On companies and scandal

Straight up: The author cares deeply about the planet and her staff but refuses to molly-coddle them. Photo: Issei Kato/Reuters

Straight up: The author cares deeply about the planet and her staff but refuses to molly-coddle them. Photo: Issei Kato/Reuters

Is it me, or are we facing a national integrity crisis? KPMG SA, Steinhoff, Enterprise and Rainbow Chicken, state capture, #TotalShutDown. Dare I go on?

To be clear, I don’t actually think it’s me.

I lead a successful organisation.
I like to think of us as the underdog. We stay out of the limelight, unless we’re getting paid to be there. It’s a business-first mind-set. I lead a team in making my organisation run as efficiently as possible to meet its goal of increasing revenue and minimising the cost it takes to do so.

For the record: we care about the planet and people, too.

If we — a smaller organisation not making headlines but no less important to South Africa’s economy— can stay on the right side of the law and keep the books presentable, what’s going on at these big organisations? How many bad apples must be exposed before we start to look at the environment they grew in?

My organisation has seen changes in public and economic policy, along with the rest of the economy. We have our share of interpersonal conflicts but we run a tight ship, managing our workplace culture as strictly as we pay our resources the minimum they are willing to accept.

I was advised not to call our employees “resources” out loud because it weakens a sense of human dignity and belonging.I think that’s rich coming from the human resources department.

We care about our staff. Our values are on our company website. We just don’t coddle. If someone is getting talked over, they should probably speak louder, or faster. If a woman doesn’t want to be complimented on her looks on a conference call, she should probably switch her camera off. If an employee’s name is too foreign for clients to pronounce, I will change it to something easier.

These are simply things efficient global teams do.

As for my leadership style, I avoid eye contact with most of my team, except for the ones I actually like and those I crush on (I am human, after all). Often, I’ll call employees for urgent matters late at night. Nothing’s ever truly urgent (we’re not a hospital trauma unit) but how else will I know who’s really responsive? I can’t be everywhere all the time so my interns monitor the staff WhatsApp groups for me. We take being a listening organisation seriously.

Lately, there’s been talk of making workplaces “safe spaces” free of microaggressions and sexual harassment. Our internal motto is “Procedure is better than cure”. If an employee feels “unsafe”, there’s a written application (some forms, supporting documents and a valid paper trail) needed before any meeting can happen with HR.

We rotate line managers or HR staff so as not to affect their own potential for promotion. This usually tires out the situation altogether, saving us from having to fire and rehire anyone. It’s a costly business, rehiring. If the situation still does not resolve itself, we hold for performance review season.

By then, we have all the performance data we need to know who really isn’t benefiting the organisation. Then we simply make that person work harder or face the necessary disciplinary action.

Some staff think this unfairly burdens victims. I say: “Show me the data.”

There are times I fear our reputation is doomed no matter what we do. This past Women’s Month I received an overwhelmingly negative response to my tweet thanking women of the #MeToo and #TotalShutDown movements for proving they can achieve big things when they really put some “skin in the game”.

What did I get for my appreciation post? A lot of indignation about who really has skin in the game. It’s a management term, so I guess it confused a lot people. Do a little independent research. It’s not a crime to use an analogy.

I asked a woman of colour on my team to explain the fuss to me. She said that because she was from London she wasn’t best placed to explain the local context and was reading up on it like everyone else. (I’ve made a note of her unhelpful attitude.)

Another junior hire raised the issue at our office Heritage Day braai, asking what we can do “beyond protecting our reputation, beyond performing diversity on social media”, saying: “Systemic inequality doesn’t happen to us like the weather does: people, on aggregate, wake up and participate in it every day.”

Typical millennial. Ruined the braai.

Of course systemic inequality doesn’t just happen. But I don’t see what that has to do with me, or our organisation. I didn’t invent “the system”. I didn’t apply to capture the state. I got my qualifications and we’re carrying on with business as usual.

As for those big organisations, what a public mess.

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