Lessons from the beautiful game (1)

David Faulkner

There’s no doubt about it: one way or another, for a lot of people, football matters. Too much, some would say.

Whatever your allegiance, there is no doubting that the popularity of the beautiful game means that the behaviour of football clubs, players and supporters is increasingly in the public spotlight. Whether apparent financial incompetence, allegations of racism, inflated salaries or player misconduct both on and off the pitch, football remains a source of controversy. Some say it shapes our society; more likely, it holds up a mirror and reflects it.

As both an employment lawyer and a long-suffering football supporter, the way in which clubs handle their players, managers and other staff never ceases to amaze me. Particularly at the highest levels, they operate in a world of their own and as a law to themselves. My club’s recent high-profile sacking of its manager got me thinking in particular about how they address performance problems, which is an issue of growing importance to most of our university and college clients. Is what football clubs traditionally do really so far removed from the rest of us and what can those of us working in further and higher education learn from how they go about things? That’s what I’ll aim to look at in these three short blog posts.

I thought I’d begin with the one thing that all football managers dread: the vote of confidence. “We’re right behind him [subtext = ready to push]”; “His job is safe [subtext = for now]” and other public statements of reassurance from the Board are, with uncanny regularity, followed in a matter of weeks by an announcement that the manager has been sacked. That’s exactly what happened with my club – a dismissal within hours of a bad result came not more than 3 weeks after a statement that “we do things properly at this club”.

Of course clubs get round the incongruence between their public statements and subsequent actions by doing a deal in double-quick time (we’ll look at that in a subsequent post). And at Premier League level anyway, the salary levels are so galactic that unfair dismissal is hardly a consideration, so perhaps it doesn’t matter what’s been said before. But in FE and HE it certainly matters what you say.

It is of course rare to see a university or college comment publicly on a struggling employee’s performance. There is no equivalent of the public vote of confidence. Be that as it may, the way in which most institutions go about annual appraisals or performance reviews frequently produces a disconnection between what is said in one forum (the appraisal) and what is said or done in another (“We need to talk with you about performance issues”). For sure, appraisals need to include discussions about career development, training opportunities and so on, and for sure they shouldn’t be the only forum in which performance concerns are aired. But you can be sure that both the employee, and if it comes to it an Employment Tribunal, will take some convincing that warnings or dismissal were merited where a contemporaneous appraisal was neutral or complimentary about what the employee had been up to.

By all means let your appraisals be a vote of confidence where things are going well. But if it becomes an expected norm, something needs to change.

David Faulkner
Employment Team
For and on behalf of SGH Martineau LLP
DD: 0800 763 1385
M:  07887 538047
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E: david.faulkner@sghmartineau.com
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