Thursday, January 7, 2016

Roger the thug

I was very pleased to read that Oscar Pistorius finally received some justice for his crime. Oscar was always guilty of murder in my books, for a number of reasons which I have previous expressed here. Firstly, at the time he shot through the locked bathroom door, neither Oscar's life, nor the lives of anyone else living in the apartment, was under threat. There was a locked door between them, and there was a clear exit. Oscar had an alternative: he could have left the apartment. He chose to stay and he chose to shoot. This was his choice. Finally, when he fired through that locked door, Oscar knew, or suspected, that there was a person on the other side of the door. Who he thought that person was, is immaterial. He knew that a person was there and he knew it was likely that 4 shots fired through the door would hit that person. He also knew that bullet wounds would most likely be fatal. He knew all those things and he still made the choice to fire. That makes Oscar Pistorius a killer.
 Moving forward to recent events published in New Zealand newspapers. Not as dramatic as with Oscar Pistorius, but the message is the same. Following a near traffic accident which was, clearly, the fault of the other driver, New Zealander, Roger Brereton climbed out of his car, marched over to the driver of the other car, and promptly punched him in the face. Roger then tried to play the victim card by crying about how close his life had come to being destroyed. When he didn't receive the heroes reception that he clearly expected, he has repeatedly gone running to the media in a vain attempt to justify his actions. Doesn't seem to be working, and rightly so.
Roger and his family could have been killed by the driver of the other car, a tourist to New Zealand. Quite possible, and everyone should consider themselves lucky that there was no collision. However, and this is the Oscar connection, at the time that Roger Brereton made the choice to punch the other driver in the face, neither his life, nor the lives of his passengers were in danger. Not one of them. The only person who's physical safety was threatened, was the driver of the other car, when Roger Brereton decided to assault him. There is only one victim here, and it is not our heroic Roger.
Roger Brereton is a thug. Let there not be any confusion about that. He assaulted another person and, just like Oscar, should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for his thuggery. That he has not been prosecuted to date, I expect he can give thanks to his victim for not wishing to pursue the matter. I would not have been so forgiving.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Cultures in the Workplace

My new job is unique in many ways. That is largely why I accepted the role, it is one of those once-in-a-lifetime projects that you can say you have been a part of. One of the more unique aspects is the large diversity of workers on the project. I think that someone worked out that there were 25 different nationalities in total. I don't know if I can think of 25, but I have certainly met most of them.:
USA, England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Holland, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Mexico, Indonesian, Thailand, Australia. Not 25, but those are the ones that I know I have met. Oh, and Swedes, of course.
Putting such diverse cultures together in a common work place is a fascinating way to observe cultural differences and similarities. You do start to spot trends after a while.
The Poles and Ukrainians seem always to be angry with each other. Not with anyone else, just themselves. They are exceptionally hard workers, work every moment of daylight, and never complain outside of their group.
The Hungarians are also extremely hard workers, working the same long hours as the Poles, 6+ days a week. They are very structured, working like clockwork to meet target dates. They are slightly more friendlier than the Poles, possibly helped by me learning a few simple Hungarian language phrases. I think that most people appreciate an effort made to show respect for ones language.
The Irish generally work hard, and they do put in the hours. But their progress is often more by good luck than good management. It is a bit like standing outside of the school gates at the end of term bell. Total chaos with people flying in all directions. Yes, they get the job done, but I get the feeling that they will be spending a lot of time later fixing things.
The English and Scots are above such things. According to them, at least. If you asked any one of them about their work rate, they would be convinced that they are working at least as hard as anyone else. That's how they see themselves. The reality is that their workrate is maybe half that of the Poles and Ukranians. The Americans are in the same boat. They roared in to town promising the world, now I am lucking to see them 5 hours a day.
Croatians are good workers, very technically competant. However, I always have a nagging feeling that they have just pulled some scam that I am going to find out about in 6 months time.
The Swedes have been the most interesting. Their stance in the beginning was very much "The Swedish Way". There was one way to do things, they had always done it that way, and they would always do it that way. Black and White, and so it started out that way. However, after about a month or so, they had to face the reality that they were the people who were falling behind everyone else. They held out for a while longer, but then I think that pride finally started to get the better of them. They started to lift their game and really rose to the challenge when asked to carry out work that they earlier would have flat out refused. I even could see them starting to have fun, trying to figure out solutions to problems or how to change work process in order to reduce time and keep pace. I had written them off at the start but they did come through when pushed. Just think how efficient the average Swede could be without having to be whipped along. It has long been one of my major gripes since moving to Sweden but it does show that, in the right environment, even the genetically lazy can become inspired.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Cheer

