By Matt Kelly …
As ethics and compliance officers continue to think about corporate culture, and skillful ways to push corporate culture toward higher ethical standards, we continue to have a fascinating example from perhaps the most high-profile corporate culture in the United States – Uber.
The latest news is that Uber’s head of HR, Liane Hornsey, resigned on July 10 after 18 months on the job. The circumstances around her departure are unclear, but Hornsey left hours after news reports surfaced that employees had been complaining about how she handled allegations of racial animus at the firm. Uber had commissioned an outside investigation, which substantiated at least some of those employee complaints.
THE STRESSES AFFECTING UBER AS IT TRIES TO RECTIFY ITS CORPORATE CULTURE ARE WORTH NOTING; THOSE SAME FORCES AFFECT ANY LARGE ORGANIZATION.
Employees have also been complaining that Uber’s chief operating officer, Barney Harford, has made racially insensitive remarks — to the point that Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, spoke to Harford about them. (We don’t know whether complaints about Harford to Hornsey figured in her departure.)
The purpose of this post isn’t to second-guess Uber’s personnel decisions or to speculate on its internal operations. Rather, the stresses affecting Uber as it tries to rectify its corporate culture are worth noting; those same forces affect any large organization. Meanwhile, as we’ve seen from regulators, consumers, and other stakeholders, their attention to corporate culture won’t fade any time soon.
Corporate Culture Is Defined by Corporate Conversations
One force that figured into Hornsey’s departure apparently was an anonymous group of Uber employees of color. They submitted anonymous complaints about Hornsey’s conduct.
I’ve written before about the rise of anonymous employee groups, and how they are a fact of life for ethics and compliance professionals. You may not love the anonymity, but that anonymity encourages candor — so compliance officers should heed those groups and engage with them when possible.
What intrigued me here was how anonymous employee groups tie into another concept: the idea of an organization as a “linguistic entity” — a collection of people having multiple conversations, whether those conversations are verbal, written, a clever meme, or some other format.
That’s a powerful concept, because ethics and compliance officers worry constantly that management’s exhortations for a strong ethical culture don’t reflect the “real” culture employees encounter every day.
Why are the multiple conversations in our corporations happening in parallel, never to meet; rather than overlapping, so senior executives can hear dismay more clearly?
IF YOU SUSPECT THAT DISCONNECT EXISTS IN YOUR ORGANIZATION, ASK: WHY ARE THE MULTIPLE CONVERSATIONS IN OUR CORPORATIONS HAPPENING IN PARALLEL, NEVER TO MEET; RATHER THAN OVERLAPPING, SO SENIOR EXECUTIVES CAN HEAR DISMAY MORE CLEARLY?
An important point here is that a policy is not a conversation. A policy is something senior management sends to employees. It then often becomes the subject of conversation, which can be a good thing — if senior managers participate in that conversation.
If not, you still have different groups talking past each other. That’s how an organization ends up with senior managers issuing policies (some perhaps quite sensible, such as pay or promotion parity among gender or racial groups), while employees encounter deviations from that policy and start complaining among themselves. Cynicism festers, until crisis hits.
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