BA’s flying by the seat of their pants – would you work for free?

The most recently published unemployment statistics indicate that in the past three months someone has lost their job every 30 seconds in the UK. That makes for pretty dismal reading and raises questions about what alternatives there are to redundancy at times such as these.

One option is to go down the route that BA have, who recently asked their staff to work for up to a month for free! That’s right….free. Is this fair and reasonable business management, or the actions of a desperate business seeking short-term reprieve?

The aviation industry is having a hard time at the moment. British Airways recently announced a £400m loss for the last 12 months and easyJet’s first half-year performance showed their losses have doubled year-on-year [PDF file]. But it’s not all doom and gloom – Ryanair recently published their most recent full year results [PDF file] and could boast £89m profit (albeit that’s 78% down on the year before). This admittedly from a company that is considering making customer’s pay for their own sick bags and use of in-flight toilets but – take note – it is possible for an airline to make a profit in these times.

It is therefore the state of British Airways that fascinates me most. Is it right that their response to a dismal performance is to ask their staff to work for free? And actually this poses the question – what would you do if you were at BA? Would you work for free?

Some people I have spoken to claim this is something that only a large corporate would get away with asking and isn’t applicable to small businesses. However, this is not true as the staff of Keyhole Security, an SME in Brighton, would testify – given that they recently willingly volunteered to work for free in order to help ensure the survival of their business.

Tough times can mean extreme measures –- but is it morally acceptable to ask staff to work for free, or to enforce unpaid leave? In pure Darwinism terms it’s fair to argue that a company must do all it reasonably can to survive and that in doing so it is equally acting in the interests of its staff. Short-term pain but with long-term gain for both company and the staff who subsequently continue to benefit from employment.

I’ll let you into a secret now. My interest in British Airways is more than just one of an interested observer, I used to work for them – in fact I was there during an equally and perhaps more difficult time – as it was very shortly after the atrocities of 11.9.01 that I was asked, as one of thousands of managers, to take a temporary pay cut. Not only did I do so, I was happy to do so. The business was in hard times, it was of no fault of BA’s and in fact it helped create a bond, dare I say a special camaraderie across all of the participating staff. (I‘m not suggesting a new motivational incentive is to cut pay by the way, but it did create a ‘we’re in this together’ response and that helped BA during an extraordinary time.) I suspect the circumstances of the staff of the SME in Brighton is similar. i.e. the staff understood the business was in trouble. They understood the issues, the potential repercussions and better still – saw their decision to not be paid as part of the solution to helping the business. They had/have an emotional attachment.

What is perhaps more questionable with BA this time round is that the business is in trouble because of issues that were far more in their control. Yes the slowdown has not helped of course, but not hedging fuel, an over-reliance on Business Class revenue (déjà vu) and most significantly – a huge rise in engineering and ‘other’ aircraft costs are equally contributing factors.

It is one thing to ask staff to help in times of unprecedented issues caused by events entirely out of your control; it is quite another to seek a bailout for poor cost and financial management. Yes the aviation industry has had it tougher than some, but remember – Ryanair has shown not all airlines are posting a loss at the moment. For this reason I question the wisdom of BA’s request. It will spread further panic across the staff, reduce morale further and that in turn will impact productivity from the workforce at a time when they most need motivated staff.

And so as I said, I’m interested – what you do if you worked at BA (or if you were asked to work for free by your current employer)? In reality what this comes down to is how you feel about your place of work; your emotional attachment. Is it a place to spend eight hours a day in order to pay for your rent/mortgage, or do you feel you are truly part of the business – and if so how far does that extend? The litmus test paper is perhaps therefore, whether you would volunteer to work for free to help business survival.

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