The Tiscali saga uncovered

Tale of an accidental undercover reportage

When, despite having evidence in our hands, Tiscali denied its plans to cull 300 or its 420 UK staff, we felt there was only one way to be certain of what was going on. And that was to talk to the troops on the ground.

And so, with the help of one or two contacts at the company, we managed to smuggle our way into the ticket-only leaving do at Shoreditch's Light Bar for staff that until recently had been employed by LibertySurf (one of the three ISPs Tiscali has bought out and was in the course of disassembling).

Our intention was to be up front about being from The Register in the hope that disgruntled staff would want to share their experiences and concerns over how the company has treated employees.

This plan was soon scuppered though by the person that got us into the party. "You'll have to pretend you're a recruitment consultant," we were told. "There's a number of them here, and I don't want people knowing that there's a journalist about."

And so with a rapidly acquired pseudonym (the name of an old friend) and purporting to be from NetConsultancy, we contrived to find out what had happened.

It didn't take long. Following small chat regarding job skills and prospects in the online job market and creating an entire company off the top of our heads, people were only too pleased to discuss how Tiscali had shafted LibertySurf and WorldOnline by installing LineOne management in the key positions.

LineOne management unsurprisingly favoured its own troops (the three ISPs, despite working for the same company were in a permanent Mexican stand-off) to the detriment of more qualified staff in the other companies.

The cuts were across the board - sales staff, writers, techies, customer service. All were being well paid (new media's way of getting skilled staff before leaving them to the vagaries of the job market six months later). Most had three months' pay-off. Few had new jobs.

Just under half of those we spoke to had taken voluntary redundancy, most quoted as saying: "I wouldn't want to work for this company any more, even if they did offer me a job." It would seem the company went through a formality of interviews before offering either a job several rungs below the existing one or no job at all.

We found just two people retained by the company: a highly qualified back-end techie with ten years' experience (gold dust) and a project manager who swore the job only existed because someone in the same job in LineOne has decided to leave. Beer was flowing and tongues were wagging.

Paranoia was rife though, and the ruse of being a recruitment consultant appeared to working for the better. However, little did we know, but the original person that insisted upon our clandestine persona had had a few tongue-looseners themselves. The cloak-and-dagger antics were obviously too much and soon the contact could be seen whispering at the end of the bar that a reporter from The Register was pretending to be a recruitment consultant.

A quick look around the consultants in the room would reveal several blokes in suits and one chain-smoking scruffy skinhead with two beer bottles in his left hand.

The first we knew about it was when one well-built man who previously had gladly talked about the company, his job and his wage packet insisted upon a phone number for NetConsultancy. We gave him a duff one which he immediately checked and then returned intent upon revenge.

The game was up and having assured the man in question that we had no intention of printing his name and salary on The Reg, he assured us he wouldn't tell anyone else of our true identity. We didn't believe him and it didn't matter anyhow because by now the word had got about.

Faced by a room of drunk, paranoid and angry ex-employees who still hadn't seen their cheques clear (those that had cheques), we darted to the corner near the door and started another conversation. Two minutes into that conversation, the woman blurted out: "You're not a reporter are you? I'm not talking to you, I'm off."

From the safety of a pillar, we surveyed the room. Not often you see a room full of merry people whispering to one another. Everyone was clearly under suspicion. People were being given the all-clear by sales girls that had seen them in the office once or twice.

It was turning nasty. We made a quick exit. ®

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