So the USADA report is out and it makes it abundantly clear that the sport I enjoyed watching for years has been a dirty cheating farce (like I didn’t already know right?). The situation surrounding Lance Armstrong is a great example of the danger of a typical hierarchy. The person at the top takes ultimate responsibility, sure. And what happens when that person is operating on the wrong side of the tracks? Very few people question them, and those who dare are often quickly silenced or dismissed.

In the UK another altogether more sickening story is unfolding around the late Jimmy Savile. I’ve no wish to go into the details which as they stand, are allegations as Julia Briggs has said in the comments below, but it feels like another example of what can happen when a ‘cover up’ culture and a powerful, influential person come together.

If your company surveys its employees – I wonder how closely you and others look at the responses to questions like ‘It’s OK to speak up around here’? I’ve seen data from tens of thousands of responses which shows that over a five year period, negative responses to questions like the ‘speak up’ one, and similar ones about managing change well and keeping things simple are on the rise.

A challenge we have when times are tough, is that it can feel even harder to speak up for fear of reprisals and possibly losing your job. So we let stuff go. Stuff we know to be wrong, and the uncomfortable reality is that when the truth comes out, those who saw yet said and did nothing share at the very least, a slice of the moral responsibility. Last July, Rick over at FlipChart Fairy Tales wrote a great post when News International was under the spotlight for phone hacking, and it in he says that:

When companies get caught doing things that are illegal or immoral, they often try to individualise the problem, expecting us to believe that it was just one or two bad apples in an otherwise decent organisation. Investment banks blame rogue traders , newspapers blame rogue journalists. It’s all rot, of course. High performance cultures, by definition, monitor performance. Their managers might not know exactly who has done what but they set the targets and they know what people do to achieve them.

It’s all very well plastering posters with company values like ‘Openness’ ‘Honesty’ and ‘Transparency about the place, but do they really accord with ‘the way stuff gets done around here’? If they don’t, you might as well take down the posters, roll ’em up and use them to gag those who might dare to challenge the status quo.

When was the last time you saw something you knew to be wrong happening around you? And what was your reaction?

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

7 thoughts on “Dirty”

  1. The power of any bullying or intimidating culture is almost always derived from secrecy. Bullies in the playground absolutely rely (and insist upon) total secrecy. If others, not just the victims, grant those people that secrecy, then they have won. Good people doing nothing really is the biggest danger to any workplace culture.

    Conversely, when those doing wrong realise that keeping something under wraps is impossible, it usually is enough to stop them. I’ve always told my kids to be a grass; to tell on anyone and everyone, and be known for it. I use that phrase so that they get used to it, and embrace it.

    When a culture truly is open and honest, there’s no need to call it grassing, or even whistle-blowing, as any misdeeds are automatically presumed to be out in the open.

  2. I am slightly queasy about the whole Jimmy Savile thing – for several reasons.

    One, he can’t defend himself. Two, people coming out of the woodwork who say they knew what was going on (I am not referring to the victims and the probability is they were victims). Three, people saying that you could tell he was pervy just by looking at him We have too many examples of people being judged on completely irrational grounds and mis-treated because of it.

    My sister is a family lawyer and she says the incidence of wives accusing their exes of abusing their children (or other relatives) is unbelievable. Literally, unbelievable.

    So the point I would make (and I do believe in speaking out) is please do it with great care. Make sure you have facts, not opinions. Make sure the witnesses or sources are reliable. Speak to the right people and follow process (all large(ish) organisations have a process). It’s very easy nowadays to besmirch a reputation and that will have a huge impact on someone’s life. Look at the Liverpool fans at Hillsborough (Kelvin McKenzie is priceless.)

    And don’t relate this just to whistle blowing. Think about every time you voice an opinion, and the impact that might have.

  3. @Stephen – good point about secrecy thanks, and I like the two sided coin of good people doing nothing backed with the wrong doer realising keeping something under wraps is no longer possible. Right at that point is probably when the situation is most explosive.

    @Julia – I hear you and I ummed and ahhed about whether to include Mr S in the post. I’ve amended it slightly based on your input. Nevertheless, I’ve voiced an opinion, let’s see where it goes.

    Thanks both for your comments.

  4. Interesting post & comments. Like you, I’ve found myself musing recently on corporate culture & how lack of challenge can perpetuate negative behaviour. I’ve worked in businesses where to disagree or to raise a difficult topic has received some strong negative reactions. I’ve also seen those businesses lose customers, talent or competitive advantage as a result.
    I’m not sure that a vindictive ex-wife, or suspicious tabloid rumour is the same as numerous unconnected women with almost identical stories, contemporaries who practically corroborate the stories and video footage of Saville groping a 14yr old Nolan sister on Top of the Pops. If these women have suffered what they describe, I believe they deserve some semblance of justice. Wouldnt it also be wise for the institutions involved to fully investigate how they created cultures where people couldn’t voice serious concerns and have them listened to? If those cultures still exist, they need addressing.

    1. I think the two (lack of challenge and negative behaviour) go hand in hand, or at least pave the way for one another. It’s often the case that because speaking out often gets a negative reaction, people don’t do it – and then if and when the shit hits the fan there’s a lot of wringing of hands and…well….excuses frankly. We need to be clearer about things like openness and transparency, how to exercise them and support them and people who choose to use them in order to make their environment better/safer/whatever.

  5. Doug, a great and relevant post. One of the things Bret Starr said in his opening presentation at HRevolution is that you don’t create a great place to work, you defend it. I’m paraphrasing heavily here, but you create systems that create transparency and encourage and reward people for doing the right thing vs putting good people in systems that reward or require bad behavior.

    1. Nicely paraphrased broc – of course it’s easier to build that kind of thing from the start and that shouldn’t stop companies with crappy culture trying to create a better system along the lines you suggest.

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