Failure of courage

A failure of culture and of courage

Fresh on the heels of harassment claims at Uber, come revelations about widespread sharing and lewd discussion of photos of servicewomen in the US Marines. Different organizations, with similar institutional failings of respect and systemic bias. The Marines have a clear mission, established processes, discipline, levels of transparency unimaginable in the commercial sector, and yet tens of thousands of its staff appear to be engaged in illicit and destructive behavior.

But why?

A failure of culture

There are two main causes: The first is a failure of the culture itself which hasn’t learned to reject this behavior. This ‘triumph of evil’ does not happen overnight, it’s varnished into the culture through daily action and inaction. Tacit approval and complicity allow it to grow, often with the knowledge of management. Once seeded, unless staff feel empowered to counter it quickly without repercussion, these behaviors will escalate. Peer groups form, and those who deem the practice unacceptable will simply leave rather than fight. In this way, the activity becomes entrenched until it reaches a crisis point.

Most HR teams will point to clearly defined cultural values described in glitzy powerpoint slides. These are often more a recruitment tool than cultural instruction manual. They are vague, open to interpretation, and ultimately not livable. Instead the values should be a helpful guide about the unified beliefs of the organization. They should help govern the behavior of the team in the moment.

Once properly defined, what’s the process for checking the values are being lived every day, not just flashed in a screensaver? This takes a system, and regular management where individuals and the company itself are held hard to the values espoused. Only then will it self-regulate. If the organization doesn’t police its values, it shouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t enforced.

A failure of courage

The second cause is a failure of courage. A failure to step up when the time comes – that’s on every CEO, on managers and on the HR team as the backstop. At HR West last week, I gave a talk about ‘HR Rebels with a Cause’ – a cause for equality, meritocracy, and diversity. These are causes worth fighting for – and yet too often HR teams are trampled in the first assault or worse still not even on the field.

So many enter the HR profession to fight their cause, but don’t set themselves up for success. They need data about what’s happening in the organization. Otherwise, theirs is just another opinion – easily discounted. But having capillary data about the performance of staff, the values and behaviors being expressed, gives a foundation to their arguments.

It is time companies acknowledged the link between the behavior of their staff, the culture they espouse and the performance of the organization. It might seem obvious that these are interconnected, but too few have systems in place to monitor individual performance, to check behavior is in line with values, and to ladder those up to the company mission. Every organization spends money on systems to track finances so that they can appropriately manage their cash. It’s time for organizations to step up and put systems in place that give them the data they need to appropriately manage their people resources. HR teams can and should hold individuals and the company accountable for their actions. If they don’t, it should come as no surprise that unacceptable behavior grows unchecked.

Sadly, I doubt the issues at Uber and US Marines will be the last time we hear of systemic bias. But it should be the last time we ask ourselves ‘how did this happen?’ We know exactly how it happened. The question for HR staff is – ‘are you going to stop it?’  #HRRebel


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