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Colborn’s Corner – Who can you trust these days?

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Quentin Colborn
The recent conviction of Graham Price, the Halifax IOU fraudster has doubtless rung alarm bells amongst certain financial institutions, but what did it do for us in HR?


For those not up to speed with the story, Graham Price was a financial consultant who also ran a small counter service for Halifax Bank. At Swansea Crown Court he was recently sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for theft after admitting stealing around £10 million from the Halifax and a number of small investors. It has been reported that the auditors from the Halifax found a note in his safe with the admission: “I have borrowed £7m from the Halifax.”

Auditing financial advisors is rarely part of HR’s role, and my expectation is that Mr Price was not vetted by any sort of HR procedure as he was running his own business. But what can we learn from this? How do we assess trust in our businesses? And can we expected to be able to do so?

There are of course many processes and procedures that can be put in place within a normal working environment in terms of dual signatures on cheques to ensure the system works properly and that no-one signs blank cheques! We can also make sure that references are taken up but is there any value in doing that you may very reasonably ask.

It is some time now since I saw a reference that said anything more than the very bland comment about confirming employment dates. But can references be more useful? Are we so risk-averse that we daren’t say anything about ex-employees especially if it is negative? I think that there is much playing safe within HR teams these days with concerns about the implications of data protection and the underlying question: “Can I/we be sued?”

My view is that anything can be put in a reference as long as it is provided truthfully and not maliciously – but how many of us play safe and say next to nothing in the hope that the dreadful employee’s next boss discovers the truth sooner rather than later.

What satisfactory reference have you ever received, only later to discover that the employee was a walking nightmare – a fact the previous employer knew only too well?

If references don’t tell us who we can and cannot trust, what about other employees? This is a very difficult area, but I believe we should encourage all employees to report untrustworthy activity when they see it. Clearly it has to be done in confidence; what one person has genuinely seen as a potential act of dishonesty may have a very rational explanation for another.

But if that’s not the case, the facts needs to be brought out to protect the innocent and ensure that others don’t get blamed for one persons dishonest behaviour. But do we have the processes in place to address this? Are the normal whistleblowing procedures the right channel to use?

What processes do you have in place to enable staff to report concerns they have, or is it simply a case of hoping staff will report things to their line manager?

What about watching behaviour? How many of your managers know their staff well enough to be aware that one of them might have an addiction problem – perhaps related to drugs or gambling. That is not to say that someone with an addiction like this is automatically dishonest, misguided maybe but not necessarily dishonest.

However almost certainly the temptation is there and if situated in a role where there is access to cash or accounts then any organisation needs to take that risk seriously. This may mean more frequent audits, it may mean double checking that all staff are aware of the employee assistance programme, it may mean greater management vigilance – indeed this may be a help to those who are tempted to borrow £7 million.

Has anyone faced similar difficulties in regards to trust? How did you assess the risks and then handle it. I’d like to hear from you. Simply post your comment at the foot of this article.

Quentin Colborn is an independent consultant who helps organisations address disciplinary issues and on occasions conducts disciplinary investigations for clients. For an informal discussion of how he can help you T: 01376 571360 or e-mail him at [email protected]

Colborn’s Corner: series articles

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Thank you.