While I always enjoy my Christmas in Sweden, this year was worth that little bit extra. My new job has taken a lot more of my time that I ever could have anticipated. I knew that it wasn't going to be a traditional 9 to 5 job, but a typical day starting at 7am and ending around 8:30pm wasn't quite what I had bargained on. That is not taking in to account any weekend work. I do enjoy the job, and I'm glad that I took the risk, but it is coming at a cost.
My role is part of the project management team for a major international construction project, about 30km away from my home. There are probably 20 of us who are employed by the main contractor and, of those 20, I am the only one living in the area. In fact, I am the only one based in Sweden. There are a few local consultants who are hired in on an hourly basis, but they disappear at the drop of a hat. They certainly don't work after 4pm and never at weekends. The others work here for about 4 weeks, before heading back to their home countries for a week. Partly a contractual thing, and partly a taxation thing, I suspect. Anyway, the result is that they get one week off every month.
Not so if you are stupid enough to live here. While the others are basking in Manchester, Madrid, Washington, or Manila, guess who is left minding the fort. I haven't had a full weekend of free time since June. Actually, that isn't strictly true as I stopped working weekends as a regular thing, about a month ago. I figured that my foreign based colleagues could start picking up the slack while they are here. However, there isn't much choice when they all bugger off home for 2 weeks, 8 days before Christmas. We (read "I") closed up the site for 4 days, just after 8pm on the night before Christmas Eve. I have never enjoyed 4 days more in my life. I was as lazy as hell and loved every minute of it. I didn't even turn on my cellphone to check my emails for 4 days. I have never gone more than a few hours without doing that previously. It wasn't easy, but it had to be done. I thoroughly appreciated the Christmas time with my Swedish family. Even the usual Christmas arguments were cherished simply for being part of a normal life for a brief moment. Loved it.
Here I am back on site, working the days between Christmas and New Year. Ironically, none of my contractors are on site, so I am babysitting everyone else's. Fortunately my boss has realised what is going on, and has forced one of the local consultants to come back early and cover a couple of days for me directly after New Year. That will actually give me a total of one week away from the site. I'm not sure what I am going to do with myself. Hopefully nothing but, whatever it is, it will be with the cellphone turned off.

Dirty Deeds

Althought it has now been more than 7 years since I left my job in New Zealand working for a local authority, still waters continue to run deep. As I have likely mentioned previously, I accepted employment with the property department at Dunedin City Council, knowing already that we were going to be moving to Sweden. I knew that I needed to update my qualifications before moving to Sweden, and the only workplace where I would have sufficient free time to focus on this was, at a local authority. My job with City Property was perfect as I could complete a week's work in a couple of days, and then spend the rest of my time studying. Not that I had any less work than others, I just wasn't as skilled as some when it came to stretching out the work to fill in the time available.
Having spent quite a few years working in the private sector, I often would myself in conflict with the methodologies employed within local authorities. Especially when working at City Property, where I was working in my field of expertise. In the beginning, I rather foolishly thought that I could change their ways. Unfortunately that usually resulted in a ganging-up response, and me being shoved back in to my corner. In the end I gave up and focused on the happier task of preparing for our move to Sweden. But I was still neither blind nor deaf, and continued to be irritated by the levels of corruption and self serving empire building that appeared to be all around me.
At one point during my employment, still believing that justice would win the day, I took a particular corruption concern directly to the CEO of the council. While I shouldn't have been surprised, I was genuinely disappointed when my concerns were simply batted away, without so much as a quick review. Despite having gathered up a very large pile of evidence, that was the first and last time that I approached anyone, internal or external to council. Bad people usually win.
Now, it may have taken 7 years, but maybe there is still some hope left in the World. Around the same time as my departure, my department manager also resigned. Supposedly to pursue greater glory. It hasn't quite worked out for him and he continues to be hunted today by his former employer with regard to several very dodgy property deals which DCC don't seem to be able to shake.
While that pleased me to learn, the best was yet to come. The deputy manager of the property department, who had been running the biggest contract scams for years, finally got found out a couple of months back, and was duely immediately escorted from the building. Minus keys and golden handshakes. The scam that did her in, in the end, was the same insider trading scam I had tried to bring to the attention of the CEO 7 years earlier. It took 3 Changes of CEO Before they found one with enough morals and common sense to listen to people.
While I missed the opportunity to be a part of the process, I take comfort in the result. I had enough infomration to take down the corrupt leadership within City Property, but chose (save my one 5 minute chat with the then CEO) never to use it. Turns out that the villans involved didn't need anyone's help after all.

