It’s been a bumpy road for British politics in recent years. It’s a road marred by leadership battles, political infighting and indecision and yes, the “B” word, Brexit. Then, on July 24th, Tory members voted for their new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.
His appointment raised eyebrows, with many asking how someone with such a chequered history can been elected as the leader of the country. In many cases, not dissimilar to many business leaders, he has a career track record, which at the surface reads well. Arguably already one of the UK’s most prominent politicians even before taking over as PM from Theresa May, he has worked for some of the country’s most well-respected newspapers and has served as an MP for more than 18 years, including eight years as the Mayor of London.
Yet despite his undeniable success, Boris Johnson’s career has also been littered with scandals, from lying to editors to being known for making controversial and racist remarks.
As an experienced HR professional and having worked alongside some of the world’s most successful CEOs, sadly it seems that the number of scandals and leadership aberrations within the business world is becoming far too common. As HR leaders, it is part of our responsibility to take both ownership for and act as stewards in ensuring that our company’s cultures reflect and mirror the organisations we wish to be known for. This means ensuring that the behaviours and practices that can ultimately lead to the downfall of a company are addressed before it is too late.
So, what can and should HR do to prevent unacceptable practices being perceived as “acceptable”? And what can we learn from Boris’s past transgressions?
In 1988, Boris Johnson was fired from his job at the Times for fabricating a quote on the front page of the newspaper. Then, 14 years later in 2004, he was sacked once more, this time from his role as Shadow Arts Minister under Conservative Vice-Chair Michael Howard, for lying about a long-term affair.
We have witnessed several cases over the last several years, where individuals have lied, covered up and or created a climate of perpetuating “false news.” The ramifications when uncovered are not to be dismissed. From market valuations being destroyed to the imprisonment of leaders, it is clear that there are serious and very negative repercussions for a business that fails to tackle the issues head-on.
Preventing these situations begins with creating a transparent, open and honest company culture, and an environment of self-accountability and responsibility at all levels. Implementing a strong accountability process is key, and in clearly stating the consequences of unacceptable practices and behaviours. The loss of employment, as in Boris Johnson’s case. The reality is that the signs of a dysfunctional culture are evident, long before they become public and so HR must be active in assessing the pulse of the organisation and vigilant of the warning signs.
It’s no secret that Boris Johnson has had multiple affairs. In fact, in 2013 senior judges at the court of appeal ruled that the public were entitled to know that Boris Johnson had an affair, stating “the core information in this story, namely that the father had an adulterous affair with the mother…was a public interest matter which the electorate was entitled to know when considering his fitness for high public office.”
From a HR point of view, dealing with infidelity in the workplace is a difficult situation. It’s a balance between encroaching what is ultimately a personal matter, whilst at the same time ensuring that workplace relationships do not lead to preferential treatment and or special dispensations that can impact the organisation overall. Companies often seek to overcome this by ensuring that individuals who are having a relationship are not in the same direct reporting line to avoid doubt of any preferred treatments. Being clear on the companies’ stance on workplace relationships, not dissimilar to the employment of family members, is best addressed by stating up front the company’s viewpoint and policy on this matter.
I have no doubt this is something that all seasoned HR professionals have had to deal with at some point in their careers. Any offensive, sexist or even racist comment when made, not only creates a difficult and sensitive situation, it is also in the majority of instances, likely to fly in the face of a company’s values and policy statements.
In Boris Johnson’s case, controversial statements have created many a blemish on his record. In a 1998 Telegraph column, the former journalist and London Mayor referred to gay men as “tank-topped bum boys”. He later went on to make a crass remark about “dead bodies” in Libya and in 2018, said it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes”, in reference Muslim women wearing face-covering veils.
Companies should not only ensure that people are aware of its policy on offensive language and racism at work, but also invest in building, training and creating awareness around inclusion cultures. While not as extreme as the comments made by Boris, we should not negate the impact that ill-thought through and clumsy language can have on individuals and how demeaning it can be.
Companies need to hold firm on their principles around diversity and inclusion and address issues when they arise. Ensuring people can raise concerns, and that they are aware of the channels available to raise their concerns without the fear of repercussion, is essential. Equally, leaders need to be accountable for calling out things that are inappropriate or unacceptable.
Can this kind of behaviour be avoided? Yes, absolutely, it is possible to prevent this kind of behaviour by encouraging a culture of respect and honesty in the workplace and holding leaders accountable. Leaders, like Boris Johnson, must own these issues too and therefore must take responsibility when they cross the line. HR must act as custodians of values and good practice and be willing to raise the “elephants of the room”, and it is only by doing so that we can move forward and have healthy cultures where all individuals can thrive and companies can prosper.