BA Turbulence: Sick workers … sick leadership?

January 22, 2007

British Airways is facing a potentially damaging Union dispute, with strike action threatened over the coming weeks. The dispute contrasts the newer participative leadership and classical industrial relations battles. Increasingly, sick workers are being associated with sick leadership stories, as Walmart is also discovering.

The context is a familiar one. BA operates in one of the most competitive global market sectors. The business pressures for the traditional carriers have been accentuated by the success of cut-price rivals, increased political interest in the ‘carbon footprint’ of air travel, operating costs, and costs of financing pension arrangements.

Over some unpleasantly bumpy progress in recent years, the company has been addressing these problems. There have been shifts in leadership, but the one-time tag The world’s most popular airline now seems to have distinctly ironic echoes.

Indicators of the company’s concerns have been recent negotiations to come to terms with its pension commitments, and efforts to address productivity losses resulting from what the company attributes to excessive levels of absenteeism.

The sickness sickness

In recent years, absenteeism has been studied both from economic and behavioural standpoints. The former approach draws on traditional industrial relations measures of ‘sickies’, and is inclined to focus on days off per year per employee. The vocabulary is that of malingerers, and of a sickness culture. The behavioural standpoint draws on the more modern human resource approach.

For many workers (and not a few academic researchers), this is regarded as a relabelling rather than a revolution in the culture of the workplace. What should be noted in this case is that BA has been a leading advocate of workplace participation, and motivational methods for many years. It has invested heavily in its management and leadership training .

Yet, the current debate still has echoes of an older confrontational ‘us versus them’ culture.

Sick workers, sick buildings … sick leadership?

There has been various non-economic explanations of what was simply lumped under managerial terms of malingering and absenteeism. Ideas of psychologically damaging environments (sick buildings syndrome) have been studied. ‘Sick buildings’ may have clear and identifiable dimensions. but may also be more as symptom of wider issues. Sick buildings may be an indicator of sick jobs.

This at some level will connect with organizational leadership. In time, the matter will become a threat to effective operation.

The PR difficulties of Walmark at present might be cited in this respect. Its leadership decisions are monitored closely and discussed through various pressure groups via the internet.

This week, for example, the company introduced some leadership changes. One headline was ‘Walmart promotes executive who warned of sick workers’.

BA and Walmart alike increasingly have to consider the dynamics not just of sick workers, but what in their actions can be accused of being sick leadership.