New Challenges

This has been a long time coming but then, so has the time needed to write it. After seven and a bit years, I made the tough call to change employers for the first time since arriving in Sweden. I say that it was a tough call by virtue of the fact that they were my first employer. They took a chance on me when no one else would, and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity they gave me. I owed them big time, and then kept me in the role possibly longer than it might have done back in NZ. After 7 years, I hope that I have managed to repay their faith in loyalty. I think that they have made good money out of me, especially over the past 3 or 4 years when I have been sourcing and retaining my own clients. So I figure that we are all square.

There had been a lot of changes during my seven years with the company. Primarily changes in faces, which is of course to be expected. But also changes in company values and ideals, which was not so unexpected. The Company focus centered on being "bigger", which is a good thing. However, the remedy was to increase numbers, rather than increasing skills or knowledge. Having lost key staff members over recent years, plugging the gaps with new graduates simply put more load on the remaining senior members of staff. Morale and atmosphere dropped considerably, to the point where I was no longer enjoying going to work. OK, work isn't supposed to be like holiday, but it is hard to accept a situation when you know that it used to be better.

I had decided that I was going to change employers, and I had a couple lined up who I was hopeful would be interested in me. It was just a matter of timing. I was also mindful of the rather poor treatment that some of my former work colleagues had received from my employer, when handing in their termination notices. It was definitely not some thing that I would be looking forward to.

As it turned out, the opportunity came to me, instad of the other way around. I was approached on-line by a somewhat obscure recruitment Agency, about an equally obscure job opportunity. If it wasn't for the fact that everything was so obscure, I probably wouldn't have wasted my time looking any further. Fortunately the weirdness curiosity factor was enough, and I ended up finding that it was an employer I was quite interested in. One and a half interviews later and I was figuring out how best to hand in my notice.

Swedish employment termination laws can be quite strict, as in most countries. To protect all parties. Typically, the longer that you have worked, the more termination notice both parties have to give. I guess that is because it takes longer to replace more experienced employees and because those who have worked longer would typically have a higher workload. In my case I was required to give a 4 month notice period. I knew this wasn't going to work well with my new employer who had a need for a near immediate start. We discussed me starting directly as a consultant, until my termination period had finished. That would have worked but I felt bad about my current employer taking a huge fee for my time, when I was planning on leaving them anyway. I didn't really think that they had done anything to earn that money.

Luckily, I found a Plan B. Many Swedish employers allow for employers to take a Leave of Absence. Tjänstledighet can be taken for a number of reasons, ranging from parenting to travel. You don't get paid but your employment position is retained for an agreed length of time. One acceptable reason for applying for Tjänstledighet is to "Try a New Job". That is rather unique, I had certainly never heard of this in New Zealand before. And not all Swedish work places offer this as an approved reason. Anyway, because a Tjänstledighet application doesn't require the same long termination period, I thought that I would chance it. While employment termination periods are generally covered by union contract agreements, the termination period for Tjänstledighet is agreed at the time between the employer and employee. I asked for a one year Leave of Absence, commencing one month after submitting my application. There were some benefits for my employer in agreeing to a Leave of Absence. It meant that there was a "possibility" that I would return after a year and, as I was still officially on the Company books, they could use my name when tendering for contracts. Slightly unethical, that last part. Whatever the motivation, they bought my excuses and my new employer avoided having to pay 4 months of consultancy fees.

