A champion failure: what athletics can teach us about regulatory culture

Justin Gatlin won the mens 100m final with mixed response from the crows

The World Athletics Championships recently ended, but one of its defining moments will have people talking for some time. When two times convicted drugs doper Justin Gatlin beat the public’s favourite Usain Bolt to win the 100m final, he was, unsurprisingly, booed by the crowd and berated across the world. What was surprising, however, was to see the head of the governing body for athletics join in the condemnation, and fail to endorse the very rules and practices that body sets.

The International Association of Athletics (IAAF) is the organisation responsible for establishing the rules, and determining when an athlete is allowed to return to the sport after a ban. Yet following Gatlin’s victory, the President of the IAAF, Lord Coe, stated publically that he ‘would rather not see athletes who have tested positive in the past walking away and winning titles’.

Does this imply Coe would be happy to support IAAF practices as long as the returning athlete was not a genuine medal contender? It is certainly not acceptable that athletes should be allowed to return and only avoid backlash if they don’t win. How can it be fair or reasonable to allow Gatlin to return and subsequently condemn him for a ‘conviction’ that should be spent?

This sends out a message that those who make the rules are not prepared to be an ambassador for them when they are put under scrutiny. The message needs to be clear: athletes are either ‘in’ and the rule makers back their participation in events, or they are out. We cannot have a scenario where an individual is ‘in’ but is subject to this treatment when they succeed.

This situation is not dissimilar to an employee who returns to full duties after a disciplinary process, perhaps having received a sanction short of dismissal. Presumably, any policy outlining this procedure would have been drafted with the best interests of the business in mind. In theory, it is expected that after the decision has been made to allow the employee to return, working life for that employee would resume as before.

However, in practice, if management do not back the decision in line with policy, and this message is not filtered down to other colleagues, this can lead to a lack of trust and harmony which harvests a culture of victimisation. HR practitioners and management teams need to be mindful that after the ‘punishment’ has been served in line with company policy, any further scathing comments are unjustified, and should not be accepted. Their actions will be key to relaying the message to others.

If managers genuinely feel that they cannot support a full return to work, and defend the rules and regulations they are responsible for advocating, then they should be seeking to formally change those policies. In such instances of strong opposition, it is not the individual concerned who is at fault; the regulations are failing in their purpose to have the best interests of the business in mind.

A failure to call for a change in policy will cultivate hostility, and risks leaving employees feeling victimised and bullied. Gatlin, for example, has been cast as the ‘bad guy’ but in reality, he has done nothing more than succeed in a competitive event which he was authorised and entitled to do. In an employment context, the implications of this victimisation could be far worse. It risks causing widespread disenchantment within a workforce, or in extreme cases, the possibility of facing an employment tribunal.

Continuing to condemn an individual goes beyond the scope of what a disciplinary procedure sets out to achieve. Justin Gatlin’s triumph at the Championships highlighted a clear need for the IAAF to reflect on whether changes need to be made to their policy on doping bans. It serves as a reminder to senior leadership and management teams within organisations that they are expected to not only enforce rules, but also either defend them or revise them.

 

About Darren Maw

Darren Maw is a barrister and managing director of employment law and HR firm Vista

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