How can HR leaders avoid an organisational crisis and 'do the right thing' by calling out unacceptable behaviour?

Kim Foster

By Kim Foster

18 May 2018

Sexual harassment, phone hacking and fake news scandals have hit Uber, News International and Bell Pottinger in recent times. While these big people issues aren’t the norm, what can HR leaders do to prevent an organisational crisis?

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Our latest HR leaders forum discussed how to create a culture where inappropriate actions are challenged. What can HR leaders do to create this environment and what role should HR teams play in calling things out?

What happens in our organisations right now?

An HR leader from the technology sector had a view that was shared by others. "Until something significant happens – and maybe its just human nature – it's difficult to get momentum behind internal or external observations. Maybe we should be talking about how we create a culture where these observations can be debated." Recent high-profile scandals have shown that a number of small, bad behaviours can highlight a worrying trend and information that can be useful for HR teams and business leaders alike. There was an agreement that if organisations only make changes when a problem has happened, this means that HR is being too reactive.

One head of talent & organisational development from an engineering firm had an interesting take on this. He explained: "HR has a role to play to avoid the silence that can exist. We are the eyes and ears of the organisation, so HR should have the courage to address this and go after the little changes or small improvements that, over time, will make a difference."

Connor consultant Carrie Birmingham has experience of leading an organisation through a crisis and summarised the views shared on the day. "There was a big theme of 'being heard' around the table. There was a general agreement that just because inappropriate behaviour was seen, it wasn't necessarily discussed, let alone acted upon."

But are organisations resilient enough to act on bad behaviour?

One forum member mentioned driving thoughtful culture change by: "Trying to get employees to step up and be accountable and not frightened to make decisions and be innovative and disruptive."

The head of HR for a law firm shared what her organisation was doing. "We encourage people to talk to people and not leave things to the review. We want them to give developmental feedback in the moment and train people, so they can do their jobs with confidence and coach people effectively. These are all sensible things we hold on to."

The HR leaders we spoke to have a pragmatic view when it comes to resilience. They agreed it was about doing simple, established things that worked. If your organisation is turning a blind eye to the inappropriate actions of others, don't expect an overnight culture shift where everyone raises the alarm. There was a consensus that resilience doesn't just happen, you need to work at it over time.

What role should HR play in helping to call out inappropriate behaviour?

The first thing that the forum established was that HR must look after the employee and employer interest, and as one HR leader confirmed: "HR is always in the middle." Unsurprisingly a large part of the forum was discussing the fact that HR leaders do think 'what's my place in all this?'

One role that HR teams play is to judge what is and isn't a crisis. One HR leader explained: "HR's role is to help managers keep perspective and ask 'how important is this?' and 'is this a drama?' You need to show up in the right way."

There was also an agreement from some in the room that certain employees, particularly long-tenure ones, can have a sense of entitlement, which can feel like a crisis but isn't. Two HR leaders had faced angry questions from their employees following a change in tax legislation that had an impact on pensions. While this may have been a crisis to the employees, it wasn't something that was the organisation's fault. When emotions are high, HR need to step back, listen and form a considered view as to whether people are being treated fairly or not.

Finally, there was a shared awareness that HR walked a fine line between being the whistleblower but not being seen by the rest of the leadership team, as one HR leader put it, "as a pain in the arse." Questions that the HR leaders we spoke to asked of themselves were 'how do I find the middle ground?' and 'how hard should I push?'

In conclusion – the top tips for HR leaders

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