How Tim Gurner misread 'arrogant' workers

The millionaire CEO's claim that bosses now work for their employees went viral but missed the point that Covid has radically changed how people regard their jobs and lives

A restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, advertising job vacancies. AFP
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Many employers are despairing. They moan that they can’t get workers to perform, not like they used to, pre-Covid. It’s not just work from home, although in some countries, such as the UK, that is a major factor.

Which is why, when Australian property developer Tim Gurner recently called for unemployment to rise by 50 per cent, declaring that workers became “arrogant” during the pandemic, plenty of business leaders across the planet nodded in agreement.

Mr Gurner, who heads the Gurner Group property firm, told an Australian industry summit that productivity plummeted during the pandemic as “people decided they didn’t really want to work so much”.

“We need to see pain in the economy, we need to remind people they work for the employer, not the other way around,” complained Mr Gurner, who is personally worth $600 million and manages a company valued at $6.4 billion. “There’s been a systematic change where employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them, as opposed to the other way around. We’ve got to kill that attitude and that has to come through hurting the economy.”

His remarks were directed at construction labourers but were interpreted as taking a broad swipe at the worker zeitgeist during and since the coronavirus outbreak. His comments immediately went viral and while many employers quietly recognised what he was voicing, he was vilified around the world in news reports and social media.

Gurner Group CEO, Tim Gurner, told an Australian industry summit that productivity plummeted during the pandemic as 'people decided they didn’t really want to work so much'. Financial Review

He was accused of personifying everything that is wrong with capitalism, displaying the arrogance of the super-CEO and a contempt for working people. “Reminder that major CEOs have skyrocketed their own pay so much that the ratio of CEO-to-worker pay is now at some of the highest levels ever recorded,” US Democratic Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

It’s not the first time Mr Gurner has courted widespread opprobrium. In 2017, he told millennials to stop “spending $40 a day on smashed avocado and coffees” if they wanted to be able to afford their first home.

Other money-making stars have come a cropper when speaking their minds. Famously, Gerald Ratner, the UK budget jewellery tycoon, boasted to a business conference: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’, I say, ‘because it's total crap.’”

Mr Ratner went on to say that one of the sets of earrings he sold was “cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks & Spencer, but I have to say the sandwich will probably last longer than the earrings”. Ratner was toast. His shares plummeted and he quit.

Employers now realise they must treat their employees properly, not abuse and exploit them, and reward them appropriately

Post-Covid, particularly in the West, there has been a tilt in the balance of power, as Mr Gurner says, from employers towards the workers. But calling for mass unemployment with all the misery, hardship and horrendous socio-economic issues that would bring, is insensitive and ridiculous, and rightly, should be condemned.

Putting that to one side, the other part of what he said does withstand scrutiny. The day terror suspect Daniel Khalife escaped from Wandsworth jail in south London this month, 80 prison officers did not turn up for their shift. This amounted to 39 per cent of the staff expected on duty. Their absence was symptomatic of a malaise that exists in the public and private sectors across the globe.

It’s no coincidence that the pandemic introduced the terms “quiet quitting”, “lazy girl job” and the “Great Resignation”. All three describe what Mr Gurner was referring to. While they’re not used so publicly any more, behind the scenes they resonate still.

Quiet quitting was coined in the summer of 2022 by a TikTok user, Zaid Khan, to mean “where you’re not outright quitting your job but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond”.

On TikTok, #quietquitting has 900 million views. Hunter Ka’imi, a self-confessed “quiet quitter” went on the US talk show, Dr Phil, in autumn last year, and the video of his appearance has racked up 7 million views, 38,000 comments and has been repeated 48,000 times.

Mr Ka’imi, 23, a restaurant manager in Washington state, declared: “I’m not going to put in a sixty-hour work week and pull myself up by my bootstraps for a job that does not care about me as a person.”

“I think, for a while, people were feeling frustrated, but didn't have the words to articulate why, other than, ‘I'm mad at my boss’,” he added. “Then when the conversation shifted to quiet quitting, it was like, this is about work culture and capitalism and exploitation. Then a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, this is actually what I'm mad about.’”

Commuters cross London Bridge. Covid-19 and its aftermath changed workers' attitudes and served as a wake-up call to bosses. AFP

Quiet quitting is not so widely discussed today, but it’s very much alive. Gallup’s recent State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report found that nearly six in 10 global employees – most in other words – are psychologically disengaged from their organisation, even if they’re putting in their contractual hours.

In May this year, Gabrielle Judge, 26, a consultant in Colorado, recorded a video for TikTok, saying “a lazy girl job is basically something you can just quiet quit. There’s lots of jobs out there where you could make, like, 60 to 80k and not do that much work and be remote”. She cited non-technical roles, where the hours are 9-to-5 and the pay is enough to allow for financial freedom.

Her two-and-a-half-minute film went viral. So far, it’s received 350,000 likes and #lazygirljob has had more than 17 million views, with other young women sharing similar clips. One says all she does is “copy and paste the same emails, take 3-4 calls a day, take my extra-long break, take more breaks AND get a nice salary”.

The Great Resignation was used by Anthony Klotz, then associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, in May 2021, to describe the mass quitting of jobs during Covid. In the US alone, 47 million people resigned in 2021, and another 50 million quit last year. Videos of folks handing in their resignations even became a social media trend.

The pandemic gave people a break; time to assess their lives, their work-life balance, their jobs. Because the world effectively came to a shuddering halt, they were able to take stock.

What it did not do, and where Mr Gurner is wrong, was popularise laziness. Despite the title, a lazy girl job is not about being lazy – it’s about doing the minimum, the same as quiet quitting.

The fault lies with those employers who for too long expected workers to do far more than they were contractually obliged to, took them for granted and assumed they would always put in extra hours.

In that sense, Covid and its aftermath is a wake-up call to bosses. Currently, the power balance has begun to level back, as inflation, the rising cost-of-living and worries about unemployment have taken hold. Also putting a dampener on workers flexing their muscles is the coming of AI. It may be that they will be replaced by new technology, so best to keep heads down and please the chief.

That’s not to say there has not been a change in the employer-employee relationship – there has. Employers now realise they must treat their employees properly, not abuse and exploit them, and reward them appropriately.

Employers don’t work for their employees, whatever Mr Gurner says. But neither are employees prepared to suffer. Covid may have resulted in greater awareness for each side, and that must be beneficial for them both, whatever dinosaurs like Mr Gurner maintain.

Published: September 19, 2023, 7:00 AM