The Sue Gray report will hopefully highlight the importance of fostering a healthy company culture, and inspire HR professionals to take a lead in doing so, argues David Liddle. 

As someone who has worked with workplace conflict and cultural transformation for more than 30 years, the long-awaited Sue Gray report and subsequent Metropolitan Police enquiry, detailing the broken culture at Downing Street, is all too familiar.

How could a culture be allowed to develop and flourish where the Prime Minister, his wife and the Chancellor of the Exchequer thought it was acceptable to break the rules they had set?  Where the Civil Service Ethics Chief, Helen MacNamara, thought it would be fine to let her karaoke machine be used in what has been described as a ‘raucous’ party in June 2020 during the national pandemic lockdown?   Equally, why were those who spoke-up ignored?


Company culture 

It’s likely that the recent fines levelled by the Metropolitan Police for breaking lockdown rules are just the beginning, with Boris Johnson still awaiting the verdicts of investigations into other ‘gatherings’, so it’s clear these events were not ‘one offs’ but evidence of a deeper cultural issue.

At TCM we are often asked to undertake similar enquiries and observe that that unhealthy, unsafe organisational cultures are widespread. Such cultures are characterised by lack of accountability within fragmented, complex management structures coupled with an inability for staff to speak out against wrongdoing for fear of retribution.

Sadly, lessons are rarely learned from these kinds of public enquiries. There tends to be an outraged cry for a pound of flesh: heads roll, but nothing actually changes. However, I would argue that the Sue Gray report is the perfect trigger to change the way we think about culture and transform our organisations into ones which put their people, purpose and values first. In particular, it is a prime moment for HR to take the driving seat in this shift.


The lessons that can be learnt

So how do we genuinely learn lessons and respond? Firstly, as with any major life change or tackling an addiction, acceptance of the problem is crucial. In this case the Sue Gray report provides a basis for acceptance of a deep-rooted problem that appears to have existed and got gradually worse for years.

Secondly, there must be an understanding and restating of the universal principles of an effective workspace: trust, mutual respect, a keen sense of common purpose, inclusivity and psychological safety. These aren’t just moral and ethical principles but also factors which enable high performance. At the heart of this is justice: how we perceive, how we receive and how we deliver justice. The traditional justice model of blame, shame and punish is outdated and outmoded. Organisations need to reframe their justice systems to become more person-centred, fairer, and more effective. Transformative Justice blends restorative justice with procedural justice to create a powerful and highly effective justice model for the modern workplace

Thirdly, managers and employees must state and restate these principles, reflecting deeply on how they can align their own behaviours, to create a transformational workplace. The most challenging aspect is how to respond when these behaviours are misaligned – as in the case of Downing Street. Staff holding functions during lockdown and alcohol abuse in the workplace certainly do not talk to the aforementioned principles.


Culture transformation

This is where our organisations have a choice: do we rely on retributive and adversarial systems to change behaviours, or do we create a new paradigm whereby we empower managers to resolve issues in a restorative way, using proven methods such as positive psychology, principled negotiation and nudge theory? At TCM we work with organisations to establish a Resolution Centre in the workplace -a cross functional group including HR, employee reps, senior leaders and unions, who can propel resolution within the workplace – providing a legally compliant and overarching Resolution Framework for resolving concerns, complaints and conflicts at work.

Crucially, culture transformation is a shared responsibility which involves everybody. Everyone is part of the problem but also part of the solution. You cannot simply sack a leader or punish your way out of a crisis – that system has been in place for centuries and it has never delivered. Senior leaders such as Boris Johnson are a symptom, as much as they are a cause, of the problem.

My hope is that the Sue Gray report will not only shine a spotlight on the perils of unhealthy company cultures, but also inspire HR professionals and leaders to take the lead in transforming these systems which are unfit for purpose. In this way, HR professionals can become custodians of the way in which organisations treat their people, ensure justice, champion inclusivity, enable sustainability and drive performance through building a climate of trust.


David Liddle is CEO of culture change consultancy The TCM Group, author of Transformational Culture and president of think tank The Institute of Organisational Dynamics.