Stakeholders and Reputational Risk

April 25, 2016

trust-valueYour reputation and your organisation’s reputation are valuable assets that need nurturing. The willingness of others to trust you, their desire to work with you and virtually every other aspect of the relationship between you and your stakeholders is influenced by their perception of your reputation (see more on The value of trust).  But reputations are fragile: they can take a lifetime to build and seconds to lose.  Some of the factors influencing them are:

  1. Reputation cannot be controlled: it exists in the minds of others so it can only be influenced, not managed directly.
  2. Reputation is earned: trust is based on consistent behaviour and performance.
  3. Reputation is not consistent: it depends on each stakeholder’s view. One organisation can have many different reputations, varying with each stakeholder.
  4. Reputation will vary: each stakeholder brings a different expectation of behaviour or performance and so will have a distinct perception of reputation.
  5. Reputation is relational: you have a reputation with someone for something. The key question is therefore: ‘with whom, for what?’
  6. Reputation is comparative: it is valued in comparison to what a particular stakeholder experiences or believes in relation to peers, performance and prejudice.
  7. Reputation is valuable: but the true value of reputation can only be appreciated once it is lost or damaged.

Estimating the ‘true value’ of your reputation is difficult and as a consequence decisions on how much to invest in enhancing and protecting your reputation becomes a value judgment rather than a calculation. Your reputation is created and threatened by both your actions and their consequences (intended or not).  Some actions and their effects on your reputation are predictable, others are less so and their consequences, good or bad are even less certain. This is true regardless of your intention; unexpected outcomes can easily cause unintended benefit or damage to your reputation.

Building a reputation requires hard work and consistency; the challenge is protecting your hard earned reputation against risks that can cause damage; and you never know for sure what will cause reputational damage until it is too late – many reputational risks are emergent.

Managing Reputational Risk in Organisations

Because an organisation’s reputation is not easy to value or protect, managing reputational risk is difficult! This is particularly true for larger organisations where thousands of different interactions between staff and stakeholders are occurring daily.

The first step in managing an organisation’s reputational risk is to understand the scope of possible damage, as well as potential sources and the degree of possible disruption. The consequence of a loss of reputation is always the withdrawing of stakeholder support:

  • In the private sector this is usually investor flight and share value decline; these can spiral out of control if confidence cannot be restored.
  • In the public sector this is typically withdrawal of government support to reflect declining confidence.
  • In the professional sector client confidence is vital for business sustainability; a loss of reputation means a loss of clients.

Each sector can point to scenarios where the impact of reputation damage can vary from mild to catastrophic; and whilst the consequences can be measured after the effect they are not always predictable in advance.  To overcome this problem, managing reputation risk for an organisation requires three steps:

  • Predict: All risk is future uncertainty, and an appropriate risk forecasting system to identify reputation risk is required – creative thinking is needed here! The outcomes from a reputational risk workshop will be specific to the organisation and the information must feed directly into the governance process if reputation risk is to be taken seriously (see more on The Functions of Governance).
  • Prepare: Reputation risk is a collective responsibility, not just the governing body’s. All management and operational staff must recognise the organisation’s reputation is important and take responsibility for protecting it in their interaction with stakeholders. The protection of reputation should also be a key element in the organisation’s disaster recovery plans.
  • Protect: A regular vulnerability review will reveal where reputation risk is greatest, and guide actions to prevent possible damage. Each vulnerability must be assessed objectively and actions taken to minimise exposure. Significant risks will need a ‘protection plan’ developed and then implemented and monitored.

