and circumstances, and not just taking everyone for a ride.


    1. I’d agree. With teams being placed under more cost pressure during the financial crisis I am curious as to what extent ‘carrying people’ can damage business viability, rather than enhance the whole. It’s a really tricky one. If I’d been working for a smaller trader would the same call have been possible? How many people do you risk carrying knowing that you are damaging your competitive position? Tricky


  2. Tough call, what if your boss held you responsible and said you weren’t performing as a manager as you failed to address the issue? Depends how well you know the organisation culture and your boss?
    I’d love to think that other colleagues saw your approach and as a result they increased productivity as they saw the organisation genuinely valued all staff and that it wasn’t all about production levels. That of course depends whether they share the same values.


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