Another week, another lesson in how not to manage a deepening crisis of failures and mismanagement …

Farcical errors on “an incredible scale”

This time it’s the turn of US outsourcing company Concentrix and its £75 million contract to cut UK benefit overpayments for HMRC – a contract that won’t be renewed next spring.

Two weeks ago, the BBC exposed a series of farcical errors by the firm “on an incredible scale”. The bizarre case of one 19-year old woman was sadly not unusual: she’d been left unable to feed her two-year old after Concentrix stopped her tax credits because of her supposed marriage to a dead man she’d never met who would have been 74. When she pointed out the error, she was told there was nothing they could do unless the dead man contacted them to confirm her story.

Another had her benefits cut after being wrongly accused of being in a relationship with her gay brother-in-law; another after being accused of a relationship with her sister; yet another of being in a partnership with a woman she’d never heard of. All took hours and hours of trying to call up to complain about these errors and some failed to ever get any calls answered.

These would sound like jokes if the situations weren’t so serious for those concerned.

The BBC ran interviews with several desperate victims of this horrendous incompetence. But neither Concentrix nor HMRC appeared to tell their side of the story – only providing half-hearted written statements – so the programme represented them by empty chairs (see photo).

 

Whistle-blower

Yesterday, things got worse for those responsible as the BBC interviewed a whistle-blower from Concentrix (below) who added greatly to the picture of negligence and chaos.

 

He said urgent cases have lain unaddressed since May after thousands of people had their benefits wrongly cut – with many driven to the point of suicide.

He claimed most of Concentrix’s 600 Belfast call centre staff were put under huge pressure to deal with hundreds of complaints per day and “weren’t even trained” to handle such sensitive issues and vulnerable people.

Managers have apparently told staff to keep suicidal people on the phone as long as possible so they can call out the police. Call handlers traumatised by dealing with such calls, he claimed, are being told to just go out for a fag break, then get back on the phone.

As well as the whistle-blower, the BBC interviewed more affected people for their side of the story. But Concentrix and HMRC were, once again, nowhere to be seen. The presenter stressed that each was invited 10 times to appear but declined every time.

 

Huge mistake

I can well believe the US firm – and HMRC, who should surely be managing them – have no great, positive story to tell in this saga.

But it strikes me as a huge mistake not to appear at all, at the very least to show a human face, to express sympathy for those affected, to apologise and to emphasise their determination to put things right.

With all the revelations over the last couple of weeks, this was hardly a bolt out of the blue that caught the organisations by surprise. They should by now have a firm plan in place and senior figures well-prepared to present a convincing way forward.

Instead, their visibile absence gives the inescapable impression of organisations not only deeply at fault but callously hiding from their responsibilities.  This seems all the more ironic when you see from Concentrix’s web site that, as well as a tagline that promises ‘Better business outcomes’, visibility is supposedly one of its three guiding principles.

I criticised Southern Health a couple of weeks ago for being unable to give, via the media, a convincing account of its seemingly bizarre behaviour in its own long-running crisis. But at least its chairman had the nerve to show up.

 

Tariq Khwaja is a crisis communications consultant with TK Associates. See more on the agency’s crisis communications services.  

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