Dealing with a Reputational Risk Event

When a risk event occurs, some standard elements needs to be part of the response for individuals and organisations alike. For reputation enhancing risk events, make sure you acknowledge the ‘good luck’ in an appropriately and take advantage of the opportunity in a suitably authentic way. Over-hyping an event will be seen as unauthentic and have a negative effect on reputation; but good news and good outcomes should be celebrated. Reputation threatening risk events need a more proactive approach

  • Step 1: Deal with the event itself. You will not protect your reputation by trying to hide the bad news or ignoring the issue.  Proactively work to solve the problem in a way that genuinely minimise harm for as many stakeholders as possible minimises the damage that has to be managed.
  • Step 2: Communicate. And keep communicating – organisations need to have a sufficiently senior person available quickly as the contact point and keep the ‘news’ coming. Rumours and creative reporting will always be worse then the fact and will grow to fill the void. All communication needs to be open, honest and as complete as possible at the time.  Where you ‘don’t know’ tell people what you are doing to find out. (see Integrity is the key to delivering bad news successfully).
  • Keep your promises and commitments. If this becomes impossible because of changing circumstances tell people as soon as you know, don’t wait for them to find out.
  • Follow up afterwards. Actions that show you really care after the event can go a long way towards repairing the damage to your reputation.

Summary

Reputation is ephemeral and a good reputation is difficult to create and maintain. Warren Buffet in his 2015 memo to his top management team in Berkshire Hathaway emphasised that their top priority must be to ‘zealously guard Berkshire’s reputation’. He also reminded his leadership team that ‘we can afford to lose money–even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation–even a shred of reputation’ (discussed in Ethics, Culture, Rules and Governance). In the long run I would suggest this is true for every organisation and individual – your reputation is always in the minds of other people!


New on the Web #9

April 3, 2016
Binnacle: designed to reduce magnetic deviation so a compass remained accurate.

Binnacle: designed to reduce compass error!

We have been busy updating our websites with Posts, White Papers and Articles. Some of the more interesting uploaded in the last few weeks include:

These links are directly related to stakeholder engagement and communication.  A full indexed listing of all of our White Papers, Conference papers, books and articles can be found in our PM Knowledge Index.


Ethics and competition

March 26, 2016

EthicsThe report of The Senate Education and Employment References Committee report: A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders; released on the 17th March highlights a major National problem.

The report consolidates and affirms issues raised in some of our earlier posts including:

In a nutshell, the report confirms that large numbers of unethical employers are routinely exploiting 1000s of temporary visa holders to inflate their profits.  The report is worrying reading and hopefully will result in proactive government action to stamp out the worst of the excesses.   It’s in the government’s interest, many of the exploited visa holders in work are preventing an unemployed Australian from obtaining work; this is equally true in the unskilled categories and in skilled categories where skilled, older workers are frequently discriminated against.

What is more worrying, and the focus of this post is the ‘Coalition Senators’ total failure to understand business and competition.  One of the major areas of malfeasance with some of the worst exploitation of temporary workers is the Labour Hire business.  The committee recommendation #32 is that:

9.309 The committee recommends that a licensing regime for labour hire contractors be established with a requirement that a business can only use a licensed labour hire contractor to procure labour. There should be a public register of all labour hire contractors. Labour hire contractors must meet and be able to demonstrate compliance with all workplace, employment, tax, and superannuation laws in order to gain a license. In addition, labour hire contractors that use other labour hire contractors, including those located overseas, should be obliged to ensure that those subcontractors also hold a license.

In an annex to the main report, Coalition Senators state that they do not agree with this recommendation on the basis ‘it would punish those labour hire firms which are already complying with relevant laws’; and that the actions of a ‘minority of labour hire firms which are doing the wrong thing, in most cases, is already illegal’.

No one likes additional ‘red tape’ so superficially the Coalition Senators position is understandable.  What the Coalition Senators ignore is the effect the illegal activity is already having on the honest firms they purport to support!  The owners and operators of the dishonest firms using illegal and exploitative practices do not expect to get caught, and if they are caught expect the profits they make from their activities to significantly outweigh the penalties. Unethical is not synonymous with ‘stupid’ – the people making the decision to act illegally expect to make large profits. However, as a consequence of their illegal actions:

  • Honest labour hire firms cannot compete on price with the dishonest firms exploiting temporary workers and suffer as a consequence. The honest operators either make far less profit or go out of business.
  • The users of ‘hired labour’ from labour hire firms are also in competition and need to minimise input costs. They are incentivised to accept the low-cost offerings from the dishonest firms exploiting temporary workers and not to look too closely at their practices to compete within their market.  The alternative is to pay more for the workers and be at a competitive disadvantage to organisations that ‘turn a blind eye’ to the problem.