All this happened right Before the holiday break, which I had already told my new employer was going to be a one month break. So starting directly after my holidays was a better deal than they thought they would get. All this happened about 6 months ago and I am still catching my breath. A very intensive new role but I am glad to be a part of if. More about that later. My next step is to figure out exactly when to advise my former employer that I won't be returning at the end of my Tjänstledighet. I might seek some advice from my union about that, but will report back with the results.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Mile Markers

Living in Sweden has been a series of milestones. I found that having short term, achievable, goals, gave me a much greater hope that I might actually survive. In the beginning, the big picture was so overwhelming that I couldn't imagine how I was going to start, where I was going, or how I was going to get there. Forgetting about that big picture and concentrating on what I knew was realistic has been the key to me making it this far in Sweden.
Getting a job was a massive start. I arrived with confidence sky high and ended up at rock bottom after only a few days. Preconceived notions of self-worth were thrown right out the window. I was no longer certain of what I was capable of. Having an employer decide to take a chance on me meant that at least one person in Sweden thought that I just might be worth something. I really needed that boost. Jump ahead and I'm still working for that same employer primarily because of that initial show of faith. To be fair, it's not the best employer in town, they don't treat their employees especially well and the management team seems to have been selected from the local gym. That's fine if your company is selling fitness services but, if you are offfering professional engineering services, the bar should really be set a little higher. Anyway, I work for them today based on how they treated me back then and what it meant to me back then.
Attaining a Swedish driving licence was another tick in the milestone box. What was good about this exercise is that there was a time limit. I couldn't put it off because it looked too hard, I had to complete all the tests within a year of arriving. Nothing like a bit of time pressure to help with motivation. A driving licence is not big deal, the big deal is that I now had a Swedish driving licence. I now had one thing in common with all the Swedes. That really lifted my spirits and I had something to show for my stresses at the end of the first year.
Passing the full Swedish language course was an important milestone for me. That took me about a year and a half to complete and kept me occupied during that time. Languages don't come easy for me, I have discovered. It is really hard work. What motivated me was that I knew that other people were graduating the course all the time. If they could complete the programme then what excuse was I going to give myself for dropping out. I would have chosen to fail and I would always know that about myself. Not going to happen.
Between the driving licence and language courses, I made it through one and a half years. That was a milestone I had set myself before leaving New Zealand, based on stories told to me by people who had moved to New Zealand from UK. They told me that most people who moved back to UK did so within the first 18 months. Those who survived 18 months, generally stayed for good. So my goal was to fight for 18 months, as tough as it was. They were pretty much spot on about most things. After 18 months I was no longer thinking about New Zealand. I had stopped with the comparisons, which are dangerous things in the first place. I had a pretty good handle on how the society functioned and knew how most things worked. The big difference between the UK expats in New Zealand, and my situation in Sweden, was the lack of a common language. 18 months dealt with the emotional changes in the practical environment, but wasn't long enough to account for the language differences. I no longer felt like New Zealand was my home, but I didn't feel that Sweden was my home either. I didn't want to move from Sweden either, so it was something of a state of limbo. I would now need a new milestone to aim for.
18 months is half way to 3 years and 3 years, for me, was Swedish citizenship. So I started counting down by months, to citizenship date. Small things happened along the way, both good and bad, but each month survived was one month nearer to becoming elegible for Swedish citizenship. The time went surprisingly quickly, which I guess suggests that there must have been more positive than negative events along the way. I applied for citizenship on the date of my 3 year anniversay and recieved my citizenship certificate exactly 4 weeks later. 2 days after that I had a Swedish passport. Physically I had now all the things that a normal Swede had. Physical milestones were complete.
It was around the same time that I also started to believe that I belonged in Sweden. The 18 months period spoken about by my UK friends in New Zealand needed to double in order to allow for a new language. 3 years is what it took to begin to feel like home. If there is advice I can offer to any person or couple out there who are struggling to adapt to a new life in Sweden, give it 3 years. If you walk out before then, you'll never know if you were capable of making it or not. 3 years, in small steps, is acheivable. You won't be the first to have tried it and made it. Being one of the few who gave up would have said more about me than I was willing to admit to myself.
There was one more milestone left for me, which was more symbolic. A few years back my ever patient and loving wife made the stupid decision to give up her life in Sweden in favour of a miserable existence in New Zealand. Well, miserable might be a little over-dramatic, but it was a huge leap into the unknown for her. During the darker times in Sweden, it was her commitment to me that kept me going at times. If she was willing to sacrifice for me, then I would be less of a person if I couldn't do the same for her. A bit of pride at stake. Well, last week we reached that break-even mark. I have now lived longer in Sweden than my wife lived in New Zealand. I have repaid in part, the sacrifice she made. Of course time is only part of the picture and there are many things that I will never be able to repay her for.  But continually trying to will be the milestones for the future.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"Sorry seems to be the hardest word"

