The Mask

The train pulled out of the station as the newcomers wandered the aisle searching for vacant seats. All the window seats were occupied. No two seats together were available so the woman sat in an aisle seat. Her husband stood in the aisle beside the row in front of her, looking down at the backpack occupying the aisle seat.

He said to the man in the window seat, ‘I’m sittin here,’ pointing to the backpack.

‘No, you are not,’ not looking up, reading.

‘Why not? Who says I can’t?’

‘You do,’ said the man, now looking.

‘I’m sittin here,’ and moved into the space in front of the seat holding the backpack.

‘No, you are not.’

‘Why not?’ He twisted to the left, better to face his tormentor, his feet firmly pointing straight ahead.

‘Because you’re not wearing a mask,’ said the man whose own mask more resembled a balaclava.

‘You don’t need to wear a mask,’ the emphysemic rasp and the twisted torso more noticeable now.

He was ignored. The rest of us dare not breathe, we were all quite still, waiting.

‘Anyway, I’ve got a mask,’ he said as he conjured a disposable mask from his shirt pocket.

‘Then, when you put it on, the seat here,’ he moved his backpack, ‘is available for you.’

Mask on, inside out, the man dropped into his seat, huffed once and stared straight ahead.

We all breathed again, fingers resumed their tapping of keyboards, phones and devices reactivated by relieved thumbs. Short-lived.

The newly seated rail customer was tapped on the shoulder by his wife, until now sitting silently behind him, ‘I’m sick of this prick,’ she said, flicking her thumb to her left, ‘let’s get a better seat, away from him,’ another flick of the thumb and she stood, her husband followed.

They moved further down the carriage, a few seats behind me and to my right, I didn’t turn but assumed from the swishing of clothes and the huffing they found aisle seats. Back to my book.

‘You don’t need to wear a mask anymore,’ said a familiar voice, hoarse.

The whole carriage took a deep breath, fingers froze, suspended above keyboards, surely, no?

‘How do you know that?’ Another voice rasped with age.

Another collective intake of breath.

‘I know the rules. As sure as I’m sittin beside you I know the rule.’

‘On what authority? You may just be asserting you know the rule.’

‘I’m not assertin anything; you, I’m tellin you, I know the rules.’

‘Look, asserting and telling are much the same thing,’ then maybe realising the thesaurus lesson was a word too far, ‘it just goes to show how confusing all of this is. You know the rules, I’m not sure what the rules are. We’re not alone. It’s just confusing isn’t it?’

There followed another subdued huff; we all breathed again, fingers came to life, our collective game of statue concluded. Our heartbeats slowed along with the train as it came alongside the next station platform.

‘I know the rule!’ Another voice; male, loud, aged, croaky too; announcing the bold arrival of a new entrant. No-one in front of me in the carriage turned, maybe no-one behind me either. Again; freeze frame, lives suspended.

‘I know the rule;’ repetition for dramatic effect and perhaps to quell any insurgency, ‘this is a quiet carriage – so shut up.’

And they did. So did we. We breathed again, retreated into ourselves; devices resumed, shoulders shook with silent glee, giggles barely stifled.

The man with the camera

The last Zoom interview. Final in the series and I was not looking forward to it.

Oh, the kit didn’t bother me. My granddaughter had showed me how to use it, and I know to get the light in front of me to look my best. Zoom wasn’t the problem.

The first ten interviews were fun, here I am, just gone ninety, seventy years of taking photos, now an overnight success! I’d been fashionable way back, long time ago. But few remember. No-one in the home I’m living in, mostly they remember nothing, nothing at all, not even what they had for breakfast.

Out of the blue, three months ago, a journalist on the phone, came to see me. The upshot of it all was she wanted a series of interviews of me talking through some of my photographs. Something to do with ‘black and white’ now in fashion again.

She wanted to call the show ‘a man with a camera.’ No, I insisted on the definite article. ‘The man with the camera.’ The show’s about me, I’m the only one with the camera. Bit up myself, even for me, but she bought it.

I enjoyed it all, the memories, young journalist interested in me; the publicity when episode one was on the tellie! Even had a few phone calls from some of the blokes I used to work with, even from a few enemies. Photographers in those days, we were the real deal, all of us ‘Flash Gordon!’

Until the journo sent me the photo she’d chosen to end the series with. The grand finale to an exploration of my career. We’d be live in twenty minutes.

‘Do you remember taking the photo?’ She put in her email.