A licensing scheme will increase the cost of compliance for all of the businesses in the labour hire market, but if implemented properly, it will have the effect of largely eliminating the unfair competition created by the unethical exploitation of temporary workers.  Which will be hugely beneficial to those ‘honest’ businesses that are acting ethically and already fulfil their legal and moral obligations; both within the labour hire industry and the wider community.

The Coalition Senators do ‘support the prosecution of these illegal operations’ (as does everyone) the problems with implementing a clean up strategy focused on prosecutions alone are:

  1. The damage is done before the prosecution can take place.
  2. No prosecution stops illegal behaviour in the future. In an unlicensed regime the same unethical people can set up other businesses and carry on indefinitely through a series of ‘phoenix companies’.
  3. As suggested above, no criminal expects to get caught – deterrence is highly overrated.

Licences may not be ideal, but they do offer a practical way to support ethical behaviour that ‘prosecutions’ cannot. Good governance at every level is getting the balance between rules and flexibility right – the balance needs to support ethical behaviour without constricting innovation and growth. No one except the criminals benefits from the situation exposed in the Senate report that allows virtually unfettered unethical behaviour.

The art of ‘practical ethics’ is to develop systems that disadvantage unethical behaviour and encourage people to do the right thing. The combination of a beefed up ability to prosecute offenders and a licensing system that will make it difficult for unethical operators to remain in the labour hire business is the best way to drive the culture change needed in this industry, and in the businesses that rely on labour hire firms for their staffing needs.


Practical Ethics 2

March 10, 2016

EthicsA couple of weeks ago I posted Practical Ethics discussing the undue reliance governments and others  place on other people’s ethics, Through naivety, undue optimism, or laziness, they set up situations based on blind trust in the ethical standards of others which have resulted in deaths, injury and the loss of $billions.

In this post I want to look inside an organisation and discuss reason why Determining the ethics of the organisation is at #2 in my Six Functions of Governance and Creating the culture of the organisation is at #3.  #1 in the list is Determining the objectives of the organisation.

The underlying approach I’ve taken, founded in stakeholder theory, is the presumption that the best way to achieve an organisation’s objectives is to work with the organisation’s full spectrum of stakeholders so they contribute to the success of the organisation and everyone benefits. This requires a strong ethical foundation and an outwardly focused culture. The role of the governing body is to set the objectives and create the organisation’s culture and ethics, the role of management is to work within this framework to achieve the objectives. Whilst many aspects of governance can be delegated to a degree, setting the ethical standards of the organisation in particular is non-transferable. It starts and stops at the top – with the governing body.

The ethical standards of an organisation are created in two ways:

  • The way the organisation’s leaders act;
  • The ethical standards the leaders are prepared to tolerate in their subordinates.

This post will look at both of these aspects, using the example of the current scandal surrounding Comminsure (the insurance arm of the CBA bank) to highlight their importance – see more on the scandal.

 

Leaders set the standard.

Generally speaking, the top managers in an organisation create a ceiling on ethical behaviours. Leaders at the next level down tend to be rated lower than their managers on every leadership dimension including their honesty and integrity, many may rate equally but it is very rare to find a subordinate acting more ethically than the organisation’s leaders (for more on this see Ethical Leadership).

The key here is the word ‘act’ – leaders set the ethical standards of the organisation by their actions, not their statements. It more than ‘walking-the-talk’, talking is almost irrelevant.

One glaring examples from the Comminsure scandal will serve to demonstrate the issue.  The CBA’s CEO said that he placed a high value on transparency and open communication; this included both encouraging and protecting ‘whistleblowers’ within the bank. A commendable and highly ethical position; and from a practical perspective essential for the minimisation of wrong doing in a workforce of 55,000.

