Article: Signs of disrespect

A sign of the times: brazen contempt for you and me
The Times, November 8, 2007
tube sign
After you read this you’ll see them everywhere – like a newly learnt word that crops up all over the place when previously you could swear you’d never seen it before.

Signs of disrespect (SODs) are found in all the worst public institutions. “D*n’t [email protected] !t out on our staff,” shouts one in lurid purple and yellow on the Underground. They are everywhere, from hospitals and council offices to the security queues at Heathrow and Gatwick.

When you see one of these bossy, passive-aggressive signs threatening the public with prosecution or arrest, you quickly know two things about the institution you’re dealing with:

1) They’re lax about punishing those who break the law. After all, action speaks for itself, only inaction needs PR.

2) Customer service is diabolical or non-existent. People are loath to resort to violence and generally do so only when all other avenues of protest are shut. These organisations have pushed people to their limits.

But instead of sprucing up their act (which would require effort and a change of attitude), these institutions menace the public into accepting their unacceptably poor standards.

Yes, it’s often said that the British are a nation of yobs. But what’s more striking is the sheep-like docility with which the average British customer accepts jaw-droppingly bad service. These institutions don’t know how lucky they have it: they can provide a shoddy service, treat the public like dirt (or potential criminals) and still take the moral high ground should the customer dare complain. But of course, there is no way to complain. These monopoly institutions specialise in faceless bureaucracy where no one is directly accountable or even contactable.

Wouldn’t it be better if these public bodies instead of displaying their brazen contempt for the public at large with their SODs actually dealt with the law-breaking minority? But they don’t. A study on violence against nurses published in 2003 by the National Audit Office found that NHS managers and the police failed to take the issue seriously. Although some police forces are prepared to prosecute offenders, the Royal College of Nursing told the report’s authors that too many are not. Putting up a sign is like putting sticking plaster on a broken arm.

What’s worse is that this slackness is accompanied by a huge power grab. Only the State can now enforce standards of behaviour and it jealously guards its power. The police certainly won’t bother to arrest a gang of terrorising thugs, but if you take any action yourself, see how quickly they appear. And rather than target the thugs, they’ll be more concerned with the person who usurped their role as enforcer.

Let me suggest a new advertising slogan; one that targets all these rotten institutions. Try this: “Don’t take it out on the public.”


7 Responses to “Article: Signs of disrespect”

  1. Aron Pilhofer says:

    You go girl!

  2. A totally unhelpful post, Heather. It’s deliberately designed to antagonise, presumably because it is in the “thunderer” section of The Times.

    You haven’t a) measured statistically how good/bad the service is (everyone I speak to finds NHS staff incredibly polite, kind and helpful, so I don’t automatically believe you that NHS service is bad) b) you deliberately reference bad news from 4 years ago, when a quick Google will reveal articles like which show things are getting better.

    Also, being frank, I find “But what’s more striking is the sheep-like docility with which the average British customer accepts jaw-droppingly bad service.” offensive. You’re not taking the time to appreciate our cultural differences from the US, and the advantages of them, before criticising them.

  3. vaci says:

    It doesn’t take much searching to find recent stasticial evidence of the standard of public services in the UK.

    For the NHS, the recently published Healthcare Commission annual report is available. The Commission was pretty scathing about the quality of service in many NHS trusts:

    Financial targets no excuse for poor service, NHS trusts told

    NHS trusts must stop using the pursuit of strict financial targets as a ‘facile’ excuse for inadequate services, the sector’s watchdog warned this week.

    And anyone who has the misfortune to pass through one of BAA’s airports will be familiar with their customer service:

    BAA chided for bad service at London airports

    The company that owns London Heathrow and other busy British airports was harshly criticized Wednesday by British regulators, who said it had allowed delays to build up to “unacceptable” levels.

  4. Heather says:


    You write that I’m not ‘taking the time to appreciate our cultural differences from the US’. I don’t make any comparison to America in this piece. I’m sure other Brits would agree that passive acceptance of bad customer service does not advantage British culture in any way.

  5. Elena - the voice of British docility! says:

    After a day which begins and ends with having to wait for 4/5 tube trains to pass just so I can eventually squeeze on, get hot, be surrounded by sweaty people, be sneezed on and stand under someone’s smelly armpit – I simply don’t have the energy to get angry about the £250 a month I pay for this delightful experience, although it does make me sick on my slightly more energetic days… 😉

  6. Martin Belam says:

    Heather, I’m not entirely convinced that you have ever worked in a job where you face the public day after day. I can assure you that, however reserved the majority of British people are about bad service, it doesn’t take bad service to face insults, swearing, spitting and threats from the public. Work in any place open to the public for just a few hours in major cities in the UK, and you are guaranteed to come across abusive drunks, drug addicts and yobs who haven’t even used your service, but are looking for someone to have a go at.

  7. Emma Marsh says:

    I came across this website after researching into the bad behaviour bar/ waiting staff receive at the hands of the public.
    I agree that the public transport system is appalling but I do not think it is the fault of the staff that work there.
    What the ‘public’ don’t realise is that we are all doing jobs that are all relevant in society today and that there is no employer who really cares, they are all just out for the profits – the bottom line. So they can scream all they like at the representative of that organisation but it does not matter one bit to the powers above. It is the same as if you are a cleaner (and this by no way derogatory to cleaners as they are very important) or a bank manager or any higher authority like a policeman. We all have a job to do – cleaners clean up our filth and so do the police.
    It is not something the staff have any power over it is their employers that have the say.

    So the staff of public transport should not have to put up with abusive behaviour from the travelling public and neither should any service staff, they are doing their job within the restrictions of their employment. They are just an ‘easy target’ for ‘people who are dissatisfied with their lives!’

    We should all learn to respect each other before it is too late and anarchy begins.

    So next time any one complains about the smoking ban or trains being late remember it is not any ones fault but the higher powers who are in charge!

    No one is above another, we are all equal and the sooner we all learn that the better!

    I have just given up working in a customer facing industry, as I just cannot bear the way we are to each other, I want to like people but they just keep being rude, it feels like a superiority thing and I just want it to stop!!!!!

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