Questions and concerns over an organisation’s culture — the kind of place it is, whether there might be murky attitudes and behaviours around — can seriously undermine its standing. As the CBI has discovered.

In this case, the response of the leadership has added to the crisis. Taking a tough line by sacking a high-profile individual sends a clear message, but can start to look like the easy way out, an alternative to admitting bigger cultural problems.

There are some important lessons for employers of all kinds here. Firstly, the need to ensure there are watertight processes when it comes to the investigations into allegations around inappropriate behaviours among staff. There are three imperativegolden threads:

Integrity: all of the process, people and policy involved in the investigative process must demonstrate independence, impartiality and fairness; they should be clear about the necessary commitment to being guided by the evidence and eliminating bias; with awareness of the impact of social identity on their judgement. Investigations shouldn’t just be handed over to senior managers — those most liable to make snap judgments based on what they think they already know.

Transparency: the process, people and policy need to demonstrate openness and honesty with stakeholders, in order to give confidence in the fairness and rigour of the process while maintaining confidentiality.

Proportionality: should be applied at all times, not only to the timeliness of the process, but to the volume and relevance of the evidence obtained in relation to the severity and complexity of the issues and the likely outcome and impact on the parties and organisation.

Otherwise there are always going to be opportunities for counter-claims and more damage to a reputation. Again, as has been seen. Former CBI boss Tony Danker was able to retaliate in public: talk about how he was essentially just the ‘fall guy’, how many of the alleged incidents of misconduct happened before he was even appointed. His interview with the BBC was then given more space and received more attention than the original story of his dismissal. 

The other major lesson is around access to informal processes that encourage early awareness of issues in a workplace, and early interventions so that minor grievances and concerns don’t have chance to accumulate and fester, where subtle forms of bullying and harassment are unchallenged and become the norm. 

Would the CBI have found itself in this situation — losing members and worried about its future — if more staff had felt able to speak up over years? Workplaces need to be willing to open up, encourage more honesty, more conversations that deal with root issues of power and inequality, making constructive forms of challenge a normal and healthy part of the workplace culture. Having this kind of Clear Air culture in the workplace is valuable in terms of everyday working practices, as well as helping minor issues come to the surface and be resolved early: a positive cycle where staff at all levels know there will be conversations — mature, open, constructive conversations — about their experience and whats appropriate and what might need to change.

Whats needed in any organisation, where there is always a degree of hierarchy, of assumed and innate levels of power, is trust in processes. There has to be belief in a level of independence beyond organisational politics, an adherence to what is reasonable and fair. As a starting point, HR teams need to review systems and policies and ask themselves whether they are working, do staff at all levels feel able to come forward without concerns about implications for their career. People have to feel total confidence in the employers response, whatever the stakes: that they will be listened to and their concerns dealt with appropriately; that there are trained staff able to provide mediation if necessary; and if the situation demands it, there will be an investigation, carried out professionally and impartially; and that their department is fair and reasonable in everything it does.

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