However, actions speak louder than words! In November 2014 the chief medical officer of Comminsure, Dr Benjamin Koh, disclosed his concerns over “an improper state of affairs” concerning aspects of Comminsure’s business to key independent directors at Comminsure including the chairman Geoff Austin. Two months later Comminsure began to investigate Dr Koh and he was sacked by the managing director of Comminsure, Helen Troup, for ‘misconduct’, in August 2015. He is now suing Comminsure and the CBA for unfair dismissal.

The appearance is that the bank’s management won’t fire you for whistle blowing but they will find some other excuse. The bank virtually admits as much, in this statement which states: “Commonwealth Bank encourages all employees to speak up if they see activities or behaviours that are fraudulent, illegal or inconsistent with our values. We provide a number of different safeguards to ensure that there are no negative consequences for raising concerns. We have thanked Dr Koh for raising concerns that led to the CMLA Board conducting a review. Dr Koh’s employment was not terminated for raising concerns. It was terminated primarily for serious and repeated breaches of customers’ privacy and trust involving highly sensitive personal, medical and financial information over a lengthy period of time.”  What they fail to mention was one of major issues raised by Dr. Koh was the manipulation, alteration and loss of information from the records he is accused of mishandling.

The perception may be incorrect, but to anyone looking on from outside of the organisation it would seem the person running Comminsure preferred to sack a whistleblower rather than deal with the problems he raised.

The CEO and the Directors of CBA can talk until they are blue in the face about the ‘ethical standards’ they purport to uphold, their actions speak louder. The person running Comminsure and responsible for the issues raised by Dr. Koh is still in her role, the ‘whistleblower’ is out of a job. If the board really meant what is says, the whistleblower would have been protected and the manager attacking him disciplined. Everyone else in CBA will clearly understand the message.

It really does not matter what the final outcome of all of this is; the actions of CBA and Comminsure management have made it clear to every one of their 55,000 staff that if you raise concerns within the banks ‘whistleblower’ processes you will be fired!

Given this perception, is it any wonder that the leaders of the CBA seem to be continually in the dark about what’s really going on in their organisation……..  Unfortunately for those in governance role not knowing is not an excuse.

 

Tolerating unethical behaviour.

Ethics2The second plank underpinning an ethical organisation is the degree of unethical behaviour it is prepared to tolerate. If an organisation is prepared to tolerate a person increasing his or her bonus by not paying out an insurance claim to a dying person for 3 or 4 years, everyone else in the organisation will understand the acceptable level of behaviour.

Comminsure has been shown to have withheld legitimate payments to claimants for years to boost profits and bonuses (only rectified after the national broadcast was imminent).  As far as I can tell everyone responsible from the managing director down are still in their jobs.

Previously the CBA was shown, courtesy of a Senate enquiry, to have misrepresented information to clients and falsified documents.  Again, most of the people responsible still work for the CBA and the ethical benchmark has been determined by this fact.

If the behaviours were ethically unacceptable people would be fired or moved into roles where they cannot adversely affect customer’s lives. The fact most people are still in their roles and still have their bonus payments from previous years indicates to everyone the CBA believes these behaviours are ethically acceptable and will continue to reward people for placing profits ahead of customers (see The normalisation of deviant behaviours). Management’s actions speak far louder then PR announcements and so called ‘public apologies’ that only eventuate after adverse national publicity.

 

Culture

Culture is ‘the way we do thing around here’ – one of the key elements of culture is the ethical standards people see as ‘normal’; another is the learned experience of how to behave within the organisation. As outlined above these settings are very different from the rhetoric.

But, ethics and culture are always shades of grey; the CBA’s culture is clearly flawed if the bank claims to be concerned about its customers. However, if the CBA is really only concerned with short-term profits, the culture, ethics and PR spin may be appropriate. In the last 6 months, the CBA achieved a remarkable return on equity of above 17 per cent, and a $4.8 billion half-year profit. And, despite the scandal, its shares have increased in price today. The cost is the damaged lives of some of its customers; the unresolved question is what are the acceptable limits? Maybe a Royal Commission will let everyone know.