I grew up in a country which has/had a pretty open workplace culture. I learnt over the years to separate out work from personalities  both when speaking in the workplace, and when being spoken to. It wasn't a naturally acquired skill, it is natural for us to take criticism personally unless we know differently. I learnt to understand context. After 20+ years of work experience in such an environment, it became automatic for me. I never hesitated to hand out praise or critique but I also learnt the correct method of delivery so that the receiver would know that the discussion didn't involve any form of personal issues.
When I moved to Sweden, I made several mistakes in my interactions with people based, naturally enough, on the only previous experience I had known. As a result, I offended the odd person and partially burned several bridges. I was expecting that Swedish people would behave like NZ people. Not a totally unreasonable assumption but a wrong assumption. So I've learnt something as well.
The general reaction when offending a person in Sweden, and I'm speaking now the the benefit of numorous experiences, is quite different to the reaction from a person from a native English speaking country. If you criticise a NZer, 9 times out of 10 they will either agree with you, defend their stance, or tell you to piss off and stop being an idiot. In either case, you generally end up with the matter being closed, and everyone moves on as before. Not so when dealing with a Swede.
As has been well documented, the average Swede is not comfortable with conflict and will do anything to avoid a conflict situation. It is very rare to be challenged by a Swede. Occasionally you'll meet a testosterone fuelled Finn who thinks that he is up for the challenge, but they are really just Swedes in disguise and fold pretty quickly. No, most Swedes choose not to rise to the occasion and instead take the critique as a personal attack, stored away in silence and inner festering anger. That's just the way of people and you can't really change that.
Now, coming from a dominant society into a submisssion society can have its benefits. If you are the only dog in the fight then you can forget after a while about not having a viable opponent. With no one to challenge you, its a free shot every time. If you are not careful, pretty soon you've turned yourself into a bully. Not with any malicious forethought but, without those opposing stances, it is easy to forget about respecting other people. I found myself turning into exactly the type of person I hate, a workplace bully. I wasn't going around smaking people, but I wasn't always being as polite or friendly as I would normally expect of myself. When I found out that I had been given the nickname of "Arga Snickaren" (the Swedish personality equivalent of Gordon Ramsay) by my work colleagues, I figured it was time to make a few changes around the place.
Exactly how I could remedy the situation in a Swedish fashion took some pondering over. I couldn't just start being nicer. It is a bit more complicated than that. Swedes never forget, and they don't move on. So I would have to confront the elephant in the room, head on. My solution is a bit extreme, but I think suits the situation. What I do is to take a bit of time each evening to reflect honestly on my day. I go through my contact with my work colleague and assess the interaction. If I think that I have behaved poorly (and I usually have) then I write down what I said, when I said it, and who I said it to. Then I address the next point, until I have gotten through the entire work day. At the end, I have what I call my Apology List.
The next morning I arrive into work with list in hand. Before I even start working I go round each person on the list, remind them of what happened the previous day, and apologise for my actions. Can take quite a while to get around the whole list same days. Anyway, by the time I am done, all bad deeds from the previous day have been dealt with and laid to rest. Then we reset the clock to zero and start all over again. Aside from generally trying to be nicer, I do make an effort to ensure that no one person makes the list 2 days in a row. My immediate boss is the exception to that rule, but I have explained to him that I have compiled a special list just for him.
Life has become a lot easier now with my Ursäktslista. As an unexpected bi-product of the process, I often end up on the plus side of things. Swedes are quite uncomfortable with having people apologise to them and they try to play down the situation in order that I will feel better. The result is that they often end up apologising to me for causing me to be annoyed in the first place. Its a Win/Win for me.