Our interview with a public sector HR officer reveals the importance of listening to informal discussions to balance legitimate and ‘shadow-side’ processes and sustain an open culture.

“If the individual asks me not to say anything to the other individual concerned, then we might have a conversation about how we can raise the issue. It becomes a journey of being able to discuss the issue.”

Where do you work?

I work in HR for a public sector lobbying organisation, with 300 staff. It is also a member organisation.

How does the subject of undiscussables resonate with you and your organisation?

If we take the issue of bullying for example, well we don’t have a culture of bullying. We have managers who don’t communicate effectively, but people can raise issues around this.

What are the conditions that allow people to discuss these kinds of issues?

Well we have an intelligent, vocal workforce. We employ lobbyists who have to be critical and also see the benefits of discussing issues. We listen to staff, informally and through anonymous staff surveys. We have exit surveys and annual staff conferences where staff can participate in conversations about the purpose and direction of the organisation. We involve people in the development of corporate projects, including the creation of its culture. We have an annual staff appraisal where the manager’s performance is evaluated as well. And this goes to a central point: it’s not kept hidden. The system of performance management includes monthly 1:1s and departmental meetings once a month as well.

How important is performance management?

It is very important, to the point where we are linking performance with pay.  So performance is reviewed before progression is approved. Pay progression is now dependent on performance, rather than just enshrined in some policy.

Has the culture always been this way?

There was resentment. The organisation was 6 small organisations working with their own area of focus but under a broad collective aim. As we underwent the huge change process to becoming one organisation, the closer we worked together the more our differences became evident. So resentment came about between these organisations. This was worked through by looking at each of our terms and conditions, and the employees were involved in the journey. It was a time of constant change, so it was unsettling.

Resentment was common, but it wasn’t spoken about. There were, for example, a number of people who would go to the pub on a Friday lunch time, and come back having had too much to drink. The drinking culture was generally accepted, and it took years to get through it.

So did someone blow the whistle on them?

No, it was just evident because it is a small organisation.

What changed as a result?

A drugs and alcohol policy was written which made the issue known; coming back late and drunk is not appropriate, but there was no strict rule that said ‘you can’t drink at work’. It was just a way of setting expectations. Our disciplinary procedure was flexible enough to deal with the effects of inappropriate behaviour. It was better to communicate the sea-change and show the reasons for it.

Have there been any recurrences of resentment since?

The journey we’ve been on has brought us to becoming one organisation with the same terms and conditions. Staff were involved in the journey, it involved consultations with staff, with unions, and it did involve terminating contracts so resentment was inevitable.

To what extent, if at all, has this kind of culture affected what kind of job you might look for in the future?

Well yes, I mean there are various checks and balances involved in looking for a new job: money, location, the role, the environment I would be working in. Part of what I do is affecting the culture. If the organisation didn’t have an open culture where people are able to raise issues, then it would need to have made a commitment to change that. You can have a vision and policies but moving everyone in the same direction is a different matter. HR can write a policy about respect, but this just provides the structure through which you can act if someone has not adhered to the policy. Along with this you need to outline what the implications are for not doing so. It is important to engage people in the development of a policy.

Do you outline any specific codes of conduct at your organisation?

Yes. The codes of conduct align to the disciplinary procedure. They set out the conditions for respect. But they need to be weaved into the different messages; the internal communications and employee events for example. And demonstrating and highlighting best practice behaviours of senior management – this is important for communicating the reality.  If people complain that codes of conduct are not being adhered to, this is based on their perceptions. Perception is tricky. There is perception, and there’s fact but they are different. Reality is somewhere in between. For example if there was a report of bullying, we can say that we have seen the conversations and what is being said is not inappropriate, so it’s not bullying.

How do you deal with reports of bullying?

In part it is down to the individual to raise the issue and how far they are willing to take it. Any issues of bullying here are really more about dismissive-ness and tone. If the individual asks me not to say anything to the other individual concerned, then we might have a conversation about how we can raise the issue. It becomes a journey of being able to discuss the issue. We would also examine what the individuals involved have said. They may perceive that they have been bullied but what has been said may be reasonable within the expectations of the organisation. From there we would talk to the line manager and discuss the issue with them. We would then need to decide on whether HR or the line manager themselves should talk to the individual.

The alternative method would be to address the issue in an ‘all staff’ way. In this case a message would go to all staff stating that we have become aware of such issues taking place and want to reinforce our policies.

Is the alternative method as effective?

If it is a serious case of bullying then no, it isn’t going to work. But sometimes tackling cases head-on can deteriorate a relationship further. Some people are behaving sub-consciously, so just need to be pointed in the right direction.

“You have to trust that people will behave as adults.”

Do ‘codes of conduct’ play a part in staff development?

Not as such. We have conduct, competency, targets etc. There would be too many needs to satisfy to fit into the development process. You have to trust that people will behave as adults. We don’t want to treat people like children. We consider ourselves a minimal process organisation. Incorporating codes of conduct would bring the development process to be more about process than the person.

Does the organisation have a set of explicit values and exemplary behaviours?

Yes, these were brought together after the organisation merged. They were created by the staff and adopted by senior management.

How significant are politics in the life and culture of your organisation?

