Up the Down Escalator

Crisis of confidence

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In my last post I wrote about the alarming recent events at the Human Rights Commission.  Two weeks ago, former Judge Coral Shaw’s independent investigation report was published. It’s a shocking indictment of dysfunctional leadership and poor culture between the CEO, Commissioners and Board, and of a flawed/failed sexual harassment investigation.

The review found strategic leadership by the current board was compromised by “a lack of cooperation and communication between commissioners, and between commissioners and the chief executive.”  The review also found issues surrounding governance and management structures and arrangements, including a lack of trust and communication between staff, and managers and commissioners.

“There is a deep divide between some staff and some managers, and a lack of trust in the management and the commissioners among some staff,” the report said.

As a result, three Commissioners are not seeking re-election (i.e. standing down) and an Acting Chief commissioner has been appointed.  In a refreshingly honest opinion piece published on the Spinoff website, one departing Commissioner (Dame Susan Devoy) has publicly stated her regret and admitted that they failed their staff.

The saddest thing about all of this is that absolutely none of this is unique to the HRC.  If you work in HR you will know better than anyone that so many organisations are hindered by dysfunctional leadership teams, mediocre governance at board level and appallingly outdated and unfit policies and processes.  We see and experience it all the time and end up dealing with all the consequences.

Think I’m being melodramatic? How about the blog that was recently set up by Zoe Lawton to allow New Zealand lawyers to talk about their experiences of bullying and harassment following other recent revelations about one of our top law firms.  I urge you to read the comments.  It’s a hugely depressing catalogue of poor behaviour and culture, and a failure of leadership across a whole sector. This was confirmed by the Law Society’s own sexual harassment and bullying survey published this week which found some 33% of female and 14% of male lawyers claim to have been sexually harassed at work.

As Canadian HR blogger Jane Watson said in her own excellent post this week, “An organization that tolerates abuse until it crosses a threshold into the realm of sexual harassment is not one that is going to engender trust among your workforce.”

So why are we getting it so wrong? You can argue that all of this adds up to yet more evidence that our approach to leadership development is fundamentally broken.  As organisations we invest millions in leadership development to seemingly little effect.  We need to find new ways of doing this, of instilling better values and behaviours in the majority of those we trust to lead.

It doesn’t matter how you dress up employee engagement, employee experience, staff satisfaction or whatever else you want to label it, without good leaders and a functional leadership team none of it matters.  None of it.

In the meantime, a great many of us go to work each day in organisations with dysfunctional leadership/management structures, cultures that suck beyond belief and processes/practices that protect the dishonest and mediocre at the expense of those who are the victims of their “management”.

And most of these organisations have an HR function.  We cannot therefore stand back and absolve ourselves of any criticism. If even one staff member is sexually harassed or bullied on your watch, and you do not do the right thing, you are complicit.

Work may not be totally broken, but there is a massive crack in its core and fixing this stuff is the single biggest challenge we face as HR professionals.  Until we do, nothing else really matters.

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