Oliver James: In the line of fire

It's hard not to take it personally if you get sacked. Crossnational research, however, suggests that who gets the chop often depends on which country you live in and not on your particular merits or lack thereof.

Globalisation and mergers mean that many companies are now pan-European. It is very common for a directive to arrive from corporate headquarters requiring a reduction in managerial or professional employees across the board - but the criteria used vary considerably.

Consider which of the following four managers should be made redundant. Two are of average performance - acceptable but nothing special. One of these is in his early thirties, paid a little more than a typical starting salary and half the money of the other, who is in his mid-forties. The other two are above-average performers. One is in his late twenties on a starting salary; the other in his mid- to late-fifties, on the highest salary of all.

When these options were put to 300 managers from England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany, there were large differences in who they would sack.

Classical economic theory would suggest getting rid of the expensive, older, average manager. He is probably less easy to retrain and firing him offers a sizable longterm saving to the company, despite the dismissal indemnity. Yet 74 per cent of the Germans said goodbye to the average young employee. On the whole, the Latin countries flew similarly in the face of classical theory. Only the English managers followed their American cousins by putting instant bottom-line gain first: 76 per cent plumped for the average, older employee, who costs twice as much to the company.

In general, the continental countries were far more concerned with notions of social justice. Under French law, for example, employers must take psycho-social factors into account as well as the trade-off between productivity and salary. These include seniority, family situation, and the ease with which the employee will get another job.

This suggests that corporate directives demanding a five per cent cut in all European offices are a bad idea. There is a danger that the Germans will simply get rid of younger workers, keeping the expensive older ones. Meanwhile, the French and Italians may start feuds between different generations of managers while the English fire expensive older ones, causing impressive annual results, but trouble down the line.

In each case, there is a high risk of increased dissatisfaction and reduced productivity. How come young Bloggs from London is getting promotion while Francoise from Paris is getting the boot? Employee turnover may rise as workers resign in search of more congenial environments.

While there are usually few causes for rejoicing on being given the boot, at least you have this consolation: in Britain, it probably has more to do with your age and nationality than your individual worth to the company.

The mental block

Studies of emotional problems may just entail asking people about themselves, but they may also rely on the views of others, such as family members, friends and experts. Unfortunately, if a large study is to be believed (Psychological Bulletin), there are considerable differences between people's self-reported states and what others actually say about them. The study examined 51,000 articles published in the past 10 years and found that there was remarkably little connection between what people thought of their own levels of depression, aggression, personality disorder and job-performance, and what others said. The highest agreement was for substance abuse. Implication: distrust any report which makes assertions about people's levels of depression, aggression, and how they're doing work. But when they start talking about drugs - pay attention.

Fear of failure as a motivation is common, as opposed to the pleasure gained from succeeding or from doing something well. A study (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin) demonstrates that among students the fear of failure is passed down generations: both the mother's and father's fear of failing predicting whether their child would fear it, too. The mechanism for transferring the fear was found to be maternal (but not paternal) threats to the child of withdrawal of love if they did not achieve a desired result. Implication: take a deep breath before giving Little Jimmy the cold shoulder when he comes home with a duff report from school.

oliver.james@observer.co.uk

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.