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Becky Norman


Managing Editor

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When leaders break the rules

How can HR master the art of a good apology, act as a moral compass and go beyond slapped wrists?

The news of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak receiving fines for breaking lockdown rules is yet another reminder that unethical behaviour runs through the highest levels of leadership. Not just political leadership either. The recent P&O mass sackings indicates that in the business world too, those at the helm are making toxic decisions.

It’s no surprise then that Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer shows “distrust is now society’s default emotion”. Less than half of survey respondents said they trusted government leaders and journalists (42% and 46% respectively). While 63% believe business leaders are purposely trying to mislead us.

When looking at this issue through the lens of the people profession, it’s important to consider what actions to take when leaders break the rules, and how to tackle the pervasive lack of trust.

Calling it out

Contributing to the rise of unethical leadership are the blind eyes being turned from those in close proximity to the offending leader.

“In the current global VUCA climate we are repeatedly seeing how politicians and business leaders believe they can make their own rules and ignore accepted best practice,” states Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity in Leadership. “This is enabled by their advisors because these leaders often surround themselves with people who cannot or will not challenge them, which results in a lack of thinking and accountability, and instead leads to conflict, loss of talent and a lack of diversity.” 

As a representative of the people, HR leaders must not act as an enabler by keeping quiet when leaders act questionably.

For culture specialist and CEO of That People Thing Blaire Palmer, HR must get better at calling out bad behaviour and act as the radical voice of the business.

“HR professionals need to be comfortable to generate arguments about what is right. These can be good natured arguments, we don’t have to be the morals police. But we have to be known for our willingness to stand in the shoes of our clients, our employees, our community and our shareholders and ask how decisions and behaviours will look to them. Even when intent is pure, how it will look is as important as how it was meant.”

An insincere apology is arguably worse than no apology at all

Adding ‘sorry’ into the leadership lexicon

When leaders make poor choices, or act in a questionable way, they not only need to apologise, but they need to do so with integrity, and that is a skill that leaders must hone.

“There is a big difference between saying ‘I apologise’ and saying ‘I am sorry’ (the latter is better),” explains Palmer.

Leaders must also avoid making excuses. “An apology also can’t come with caveats like ‘I still don’t think I did anything wrong’ or ‘I have bigger things to worry about than this’.“

A good apology requires the ability to listen to different perspectives, the emotional intelligence to understand someone else’s point of view, and the empathy to communicate genuine remorse for poor actions taken. 

An insincere apology is arguably worse than no apology at all, so it is vital for leaders to understand these foundations of a good apology and practise the art of it.

Through making values part of the everyday discussions and decision making within businesses, HR can help remind leaders to act with integrity

Beyond slapping wrists

When faced with a leader whose actions equate to more than just a minor digression, a sincere apology may not be adequate. 

In these circumstances, Judith Germain, the leading authority on Maverick Leadership, highlights the importance of handling the situation with “integrity, consistency and rigour”. 

Germain goes on to explain that when the digression is one that necessitates a disciplinary procedure, HR should take the following steps.

  • Establish the facts of the alleged digression prior to initiating a formal investigation

  • Check to see whether the leader has been previously accused of similar behaviour (regardless of whether formal action has taken place in the past)

  • Be clear of potential options and consequences

  • Establish the current situation and timescales (is the digression one that necessitates immediate action like a suspension?)

  • Discuss the situation with the business leader’s manager. Outline what you know, and the potential repercussions. 

It’s important to take these steps, no matter the person involved. “When a leader breaks the rules it has an immediate impact on the culture of the organisation, especially if the organisation chooses to ignore criminal behaviour.” highlights Germain.

“If the digression is against the organisation’s declared values, and is ignored, employee attrition and disengagement is likely to increase. The organisation may become distrusted by the employees, reducing productivity and eradicating the psychological contract.”

Holding up a moral compass

Getting to the point of disciplinary action is not ideal. To avoid fire-fighting against whatever havoc a leader has caused, taking preventative steps is important for people leaders. Through making values part of the everyday discussions and decision making within businesses, HR can help remind leaders to act with integrity.

As HR professionals we have to hold up the moral compass for our leaders,” explains Palmer.

“A deep understanding and continual dialogue about the organisation’s values is so important. For example, what does today’s meeting agenda item on, say, bonuses, mean when looked through the lens of our values? How do we treat unsuccessful job applicants if we are truly aligned to our values? There isn’t one question on the table that doesn’t benefit from considering it in the light of our values and wrestling with the best, values-based options.” 

Beyond bad leaders

Of course, we shouldn’t just be trying to keep bad leadership at bay. We should be striving for an organisation where good leadership qualities reign strong.

“Great leaders care, they are empathetic and emotionally engaged and are not in it for themselves. They are courageous and lead by example and build trust and great teams,” states Dennis. “It is the responsibility of all leaders, including those in HR, to model these traits, and to foster and drive for them unrelentingly, most particularly from the C-Suite,” he concludes. 

Interested in this topic? Explore our content series ‘Ethics in the workplace: is morality good for business?


Author Profile Picture
Becky Norman

Managing Editor

Read more from Becky Norman

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