I remember all right. Every night since. Last thing behind my eyelids at night, first thing in front of them every morning. Every morning. Kids with skin so pale you could see through it. I remember the smell, can taste despair. Mine, now, as well as theirs, then. I can feel the cold, stiff, woollen coats they used. Can hear the kids. You know the noise that silence makes don’t you?

They’d all be dead by now. Butchered. If they were lucky they might have starved to death.

I had to convince the journo, she knows me pretty well. I was so happy you found this photo, I’ll say. Can’t imagine where you got it from. Those five kids, haven’t thought about them for years, taken so many good shots, like faces they are, photos, can’t remember them all. Anyway I think I was only there for a day, maybe two.

That was my plan. It worked well for five minutes as I batted away those kids. Again.

Well, then she dropped me right in it.

She said, and I remember this perfectly, ‘The boy standing in the photo, we found him. He’s with me now, in the studio. He’s been waiting 50 years. He remembers the man with the camera.’


Ben was four-years-old with a new friend and an old hero. His hero, Batman never out of his sight, until today when he’d left it with his new friend. His new friend was ninety-four-years-old and lived in Asher House Cook aged care home with twenty-three others of similar age and varying degrees of fragility. He took Batman with him to his day care centre trip to the aged care home, part of a new initiative called the Full Circle program.
When she picked him up later his mum asked him about the trip.
‘I have a new friend called – I forget – but she’s my friend, she loves me. I gave her my Batman.’
He had so many Batmen, Batmans…what is the plural of a superhero, she thought, ‘he won’t miss one.’
As Rose was put back to bed after tea that night the carer found a small black plastic cape, a small black plastic sword, together with a tiny black and yellow figure.
‘These are dangerous to have around you, Rose, where did they come from? I’ll get rid of them for you.’
‘Don’t you fucking touch them!’ snarled Rose, who was promptly sedated for the night in fear of her becoming unmanageable. Rose was one a group of women residents nicknamed the ‘violent crumbles’, assertive, feisty and frail.
The next morning a slightly groggy Rose found Batman and tried to snap the tiny sword into the even tinier hand, and gave up, tried to fit the cape. She’d have to wait until someone came by and ask them for help. The young woman who came by, she thought she had been called Nigella but also thought that can’t be right, it didn’t look like that on her name tag. The young carer was lovely thought Rose, and she did help her with the Batman figure.
‘I didn’t take you for a superhero fan’, Nigella teased.
‘Well,’ said Rose ‘I do like a man with superpowers, but I’d prefer him lifesize and to not wear a cape. I do have a new friend though; he came with that school group yesterday and gave me his toy. It’s more than a toy though isn’t it? What is a toy to a small boy? I’ll tell you what a toy is to a small boy’.
‘It’s a friend, a confidante, a companion on wild adventures, someone with whom one shares heroic stories and feats of bravery, a co-conspirator in plots against one’s parents. So, he didn’t give me a toy, really did he?’
‘No’, said Nigella, entranced.
‘Do you know what he gave me?’ asked Rose. ‘He gave me a reason to make a cake.’

‘Hey – you have a Batman too Rose, I can see it!’, cried the four-year-old a week later.
‘Yes, and do you remember, of course you do, you’re four, you left Batman here to look after me last week.’
‘Batman’s good at looking after people, he’s my favourite.’
‘Well,’ said Rose, ‘he did such a good job and he helped me in the kitchen to make a surprise.’
‘Where’s the surprise?’
‘I’ll ring my bell and Nigella will bring it out.’ She rang the bell, and the carer, who’d helped Rose with the Batman cake, brought it out, complete with yellow and black icing, and a printed list of the ingredients in case of allergies.
The day care staff checked the list, pronounced the cake safe to eat, despite the colour scheme resembling a radioactive warning. Maybe there’s something in this Full Circle program after all, the day care director thought as she posted photos of the day to Story Park. Cake, kids, and older people, smiling, laughing, Batman in a different place in each photo.
Rose’s new friend pestered his mother to take him to see Rose on the weekend. She put him off so often, yet he persisted. ‘No’, she said again, and so he took himself off to see Rose. He was at the front door struggling to turn the key and hang on to his backpack. He couldn’t do it, and so she found him crying with frustration. The backpack was filled with clothes, toys, snacks, and a drink bottle with a loose top.
‘Why did you pack pyjamas?’
‘I’m having a sleepover at Rose’s home.’

