Anyone who saw the recent BBC Whistleblower programme on estate agents will have had their worst fears about that trade confirmed.
After watching the undercover reporting of numerous misdeeds and trickery, my thoughts were with the employees rather than the customers.
For anyone working in that field, how must it have felt the next morning trying to be your usual self, bouncing into one of those energetic offices, driving round in a Mini emblazoned with your brand, under pressure, or perhaps being one of those expectant suited figures, file in hand, waiting outside a block of flats?
The impact of this programme and subsequent comment has been widely covered elsewhere. However, it made me think about the role of HR when a really damaging people issue goes public. What can HR do to give management the best chance of avoiding this sort of adverse people-related publicity? And what should HR’s role be if, despite those efforts, a damaging story still comes out?
On the first point I am reminded of the advice given to yachtsmen in a force eight gale on a lee shore, which is: “Never find yourself in this position.”
If there is the slightest evidence that behaviours are incorrect, then HR professionals must flag up the risk and demand action. When business is booming, that can be a hard call to make. But who else other than HR is going to make it?
It is, in any case, deeper than just spotting one or two cases of questionable behaviour, as these may reflect the overall culture. If that culture is hard-driving, highly sales- and results-orientated – and, above all, unquestioning – then there will be a natural inclination to get close to or cross over the wire without the necessary sanction.
That is a slippery slope to public exposure (and that has never been more likely in our increasingly litigious environment). And any mistake will clearly be seen as a management error, not that of the ‘rogue employee’ as some apologists will claim. Barings Bank tried that after Nick Leeson’s exposure a decade ago, but the subsequent investigation meant heads rolled all the way to the top.
HR has great insights into what the management and the culture are really like. Recently, I was involved with an HR workshop team and we compared what we thought were the critical dimensions of the working experience compared to their view of what management thought. There were some serious gaps on ethics, values and diversity.
If that is what a well-informed professional HR department thinks as a group, then management needs to know – and they won’t unless HR tells them. A dismissive response along the lines of “well, those are only soft issues” will lead to ruin when the soft issues become rock-hard ones.
If bad publicity involving an internal matter does hit the fan, then HR needs to lead the recovery – guiding senior management and ensuring that communications reflect the real internal situation.
Employees will quickly spot spin, so HR must endeavour to prevent management communications falling into this trap. If there is a need to adjust the values, the disciplines and, in particular, changes to management behaviour, HR must be brave enough to speak up.
Of course HR should be up there as a top team player. But that top team membership must not stop it demonstrating the confidence and the courage to be a fearsome challenger if it sees action is needed to defend the ethical basis for the business.
Better to risk a tough internal debate than public exposure of the sort we saw in the Whistleblower programme.