Jim Duffy: Isn’t it time we put an end to the era of the jobsworth?

The cast of hit BBC comedy drama The Thick Of It. Picture: BBC
The cast of hit BBC comedy drama The Thick Of It. Picture: BBC
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Or is it just too much effort to remind them to use their emotional intelligence or pay a visit to their self-help gurus, asks Jim Duffy

I’m a big fan of The Thick Of It, the BBC satirical comedy that takes a look at what goes on behind the scenes of Westminster politics… allegedly. Of course, everyone knows the main character, Malcolm Tucker, whose one-liners and pithy put-downs are acidic and leave his victims glued to the spot. But, there is one character that weaves through the whole series and who is really just there to annoy me - it is of course Terri Coverley, played by Joanna Scanlan.

Terri is the director of communications at DoSAC, the unfortunate government department that goes from one crisis to another. Recruited at some expense from the private sector, Terri has survived five secretaries of state. She is now in with the bricks and despite, albeit on the face of it, being fairly polite and vanilla, she is a complete jobsworth.

What value Terri actually brings to the proceedings is debatable. I often wonder as I re-watch the programme occasionally on Netflix whether if she even existed – would it make any difference? Then of course it hits me and I remember what the screenplay writers really want me to think ... exactly that.

Terri will not do anything that sits outside her job description. When poor Nicola Murray, the secretary of state at DoSAC, needs personal advice as Malcolm gives her an ultimatum on her daughter attending a private school, Terri makes it quite clear … “not my remit”. Terri is also great at ensuring her holidays are booked well in advance to suit her and not her colleagues and anything important coming up in the ministerial diary. She leaves on time and despite being well turned out and appearing professional, she will just not go that extra mile. Some may argue - an archetypal, institutionalised, inward looking, self-effacing, public sector-type jobsworth. Maybe a bit too harsh here on the public sector?

But, we have all met a Terri Coverley. We all have met a jobsworth. You may even be one and you just don’t know it. Maybe ask your co-workers if in any doubt. Just make sure you’re “open for feedback”.

Jobsworths crop up in all walks of life. It’s unfair to label traffic wardens as jobsworths, but let’s anyway. No? I met a jobsworth recently at Bristol airport. I had been allowed up the priority aisle by a security worker with my Easyjet Pluscard, only to be told by my jobsworth, 30 feet down the lane, that the card was not valid here for another three weeks. By the way, the priority lane was completely empty at that time – 6am. I was then made to pace the walk of shame all the way back to the end of the queue. No discretion and no idea how to win me over as a customer. Well, my card was three weeks too early and that was that – the jobsworth was only following the rules – right?

So, jobsworths exist in all sectors – public, private and third. But, rather than have a go at them here, I’m curious to find out what you think makes a jobsworth. So, my questions are: is a jobsworth born, or do we create them in our companies, organisations, local authorities, charities and PLCs? Are some people naturally geared this way or do we create cultures where we turn people into jobsworths? Oh, and a supplementary question for a Brucie Bonus – only because it fascinates me – does a jobsworth know he\she is a jobsworth?

I’ve worked in organisations where jobsworths are common place. A fortnight back, I wrote a piece here about my time in the police. I spent 11 years on the thin blue line and not only did I see jobsworths everyday, there were glorious moments when I was indeed a No 1 jobsworth. None more so than when I was giving out tickets for red light offences or sometimes in my dealing with members of the public. Yes, I could be a trifle officious at times and kinda got away with it. To an extent the culture allowed it and there were times when I definitely let myself down. So, I’m tendering an answer here that I indeed did know when I was being a jobsworth. I still see jobsworths in uniform. But, I ask myself, is it just part of being a cop sometimes?

In an era when so many of us are alive to our emotional intelligence and looking at self-help gurus to make us a better people – so to speak – why do we still have jobsworths? Do they not seek to find out what makes them tick, reflect and change their behaviours? It appears not and whether you encounter a jobsworth who is a colleague or you are pitted against one at an airport or elsewhere, what do you do to change the behaviours? Whose responsibility is it to point out negative, soul destroying, dictatorial behaviours that add no value to an organisation or its customers or the public? Do we just tolerate jobsworth behaviours and therefore condone them or do we call them out?

The decision, ladies and gentlemen, is yours. Do you want an easy life or do you tell a colleague they are acting like a jobsworth and try and create change in your organisation? Do you do as you are told at the airport queue, despite knowing there is a better way – a fairer way to proceed? I’m not sure these days if we care enough to make a stand.

Right – back to episode two series three and hopefully not too much of Terri Coverley.

• Agitator and disruptor Jim Duffy is soon to be Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark