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Why can’t we do a ‘P&O’?

P&O ferry off Calais

Why can’t we do a ‘P&O’? (and bypass all those annoying HR processes)

HR processes are a pain in the backside, ask any business owner, and that’s exactly what they’ll say, except they’d probably be a bit ruder.

Collective consultation processes are particularly onerous, even by HR standards, except of course for P&O Ferries, who just chose to ignore them.

Alan Sugar ignores them too, although actually he doesn’t, because none of the recipients of his iconic ‘you’re fired’ message, are actually employees. Even if they were, they wouldn’t have the two years’ service to bring a claim, unless they were fired for being disabled, pregnant, or one of around 70 other reasons that people who hate HR processes are unlikely to be interested in.

So why aren’t we all more like P&O ferries? After all, there’s been no consequences. Grant Shapps sent them a letter, but it looked like the rant of an illiterate, and achieved nothing. Sir Keir tried to out-outrage Shapps, and he was impressively miffed, but equally ineffective.

P&O process cut statutory 45 day consultation period by 44 days, 23 hours and 56 minutes…

Without following any process P&O Ferries cut their salary bill by more than half, and achieved this not in the regulation 45 days that consultation would have required, but in 4 minutes.

Ok, so they then then staffed their ferries with foreign labour, most of whom had no idea how to operate a ship, but P&O appear confident that with a week or two’s training, they should be able to navigate the channel, and might even find the right port.

…and neutralised the Union in the process.

P&O ferries couldn’t have done this had they followed due process, because the RMT would have brought all their members out on strike. But P&O had thought about this – they came up with a cunning plan. By first sacking all the RMT members, there would be no one to go out on strike, and they could just get on with the job of trying to find Calais.

In one 4-minute video, the RMT’s ‘strike weapon’ was completely disarmed, a bristling missile silo, harmless to a kitten, because all the missiles had been nicked. “Everyone out!” RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch might have cried. But all he would have heard was the faint scribbling of signatures on settlement agreements. We might not approve of P&O’s actions, but they certainly did a job.

And so, the first of our client’s asked ‘why can’t we be more like P&O?’ earlier this week, and I’m surprised it took that long. If P&O could bypass established HR processes, why shouldn’t we?  I’ll tell you why.

Four reasons not to ‘do a P&O’

1. Being struck off

I think Peter Hebblethwaite, CEO of P&O Ferries, is likely to be struck off as a director. This will mean he can never again be an officer or director of a company, effectively ending his career. I’m sure he would have known that and I expect the owning Company, DP World, will compensate him handsomely.

The average business owner however does not have an owner with $4billion in their pockets, from one year’s trading alone. The average business owner won’t be compensated for trashing their own career, and this is one reason why a ‘P&O approach’ is not a decision to be taken lightly.

2. Being fined

P&O ferries is also likely to face substantial fines for failing to follow established notification procedures, a pesky little process P&O decided to ignore. Had it followed it, the RMT would certainly have been on to them before the video aired.

There are unlimited fines and criminal sanctions from not following this notification procedure, and given the publicity, these must be coming for P&O Ferries.

A similarly brazen disregard of processes could bring fines and sanctions that most business owners and CEO’s will not be prepared to risk, or may not be able to pay, and this is another reason to prefer a more cautious approach. Even if they can afford the fines, shareholders and investors are bound to ask whether it was a good use of company funds.

3. Damaging your reputation

We’re yet to see the full impact of P&O Ferries actions on its reputation, and reputational damage can end a business. This then, the third reason to think carefully before deciding that employment laws are irrelevant.

4. Treating people decently

The final reason is less tangible, but no less important. Long serving loyal and skilled employees of P&O ferries, were sacked in an instant. P&O Ferries made generous severance payments available, provided settlement agreements were signed. Nevertheless, the manner of their dismissals was brutal. Is that really how we would want to treat our staff? If the tables were turned, is that how we would expect to be treated?

Mr Hebblethwaite didn’t seem to care, but that’s a personal matter for him and his own conscience. I would hope that most of our clients would have rather more compassion.

These are good reasons to not follow a P&O approach to employment laws and HR processes. There is plenty of room for debate here of course, and some may say that the RMT’s famously militant approach to employee relations left P&O little room for less brutal approaches. I don’t think this one is over yet.

If you’re thinking of outsourcing your HR or employment law needs, why not contact myHRdept? Call us on 01628 820515, email us at to discuss your requirements, or contact us via our website and we’ll call you back.

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