I shared a story on twitter, recenty, in which I outlined the apalling treatement a friend and long-standing colleague received from an organisation ironically tasked with improving their core culture and diversity statistics. The reactions have puzzled me.
The story involves someone who joined the same organisation I did several decades ago. Those were enlightened days and our talent intake included a heathy diversity blend.
Looking back at photographs of that time, it is interesting to note that the most successful individuals from that cadre of those who remained in that industry have been myfemale coleagues. I worked with them over an extended period of time and still count many as close friends. So I have absolute confidence when declaring that the individual in question is a first rate professional.
Imagine my surprise when she came to me detailing how she had been passed over for promotion half a dozen times in two years and on each occasion the role had been given to men closely matching the profile of her then boss.
By the time we spoke, all of the senior women in her division had left in frustration, all but one, the senior divisional director, the boss of her boss. This travesty existed in spite of crsytal clear targets stemming from the sector regulator and the organisation's CEO.
Anyone who knows my consultancy work or has read my books will know that I am not a fan of quotas or so-called "positive discrimination" but I am a passionate supporter of meritocracy and have championed diversity throughout my career. I have partnered with the European Institute of Diversity Management on several occasions and I've tackled some thorny culture change challenges in some very reactionary environments from banking and heavy industry through to national pubic sector organisations in politically sensitive places like Wstminster, South Africa, Northern Ireland and Cyprus, So it is probably fair to assume that I know what best practice looks like and can spot a travesty when I see it. This has truly been a case in point, especially given the same organisation spends £millions on pro-culture change, brand building PR!
The individual in question, the region's top performer three years running, had not only suffered the indignation of applying for promotion and being turned down repeatedly, but was also "talked down" from resigning by the senior divisonal director who proimised her a new role. To add fuel to the reputational bonfire, the boss then reneged on the prmise once she withdrew her resignation, only doing so once the role with a competitor had disappeared.
Incredibly, as a blatant act of matronising catharsis, she was sent on a leadership course for women. I was asked to review the course contents and was apalled to see it had been designed by a former professional sportsman, not only a "friend" of the organisation, but someone who was neither qualified enough in the subject nor successful enough to be a role model to anyone, in my view. It was also being facilitated by junior L&D staff and attended largely by junior managers. Not only was nothing about it fit for purpose. It was insulting.
No surprise then that 2 years later, the individual in question finally secured another offer from a competitor and this time left, taking her clients with her, no doubt.
All's well that ends well?
I wouldn't say that.
When I tweeted this tale, the main reaction appeared to be "what was (I) going to do about it?" and "at least there was a happy ending".
To the first point, of course, I continue to do what I can with what influence I have, whether in my writing, personal example or consultancy by helping make the business case for diversity and culture management linked to sustainable performance.
But what I do isn't really the point, is it?
Organisation cultures are the sum of the behaviour of the people that work there; patterns that become norms reinforced and enabled by people processes.
There is a joint responsibility at the highest of levels to set the goals, objectives, strategy and perhaps plan. But EVERY leader has a responsibility for leading by example.
Sure, the immediate boss of the person in question was and is wrong. Patently.
Yes, the divisional director was absolutely at fault for the way she behaved and continues to behave as the mouthpiece for the brand and culture.
BUT given culture is a joint AND several responsibility, my colleague and friend was wrong as well.
Sorry, but she was.
I'm sure we can all empathise with her position. But rather like the customer who hates the food in a restaurant yet never says anything, yet returns time and again, we all have a duty to find a way to change the culture for the better, even if it has to be a rear guard action taken after the fact.
I'm hearning, now, that situations like this are no longer the exception but the norm. If this is the case, is it any surprise that toxic corporate cultures persist?
Very interested to hear what you would have done.
About Ian Buckingham
Former Omnicom director, consultant and author Ian P Buckingham is the founder of the Bring Yourself 2 Work fellowship and Elder Management Consulting.
They are founded on the principle that true engagement, especially employee engagement, is a vital component of brand and organisation performance and that involvement and authenticity are key to sustainable engagement.
He previously established Interbrand Inside at the home of probably the most respected brand rating, employer brand and evaluation agency, Interbrand, and was a pivotal member of the partner team at the ground breaking internal communication and change management consultancy SDL.
He has so far written two of the three seminal, case-study based texts in the employee engagement/employer brand space which occupy the intersection between HR; Marketing and Communication now known as the brand trilogy and has featured in many more.
Ian is a CIPD columnist, respected and prolific writer and has partnered with clients across sectors to support many leading UK and global brands whether they’re ltd companies, professional services partnerships, not for profit organisations or places/countries. Through his consultancy and his case-study-based writing, Ian has earned a reputation as one of the most insightful and influential champions of authenticity in the workplace as a powerful way of unlocking employee engagement and underpinning sustainable, high performing organisations.
He's also recently written a trilogy of children's fiction books based on Joseph Campbell's hero's journey model.