Thursday, 11 October 2012

The cost of silence – a high price to pay

The fallout from the sound of silence is being demonstrated with dramatic effect either side of the Atlantic right now. Two very high profile cases have shocked the health, sporting and corporate establishments where a catalogue of wrong doing is finally being exposed.

The world of cycling is finally accepting (or should I say admitting) that the iconic American cyclist, Lance Armstrong was probably at the head of a global doping cartel, cheating his way to world dominance of his chosen sport.

Here in the UK, the late Jimmy Saville, the legendary presenter, DJ and benefactor is being exposed as the predator of the worst kind, abusing the privilege of his status and taking advantage of vulnerable young girls. This abuse took place on BBC premises, at schools and within hospitals possibly over 5 decades. Truly shocking. I’m not sure which is most shocking, the multiple acts of abuse or the conspiracy of silence.

Like the first tentative spray of water fighting its way through the flawed concrete of a failing dam producing an unstoppable and highly destructive torrent, so the victims and silent enablers have started to come out in the open.

Of course, the highest priority for the authorities here in the UK is to provide appropriate support to the victims of Saville’s excesses, and finally help them heal.  Putting the human tragedy of these individuals aside for a moment – what about the corporate conspiracy of silence? What about those who shunned the victims who turned to them for support? The BBC, a highly respected organisation which appeared to support the culture of a blind eye. The teachers who chose to disbelieve a troubled teenager. So many observers, complicit through their silence, must take some responsibility for not speaking up. Or should they? Is it organisational culture that is the real culprit here?

The victims of abuse were not just failed by the TV personality, they were let down by those they trusted to know better.

In the corporate or organisational environment, people tend to stay quiet about bullying, abuse, inappropriate behaviour, bad practice or fraud for one of two reasons. Fear or gain.  I suspect that currently in the workplace it is fear that is the driver to silence.

I am aware of no figures available to quantify the number of excellent employees who leave an organisation because of the conspiracy of silence.  Not speaking up because you know your concerns would be ignored is a damning indictment of any employer. What is the point of exposing bad behaviour if you know that at best you will be ignored, at worst your career prospects will be damaged or you could lose your job.

When I was much younger, I learnt the hard way that speaking up must be carefully managed. I discovered that my immediate superior was using company funds to pay for furniture for his family home. Even worse, I discovered that some of the ‘patients’ on the clinical trials we were setting up were in fact this doctor’s relatives, enrolled for juicy fees and results were being fabricated. Horrified, I challenged the perpetrator and was summarily fired (you could in those days). Our paymasters were in the US and when I called them to warn them of the irregularities, my comments were understandably viewed with some suspicion as an aggrieved ex-employee. Luckily, they trusted my word enough to embark on an investigation which proved my allegations. Had there been a suitable whistleblowing policy in place, the human and economic cost of my discovery would have been significantly lower.

Employee engagement is a much vaunted corporate value – and this should include the knowledge that your voice will be heard. Easier said than done. Which is where a whistleblowing policy comes in.  

As the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) states:
'A clear procedure for raising issues will help to reduce the risk of serious concerns being mishandled, whether by the employee or by the organisation. It is also important for workers to understand that there will be no adverse repercussions for raising cases with their employer.’

 Legislation is in place to protect whistleblowers – the CIPD summarises:
‘Employees and workers who make a ‘protected disclosure’ are protected from being treated badly or being dismissed. The key piece of whistleblowing legislation is the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA) which applies to almost all workers and employees who ordinarily work in Great Britain. The situations covered include criminal offences, risks to health and safety, failure to comply with a legal obligation, a miscarriage of justice and environmental damage’
Whistleblowing is particularly vital in protecting the vulnerable such as those in care homes and hospital patients and the government funded Whistleblowing Helpline, offering ‘free advice to the NHS and social care’ has been created to enable staff to report ‘malpractice, wrongdoing and fraud’ (tel: 08000 724 725)

A similar helpline for all public and private sector employees is  a must- have to support health and wellbeing in the workplace, whatever your job entails – whether you are a bean counter or brain surgeon. To speak out is best for you, your mental and physical wellbeing and ultimately for the good of the organisation that employs you. Sporting bodies could clearly benefit by offering a safe environment to report drug abuse.

All NHS hospitals and care homes now have access to the whistleblowing helpline. I hope the BBC now has a similar facility at their disposal and strongly recommend that all organisations get cracking to introduce and implement an appropriate whistleblowing policy for the common good.

This should help make these scandals a thing of the past.


Chairman Chegwin said...

Yes, I have personal experience of this aswell - working as Private Secretary for a previous CMO, no less... I pondered long and hard about what to do but received no reassurance from anyone that anything would be done so that was that.

I was "encouraged" to move on and take an alternative career path (which actually turned out to be much better, more successful and MUCH more fulfilling).

But it taught me a lot about how people close ranks....

Finchers Consulting said...

I'm sorry that you've been through this too and it's shocking that this scenario is so common. At least it worked out well for you (most of my disasters turn out ok in the end). The disappointing thing is that so often the 'villains' get away with it and the decent people just move on.

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