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Culture and Collusion- Condoning Corporate Anarchy (Part Two)

This article provides examples of organisations who have and haven't attempted to manage culture and protect brand value

Culture is ubiquitously defined as "the way things are done around here". Note the distinction between how things are done and official mantra, company rhetoric, policy and even, relevant instruments of law. It's what we do and allow others to do that says more about who we are and what matters than any elegant vision and values statement sitting behind perspex in board rooms with marble and fresh flowers everywhere.

I would characterise organisational culture more pointedly. I would rather define culture as what we are and aren't prepared to put up with. It is when we are tested that one understands the true character of both a person and an enterprise. Jan Carlsson, former CEO of the Swedish International Airline referred famously to watershed moments in customer service as "moments of truth". Organisations face "moments of truth" in the context of culture. Behaviour that is committed (when it didn't have to be) is one moment of truth. Bad behaviour called once it's committed says something about the integrity of people who won't sit by and watch bad stuff perpetrated. But the third and very telling moment of truth is when behaviour is consequenced.

At the risk of appearing to be name dropping (shamelessly and sorry, without names) I was doing coffee with an AFL Football Club president some time back when he politely excused himself to take a call following "Mad Monday". He was particularly interested in whether or not anything was likely to blow up in the media that could cause anguish for the Club. When assured by the senior player who'd rung him that nothing untoward happened, I heard my coffee companion ask why. The simple answer coming back was "because we knew there was no way (Coach) would wear it". If clear and reasonable boundaries of behaviour are set in a healthy culture where people are committed to the team, it's vision and are protective of brand, most if not all can be relied on to do the right thing.

Having said that, many if not all of us have had a sudden rush of blood to the head and said or done something we wished we could take back. But when we do step over the line, is that behaviour called? Religious dogma would suggest that if we witness and don't act, it is as if we committed the act ourselves. It is not just when we're young and at school that others drop their gaze, shift uncomfortably in their seats, laugh nervously for fear of being next; sheepishly and tacitly condoning aggressive or ridiculing behaviour. It is undoubtedly happening in a boardroom somewhere near us all right now.

Have you ever wondered about corrupt business practices? Do those who do never get witnessed by those who don't. Unlikely. How does a crooked cop, (and I believe they are in the overwhelming minority), a drug-addled athlete or a defiant trading floor sharebroker keep doing what they're doing and remain part of an insidious in-crowd? At the risk of sounding naive, how shameful to think that supposed cleanskins working in corrupt environments sit by apathetically, or gutlessly and turn a blind eye to shonky practices, intimidation of others or smear campaigns. And if fear of retaliation is the reason, how reprehensible to think that anyone might work in such a climate of fear that speaking up could result in harm to themselves or their families? Something or someone has undoubtedly failed them. But potential dramatic and life threatening consequences for speaking out are not the common condition. In many situations there will be those bystanders who unreservedly disapprove but hold anti-dobbing policy as sacrosanct as ethical business practice or clean policing.

How many of us come forward when push comes to shove? According to the magistrate who heard the case, certainly not the bus driver (who "could have done more") or other members of the drunken group of Ocean Grove footballers watching a mate torment an orthodox Jew walking down the street with his two small children; not former Amcor executives listening to others talking about Nazis and gas chambers and how Hitler should have done a better job; not staff of the West Coast Football Club who counselled and cajoled errant players but evoked no consequences until it was too late. And why? Because Cousins was a demigod and only mere mortals have substance use problems.

And what of behaviour consequenced? The Amcor Board took decisive action and sacked several of its executives in the wake of the price fixing allegations that emerged in 2004. Christine Nixon attempted to do that months ago when she sought powers to suspend and/or dismiss police over serious matters and still some police members cried foul and still the Police Association defended them to the death. What does someone have to do in this country before an organisation can cut the tangled parachute for the sake of others? The smear campaign against Janet Mitchell, former Police Association President eventually wore her down and ran her out of town. Ultimately the OPI will determine whether or not the infamous Kit Walker affair and the defamatory emails allegedly sent by someone in the Association are worthy of further scrutiny or punishment but what about the casualties of war along the way including organisational brand and public confidence? Why should thousands of other dedicated and decent sworn and unsworn staff of Victoria Police have to pay a price?

In an era where companies are obsessing (yes, right word) about how to hold on to good people, why give them the cringe factor about their employer as collateral damage? What does scandal, corruption and poor culture mean for the collective esteem of those who work in an organisation where bullies, sociopaths, misogynists, bigots and narcissists rule the roost either formally or informally. What respect exists for senior managers who may not perpetrate such examples of bad behaviour but effectively condone it because the perpetrators are popular and charismatic, opinion leaders or money makers or well-connected to the right people and therefore become Teflon-coated?

It is imperative in a civilised democracy country like ours that there are laws and regulations that obstruct impassioned managers wishing to jump the gun on process and punish or exit staff without the punishment fitting the crime or worse still, where no 'crime' was committed. Thus the means to uphold the principles of natural justice must be fundamental to any workplace relations regime. The system must make it difficult to do the wrong thing but if we are going to jealously guard good culture, it must not be almost impossible to do the right thing. Undoubtedly many organisations make brave decisions every day about what they will or won't put up with. The context in which they operate must support that and where an employee can always cite custom and practice as a reason why things shouldn't change, ethical management will draw a new line in the sandArticle Search, ensure everyone can see it and demand that everyone respect it or expect to face the consequences. A Spanish proverb notes that every cask smells of the wine it contains. We will inevitably be judged by the company we keep and what we condone and reward in the people that work in our companies. © Leanne Faraday-Brash

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