There are times when I wish I had been a fly on the Board Room wall. One of those occasions would have been when P&O Ferries concluded they needed to make 800 staff redundant, and they were debating the manner in which they were going to do it.
There is no doubt that, like many travel operators, P&O has had a tough time of it over the last couple of years as it’s battled with the effects of the pandemic. It’s also hard to argue with the company’s claim that running a business that is losing £100 million annually is “unsustainable”.
But when it comes to a company’s reputation it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that matters. How companies behave towards all their stakeholders, including their employees, has never been more important.
Relentless media coverage and the increasing focus on ESG factors are two drivers which make this the case.
This was never going to be an announcement that would go unnoticed, and it was inevitable that the grim video would make its way on to platforms such as YouTube and Twitter. Yet it seems these were insufficiently considered.
The way in which this exercise has been carried out also flies in the face of the ‘S’ in ESG. Acting in a socially responsible way cannot stop the moment you decide to serve notice on an employee.
P&O Ferries’ 2018 Corporate Responsibility report states the following: “We will inspire our people and continue to develop outstanding teams who are determined to exceed customer expectations… We need the enthusiastic support of our people to drive the commercial success of the business.”
There is almost certainly more to this than meets the eye, but in modern business it’s what meets the eye that matters. Companies have to demonstrate they walk the walk as well as talking the talk.
So if you state, as P&O’s parent company DP World’s Online Sustainability Report does, that your business “thrives through the talent, passion and creativity of [your] people”, and if you claim your “ambition is to develop a culture that prioritises wellbeing in all aspects of work and life”, you had better make sure you deliver on these in Dover as well as Dubai.
Equally, if your business commits to “putting our customers first”, it’s probably not a good idea to shut your operations for a week with no prior notice because you’ve decided to make 800 employees redundant.
Ultimately, P&O’s decision is ostensibly about making the business sustainable, so it will be interesting to see how it affects the long-term success of the company.
No doubt, as that fly on the wall, I would have witnessed the calculations that underpinned all of this. But as a fly on that particular Board Room wall, I’m not sure I’d rate my chances!