Workplace culture: complicity vs speaking out

Employment Law Column - 9 August 2018

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Does your organisation have a workplace culture of complicity? The Royal Commission shows the importance of implementing a “speak up” culture in the workplace.

News on the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industries has felt relentless since hearings began on 12 February 2018. The Royal Commission has already led to the high-profile resignations of AMP’s chairman, CEO, and chief legal counsel, as well as several of its directors.  

However, AMP has not been the only financial institution under pressure. Each of Australia’s ‘Big 4’ banks (ANZ, CBA, NAB and Westpac) have been accused of, and admitted to, varying forms of misconduct. The media scrutiny placed on those involved has been swift, regardless of whether their connection was implicit or explicit.

A common thread through each of these banks’ testimonies, has been a “culture of complicity“; an environment in which individuals were expected to turn a blind eye to misconduct or malpractice, or perhaps even encouraged to engage in unlawful activities in the pursuit of financial gain. 

Kylie Rixon, a banking executive, went so far as to inform the Royal Commission that ANZ had cultivated a culture where profit and growth trumped customer interests. Rixon indicated that although ANZ has since changed its incentive structure to prioritise client satisfaction and wellbeing, the process of changing culture was a work in progress.

Speaking up

The counterpoint to a culture of complicity is a “speak-up culture”, where people are trained and encouraged to recognise misconduct or undesirable behaviour, and to call it out.  In a speak-up culture, everyone understands what is expected of them, as individuals and as a collective. The ultimate goal of a speak-up culture, is to make “normal practice” synonymous with “best practice”, and for everyone involved to contribute to making it a reality.

What are the foundations of a business’s culture? In our experience, it comes down to the three Vs:

  1. Vision – what does your business want to be?
  2. Values – what are the priorities for your business? 
  3. Validation – what are people rewarded for within your business?

In a world where money rules, it would be easy to simply answer the first two questions with “earning cold hard cash”, and to answer the third question with “refer to questions 1 and 2”. We’re already witnessing the impact associated with cultures of complicity; where every ounce of energy is focused on the almighty dollar, no matter the cost to the business’s ethical or lawful standards. 

This can lead to trouble down the road (poor retention, low company loyalty etc.), and while it might not always end in a Royal Commission, it can be extraordinarily counter-productive if your business becomes embroiled in legal trouble which might have otherwise been easily prevented.

Creating a healthy and productive speak-up culture requires a slightly more nuanced examination of these questions, which we will focus on in more depth over the next few weeks.  But for now, ask yourself this – are you confident that wrongdoing would be identified and responded to within your business? If not, why not?

This is the first in a series of articles from legal experts on workplace culture.

This article is part of a regular employment law column series for HRM Online by Workplace Relations & Safety Partner Aaron Goonrey and Senior Associate Luke Scandrett.  It was first published in HRM Online on 26 July 2018. The HRM Online version of this article is available here.

 

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