Hello PPMA members and friends


Our post this week is from Joanna Ruffle, Head of HR & Communications at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council who looks at the role of HR in the current climate of ‘whistle blowing’ and ‘truth telling’.

One of the first things we teach our children is the importance of truthfulness – whatever the cost or personal pain. How many times have we heard (or said!) ‘I’ll be more cross with you if I find out that you are lying’ or ‘I’m very proud that you’ve had the courage to tell the truth’. And invariably the sanctions that follow tend to be more lenient if the wrongdoer has ‘come clean’ and shows genuine remorse for their actions: so deep rooted is our desire to provide the next generation with an unequivocal understanding of the importance of ‘being truthful’.

So at what point, I wonder, does the suppression of truth become an acceptable operating style? Where and by who is it decided that not ‘coming clean’ about phone hacking, interest rate fixing, patient neglect, abuse and the content of burgers is ok? At what stage did it become necessary for detailed and complex policies and legislation to be produced in order to protect those who are compelled to speak out and ‘blow the whistle’?
And what does it say about our organisations and indeed our society if we need laws to protect those who simply tell the truth?

Recent media coverage, as one would expect, approaches the issue from a number of angles; and the tension between what is in the public interest and what should be suppressed and remain secret, continues to produce some interesting moral challenges. But I think this following quote from a recent piece in The Guardian neatly sums up the dilemma we face:
Democracy cannot work when secrecy exceeds its proper limits. The press cannot work when important information is suppressed. It is not enough to allow the leadership of any organisation to exercise unchallenged control of facts which it discloses’
The article is also at pains to emphasize the distinction between ‘the employee who discloses information in the public interest and the crude leaker who wants cash reward or who interferes with the required function of his or her organisation’ – just in case any hackles were starting to rise about the implied unimpeachable status of a whistleblower who by definition must always be operating from the moral high ground!

What is clear from the recent examples of high profile whistle blowers and the ‘secrets’ that they felt compelled to share with the general public, is that the prevalent culture within these organisations was one of ‘unchallenged control of the facts’. Whether this was motivated by unrealistic targets, political or economic pressure or simply personal greed and ambition, we can but speculate; and for many of us we probably have some sympathy for the position in which these organisations have found themselves – ‘there for the grace of God etc’

As HR professionals we are considered by many to be the keepers of the organisation’s conscience; the truth-tellers.  It is more often than not the HRD who is deputed to tell the Chief Executive why something is not possible or quite simply wrong. So I am interested to understand the role that HR did (or critically did not) play in these recent cases.
Were they simply unaware of what was going on? Were they merely carrying out the instructions of senior leaders? Either way it suggests to me that they did not have the necessary position of influence across the business to be able to identify the issues and to hold a mirror up to the senior leadership; to tell the Emperor that he was indeed naked.

The ability to do this does not come with a title. It takes time and a great deal of professional effort to build up a position within an organisation where people will listen to you and take notice. As HR professionals, I think we need to pay more attention to the development of these skills, for ourselves and for our rising stars, if we are to be taken seriously in the future.  This for me is where the PPMA is critical. It offers that safe space to share difficult (and sometimes career changing!) dilemmas and issues with like minded professionals. It is often said that the role of the Chief Executive is a lonely one but with the right HRD by his or her side this does not have to be the case. The HRD role however is a very lonely place to be – especially in the current climate; and the strong and supportive relationships that the PPMA can provide are critical for continued mental and emotional well being.

Life is tough at the moment – particularly in the Public Sector. We know that: we are told often enough and we feel the pain daily.
During tough times we see the best behaviour and the worst behaviour. Against this backdrop, HR professionals need to hold fast to their truth telling role. We need to be brave and strong. We need to continue to be well connected to our businesses, to know what is going on in every corner of our organisations and where the stress points and high risks are. We need to continue to be truthful with our Leaders, our communities and our workforce.  We need to be able to go home at night and face our children, knowing that what we are expecting of them is what we expect of ourselves, because after all:
‘Truth will come to light —– at the length, the truth will out’
Merchant of Venice – William Shakespeare

Joanna Ruffle

Head of HR & Communications, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council