Two hours later she pulled into the carpark at Rose’s home, ‘Yes, that’s right Mum, this is where she lives.’
She rang a bell, they were allowed in, to be told by a uniform it wasn’t visiting hours. She explained, the uniform listed visiting hours, she reasoned, heard the hours again, raised her voice, so did the uniform and then she noticed her four-year-old was not beside her, she cried out. The boy’s face appeared around a partially open door, ‘I found Rose, Mum.’ Showing a rare moment of wisdom, the uniform found some errant paperwork to be shuffled into order.
‘Rose, I’m not coming for a sleepover.’
‘Just as well young man, there’s barely room for me and Batman.’
The two women chatted; the young mother opened her phone to show Rose the pictures of them all with the cake.
‘These are lovely photos, you know I moved Batman around, and wondered if anyone noticed.’
‘Well, he did,’ they both laughed, ‘Rose you’ve not been hungry today?’, indicating the untouched meal, unopened plastic container of fruit salad, plastic cutlery still wrapped in the serviette.
‘Oh, I’m hungry, just with my hand’, she brought it out from under the bed covers, ‘the cannula had come out during the night and when the nurse, carer cleaned it and fixed it she also bandaged my fingers too, so I’ve not been able to open anything. They get so busy, and some of the others need more help than me, so I was waiting until someone came along.’
‘Let me help if you want to eat now?’

The uniform came along as she buttered Rose’s bread, muttered something about as long as you’re being useful you can stay, and vanished. Batman and the boy sat eating one of his snacks. They left halfway through visiting hours, there were no other cars in the carpark, maybe there’s another car park she thought, not believing it for a minute.
That night she and her husband talked about it and agreed Rose would be invited to lunch next Sunday, she’d call in during the week on her way to work, ask Rose and if she wanted to, make all the arrangements, no doubt there’d be paperwork.
There were four Sunday lunches with Rose, and to everyone’s surprise ‘lunch with Rose’ was the highlight of their week. Rose revealed she was an historian.
‘When I started studying history, I was told that history brings people alive, now I rather think that people bring history alive. If I were on Mastermind, my special subject would be ‘Australia in the 1950s’. I spent ten years absorbing that decade, followed by forty years studying, interviewing, writing, and talking about that one ten years, four years to each year of the Fifties. I have read every edition of the capital city newspapers of that time, countless regional papers. How smug we were then in our splendid isolation. Sunday lunch is not a time for politics though is it; it’s a time for stories and maybe a small glass of that red wine?’

He fetched her wine and as he walked around beside her to pour it, she fell against him, asleep. He gently sat her up and propped her up with cushions from the lounge on the chair beside her. Her feet slipped out as he moved her, her long skirt caught slightly, an ankle bracelet, tearing the hem of the skirt.
His wife googled Rose Peters and found her Wikipedia entry, read bits aloud.
‘Rose Peters PhD, dux of her school, university medal, captained the university debating team, Rhodes scholar, arrested during the Springboks tour.’
He said, ‘and now she’s asleep in our lounge room.’
‘Don’t worry, I don’t think she’ll be too much trouble today.’
‘I’m not asleep,’ said Rose, ‘and what are all these fucking cushions doing around me?’
‘Rose said ‘fuck’’, said the four-year-old.
‘It’s a grown-up word,’ said his mother, ‘Rose is a grown-up, you’re not so we don’t want you to use grown-up words.’
‘I can use four-year-old words?’
‘That’s a perfect explanation, ‘said Rose, ‘I must remember that for when I’m next told not to swear, corrected by unctuous children with guitars singing lyrics of which no one who went to school for even a year would be proud.’

