When my former boss, Brian the Anxious, was running things, I always thought he was wet – for ever moaning about how overworked he was, about how much paper he had to process, about how people were always so nasty to him. “Aww,” I used to think, “what a mummy’s boy the man is, what a hopeless leader he’s turned out to be.”
I had even less sympathy when he started complaining about stress and taking time off, particularly because by then he had persuaded me to become his deputy, which meant that his workload slid steadily on to my desk.
Now that he has taken early retirement and I am lumbered with running it all, I have started to see that, far from being a wimp, Brian was a right little Machiavelli. He conned me into thinking that being deputy head was a good career move, then obviously went round assuring people that Gloria was daft enough to do the job nobody else wanted, and now here I am, head of the whole shebang and beginning to realise that Brian didn’t complain nearly enough. Or, more likely, didn’t do nearly enough and just kept his head stuck in the sand.
The job is a nightmare, not only because of the endless stream of emails that fill my inbox every morning but mainly because of the way some people behave. It’s almost enough to make me want to get in touch with Lord Mandelson – who is said to be planning a higher education Ofsted system that will reduce universities to advanced primary schools – to tell him that I think he may have a point about the value for money some academics provide.
Take Dr X, for example, who I’ve always known was a right cow, who only shows up for a maximum of two days a week in term time and is still apparently writing her Big Book that she has been boasting about for the past decade but has yet to see the light of day. She sent me a furious email in the sort of language associated with Outraged of Tunbridge Wells because I had scheduled a staff meeting on one of her absentee days.
Didn’t I realise, she pontificated, that she had a four-hour train journey to get to her place of work? I reminded her in an email of the requirement that all staff live within a 30-mile radius, after which she rang me up, choking with fury, and I had to tell her to piss off! Settled her hash, I thought, until I received a letter from her solicitor telling me that she had collapsed as a result of the stress brought on by my abusive behaviour and that she would be seeking redress from the university.
I asked Pat, our secretary, what I should do about it. Her advice was to ring HR, although she added that they wouldn’t be much help, because the last time Dr X pulled the same stunt she had managed to get several months off on full pay. I duly rang HR and explained the situation, and a bored bloke on the end of the phone told me that this was one of dozens of cases he knew of but couldn’t do a thing about because of the “absence of a performance management strategy”. That means that HR can’t do anything about people who won’t turn up for work.
It seems the university is full of such cases and, the bloke assured me, we had a better track record than some other places. I remarked that just as universities are required to produce drop-out rates for students, maybe it was time to start thinking about absentee tables for staff. A great idea, he said, suddenly more animated, then added that we were on the way there as HR was requiring all units to produce workload models that would show exactly who did what and when and for how long.
Then a thought struck him: how far had Brian got with his workload model and had I made any progress with it since he left? The answer, of course, is that Brian had chickened out of even starting it, and so I am landed with having to do it.
I put the phone down thoughtfully and went to tell Pat. She was far from reassuring, and related stories of how bitter the attacks on heads of unit had been in some parts of the university when workload models had been mooted.
“Why don’t you go on one of those training courses for dealing with difficult people,” she suggested. She had been on one, she said.
Was it any use? “Not really,” she said, “but it was good fun.” And it showed her that however difficult the people were in the scenarios, the people we were dealing with were ten times worse.
My daily cigarette count is going through the roof. I think I may be in the wrong job altogether. Perhaps I could retrain as a dog handler.
Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.