Legal Action

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

It looks like I’m going to be having my day in court. A company I worked for is refusing to pay me for a two day ‘Introduction to Dreamweaver’ course because it was, in their words, ‘disastrous’.

Well, let’s look at the facts, shall we?

I’ve provided several workshops for this company, all of them with glowing feedback from clients. I’ve trained people how to use Dreamweaver, Fireworks, and InDesign in group and one-to-one situations. Often, clients have remarked that they will be back for more – if I’m the one doing the training. (I’ve been doing this for years, since 1999 in fact, with excellent results).
It didn’t pay well, especially after tax, and it was unduly stressfull, but it always made me feel good afterwards, reading the comments on the feedback forms.

But then disaster struck.

One of the problems with private workshops like this is that some clients come in with raised expectations of what they will achieve. There’s usually always someone who is doing one job for their company but who is being moved in to ‘looking after the web site’ or ‘doing the company newsletter’, and has been sent to find out how it’s done. In just two days.

Others come with little or no prior understanding of the technology or software – fair enough for an introductory course, for sure, but there’s often someone who finds using a computer a bit of a chore.

Then there are the print designers who are moving to new software (e.g. from QuarkXpress to InDesign) or from print to web. For them, spending any time explaining grids or typography is understandably time wasted.

Another category is the project manager, people who want to know how to handle web designers, manage complex projects and what the limitations and time constraints are.

There is nothing wrong with being in any of these categories. But it is not a good idea to lump them all together and try to deliver the same learning experience to them all. Someone in the group – probably everyone – is going to get short changed no matter how good the person at the front of the room.

Now, being a professional teacher, I believe I can deal with all those expectations. It’s something I pride myself on. And I can even deal with them when several of these types are in the same group. It’s a difficult balancing act, looking after the novices while keeping the fast learners happy. But for some reason the group I had in this workshop was unusually diverse. Not impossibly diverse, by any means, but certainly diverse enough that it took a great deal of energy on my part to balance the different needs. It helped that as a group they were one of the friendliest and good humoured I’d ever had.

It didn’t help that early in the workshop I happened to say that, in my experience, most web site projects took 6-9 months to launch, and that no one was ever happy with their first site so people shouldn’t expect to produce anything stunning after just two days.
For one member of the group this was unacceptable. She very publicly took me to task because the blurb for the workshop promised “Dreamweaver Training provides clients with the expertise to produce innovative, professional and dynamic websites using Dreamweaver” and I had just said it wouldn’t.
I tried my best to deal with that by saying expertise comes over time, not 48 hours. She wasn’t at all happy and, though I could appreciate why, I was the wrong person to complain to.
I was as diplomatic as possible and went to the front desk to suggest that maybe the line in the blurb needed to be modified. It has been, funnily enough, to something far more vague.

This was bad enough, and I’d estimate that the combination of dealing with that complaint and ensuring the different types of student were catered for lost us around three hours. But to make things worse, three of the computers broke down on the first day and I was the person who had to fix them, but only after students had gone home. For half of the first day (a quarter of the course) three people could not complete any of the assignments. These were the graphic designers in the group, using the Apple Macs that had been set up incorrectly, and who quite rightly expected a little bit more for their money than being asked to follow over someone else’s shoulder.

At the end of the workshop I got everyone to fill in their feedback forms. I asked them to be honest and I made it clear I wasn’t happy with the way things had gone, apologising personally for the disruptions.

The feedback wasn’t good. But it wasn’t bad about me – far from it. It was bad about the company, focusing on misleading course details, computer failure and the fact that the group was too big and too diverse.

Not all feedback was bad. Some was complimentary about me, the way I handled the difficult situation, the patience I’d shown and the way I’d explained complex topics. These same people were, however, scathing in their comments about the company.

I handed the feedback over as I left, along with my own appraisal of the workshop, feeling about as low as it’s possible to be. All teachers have bad classes, not necessarily because they’ve been bad, but because circumstances have conspired to work against them. I went home, had a few beers, went over the notes and eventually satisfied myself that I had done my best given the situation. If I should be angry with anyone, it should be with the company who let me, and the clients, down.

The next day I received an email telling me I wouldn’t be required for the next workshop a few days later (despite the fact I’d moved heaven and earth to fit them in as a favour and would now be severely out of pocket). A couple of weeks later I got a badly written letter saying they had offered all clients a free replacement workshop and I wouldn’t be paid.

Excuse me? They give people a replacement workshop because of problems that were their fault and they blame me?!

I immediately wrote a letter outlining all the points above and saying in no uncertain terms that I disagreed with their arbitrary decision and breach of contract and giving them a week to respond. I also asked for copies of all feedback from that and previous workshops under the Data Protection Act, and for copies of any letters or emails in which I was discussed (I was concerned that they had defamed me in communications with clients). The letter went out recorded delivery and they signed for it the next day.

I got no reply. Not even to the legally binding request. They have a couple more weeks to reply to that before it becomes a criminal, not civil, matter. In the meantime I’ve had to prepare a claim for the County Court and will be submitting it on 28 February. It’s a clear cut case – I did my job, and acted professionally at all times. I’ve got a track record to show I’ve always been nothing less than good at the job, and frequently excellent, and nothing in the feedback from this workshop shows otherwise.
Yet still they refuse to pay or to acknowledge receipt of my letter.

If it weren’t so stressful, I’d enjoy the prospect of having my day in court and forcing this company to hand over the cash. I’d considered organising a boycott of the place by academic institutions who send people there, and by academics who teach there. Maybe I will. It’s a real shame as I like the people I normally deal with there, always friendly etc, and I have no doubt that the rest of the trainers are highly professional and excellent at their jobs. It’s the people behind the scenes who clearly know nothing about using feedback to reflect and improve, judging from their decision to blame me rather than change their practices.

Teaching is not easy, and it’s not just a matter of standing up in front of a class and moving step-by-step through a sequence. That would be the easy way to do it, but it wouldn’t help anyone in the long term. I can show people how to do a specific thing, like how to produce a rollover button with a chrome effect. But if you ever want to do something that looks different you’re going to have a hard time. It’s the principles that count, not the specifics. And it’s understanding that learning is something that happens afterwards, not at the time. It’s a rare individual who can come out of a two-day workshop knowing much more than they knew going in. What counts is putting what you covered in to practice, reflecting on the experience, and then changing your understanding before doing it again. And that’s something I stressed during this workshop, especially to the individual who felt short-changed.

The problem for me now is that this company has offered everyone a free workshop, with the insinuation that I am a bad teacher. Like someone taking an exam for a second time, everyone will leave the second workshop ‘knowing more’ because they will have gone through precisely the experience I said they should – except at this company’s expense, without reason. To everyone concerned it will appear as though they’re right, I was crap. Instead it will prove only that doing something twice is better than doing something once.

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve felt worthless and that I cannot do my job. This has been one of those experiences. It was unnecessary of the company to put me through this, and unprofessional of them to refuse to discuss the situation with me, to learn from the experience, or in the end to acknowledge receipt of my letter asking for an explanation. There was a more productive way to deal with this. Hopefully they’ll come to see that eventually – but in the meantime I’d really rather have the money they owe me.

UPDATE: They paid up. What a sweet feeling. However, no apology, no confirmation that they haven’t defamed me in communications with clients, and no compensation for the unfair and late cancellation of the second workshop.

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