When instances of egregious workplace misconduct come to light, we are often left with an open-ended question which, for the most part, doesn’t have a full answer: How did it get so bad? Misconduct is insidious; it can take root within an organisation and flourish without anyone noticing. Executives must be committed to developing a courageous, vigilant workforce to ensure misbehaviour is stopped in its tracks.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It allows us to look back on decisions and actions with a new set of eyes. As a result, re-evaluating the past can often lead us to a conclusion that we could never have reached at the time. We might learn from our experiences, but the true lesson is learnt in time rather than immediately.
I think this is especially true for organisations and executives when it comes to misconduct. The Royal Commission into the Banks provides an insightful example. Before the Commission was announced, politicians and industry were at odds as to whether an investigation was, indeed, necessary. We all knew something wasn’t quite right with financial institutions, but the extent of the issue left us all blindsided. It was only time and the proper attention that allowed us to truly grasp how perverse things had gotten.
This is what makes misconduct so dangerous. It is something that embeds itself within the norms and culture of an organisation, therefore appearing acceptable to people who witness it every day. For executives and other managers who are accustomed to this sort of behaviour, ‘misconduct’ is, plainly and simply, ‘conduct’.
It is, as such, of central significance that misconduct be stopped before it becomes commonplace. It’s like a cancer or some sort of parasite. Its mere existence is enough for it to fester and evolve into something uncontainable.
This is why a courageous workforce is an absolute necessity for executives. There is a point in the lifecycle of all misconduct where the behaviour is not yet considered normal. Some employees may be willingly engaging in the conduct, but most will view their behaviour as contrary to company standards. It is at this point that the light must be shone at the perpetrators. The next best chance at appreciating the misconduct will only be with hindsight – and by then, as we know, it is far too late.
Developing a Courageous Workforce
Research conducted by James R Detert makes it clear that courage is not necessarily innate. In other words, it is possible for executives to establish conditions within their organisation that allow employees to be courageous. Detert coins the expression competently courageous’ to describe these types of employees; they might not necessarily have the awe-inspiring, blind courage you see in the movies, but they do choose to be brave when they feel that they must.
One of these conditions is described as a ‘bank of goodwill’. Employees are able to air their grievances when they know they have a good reputation within their office space. We all understand the confidence success can bring. When we are in a rich vein of form at work, we are more committed to our natural convictions and feel as if we have the right to speak up, such is the authority we think we have earned.
While it is not necessarily possible for executives to ensure that each and every employee has a bank of goodwill, they can establish a culture where everyone feels they have a voice and a right to be heard. By creating teams that appear less hierarchical, you can free employees of the pressures that might prevent them from reporting misconduct. That means, as an executive, embedding yourself within your team so you come across as an equal. Executives must treat every idea with respect and approach projects collaboratively. This will not only develop confidence within your employees but will foster an openness that is another precondition to speaking up.
Ultimately, the question of whether misconduct will be reported before it spirals out of control boils down to whether you are the type of executive who is in tune with your organisation’s culture.
If you sit in your office blissfully unaware of the realities of the workplace, misbehaviour will fester. If you are the sort of executive who communicates openly and honestly with your team, building confidence and openness at everyone opportunity, you will have the chance to stop the rot before it’s too late.
When it comes to misconduct, it is better to be a pessimist. Always hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Doing so might save you and your organisation a lifetime of grief.