BT Skills Audit May Push Managers Over to CWU's Side

Last Updated May 26, 2010 6:18 AM EDT

BT's fight with the CWU over the telecoms giant's pay offer has thrown up some interesting questions on what managers in the company are really there for.

In an effort to offset any disruption caused by industrial action, BT is attempting to audit the operational skills of its managers, in the hope of drafting them in when engineers walk out.

It's plausible that BT has a huge latent skill base in its managers. BT staff are traditionally loyal -- anyone with a few years at the company is still considered a newbie and many never leave the company throughout their working lives. So, there will be many senior employees with a good operational understanding of how BT's network runs.

By and large, BT looks after its own, so engineers -- who have become redundant due to outsourcing, the retrenchment from international business, or simply the completion of fixed-line rollouts -- have been redeployed into management roles.

This doesn't mean these engineering veterans' skills are up-to-date though, calling into question whether they could replace front-line engineers, if they decide to walk out.

More than this though, the move calls into question what BT actually values its managers for. For years, management pundits have emphasised the importance of soft skills such as communication and engagement in good managers. Those people who have risen up through the technical ranks have done so because they have demonstrated a business focus and an ability to communicate in a language their business masters can understand. Now suddenly, they are being relied upon for their technical expertise again, as if they were as swappable as an exchange switch. It says their current job descriptions mean nothing.

The move also makes a statement about BT's expectations of its managers' loyalties. By asking for information on manager's skills, it implies their loyalty can be counted on to help break a strike, if one is called. It's a big assumption, considering it's the lower tiers of management where those engineering skills lie. Of course, senior managers are expected to side with the company, but middle managers and line managers may have more in common with the front-line staff who are disputing the pay offer.

Personally, they may not support the board's line on pay and may be just as affronted by CEO Ian Livingston's expected £1m pay packet as the staff working directly under them. They may feel it's presumptuous of the company to expect them to be the sharp end of their anti-strike strategy. They may even still be union members themselves.

So, on one hand, BT's managers are being treated like electrical components that can be slotted into any part of the network as necessity dictates and on the other they are expected to show absolute loyalty. It's quite likely to alienate these managers and cause them to move closer to the CWU's cause.

(Pic: ell brown cc2.0)