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5 questions everyone should ask in the wake of the Oxfam scandal

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In recent days we have been reading shocking revelations about the actions of individuals within the UK charitable sector. This has opened the floodgates to accusations of misconduct and inappropriate behaviour left unchecked at both personal and professional levels.
 

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too;
 

From If by Rudyard Kipling.

 

As someone who develops the business skills of graduates and apprentices at the beginning of their careers, there is a lot that they can learn from the above situation to help them avoid damaging their own reputation and that of their employer.
 

I’m going to attempt to address 5 difficult and complex questions – I hope without damaging my own reputation.
 

  1. Is there a difference between personal and professional behaviour?
  2. When does your behaviour damage the reputation of your employer?
  3. At what point should a company address inappropriate behaviour?
  4. When should a business make a public admission?
  5. Should we, as individuals, withdraw our support from an organisation?
     

 

1. Is there a difference between personal and professional behaviour?

 

We are all entitled to separate our personal life from our and professional one. In our personal life there will be things that we do that we would never consider bringing into the workplace. For example, religious and political beliefs are often best left at home, rather than be debated at work.
 

You may have a passion for certain music genre and dress accordingly to attend a concert at the weekend, but still wear appropriate business attire during the week; and your colleagues would never be the wiser.
 

I’m sure you are honest, polite and courteous to your family and friends, and therefore would continue to be so at the office and with your colleagues and clients.
 

At the beginning of my career I worked for a manager who was an alcoholic. Every lunchtime he would repair to the pub and have a liquid lunch. Upon his return to the office his behaviour was totally unpredictable. One day he could be very normal and functional, and next verbally violent and best avoided. Due to his addiction, he couldn’t separate his behaviour and it certainly damaged relationships with his colleagues and impacted his professional development. And, the fact that I raise this now over 30 years later demonstrates the lasting damage to his reputation, and impression that I have of him.
 

There are examples of great leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela whose personal values and behaviour were constant and unwavering throughout their public life. While there are other examples of leaders whose rise to power appears to have corrupted their values and compromised their behaviour.
 

To quote Warren Buffett: 
 

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.
 

So, adopting impeccable personal behaviour is essential, and maintaining it in the workplace is mandatory.
 

 

2. When does your personal behaviour damage the reputation of your employer?

 

The obvious answer is when we are representing our employer such as when we are away on business. We are all ambassadors for our employer.
 

I remember attending a customer conference. In the hotel spa pool one evening, a group of attendees – fuelled by alcohol – become raucous and swimwear was removed. The following day, there were many ‘sore heads’ and a number of employees and delegates failed to show up at the conference to perform their duties. This reflected badly on both company and clients. 
 

But, it is not always the individuals who are at fault. Sometimes, it’s the company and entertainment activities that it chooses to put on.
 

At a different customer conference, at around midnight one evening, a fleet of buses arrived to take employees and delegates to a nightclub. I remember walking into the club and noticing that although it was summer, there were a group of ladies huddled in a corner wearing fur coats. As we entered the proprietor clapped his hands; the music volume was raised; and the fur coats were lowered. They were pole dancers.
 

What did this say about the Corporation hosting the conference? What impression did this portray about the integrity and values of the organisers and the company? 
 

And, sometimes it’s the behaviour of others around you that ultimately taints your reputation by association.
 

In the United Kingdom there has been a recent example of a leader of a minor political party whose partner tweeted some personal racist views. The leader attempted to disassociate himself from those views, however they reflected certain perceived values of the party he represented and therefore faced calls for his resignation. 
 

So, it is important to think carefully about what you do and what you say, even when these are your personal behaviours and not intended to reflect or represent your professional ones.
 

Personally, I think very carefully before posting personal views and comments on all business and social media channels, just in case they could be misconstrued and affect my reputation at some point in the future.
 

Currently, there is a lot of debate about having the ‘right to be forgotten’ and have previous behaviour removed from the internet that could affect your future prospects. It is incredibly difficult in the ‘moment’ to avoid doing or saying something that you may live to regret later in life. A good rule is if you are angry or very animated about something, wait at least 24 hours before doing or saying anything about it in a public forum. With a built-in delay, you may find that you restrain yourself, rather than live to regret it.
 

 

3. At what point should a company address inappropriate behaviour?

 

With the benefit of hindsight, we can all win Mastermind*

 

A former colleague of mine use to say the above. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it is relatively straightforward to interpolate the timeline and data to determine at what points action should have been taken. However, at the time of inappropriate behaviour being exposed, it is much harder to determine the right course of action.
 

A company has a duty of care to its employees, shareholders, stakeholders and clients to tackle inappropriate behaviour immediately it is reported. Unfortunately, too many companies fail to do so in a timely manner, and sometimes this causes high profile events with very serious repercussions. 
 

In almost every conceivable situation it would be better to act quickly and decisively, and nip the behaviour in the bud, rather than bury one’s head in the sand and hope the situation will quietly go away.
 

An Employer is obligated to put in place robust mechanisms that enable employees to be able to report inappropriate behaviour without fear of exposure and reprisal. The employee must feel confident that they can report inappropriate behaviour either anonymously or in such a way that the perpetrator cannot trace the complaint back to them.  The employee must know that their Employer will support and protect them.
 

