Diseased and toxic workplace cultures

Disbelief

I understand the furore over the apparent disbelief, especially amongst politicians, when the management of the News of the World and the senior editorial staff say they didn’t know that telephone hacking was used to get stories about well known people. Yet I know from my experience as an employee that senior management can be completely oblivious of certain cultures that develop within the staff. Of course many politicians of all hues have never had proper jobs having fallen out of university into political “research”. They wouldn’t know about proper workplaces.

Causes

What causes poor workplace cultures to develop? Well, often it is peer pressure or just because people can. In my first job there was a lot of laxity in our office. Management was very strict that we had to be in the office on time. If we were not there to sign in by the appointed time the book was taken away and we had to go in and explain our lateness to the Chief Accountant. My train service was dreadful, and it was humiliating to have to do this. However once registered as at work we could do what we liked to do, go missing for hours or go home early or spend half the day in the pub. I was just out of education and inexperienced, so it was not for me to dissent.

Middle management was not only slack on keeping the staff on the straight and narrow; they positively led by example and peer pressure meant that if you demurred over some proposed misdemeanour you were the object of mirth.

There was a drinking culture too, and quite a heavy one. I couldn’t always keep up and didn’t want to. There were cocktail parties almost weekly for staff who were retiring. I didn’t actually know many of the retirees because they would often have been posted overseas and only just returned to Good Old Blighty at the ends of their careers. I remember saying to my immediate boss one afternoon that I would rather not attend the evening party. He said “but you have to come and drink as much as possible. It’s part of your salary.” No, he wasn’t joking.

Anyway, ultimately the management was so out of touch with the staff that many of us were treated badly in the career sense, so I left. In many ways it was a relief to get out. I had felt uncomfortable but not really able to avoid conforming with the rest.

Recklessness

Some years later I worked in an office where some staff were very careless in the way they worked. Accuracy mattered rather less then did getting clients’ work “done” through short cuts. By that time I ran my own group and certainly did not fall in with the others’ lower standards. I did things by the book, by which I mean with proper diligence, which I also expected of my immediate supporting staff. I had no say in the way others ran their groups. I was not is a position to tell anyone about the other lot of course because I would have not helped my popularity. Peer pressure is a powerful thing.

I rather think that it would be this sort of workplace culture that infected the News of the World. Many if not most employees would have kept their hands clean but there would be a few who would get their stories by whatever means. Management is often too engaged on the bigger commercial picture to wonder how the workers get their tasks done. It is no excuse of course; they should keep in touch, but it is probably a step too far to insinuate that those in charge at News of the World knew at the time about dirty practices.

Skills

Management is a skill. It doesn’t matter whether it is exercised in a newspaper or a restaurant.  Management is by definition about directing workers in the right direction and getting the best out of them. That involves neither just telling them what to do to get results, nor is it just about looking at the bottom line in terms of profit and assuming everything is in order. Management is about listening. It is about communication. It is about being respected in order for employees to want to give of their best for their managers. That means that managers and indeed business owners have to do their best for their employees by helping them with their difficult issues and leading by example to show them how things should be done. That way they get enough feedback to know what is going on.

That didn’t happen at the News of the World. Do you agree?

 

Comments

  1. I read that Justice Lord Levenson is saying the Murdock Affair inquiry needs more time in its deliberations. The range of the inquiry is likely to broaden, not only to other newspspers but to other areas of the media too. On the one hand, he’s right to ask for this. On the other hand, I’m concerned; is this the famous British technique called ‘kicking it into the long grass’ we’re seeing here?

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