- Managing Me
- Big Ideas
- Managing People
Every day, all of us make ethical decisions in our jobs. I am making one in writing this story today.
A prank call made by two young DJs at the radio station, 2DayFM, appears tragically to have contributed to a disastrous outcome – a woman’s decision to end her own life.
In their worst nightmares, the two radio presenter involved – or indeed the radio station’s management – could never have predicted such an appalling outcome. The nurse, who died over the weekend, transferred a call from the two DJs, posing as royals, who said they were inquiring after the health of the Duchess of Cambridge, who was admitted for severe morning sickness at the beginning of her pregnancy.
Whether or not the station breached the broadcasters’ code of conduct is the subject of investigation by the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the hospital and radio station – Southern Cross Austereo.
Regardless of the outcome, the issue for leaders is that such incidents bring a sense of urgency and relevance to “compliance” training in codes of conduct/practice – an area that is too often a box-ticking exercise.
This important leadership issue, rather than the salacious details of the incident and pompous judgements flooding social and other media, is the focus of this story. My call.
Carmel Ackerly, CEO of the Australian Institute of Management, Victoria, says: “The whole point of codes of practice are that they are about teaching us how to act. While there are standard ones, and those with specific industry relevance, leaders also need to make codes relevant to staff in the context they work in.”
Codes typically allow for judgment
“Identifiable persons” – these words open up a grey area in the commercial radio broadcaster’s code.
Referring specifically to interviews and talkback programs, the code states that the purpose of Code 6 is “to prevent the unauthorised broadcast of statements by identifiable persons”.
All codes demand judgement calls. For example, the code of ethics for professional accountants requires integrity, objectivity, competence and care, confidentiality and professional behaviour, behaviours that are further defined, but must ultimately be applied in the day to day practice of the professionals involved.
Says Ackerly: “The challenge is that most training for codes is done in a tick-the-box, stand-and-deliver mode or through static online training modules. But people need to practice these behaviours and for them to become part of culture of the workplace.”
Catastrophic media attention, or private disasters such as the loss of top talent, are too often the catalysts for companies to take action on ethical and cultural issues, says organisational psychologist, Leanne Faraday-Brash, author of Vulture Cultures, which examines ways of recovering from toxic organisational cultures.
Faraday-Brash says she can make no comment on the Austereo issues, however, the situations that can create poor decision-making are her territory. “Sometimes unwittingly, just for the sake of profile or revenue, people will make poor decisions,” she says. “There can be structural reasons, such as laxness around the authority to make decisions, or it can be that the leaders are asleep at the wheel or blinded by the payoff and don’t really sit up and ask ‘what if?’ ”
Change and training
The idea that footy players would not be notified about a change in the AFL code until they breached it on the field is inconceivable, says Faraday-Brash – even to those who do not follow the game. Before players play, they need to know the rules, and the coach and club’s management are responsible not only for informing players, but showing them how the changes will affect their conduct on the field.
AIM’s Ackerly says there needs to be initial training about what is contained in codes of practice, and why they exist, and then the focus must be on how to apply them. “Everything else should be what staff see every day. It must be visible in the workplace and measured,” she says.
Although people may have the relevant knowledge, training can provide the “a-ha” moment about its relevance to their day-to-day duties. “This can be done through storytelling, quizzes, and group discussion about how this would apply to me,” says Ackerly.
At a minimum, there needs to be formal conduct training annually, or whenever the rules change, Ackerly says. In addition, codes of conduct need to be part of staff meetings, the strategic planning day and whenever companies are reviewing their business.
The challenge of applying codes is that they can bring staff and executives into conflict with other organisational goals: sales targets, for example.
Staff need to be trained about who to go to if they cannot make the call.
Bad calls need to be challenged, says Faraday-Brash, or they can become entrenched in the corporate culture. “When bad behaviour is committed over and over, it is because there is a payoff for the organisation. When it is denied, justified, rewarded or ignored, someone has put it in the too-hard basket or like the consequences that the behaviour brings.
“It might be that sign-off is made by people at too low a level, or too much responsibility is left to too few people.”
Codes are self-regulated
The accounting profession fought a long battle to maintain self-regulation following auditing scandals and company collapses in the early noughties. Media is facing the same challenges.
While individual companies face potential loss, entire sectors can suffer if a lax attitude to conduct, rules, laws and ethics become entrenched.
Self-regulation is limited: industry associations such as CPA Australia have fewer powers to enforce rules on their members that the ACMA has to control broadcasters. Competition between companies can be a mechanism that erodes strong ethics and adherence to codes. As company directors facing increasing corporate regulations know, the bad actions of a few can lead to a burden on the many.
A powerful argument against creating regulations is that there will always be people who love to find ways around “black letter” laws. Once they have, they open the doors for others to follow.
The accounting profession successfully argued that there would be fewer breaches of proper conduct if broad principles – such as honesty and integrity – guided behaviour, rather than narrow definitions of what that behaviour is. However, self-regulation has a price: ensuring that participants are trained in its application.
Says Faraday-Brash: “You have got to have a day-to-day understanding of how any policy and process affects them in real life. Applied understanding and real conversations between staff about issues that could arise are far superior to online training where genuine commitment can’t be tested.”
* If you are in need of help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services.