HR as Truth Tellers

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

By | 2017-07-30T12:23:20+01:00 February 21st, 2013|Categories: Guest Blogger, Joanna Ruffle|5 Comments


  1. Terry McDougall 21st February 2013 at 8:21 pm - Reply

    Great thought provoking article Joanna
    I certainly agree the Lonley life a Chief Executive is much enhanced by
    The support of a good HRD ! I many Chief executives who have ” dumbed down ” the role of HR only to feel very exposed in these difficult times
    The role of PPMA continues to promote that unique leadership relationship
    Long may it last

  2. Richard Crouch 21st February 2013 at 8:46 pm - Reply

    I like this blog very much as it resonates I’m sure with many seasoned HRDs out there. There are I think many unwritten rules that good HRDs have to follow and I’m not sure if they are learnt through nature or nurture. What I am clear on is that HRDs often have to take the higher ground and carefully survey all that is happening around them before exercising their so called wisdom on others and this takes considerable confidence when there is a highly charged senior climate. It is though the HRD who has to have the cool head when things get tough, the special personality to help people through and the special trust of those around him or her. Most of all, i think a good HRD tries to do the right thing. We sometimes get that wrong and when we do we suffer badly for it, but we have to be brave enough to at least try and learn from our mistakes before going out there and trying again. And we need to remember that even HRDs are human. They also need support in their often isolated world and Joanne is right that this is where the special relationships in the PPMA can be essential.

    Thank you Joanna and I look forward to seeing you at the Seminar.


  3. Leatham 25th February 2013 at 9:14 am - Reply

    Fabulous blog…with real thought provoking material. In tough times of course it does require a brave and courageous character to keep decision makers on track…as you say ‘truth will out’ and better that it is addressed sooner rather than later.

  4. Joanna Ruffle 25th February 2013 at 11:55 am - Reply

    Thank you for the comments, folks!

    Like Richard I am not sure if good HRDs are ‘born great, achieve greatness or have greatness thrust upon them’ but I strongly believe that we ALL have a responsibility to be brave and courageous,and to make the difficult call whatever the personal risk.
    Holding fast to our values may be tough and may even be considered by some to be naive in the current climate. To do otherwise however would be tantamount to setting sail in a storm in the middle of a starless night without a compass!

  5. Richard Crouch 27th February 2013 at 9:19 pm - Reply

    Last word from me on this but the word “responsibility” hits the nail on the head. I mentioned this with the MJ only yesterday. As Peter Drucker famously said, its not just about doing things right but doing the right things. Good HR knows what this means.

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