Legal implications aside, the challenge facing the CBA is that changing culture and ethical standards is a massively difficult task and the people who created and thrive in the current culture are unlikely to be willing participants in changing it.  There’s no easy answer to this dilemma.

 

Conclusion

The real measure of an organisation’s ethical standards are set by the way people behave when no one is looking on – there will always be mistakes and unethical actions by a few, others within the organisation will correct these deviations and being behaviours back inside the culturally acceptable norms of behaviour of the organisation. This has undoubtedly been occurring within CBA and Comminsure on a daily basis, unacceptable behaviours will have been corrected or sanctioned; desired behaviours rewarded. What’s acceptable and unacceptable is determined by the culture of the organisation and its ethical standards.

The ethical standards of an organisation are set by the actions of its leaders. What they do themselves sets the ceiling and what they tolerate in others the floor. The rest of the people in an organisation will generally find a position between these two limits and the culture of the organisation will adapt to see this level of ethical behaviour as acceptable. The problem the governors and leaders of the CBA face is the simple fact that changing the ethics and culture of an established organisation is extremely difficult.


New on the Web #8

March 7, 2016
Binnacle: designed to reduce magnetic deviation so a compass remained accurate.

Binnacle: designed to reduce compass error!

We have been busy updating our websites with Posts, White Papers and Articles. Some of the more interesting uploaded in the last few weeks include:

These links are directly related to stakeholder engagement and communication.  A full indexed listing of all of our White Papers, Conference papers, books and articles can be found in our PM Knowledge Index.


Practical Ethics

February 26, 2016

EthicsA string of disasters over the last couple of years suggest many business and government leaders simply do not understand ‘practical ethics’.  Through naivety, undue optimism, or laziness, they have set up situations based on blind trust in the ethical standards of others resulting in deaths, injury and the loss of $billions.

Just a few examples:

  • The ‘Home insulation program’ of 2008/9 resulted in 4 deaths, numerous house fires and many well established businesses being destroyed. The naive assumption by the Government seemed to be that with $millions of government funding easily accessed, businesses would still act ethically, train staff and comply with occupational health and welfare standards. The failure by businesses to meet this expectation has resulted in numerous prosecutions after the damage was done.
  • The outsourcing of technical and further education training (TAFE) to the private sector. Private providers under the VET Fee-Help scheme are paid for students signed up to courses, not for students qualified from courses – the naive assumption by the Government seemed to be that with $millions of government funding easily accessed, businesses would still act ethically and only sign up students that could benefit from the courses and would deliver good training outcomes. $hundreds of millions of public funds have been wasted – most of which can never be recovered.
  • Downer EDI’s Board of Directors appear to have blindly trusted their management to run the disastrous $3 billion Waratah train project. Normal governance feedback seemed to have been ignored to the point where the Directors were unable to get information on the project when needed, blowing a $20 million loss into a $200 million loss.

In each of these cases the government and business leaders seemed to have either assumed everyone would act ethically or relied on Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible hand’ (a flawed theory much loved by the rabid right, particularly in the USA). Unfortunately ethics is not that simple!  Writing a code of ethics[i] is a relatively simple process; encouraging people to live up to the code is far more difficult. There are several factors needed:

  • First, the organisations leaders need to lead by example. The ethical standards of the organisation and its supply chain are unlikely to exceed the standards set by the leadership (see: Ethical Leadership).
  • Second, the expected standards need to be clearly and unambiguously articulated. Saying you require one standard of behaviour and then paying people to perform differently will inevitably lead to the organisation getting what it has paid for (see: The normalisation of deviant behaviours).
  • Third, the governance and management systems need ‘real-time’ feedback to both encourage the desired standards of behaviour and to detect any ‘slips’ very early in the process so corrective actions can be implemented before there is a major issue (see: Self Correcting Processes).