‘Rose, your bracelet, it caught on your skirt, would you like me to mend it?’
Rose gathered her skirt and took a close look at the tiny tear, ‘don’t worry about it, she said, ‘that bracelet has caught so many times the whole hem is double stitched. Nigella wants to mend it so let’s do that shall we?’
‘It’s unusual,’ said Ben’s mother, still on her knee beside Rose, ‘may I have a closer look?’
‘Of course,’ said Rose, bending to unfasten the clasp.
‘Why it’s a bear, so delicate!’
‘We’re going on a bear hunt,’ cried Ben as he skipped from the room, ‘it’s gunna be a big one…we’re not scared, we’re not scared.’
‘There’s a story here isn’t there?’
‘The bracelet was a gift from Nelson Mandela,’ laughed Rose. You might remember he came to Australia in 1990. He gave a thank-you speech to hundreds of us who had protested apartheid at the Tent Embassy at Old Parliament House. I was introduced to him and he gave me this bracelet, it was a pendant then. I hate anything around my neck so had it made into a bracelet.’
‘I asked him why, here in this tent, surrounded by the bitter evidence of our indigenous people’s struggle, he’d given me a gift?’
‘He was so patient,’ said Rose. ‘He waited so long to answer I thought I had offended him, then he smiled and explained.. The pendant was made and given to him by an Anishinaabe elder in Vancouver who made jewellery to show how we are all connected on Mother Earth, how everything is connected. He told the jeweller that when he heard of the lobbying, while he was in jail, of the Canadian Prime Minister and the protests in Australia, he felt the connections, that relationships are integral to freedom.’
‘That’s why he gave it to me, “I think you feel it too,’’ he said.’
‘It’s even more precious to me now I am at Asher House.’ Rose smiled and looked up at Ben’s dad and said, ‘would you put those cushions back, I could do with a few minutes with my memories.’ And she was asleep as he put a blanket over her knees.

Recruitment – an arranged marriage?

For most of us work is more than selling our labour for money. We also expect to find motivation and satisfaction. We’d prefer work to be fulfilling – rather than “just a job”.

We talk about finding meaning at work, learning and developing at work, finding dignity, respect and opportunities to grow at work. More recently we look to work to meet our health and wellbeing needs.

We make (more or less) sense of our work and meaning, fulfilment, dignity, respect through our relationships, the quality of our interactions day-to-day interactions. We spend so much of our time and energy at work – more time and energy there than with our partners, families and friends – that it is imperative to hire for good behaviour as well as performance.

We need to consider recruiting against our expectations of work. Adding a new person to the workplace has consequences for how we derive meaning, fulfilment, dignity, respect, wellbeing and the dynamics of relationships. We need to hire for good behaviour.

Recruiting an employee – selecting someone with good behaviour who will contribute positively to the team dynamic – it’s a bit like an arranged marriage. There is not a “getting to know each other stage”, unless you count probation. It’s Day 1 – here is your new team member!

How do you decide who will spend more time with you than your partner?

What can you do to boost the chances of a successful arrangement?

Silence – the withholding tax on staff voice

Speak up or let it go? This is a choice we confront daily at work. We decide whether to speak up or not by predicting the future. Talk to people at work about how they decide whether to speak up and they discuss their lessons from speaking up in the past and the experiences of others – take these into their crystal ball and, frequently, choose not to speak up.

Think of silence as a withholding tax on staff voice. At the source – the staff member – withholds a percentage of their ideas, suggestions, creativity, and concerns. You don’t even know what you’ve lost.

What is the tax rate? The results of a 2003 study show that we are deafened by silence – 85% of respondents said they had been in situations where they felt unable to raise an issue to a supervisor even though they felt the issue was important, Milliken et al. In the NSW Public Service the majority of those employees who report being bullied at work make no formal report.

What is your withholding tax rate on staff ideas, suggestions, concerns, feedback?

Milliken, F. J., Morrison, E. W., & Hewlin, P. F. (2003). An Exploratory Study of Employee Silence: Issues that Employees Don’t Communicate Upward and Why. Journal of Management Studies40(6), 1453-1476.

Madeline Hinds. Deafening silence: why employees don’t speak up.

NSW Public Service Commission. People Matter Employee Survey 2014. Main Findings Report.

Christmas party not yet booked? Don’t bother!

A good guide to the quality of your company Christmas party is this week’s Melbourne Cup. If you just read this and took a deep breath, or felt a frown scurry across your face, then cancel your Christmas party.

If you’re worried about staff and leader behaviour on Melbourne Cup day – you will have a lot more to worry about with the office party. Cancel!

You can also cancel the cartons of light beer, no-alcohol wine and the HR riot act briefings on how to behave when you are at a work party. Lots of savings.

Here are a couple of reasons.

Christmas parties provide the leaders with an opportunity to thank staff for their efforts during the year. If a staff Christmas party is the only time staff are thanked for their efforts, then you are just wasting everyone’s time in a cynical exercise. Cancel the party and find opportunities to acknowledge, praise and thank staff frequently during the year.

Providing all with feedback about individual, team, business unit and organisational performance is an important motivator and is not to saved up for Christmas. With feedback, everyday can be Christmas Day.

