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Colborn’s Corner: Can you train for honesty?


Quentin Colborn

Few will have missed the media furore surrounding the BBC and the apparent breaches of trust that have occurred in the running of competitions. The BBC seems to be taking peremptory action by arranging training in editorial integrity for 16,000 employees. This may be a necessary reaction to a serious threat to the BBC’s perceived integrity, but Quentin Colborn questions whether it is likely to change anything.

I suspect there was an acceptance that when the storm over the apparent faking of TV programme winners came to the fore that some of this was inevitable. After all, who actually knows someone who has won a TV competition? But Blue Peter? For many, Blue Peter was a staple part of children’s’ education showing us the delights of tortoises hibernating, the difficulties of training Shep, along with the annual Blue Peter appeal. We are now left questioning whether it was the same tortoise that came to life in the spring that had been packaged up the previous autumn.

Of course Blue Peter was just one of a number of apparent ‘editorial misjudgements’, with the result that 16,000 staff are to be trained (or retrained?) in editorial integrity – which to me sounds like telling the truth in broadcasting. Should this be necessary? Of course not. Will it achieve anything? I doubt it.

Perhaps naively, I generally assume that all employees want to do a good job and I’m sure staff at the BBC fall into this category. Without making excuses I suspect that the desire to produce a good programme has simply got in the way of ensuring the truth is told. But is this a training issue?

Can you teach integrity?

I struggle to think that integrity is something that can be taught by training. To my mind encouraging people to implement certain standards in what they do is more of an attitudinal concern, which if anything, needs to be shown by example rather than training.

For integrity to be part and parcel of the way an organisation operates, it needs to flow from the top down and encompass every aspect of corporate life. How can you train in editorial integrity when the boss fiddles her expenses or where taking a ‘sickie’ is an established part of life?

Integrity has to be part of the organisation’s DNA, if you try to take it out and link it to one issue only then the danger has to be that such action is merely a knee-jerk reaction rather than a true change of emphasis.

Doubtless in time we will get to understand what the training will consist of. However nothing comes without a cost and I would imagine that such training will come at the expense of other training which hopefully had been more thought through.

Swept under the carpet

Now the BBC has been very open (we think!) about the breaches of trust that have occurred. I’m sure that many commercial organisations who are not subject to the same type of public scrutiny will either not be aware of equivalent breaches, or if they are, conveniently sweep them under the carpet.

That is where, as HR professionals, we have an interesting role to play. We are not, to my mind at least, corporate police officers prowling around to look for breaches in procedure and to find employees who have broken the rules. However, as many of us will know only too well, we often have to pick up the pieces when disciplinary action is needed but there is a clear inconsistency in the treatment of similar conduct by different people within an organisation.

It is then that integrity really comes into play, making sure there is fairness within our organisations. This can only come from the top – remember that employees are excellent at seeing inconsistencies and no-one likes the cry that ‘the emperor has no clothes’.

Have you had to deal with issues of integrity within your organisation? How have you dealt with differing treatment of people you simply know is unfair? Let us have your stories – and of course they can be anonymous if necessary.

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via [email protected]

2 Responses

  1. Setting standards

    I, too, am sceptical about training or re-training for honesty. I can just imagine the launch of a corporate programme titled “From now on we will be honest”. Cynics of the world unite!

    In one organisation I worked with we recognised there was a need to spell out what standards of behaviour were required of all employees relating to business integrity, both internally and when dealing with external suppliers/customers. The trigger point was when a middle manager (a Justice of the Peace in his community) was picked up defauding the organisation of mega-thousands (a mini Enron!) via fictitious customers. Our internal auditors had picked up on other issues, too, such as the junior manager writing up the expenses claims which would be signed by the boss who had incurred some questionable expenses for an occasion that both had attended.

    The approach adopted was to provide an easy-to-read set of guidelines for all employees, and which was included in induction materials for new employees, so that the standards were known. And all managers were expected to set an example and walk the talk.

    A review of financial policies was conducted so that there were unequivocal guidelines on what was legitimate expenditure. This included stuff on entertainment and gifts offered by suppliers – the corporate entertainment stuff. Although it was interesting that the organisation still retained is debenture tickets for high profile sporting occasions, which was in essence a touch of double-standards… the review wasn’t that thorough, I guess.

    Then we had a whistleblower telephone line to an external agency.

    We took a systems approach to resolving our issues……but with a strong reliance on managers at all levels “leading by example”. I’m sure that subsequently there will have been dishonesty issues, but these will have been at the individual level. People have human fallibilities!


  2. Personal v Organisation’s values
    Very interesting Quentin.
    I wonder what element of conflict there was between values held by the individual and those of their immediate team and the organisation as a whole in the BBC case. For example where honesty ranked high in an employee’s personal values but they were tasked with faking a winner or where recognition is important to an employee with honesty less so. (Re)Training might get the message of what is acceptable across from the organisation’s point of view but it is important to remember that organisations are made up of individuals.

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