Unfortunately governments in particular are reasonably good at enforcing standards years after the breach took place and seem to assume that the ‘deterrent effect’ will suffice to maintain ethical standards – this assumption patently does no work!  I doubt the £2.25m fine imposed on UK consultancy Sweett Group[ii] for bribing a prominent United Arab Emirates (UAE) businessman in return for work will have much effect on other unethical business people contemplating paying a bribe – for a start, no one expects to get caught. The ‘pink batt’ prosecutions occurred years after the scheme was closed, prosecutions under the VET Fee-Help scheme are still to eventuate (and rip-offs are still continuing). The simple fact is the fear of a potential prosecution in a few years time compared to the opportunity to make $millions now has very little effect on unethical people.

Conversely, over policing ‘ethics’ and watching every move can be as destructive as ‘blind trust’. If people feel they are not trusted, there is no incentive for them to act ethically.  Micro management is a major de-motivator and will inevitably lead to suboptimal performance with people doing ‘just enough’ and seeing how much they can get away with[iii]. This approach stifles innovation and creativity.

Practical ethics requires pragmatic trust. You need to trust the people you are working with, governing or managing, but have agreed processes that provide feedback and monitoring, that demonstrates your trust is being honoured.

  • In my ‘Six functions of governance’ management control functions are expected to provide feedback to the governing body that allows it to hold its management accountable and ensure conformance by the organisation being governed. Had these functions been implemented effectively EDI-Downer would be in a much better position today.
  • Demand feedback – even if you do not want to hear bad news! The recent announcement by CSIRO that its climate division will be virtually eliminated may be a pragmatic response to government initiatives and cost cutting but serves no one in the long term. Governments and business rely on climate science to make billion-dollar decisions. Without it, they will be relying on guesswork. Shooting the messenger simply means everyone is ‘flying blind’.
  • Build feedback into management systems. In the various government debacles mentioned above (and others) simple changes in process could have reward desirable outcomes rather than rewarding unethical behaviour. The purpose of any TAFE course is to educate a person and demonstrate learning by success in an exam.  Why not pay most of the money on completion of the course? Then make sure audit processes are in place to validate the exam performance is genuine – these exist and are easily applied.

Pragmatic trust is a graduated process – as people demonstrate their trustworthiness and ethical standards less oversight is needed (but less does not mean no oversight); the challenge is to design systems that reward desirable behaviours and outcomes creating a win-win, people who demonstrate high ethical standards are rewarded.

This approach is the antithesis of the current government approach which seems to rely on blind trust, assumes everyone is ethical, and as a consequence directly benefits unethical behaviours (at least in the short term). Not only have the $millions paid out in VET Fees to unethical providers resulted in minimal return to the government; they have actively encouraged unethical standards and have damaged businesses and organisations that do offer quality courses. A lose-lose outcome in which the only winners are the unethical businesses that have ripped off the system – the Pink Batts Royal Commission found a similar effect on the insulation businesses.

Slippery-slopeEthics are by definition based on the standards of behaviour considered acceptable by a group[iv].  When a significant proportion of the groups members start to let standards slip, they will tend to drag the rest of the group with them down the slippery slope – it is very hard to stand out against the normally accepted behaviours of your group. And as with any slippery mountain slope, it is far easier to slide towards the bottom than to keep your footing and climb towards the top.

The role of ethical leaders is first to set the ethical standards, then live up to the standards themselves, and finally require their followers to conform to the standards using pragmatic trust and encouragement rather than after the event punishment.

 


 

 

 

[i] The PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct is a good example: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF/PMICodeofEthics.pdf

[ii] See: http://www.globalconstructionreview.com/news/sweett-group-must-pay-32m-bri7bery-a7bu-dh7abi/

[iii] For more on motivation see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1048_Motivation.pdf

[iv] For more on ethics and leadership see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1001_Ethics.pdf

 


New on the Web #7

February 10, 2016
Binnacle: designed to reduce magnetic deviation so a compass remained accurate.

Binnacle: designed to reduce compass error!

We have been busy updating our websites with Posts, White Papers and Articles. Some of the more interesting uploaded in the last few weeks include:

These links are directly related to stakeholder engagement and communication.  A full indexed listing of all of our White Papers, Conference papers, books and articles can be found in our PM Knowledge Index.


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