Do you remember your first day at work? Many people do even years later – it’s when you go from someone reasonably high up in the education system to the lowest form of organisational life. I definitely wanted my teddy.
Mum gave me an apple and enough for the fare and like a nervous fledgling I set out with a metaphorical spotted handkerchief to make my way in the world.
I am overplaying it but looking back at my first job I am struck by how little thought or care influenced my career choice and how much was attributable to random events. Such were the beginnings of a series of jobs that in no way resembled a ‘career’ but looked more like the trail of someone in a witness protection programme.
When I was about to leave school my uncle asked what I had in mind. My father had died when I was 11, so his brother played the occasional parental role. He asked me what my plans were for finding a job. I tried to invent an answer to his question, as admitting that there was absolutely nothing in my mind was unlikely to get his seal of approval. I had already dismissed going to university as I believed, rightly or wrongly, that another 3 years in education would put too great a strain on our family’s finances.
As I was getting ready to prevaricate, he said “Because I was thinking that our oil, at work, is supplied by National Benzole.” He worked for a Local Authority. “Working for an oil company must be good.”
He needed to say no more. I had submitted my application almost before he had finished speaking, and very quickly found myself in an interview opposite a Mr. Hays whose introduction was along the lines of “Now we like to think that a young man, such as yourself, with sufficient dedication and capacity, will go far in this Company. It will take a lot of hard work and commitment but the rewards will be worth it. Now tell me, what sports did you play at school?”
This same thrusting dynamism was to be found when I arrived on my first day, feeling extremely small and expecting my inadequacies to be thoroughly scrutinised and for me to be found wanting.
But the actual reception was “Ah. Yes. Hemmings. Hmm. Let’s see now, you’ve got nice handwriting, haven’t you?” This was a prelude to flattering me into writing 5,000 invitations to their annual cocktail party. And no, my name wasn’t on one of those invitations. Such are the ways of big business. One of the ways they forgot to mention was that you were paid one month in arrears. That was fun.
A shortish while later I was transferred to the parent company Shell-Mex and BP. My induction here was “take a good look through all these files. That’ll give you a good idea of what we do.” I am here to confirm that reading a bunch of files in a foreign ‘language’ is no fun.
A few years later, the ways of the Health Service, on the other hand, were unbelievably different. Here, a huge bureaucratic machine attempted to keep all the components of providing health care pointing roughly in the same direction. Doctors, nurses, therapists of all kinds, cooks, cleaners, administrators, unions, engineers, etc. etc. each with their own little agenda, and sense of their own importance, whether earned or not.
My ‘induction’, however, was along similar lines to the pattern that had been established – neglect. I was given a quick tour of the building – a magnificent Victorian mansion, built, I understood for Siemans, complete with gold leaf embellishments on the ceiling of one of the rooms.
Then I was shown to my office. When my boss opened the door it revealed – absolutely nothing. It was a completely empty room. My boss smiled and said “You can sort out equipping it with Supplies.” And he disappeared. At the time I didn’t even know that supplies had a capital ‘S’. My job was to establish a Personnel function (nowadays known by the ugly term ‘Human Resources’) so there was nothing to induct me into, I could make it up as I went along. Difficult to believe that in 1963 an organisation such as the Health Authority with approx. 4,000 staff had no dedicated Personnel function.
Before being shown my empty office my boss asked me “How often would you expect to meet with me?” I clearly had only two possible responses. I guessed the answer he wanted to hear was “not that often”, a guess that turned out to be correct. He then told me that I had a job for life “provided you don’t rape the Matron”.
Three jobs, three powerful memories and a partial answer to why so many new staff leave in the first few months.