Politics with a big ‘P’ are very important. Office politics aren’t. We are led by politicians and our senior managers are ex-public sector employees, some of whom are from very senior positions. Politicians don’t play an integral part in the running of the organisation. They point us in the right direction and set our priorities. The Chief Executive steers the ship and the staff crew it.

To what extent are there signs that the culture is overly-politicised? Are there any negative impacts of political issues that go on?

Members can be quite demanding sometimes. This is especially when decisions being made affect the particular area that they own. Managing these demands is a case of balancing people’s wants, and what is reality. It does happen though; certain members with the strength and power to influence decisions. On one occasion a politician didn’t like a member of their office and wanted them moved on. I spoke to their line manager, and basically told them that they couldn’t do it in this way. They ended up reviewing their structure and the individual’s job role was deleted. The individual consequently moved to another department. Sometimes you need to make people go through a process in order for them to get what they want. You look for a win-win situation basically. Our Chief Executive is good; she is fairly new but very demanding and upfront when dealing with politicians. She supports me in reinforcing the organisation’s position on these matters upwards through the hierarchy.

To what extent is senior management trusted by employees?

Some staff are not very trusting of senior management’s agenda. This is partly because of the type of people we employ; intelligent, knowledge focused people. They expect to be told everything. But this isn’t reasonable. They need to understand that they can’t know everything. It isn’t senior management’s job to discuss everything. People are often looking over people’s shoulders, in the mindset of ‘we know how to do their job better’. These kinds of responses were common during the major time of change. When the six small organisations merged into one, 40% of staff were lost. A whole host of interventions were used during this time; workshops, 1:1 meetings, meetings with unions and other kinds of sessions dealing with change. Career coaching was offered for those being made redundant.

Was this message, that it is unreasonable for staff to be told everything, incorporated into internal communications?

No. I don’t think this is something that can be changed here. People will always think that they know better. We asked them in a survey ‘do you think that senior management are open and honest in their communications?’ We expect there to be less negative responses in answer to this question in the future when they know that there won’t be any major structural changes coming up.

Did you ask in the survey how people thought you managed the change?

Yes. Best practice in making redundancies is not going to be text book. We did have fewer compulsory redundancies but there will always be residual feelings coming out of something like this. You do have to question sometimes the relevance of asking people these kinds of questions. They were never going to be happy about certain details such as the amount of information that they were given. I mean I could answer that question myself. We ask people such questions to make them feel engaged.

How much awareness is there that trust is an important issue that may affect business reputation?

Do you mean internal or external trust?

Both I suppose as I can see the relationship between them. If there is a lack of trust internally then this may reflect in your external communications.

We have a matrix working structure. We have to trust different managers and the organisation needs to trust you, the individual. That is important to get the cohesive message out on behalf of our members. Our Chief Executive would be very vocal about trust. She is quite forthright, but her priorities are right.

You mentioned that people are constantly looking over other’s shoulders. Do you think there is a need for such like behaviour?

No there’s not a need for it. It’s fine to give your views on something, to have an awareness and ability to challenge. But there’s no need to be conceited when giving your view.

“I kind of stand in the shadow between process and conversations.”

Are there legitimate spaces, procedures in place that give permission for people to challenge?

We are a minimum process organisation. We run better on the informal rather than the formal. I kind of stand in the shadow between process and conversations. I have conversations outside of process and these conversations happen all the time. There’s a necessity for this in day-to-day work. It’s not so much about having a policy for everything. The shadow-side conversations are more important. Policies and procedures often just come into play when things go wrong.

So if we were to try and identify an undiscussable at your organisation…?

I don’t think we have one. People raise things, anonymously and directly. We don’t have a problem with tackling lateness for example. Perhaps if someone was dressed inappropriately, for example an individual wearing a boob tube and short skirt when the organisation requires business dress. This may be difficult for a man to raise directly. But I am there to coach people in how to hold this kind of conversation. We will rehearse the conversation until they feel comfortable doing so.

“We gather the informal intelligence to get a sense of the organisation. It should be about engaging people and soft intelligence.”

This sounds like the critical mechanism that allows difficult subjects to be discussed?

I would be concerned if we didn’t have a mechanism in place where people couldn’t raise something so difficult it would be considered unmentionable. We don’t have that kind of culture because people speak to me informally. We gather the informal intelligence to get a sense of the organisation. It should be about engaging people and soft intelligence. You then have to seek out a fact; a law, article, or internally, a formal complaint or a collection of conversations across the organisation to verify what you know.

Do you think individuals within an organisation are able to change the nature of conversations?

Yes it can work. But it’s dependent on people, the organisation, the structure and trust. A lot of this comes down to personal skill and style. Some of it comes down to the weight you have behind you, the support. It also depends on what kind of organisation it wants to be. If it is happy being disrespectful, then it can’t change. But if an organisation is misaligned with their espoused values and this is sub-conscious then you have to engage with the staff, and pose the question ‘how does this work in reality’? You then need to develop a whole communication campaign stating ‘we’ve engaged with you, this is what we are signing up to and why’, to bring about the awareness.

Disillusionment can be so powerful, don’t you think?

Then you have to build up the trust again over time.