This just takes the biscuit

There was a recent row in Derry and Strabane Council about biscuits
Barry Shannon

ACCORDING to some of our local news stories, there was a recent row going on in Derry and Strabane Council about biscuits. I kid you not.

Those attending meetings in Strabane (allegedly) luxuriated in the downright bacchanalian delights of receiving three, yes three biscuits with their cuppa, while those attending meetings in Derry were subject to a firm rationing of one per person. (Fermanagh and Omagh councillors are reported to have one upped this to complain about members of the public, aka tax and rate payers, eating too much of ‘their' food at meetings, but that's another story).

Now maybe there was a secret motion passed in Derry and Strabane District Council to allocate biscuits in accordance with how many all Irelands the Senior County Football team had won in each location. I don't know, it might be unfair, and I certainly wouldn't like to speculate. Nonetheless it certainly caused a minor furore.

While stories like this might make you roll your eyes or just even tickle your funny-bone it neatly illustrates how the seemingly innocuous can blow up into a much bigger problem if left unchecked; however, it's a very tricky business trying to understand if things like these are issues, non-issues or signals that something in the bigger picture is not right.

In one off cases, or maybe where the issue is very trivial it would typically point to a simple case of overreaction or perhaps just some misplaced sense of entitlement. Easily solved. In scenarios like that people also need to question their own motivations. Is the issue that I genuinely need three biscuits or is it simply the fact that others are not returning the hospitality I show them. If everyone was reduced to getting one biscuit would it make me happy; even though I have had no material gain?

Where you need to start taking a closer interest as an employer however is where a significant number of people start to complain, where a repeating pattern emerges or when there are several issues that have developed in a short space of time, directly connected or not.

Think about it: most people just get on with things when minor events annoy them. They brush it off and don't give it a second thought the next day. However, where these seemingly small issues tend to blow up is where there is an overall sense of injustice developing. When everything else is copacetic things can get written off as a footnote, where there are other issues it becomes more grist for the mill.

Remember too that, employees tend not to get too mad about external factors. They don't typically develop a sense of outrage because of better city views in another company or seethe because they've heard that a firm down the road gives an extra holiday or two to their staff. That's because they are not comparing like for like. That firm down the road might give additional leave, but it may also have long hours, poor work conditions and inferior benefits, so making an informed comparison is not easy.

Rather the triggers and sense of injustice ferments where employees can make direct comparisons in the own workplace. They can see someone getting something they're not, or feel they are being treated differently to others and there is no logical explanation.

So the more frequent the trivial complaints or the greater the volume of people who start to complain about them, the more you should start to listen and dig a little deeper and try to identify any root causes below the surface. It's a lot simpler to fix early than rectify late.

Finally - keep in mind the fact that if you are implementing a fix, unlike many other things round this part of the world, it's not a zero-sum game. Both sides don't have to lose to feel they have been equally treated!

:: Barry Shannon ( is HR director at Cayan in Belfast

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