Let’s Talk About Integrity – II

In the last installment of Arbor Mentis (BW, 4 April 2005), we left with the story of the star salesperson who, you have discovered, committed a "minor" forgery of a travel voucher. The discovery takes place when he is about to close a valuable deal. Do you ignore the forgery, or wait till the deal is closed? Or do you sack him on the spot? Well, it depends on your personal and organisational value system, and I hope the two are not at variance. In this issue, rather than give a prescriptive outcome, let us talk about what process organisations must have while dealing with matters that constitute breach of integrity.

THE subject of integrity in an organisation is usually limited to a poster or an intranet download from the HR or the legal department. There is the occasional talk by a roving minion. In very few, top management stands up and talks about integrity. This is the most effective way to convey what would be construed as right and what would not – and it is best done as soon as a person joins the organisation. But this act is just a starting point. Unfortunately, organisational intent is clarified in moments of darkness. Only a breach shows how far an organisation will go to make a choice between what is right and what is convenient.

First, an organisation needs a pre-determined process to deal with how a breach is reported. In many multinationals, whistle blowing is encouraged. When an act of breach is reported, the next logical step is to investigate the act. Here, some managements set up something akin to a prosecution and a defence team, so that facts and emotions are separated and witch-hunting does not take place.

Assuming that an organisation is committed to get into the depth of a reported breach, the most important aspect, in which many flounder, is speed. Speed is critical. You do not want to drag on because the matter is embarrassing or the potential outcome inconvenient. The greater the delay, the greater the chances of people moving from determination of black-and-white to shades of grey.

Once the issue of complicity is factually settled, the organisation must brace the consequences. It becomes unimportant whether by sacking the salesperson, you would still win or stand to lose the deal. That is the classic moment of truth. The action of management could mean loss of business, but the clarity with which it thinks and the speed with which it acts determine the consequent social memory that guides the vast majority of people. It eventually makes values tangible. The most critical aspect of dealing with issues of integrity is the price a management is willing to pay. Once people figure that out, compliance does not require policing.

Following the definitive action an organisation takes, the next step is communication. This is not always easy. A senior vice-president is being asked to leave on the grounds of integrity – will you explain the circumstances in his direct reports? What acts must be publicly and widely communicated, and what acts require the individual concerned to be given a safe passage? There are no easy answers.

Where organisations usually falter is in dealing with residual toxicity of incidents. The management must also be sensitive to the emotional toxicity that such acts leave behind. It cannot be wished away. It can manifest at two levels: it affects people who usually investigate or corroborate facts, leading to someone getting sacked. It is akin to what I call the hangman’s remorse. It is important that we keep communication channels open and encourage such people to talk after the event, so that they know what they have done is required of their job and that it is the right thing to do. The other level is the larger organisation. This one is with the silent majority who may form an opinion without notifying anyone. Positive reinforcement, visible act of top management and constancy of purpose are needed to detoxify the silent majority. The healing takes time.

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