The first time I encountered the term “hospital pass” was at British Steel Tinplate R&D where I was handed one. Only far later, about a year ago, did I learn that the term comes from rugby union (at least in Wales, it may be different contact sports in other countries) where it refers to passing the ball in such circumstances that you’re going to get crunched by the opposition and as a result may well end up in hospital.
It was my first Christmas period in my new job at British Steel, and I had already booked a ferry for the 23rd of December to visit family in Belgium for the Christmas period. Then came the message that Carnaud MetalBox (CMB) wanted the attendance of a Tinplate R&D representative for a trial taking place on the 22nd and 23rd of December. Now CMB were British Steel Tinplate’s largest customer, and their demands had the force of law. Hence, if they wanted someone from R&D to attend, someone had to attend. And since the plant in Braunstone (near Leicester) was a beverage line that could switch from tinplate to aluminium for its cans, we’d better be on our best behaviour.
So it came down to me and my (small) team to comply, since we were the first in line to attend customer trials. Unfortunately, of the two experienced team members, one was due to retire at the end of December, and the other had a long-standing commitment. Since the third team member was still very new to the job, I felt honour bound to do the dirty work myself, hoping to give a signal to the team that if I was willing to make the difficult decision for myself, I would be expecting the same of them in the future.
This turned out not to be the case, and the message that came across was that if they didn’t want to do the dirty work, I would be helping them out – but that’s a different story. This meant that I had to change my ferry to the 24th of December, meaning that if I missed that boat, I would be spending Christmas day in the harbour of Dover. In the end all worked out fine, even if it meant that I had to drive from Leicester to Cardiff at 10pm on the 23rd of December.
Anyhow, I soon discovered that this was the modus operandi at Tinplate R&D, meaning that any success was always tinged by a sense of relief that “we made it” rather than a sense of achievement, and it was one of the reasons why I left Tinplate R&D in the end. What I discovered was that if your boss insists on having a say in both what result needs to be achieved, and how you should achieve it, then you’re leaving yourself wide open to a hospital pass.
Once this became clear to me, matters came to a head in 1999 when we couldn’t agree on my personal objectives for the coming year because I was adamant that I was not going to be shafted again by being given objectives that were neither realistic, achievable or even clearly measurable.
I never in my subsequent career had to defend myself against such a lose-lose situation, but maybe that was because by then I was aware and nimble enough to avoid cornered in such a situation.