To channel Bette Davis from “All About Eve”, I do hope you fastened your seat belts this year. It’s been a very bumpy ride – both here and overseas. And it’s not hard to identify why that has been the case.
If last year was about the political rule-book being thrown away with the voting in of Donald Trump as US President and Brexit, this year has seen the intense impact of that new reality. Subject-matter wise, we have had to digest further revelations across the globe about alleged sexual misconduct in our public life, and, domestically, a painful and needless discussion about providing equal civic rights to homosexual couples.
With our ability to communicate instantly, remotely and through an on-line identity, how any of these issues are perceived, discussed, explored and resolved has also become even more complicated. As a result, we find ourselves exposed to a possible dumbing down around the level of sophistication in thought and behaviour in public life. Suddenly, it seems, we need to seriously defend and re-examine what are the core values we had previously assumed in order to ensure a healthy society: the value of truth and how we identify it, preventing the misuse of power, and behavioural standards for those in public life.
All of these values are just as relevant at an organisational level as they are at a societal one. So, reflecting on some of the landmark events across 2017, what can HR do to ensure that corresponding values are protected and supported within your organisation?
The value of truth and how we identify it
The giddying events this year of Trump’s behaviour, including his public accusations of a media organisation producing ‘fake news’, and his flip-flops on a number of occasions including around healthcare and Barack Obama’s birthplace, are just one example of what appears to be an acceptable level of discourse around what is objective fact and discussion of social issues. Likewise, nearer to home, the “No” camp regarding the voluntary same-sex marriage vote included an outrageous statement in a video campaign earlier this year that the introduction of same sex marriage could lead to boys wearing dresses to school.
Such hysterical, discriminatory and unthinking statements are anathema to ensuring dignified and fair treatment of people, whether citizens within society, or employees within an organisation. Hopefully, within your organisation, there is visibility from the CEO down, and as evidenced in all your workplace behaviour policies and practices, on the importance of making decisions based on truth, and respectful conversations which are based on the truth. Of course, at the level of acting on allegations of misconduct within the workplace, it is more vital than ever not to go on “gut feel” but conduct an investigation in order to ensure a procedurally fair process gets to the heart and truth of the matter. The danger with media focus is that we do not adhere to the time-honoured process of giving an employee who is accused of wrongdoing adequate information and time to respond to those allegations.
The prevention of the misuse of power and behavioural standards for those in public life
Last year, the focus was on historic and horrific allegations of child sexual abuse in a number of religious organisations, and the extent of sexual harassment in a number of universities, both in Australia and abroad.
The shocking media coverage this year concerns alleged sexual harassment and assault by a number of very powerful and well known men across the entertainment industry: firstly in the US, with Harvey Weinstein and then Kevin Spacey, and now more recently in relation to alleged behaviour by Don Bourke in Australia. Additionally, there have been recent allegations of sexual harassment by a number of British MPs towards female staff, with the UK Defence Secretary resigning to date for his past behaviour.
Whilst Voltaire noted centuries ago, “with great power comes great responsibility”, what is clear is that accountability does not always feature in the mix as well. What makes an individual powerful, whether by the status conferred by society on that role, and/or by the financial ‘rainmaker’ ability which they have due to their industry contacts and technical know-how, may, ironically, potentially lead, at times, to their being less accountable for their behaviour. Of course, the context is everything.
Whether accountability is a lived value would appear to depend, to a large degree, on whether inappropriate behaviour is reported, and to whom, and what decisions are made, and by whom, about that alleged misconduct, and what truth is revealed in any subsequent investigation. Clearly, a lot of ducks need to be in a row, and with the revelations of alleged misconduct this year, there appear to have been highly persuasive factors regarding why the ducks did not align. The most influential factor? Being complicit. In this regard, it is not surprising, that “complicit” is the word of the year for 2017 according to Dictionary.com.
So at an organisational level, it is absolutely timely to explore what risk there is of any complicit behaviour at your organisation.
Ask yourself: “What might be some potential cultural roadblocks that prevent allegations coming to light, and, when identified, being consistently, fairly and sensitively explored and investigated?”
You may also need to probe these questions with others in your workplace. Certainly, the issues brought to light this year indicate that the legacy for any workplace which does not deal with matters “in real time” is one of needing to deal with a much larger and more complex scenario years later. Accessorial liability, the legal equivalent of the ethical failing of being complicit, will, my prediction for 2018, be ever more in the minds of those in decision making roles in any workplace, including senior HR. Take steps to ensure that you are doing all you can within your sphere of influence to lessen your organisation’s risk of turning a blind eye to serious allegations of wrong doing.
The failure of due diligence
Of course, a lot else also occurred this year that also has lessons for HR. Some more straightforward take-homes which don’t involve misconduct but rather failings of due diligence.
The first one relates to what has been the disastrous failure of a number of Australian MPs to check out their nationality when standing for parliamentary office. In your HR role, likewise make sure that you do not squib on any due diligence checks at the time of recruiting staff: take the time to properly follow up on referee checks and ensure your new recruits are ‘fit for office’.
The second story relates to the finding of an unencrypted USB stick in a London street which had sensitive information on Heathrow’s critical incident reasons, and the secret flight path of The Queen’s flights into that airport in October this year. That together with the malware epidemic earlier this year may give you cause to reflect on ensuring all your key IT information is suitably protected and stored.