Lawyers have moral responsibilities too

In the middle of last week, a story broke about a businessman who had made financial settlements using Settlement Agreements including NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) on a number of occasions following claims of sexual harassment and racial abuse.

Despite the undeniably serious nature of the original actions, in a world of global news reporting it may not have warranted front page news, except the businessman in question took an injunction out against the newspaper that had investigated the claims preventing it from publishing the details. And then in return, a Lord used parliamentary privilege to name the businessman.

I’ve followed the story, beginning to end and you know what? The whole thing stinks.

It stinks because instead of having the right debate, we’ve wrapped the story up in one of legal rights and wrongs. We’re discussing the integrity of the courts versus parliament, we’re discussing the integrity of NDAs, we’re discussing the integrity of legal precedent.

When we should be discussing the integrity of the people involved. The individual(s) that carried out the act in the first place. The leaders and HR professionals that sustained the culture in the organisation(s). And of course, the victims.

But also the lawyers that drafted the agreements, that defended the agreements and who have now lost sight of the individuals at the heart of the matter and are making intellectual arguments about legal supremacy, when if they and their peers done the right thing in the first place, this wouldn’t have been an issue.

Now I know that I’ll be faced with arguments that these agreements are entirely legal and proper, that it isn’t for lawyers to determine right or wrong but simply to enact what is legal and what is not. That the sanctity of the independence of the courts is paramount etc. I know, I’ve heard the arguments before. But I call b******t.

I’m sat here wracking my brains trying to think of a time in my 25 years of practice where I’ve been involved in a case where we’ve used a settlement agreement to settle a case of sexual harassment or racial abuse, and simply I can’t think of one. So to have multiple ones in the same organisation?

You can talk about the sanctity of the agreement and the “independent legal advice” that the individual has to take before they sign, but I want to talk about the moral responsibility of people propping up a rotten culture. I hold my profession to account, I hold leaders to account, but I also hold the legal profession to account. You can’t make clever arguments to claim immunity, you own this problem too.

So instead of continuing to engage in intellectual masturbation on the rights and wrongs of a member of the House of Lords naming the individual in question, let’s ask ourselves why they had to. Instead of debating the use of NDAs versus public interest, let’s ask ourselves why they’d ever be used in a case of this kind. And instead of pointing the finger at others, let’s start by asking ourselves a few searching questions.

The shadow you cast

A number of years ago I was dealing with the behaviour of an executive colleague. For a number of reasons their conduct had been called into question and we were trying to unpick a somewhat difficult situation. Once it was all sorted I was amazed to hear other colleagues tell me that this had been a repetitive occurrence throughout their career.

Whilst they’d been more junior within the organisation, their behaviour had been an annoyance; troublesome but manageable. But as they progressed through the ranks (one can question the judgment of those that facilitated this rise) it started to be more damaging to the organisation as a whole, it created a bigger impression.

The closer to the sun you climb, the larger the shadow you cast.

I used this phrase last week to talk about the importance of leadership role models. It’s a factor that many leaders forget and therefore undervalue the potential benefit. To put it another way, as a leader you can choose to behave in a way that not only benefits those directly around you, but those further afield in your organisation.

With all the talk of authentic leadership, we forget to explore the reason why. What lies behind the value of authenticity? The simple answer is that people will engage and follow authenticity more readily. But I think it is even more important than that.

I can’t cite the evidence, but I was told recently about a study of people on London buses. They found that when a passenger alighted the bus and said “thank you” to the driver, the probability of other passengers doing the same increased. Similarly, the same has been seen with passengers giving up seats on trains or picking up litter in the street.

And at the same time, we know that if the person carrying out the act is in a perceived position of power, the effect is multiplied.

If you’re a leader in an organisation you have both an opportunity and responsibility to role model the behaviours that you want to see and to encourage them in every interaction. The power goes much further than any leadership development intervention, value statement or strategic model. And even better it costs nothing and can be deployed at will.

So what are you waiting for?

Technical education isn’t second class

Anyone who has followed this blog for any period of time will know that I’m a massive proponent of technical education as a worthy alternative to traditional academic paths. Back in 1995 I was working as a lecturer in a Further Education college where I could see the energy and excitement that students had to vocational courses. Far from being the dumping ground of the formal education system, it was full of career minded young people who wanted to crack on.

The extension of the Higher Education system over the last two decades has fundamentally misunderstood both the desires of learners and the needs of business and the economy. At the heart of this is, I believe, an innate snobbery and superiority complex that led policy makers to believe that if every child did A-levels and went on to University it would be in the betterment of society and a high skilled society. This false belief is also why I’m also opposed to universal free higher education.

It is also why I’m delighted to see the development of T-Levels as an alternative academic route for 16-18 year olds in the UK. If you don’t know, the T-level is a technical alternative to the A-level and is a two-year college or school based qualification designed specifically around a technical profession. One of which will be HR, which I’m on the panel to help design the requirements.

One of the most challenging aspects of the T-level proposals is the 45 days work experience a student needs to undertake during their studies. If you think about it, it absolutely makes sense for employers that a young person has not only learnt the theory, but had a chance to see it applied in the workplace. But it requires employers to plan ahead for the application in 2020 and 2022 to make sure that the opportunities are available.

So my ask is this. If you’re an HR professional or business leader and you’re constantly talking about skills gaps and the lack of technical skills in the economy. Start to think ahead, explore the T-levels that are being developed, think about the opportunities that you could create, engage with local education providers and help to make this new route to qualification a success, not just in the HR field, but all the other areas that T-Levels will operate in.

As I’ve said so many times before, you can sit on your hands and complain about skills, education and development. Or you can step up and make change happen. The choice, and the resultant outcome, is yours.

Find out more here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/introduction-of-t-levels/introduction-of-t-levels

https://youtu.be/Bv3zpEAm3sk

 

Another fad, another failure

Anyone has read my blog over the last decade will know that I have been pretty vocal about the faddism in business management and leadership. We like nothing more than getting behind the latest silver bullet destined to solve all our problems. Employee Engagement, Human Capital Management, Big Data, Disruption, the list is both endless and entirely vacuous.

I’m going to add a new one for you, a term that has been creeping into the marketing descriptions of consultancies across the world like an outbreak of Japanese Knotweed.

Employee Experience.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve talked about this in the past, a quick scan through the archives shows a first post back in 2011, but you know that when a once meaningful, philosophical concept becomes the next management buzzword it will turn into first fad and then failure. Why? Simply because it loses sight of the original intent.

There is a significant commonality (and indeed irony) between both Employee Engagement and Employee Experience. Both in, their essence,  are about feeling, emotion and attachment but instead are replaced with systems, processes and measurement as the consultants promise us “sure fire ways” to drive the “performance of organisations” through “unparalleled insights” as a means to monetise our desire for a quick fix.

There is no doubt that leadership and management need to focus more on the working environment, that goes without saying. But ultimately that is about the way in which we see work and our beliefs about the treatment of employees in the workplace, not about systems, apps and fancy branded interventions. Once we’ve got the belief system in place, the rest will follow in due course.

It is too much to ask that we drop our addiction to faddism, but I hope at least we can open our eyes and realise what exactly it is that we’re doing. Change comes from within, it comes from our desire to create something meaningful and different. It seldom comes in a beautifully branded brochure.

And if you want to understand how to make the world of work a little better, start by reading this.