‘Don’t be too cynical about your senior managers; some of them have integrity’

Grey areas around the behaviour of directors and other top managers mean that it is not always easy to tell who has integrity, says Blair McPherson

Blair McPherson
Blair McPherson

By Blair McPherson

In my experience, senior managers don’t lie but they often chose their words with great care and they don’t always believe what they say. Trust me, I know, because I used to be a senior manager.

You won’t find many chief executives or directors who will admit to hypocrisy but you will find plenty of their staff who accuse them of it. So it’s interesting that in the recently published Sunday Times Best 100 Companies to Work For chief executives placed an emphasis on values, integrity and business ethics. If chief executives think these three things are so important, why do staff think they are so rare? Have those organisations in the top 100 found a way of making sure their stated values reflect behaviour?

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Leaked emails sent by the chief executive of the Premier League – which has several campaigns for equality, including promoting women in football – included sexist comments. These are comments he would not have made in public and after they were exposed he said they did not reflect his views. But it would be understandable if staff were cynical about equality strategies, targets and policies coming from this senior manager in the future.

Barclays Bank claims to be trying to change its a culture after a series scandals including a £290m fine for attempting to rig Libor interest rates, and allegations of mis-selling payment protection insurance (PPI) which prompted it to set aside over £4bn for potential compensation claims. To convince staff they were serious about introducing new behaviours, senior managers recruited over 1,000 value champions, identified five core values and the chief executive gave up his bonus. Clearly the board and the chief executive realise a culture change is necessary, but staff will take a lot of convincing that values come before bonuses.

How to recognise integrity

So how are staff to recognise integrity and how are senior managers to demonstrate it? There are a number of good tests. Do senior managers behave like the recruitment processes don’t apply to them, by approaching individuals rather than advertising the post for example? Do the statements on valuing staff match the way the new working practises are introduced? Do the statements on consulting staff and service users match the way decisions on budget cuts have been made? What determines priorities – finances or values?

But there are several grey areas that mean it is not easy to tell who has integrity. Most senior managers would accept that they have been guilty of putting a positive spin on a potentially damaging situation or that they have instructed staff to show the service in the best possible light during an inspection. And who hasn’t exaggerated their contribution on their CV?

Saying “no decision has yet been made” may be true in the sense that the council’s cabinet are yet to discuss it or full council have to vote on the budget, but that is probably a formality if the leader and portfolio holder have made up their minds. Sometimes senior managers know things that they cannot share with staff: they know controversial proposals are being discussed internally but they must remain confidential until they get the political go-ahead.

In local government managing this politically sensitive process is very important to officers’ credibility and the confidence the council’s cabinet has in them. What if the senior manager argues strongly against a controversial proposal in line with their professional values but loses the argument? They still have to own the decision and sell it to their staff.

In the end it comes down to trust and in the Best 100 Companies to Work For there is a high degree of trust between employees and senior management based on positive experience, feeling informed and behaviour consistent with the organisation’s values.

The truth is you just don’t know whether what the chief executive says is what they really think, unless you have access to their private emails. It is easy to see why some staff become cynical but it is wrong to assume that all senior managers lack integrity; some have it and some do not.

Blair McPherson is a former director of community services at Lancashire County Council and author of several books including People management in a harsh financial climate.

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