Once fully investigated and verified then the offending behaviour must be addressed, and the individuals involved dealt with in an appropriate manner which may include disciplinary action and/or behavioural training and/or a review and change of company policies and procedures. In the most serious cases, the perpetrator(s) may be dismissed.
 

I once worked for an employer whose Country Manager (CM) was a divisive character. For whatever reason, they didn’t like me, and I became ‘persona non-grata’. This happened to several of my colleagues as well. It created a dysfunctional and hostile working environment. In fact, there was a noticeable difference in atmosphere when the CM was in the office (negative, heavy) and when they weren’t (positive, productive). Colleagues avoided engaging with the CM for fear of the consequences. It was damaging internal and external business relationships. 
 

On the first day of an all-hands company meeting, the Vice President announced that the CM had been dismissed. Together with my colleagues, we cheered at the news.
 

Although the behaviour of the CM had gone on for a significant period, ultimately it was dealt with decisively.
 

 

4. When should they make a public admission?

 

This is possibly the most difficult question to answer. The consequences of a public admission are often devastating, although sometimes they reflect positively on the organisation.
 

In the age of social media, the public can be quick to react to a situation, which can force a company to change direction, or reverse a decision.
 

Corporate reputation can be irreparably damaged or restored depending upon the speed, and the manner, in which a company responds.
 

I worked for a public company who had to restate their financial results. It turns out they were forward recognising services revenue, when it should only be recognised upon delivery of the service. This action had led the company to overstating its quarterly revenues. When they made the public admission the share price fell by more than half within hours. The admission affected the perception of the business and future revenues subsequently suffered. Layoffs occurred. The share price continued to fall and has never fully recovered.
 

This almost certainly affected the reputation of the Auditors as well.
 

However, there are examples of where a business has ‘put its hand-up’ and admitted it got something wrong, and because they acted promptly and decisively, their reputation was only temporarily dented.
 

A recent example is a UK retailer who changed the redemption values of their loyalty scheme points at short notice.  This resulted in some customers, who had been saving points over a long period of time, suddenly found they wouldn’t have enough points to redeem. The retailer listened to the backlash of criticism and extended the period during which customers can redeem their points at the original rate.
 

Decisive action like this should avoid any long-term impact to an organisation's reputation.
 

 

I recently read about another not-for-profit organisation where the trustees quietly and discretely dealt with the inappropriate behaviour of their chief executive, who resigned on ‘health grounds’. Some years later the inappropriate behaviour was publicly exposed, and the trustees were condemned because of the way they dealt with the situation. The reputation of the trustees has been called into question, and thus this has become more about their behaviour than that of the former chief executive. So, there is a danger in trying to quietly deal with a situation as it can look like a cover-up.
 

It is certainly better for the long-term reputation of an organisation, to suffer the damage and consequences of publicising the inappropriate behaviour and the corrective action taken, in the immediate aftermath. It creates more time to repair and restore the organisation’s reputation.
 

 

5. Should we, as individuals, withdraw our support from an organisation?

 

The backlash upon admission, or because of the lack of admission, can be very damaging and potentially fatal.
 

First and foremost, the supporter of the organisation must think about their own reputation by association. Many high profile Corporate supporters will withdraw their backing immediately and wait for the ‘dust to settle’ before determining when and if they can recommence support.
 

However, the danger of withdrawing support is that it can have serious detrimental consequences on the beneficiaries of the damaged organisation.
 

In the case of the UK Charity, whose employees have acted inappropriately, withdrawing donations will consequently reduce the charity’s ability to deliver aid to those in need. So, unfortunately, it is the very people that the charity helps who are punished and suffer, through no fault of their own. This cannot be right.
 

 

There is a fine balance between forcing an organisation to root out and prevent inappropriate behaviour from taking place, and impacting their customers, clients and employees who are not involved. There is no easy way to do this, however we can learn from each event that occurs, and use those lessons to improve an organisation’s culture and/or operating procedures, to significantly reduce the likelihood of it ever happening again. In some cases, that even requires a change in legislation.
 

 

There are Reputation Ranking Indices that are produced for all types of organisations from Corporate businesses to Charities. Perhaps more organisations should consider being rated by a relevant Index, and we as individuals should take more interest in their publication. However, there is a danger, that an organisation with a good reputation ranking may become complacent.
 

So, once again, let us remember the words of Warren Buffett:
 

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.

 

And from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If:
 

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too;

 

And consider carefully, thoughtfully and wisely how we behave in both public and professional life, and react to situations inside and outside our control, or circle of influence.
 

 

About Akonia and GradStart®

GradStart® is helping young employees lay down a solid foundation of business skills on which to build a successful career.
 

The above topics are covered throughout the programme, and specifically in the Interpersonal Behaviour module.
 

Download a complimentary copy of the 7 essential steps for successfully developing entry level employees

 

Find out more about the SME and Corporate programmes at www.akonia.com/GradStart or www.akonia.com/Corporate/GradStart and download the relevant GradStart® brochure, or speak to Gary Weinstein on 0800 619 9697.

 

 

* Mastermind is a BBC television programme