Those who want to party at this time of the year will, and they don’t need your help. Those with partners where partners are not invited to your organisation’s celebrations may not want to spend time away from their partners with work colleagues. Invite partners and risk boring them with your “shop-talk”. Babysitters for those with children? So – go to the organisation’s event and spend minimum $25 an hour in rates.

Hope Santa is kind to you. Thank you for your work.


Organisations go to a great deal of trouble to attract the most suitable people. It makes sense then to follow up the investment in new recruits by taking care to retain employees.
There is no shortage of information about retention strategies – Google scholar lists 16000 articles for 2015 alone.
Strategies to retain employees include encouraging humour, family support, career opportunities, good managers, and development opportunities. No shortage of advice.
Here is a way to reveal what your retention strategies really include.
Take the group of your longest serving employees and ask yourself. “Do these employees best demonstrate our organisation purpose, values, and the behaviours we most value?”
Are your longest-serving employees your “best”, your A Team?
If your answer to the question is “Yes”, congratulations.
If your answer is “No”, you have a retention strategy which is successful in retaining mediocrity. You may want to do something about that.

Put it in writing…

How many times have you heard “we can’t do anything about it until you put it in writing?”

For whatever reason the person making the statement has – it’s rarely a helpful statement to make. You say “write” and I hear “dismissed”. Especially in response to a conversation about other’s poor behaviour.

Yet the experience of many employees who may want to talk through behaviour problems with their manager or the HR department is to met with.

At work the statement “I can’t do anything unless you put it in writing” puts the responsibility on individuals to pursue behavioural issues usually through an individual grievance – a process which largely dissatisfies those who use it.

Formal grievance procedures ought to be the last step taken – after all informal avenues are exhausted – in addressing problem poor conduct.

With sound leadership about resolving behaviour problems informally managers may initiate action without waiting for something in writing. The first step would be to ask around and get some perspectives of the conduct being talked about. Your findings will often be ambiguous – rarely do people make bad decisions and behave poorly to all colleagues all the time. The different perspectives will help decide the range of management actions – the informal attempts to resolve what is happening.

You do not need a written grievance to hear the concerns, to be alive to the impact and the concern of staff members about the behaviour of another.

With safeguards against raising false concerns in bad faith or for personal gain the initiative is worth considering in all workplaces struggling with significant under-reporting of poor behaviour and a poor record of resolving behaviour concerns.

Does your approach to dealing with reports of unreasonable behaviour resolve concerns or create them?


You probably have a couple of credit cards. You guard your password or pin number diligently. Only you may spend money on your credit card.

Imagine your time at work is like a credit card. Lots of people ask you for your time for meetings, catch-ups over coffee, interruptions…these folk are spending your time. You have given them your pin and your password and they spend your time freely.

Meanwhile you have stuff to do too – you have to interrupt others, you spend time getting done whatever you have to get done in order to be productive.

There may be too few controls over your time credit card. Unlike a money card if you overspend you do not go onto debt. What happens is that your list of things to get done – your “to do” list is far longer than your list of accomplishments – your “I’ve done this” list. You have given away your password.

You may be happy about this. Or you may be thinking that you really have a distraction credit card and not a time credit card. It’s as though there is a universe of possible distractions out there and we, and others, spend freely on them at the cost of getting done what is essential to get done.

A useful start to spending your time – like your money – more carefully is to decide what is essential. Am I spending my time on what matters? Are others spending your time on what matters to you?

If you have 15 minutes…

When was the last time you wrote to a colleague, someone with whom you work, or your boss and thanked them for their contribution to your organisation?

I ask this question almost every workshop I run – say 100 a year. Guess the answer? Almost as many times as those I asked the question of received such a note!

Imagine how you would feel if you received on your desk a handwritten note, s simple thank you for your time and effort? A short note giving details of what you did and what a difference it made to the team, unit, organisation. Who would you show it to first? Where would you keep that note? Would you display the note at home or at work?

You have 15 minutes so use it to write a note to someone at work who you know should be complimented for some specific task they performed.

Tip. Handwrite your note and make it specific to the contribution or the accomplishment.

Some leaders don’t see praise, reinforcement, recognition, encouragement as important. “I don’t need encouragement so why should they?” The only way you can hold the line that says “I don’t do encouragement” is to deny the evidence. It’s like using the leadership tools of the 19th century to lead in 2015. We don’t provide these folk with a horse and cart instead of the company car, a quill instead of an ipad; so why don’t we expect them to use modern leadership tools?