7 11 2012

Photo: The Guardian

In recent weeks the media has reported numerous stories surrounding Lance Armstrong’s cheating through the taking of performance enhancing drugs. At the same time, even more space has been given to reporting the scandalous tale of Jimmy Savile’s alleged long running abuses of young people.

What no one in the media has done is link the two. No one has looked at the startling similarities in the broken and/or dysfunctional organisational cultures will allowed the cheating and the abuse to go unpunished for so long. And those similarities present a warning to us all.

Most of us would like to think that if we were confronted with a Savile or an Armstrong in our organisation, we would speak up. Most of us are also kidding ourselves. The sorry fact is that most people will not risk a career by being the only person speaking out; will not risk the scorn of others if questioning the actions of a popular colleague. In reality it is only a tiny minority who will speak up regardless.

That presents a serious problem for organisations which like to consider themselves as fair and honest; who do the right thing. If the reality is that most will not risk speaking up and the culture does not encourage the reporting of misdeeds in a non-judgemental way, then in the vast majority of cases they will go unreported.

Photo: The Guardian

Since the news of Jimmy Savile’s alleged years of abusing young people broke numerous people have spoken up; “we all suspected something,” “it was accepted that was how Jimmy was” and “I didn’t want to risk being the only one who said anything” have been regularly repeated by numerous people in various guises. In the Lance Armstrong case, retired cyclists and coaches, team masseurs and managers have spoken out not just about Armstrong but about the culture of cheating that existed in cycling at the time.

Of course, there is another side to most (but not these two) stories. Misunderstanding, misinterpretation and deliberate false accusation must be guarded against. Therefore it is encumbent on the organisation to ensure not only a culture where speaking up is accepted but also where privacy and confidentiality are respected until any case has been properly examined or reported on to the correct authorities.

This involves very deliberate plans which foster a culture where no one is worried that highlighting wrong-doing might adversely affect their career or undermine popularity. It means very deliberate plans which design in a system and structure for reporting wrong-doing which does not expose truth or falsehood before being properly investigated. And, like all good planning, it is regularly ‘stress-tested’ to ensure it works.

Such deliberate planning will not only protect against paedophiles and drug cheats; it opens the door for the addressing of work place/organisational issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia, disability discrimination and more. It opens the door to protect against petty theft and fraud. It opens the door to a place where your staff are happy that they can take up issues in a fair, honest and reasonable way in the safe knowledge that they do not risk themselves (unless deliberately false) in any way.

In pointing fingers at the BBC, Stoke Mandeville, the UCI and others, many have taken the risky view that ‘it can’t happen here.’

Can’t it? Is your organisation’s culture assumed or is it known?


© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, November 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal



2 responses

7 11 2012
Wendy James

Hi Jim,

Thank you for another great blog. Having been a victim of workplace bullying which several people knew about, condemned but would not support me on I can only endorse what you say.

Well done.


8 11 2012

Interesting comparison: the fact that both Armstrong and Savile made a name for themselves through well-publicised charity work being another point of similarity. On the whole, though, I see more difference than commonality. Rumours about, and complaints against Armstrong were investigated thoroughly over a long period of time and in the end the testimony of third parties was taken seriously enough to result in sanctions, even in the face of a lack of definitive physical evidence. Complainants against Savile were disbelieved, actively discouraged from pursuing said complaints and their testimony alone wasn’t regarded – by either police, employers or family members – with sufficient importance to take investgations further (even at a time when criminal convictions in a court of law were routinely achieved thru witness testimony without corroborating evidence).

As much as your arguments for a watertight corporate policy to deal with these kind of internal complaints are sound, I doubt they would have helped any of Savile’s victims much. The principal reasons Savile’s crimes went undetected for so long are a) Sex crime is a huge taboo, arousing strong feelings of shame, fear and unease in both victims and the public at large, and b) the victims were women and children: historically undervalued both within the culture of the workplace and in wider society. That’s even without venturing into the murky waters of a possible paedophile ring within the BBC, and/or the educatation/care system. Corporate entities and institutions such as the church, the family, the state etc by their very (hierarchical) nature will prioritize protecting the integrity of the organisation/institution over the welfare of individuals within it, especially if said individual is female and/or in a subordinate position.

There’s something kinda wrongheaded, isn’t there, in prioritizing one’s job over the safety of our kids, even when there’s suspicion that kids are getting raped. As immoral as it is, the Armstrong case is pretty small beer by comparison..

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