Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

You may have noticed the recent controversy surrounding Leeds United FC’s manager Marcelo Bielsa and his involvement in the “spygate” drama. In this blog I’ll discuss this and some implications for how we in HR deal with unethical behaviour.

You can read more about it here, but this involved Bielsa sending a person to spy on Derby County, a rival club, whilst they were training ahead of playing Leeds, and being caught whilst doing so. He attempted to avoid the controversy by first apologising, taming sole responsibility and exonerating Leeds, and explaining that in his own country this was normal behaviour (which plenty of people corroborated), and then explaining in detail how he works and how he has done this frequently in his time as Leeds manager.

There were, from Derby mainly but also others, predictable and understandable complaints that although there was no rule against the spying, it was unethical and unfair.

Before we discuss wider implications, let’s look at football and professional sport in general. I think the reaction to this says a lot more about the conflict between the old school in football who believe that you don’t need a rule for everything and people should behave “honourably” without any further definition of that, and a growing number of participants who believe you should use any resource at your disposal to gain an advantage if the aim is to win and prevent others winning, without breaking any rules. It’s an interesting dilemma and one that isn’t wholly replicated in the workplace where the aim isn’t always to win and prevent others winning.

Nonetheless this COULD happen in the workplace. It’s likelihood of happening, and our awareness of unethical practices via media coverage, are reasons why the CIPD have placed ethics more prominently in the new Profession Map and encourage HR professionals to champion good working practices and tackle poor leadership and cultures that give rise to unethical behaviour.

Part of the problem with that though is, akin to football, if there is no firm agreement on what ethical behaviour is or isn’t, it’s difficult to take action at first. Using Bielsa as an example, he seems to have had genuinely no idea what he was doing was wrong, but does seem to understand the prevailing culture now and to have committed not to do it again.

You could say Bielsa was naïve and he ought to have known all of this after a while in the job and country but also that someone in Leeds management, maybe in HR, hadn’t done enough to establish what their views of ethics are and now are paying the price.

Leeds could, also, agree that they ought to have been kept informed by Bielsa but that now it has happened and we all know that a) it’s not breaking any rules and b) it has brought relative success as a tactic to the organisation, that they may agree Bielsa can continue behaving this way, despite loud protests from others.

Basically there’s no right and wrong here but what does need to happen is conversations about it to establish internal expectations, and HR should be leading those.

I asked Mark Hendy, fellow HR professional and long suffering Swansea City FC fan, for his views on this: “I’ve found the reaction to the incident more interesting than the incident itself. Almost universally, from commentators, figureheads in sport, former players and other coaches the response has been “what Bielsa has done is wrong, but we know that people have been doing this for years, it’s really not the end of the world and his punishment should be light’. As a result, I’m contemplating whether Bielsa’s actions were indeed unethical. They ‘probably are’ but when the furore died down, it appeared a storm in a teacup that really didn’t seem to offend most people. We’ve learned from history that accepted norms often change. What was once acceptable is now unacceptable and the reverse the same. Could this be one of those situations, where we need to step back and re-evaluate what ‘unethical’ really means?”

But, just because a person may have done something considered acceptable elsewhere, doesn’t mean it is considered acceptable in another organisation. That said, a person shouldn’t be unfairly criticised for making a very honest, if naïve, judgement call if no rules are broken and no one gets hurt.

Or should they? Bielsa clearly knew he may face criticism for it, because he kept his actions hidden from his employer.

That, more than anything else, if I were in HR at Leeds United, would be the thing I’d be talking to Bielsa about.

But will anyone do that?

Another thing to consider is whether if, there’s no rule or law against it, that makes an action or behaviour acceptable? In Bielsa’s case, no one got hurt and it wasn’t against the law or any rule in professional football. But does that make it OK? I’m not so sure.

I think a key role for HR professionals is to ask the right questions. I’m not so sure we have answers, but we can at least encourage debate and, where we see unethical behaviour, we ought to challenge whether it is right or not, and in my view it doesn’t matter if the behaviour may be legal – it could be considered our duty (but not ours alone) to raise awareness of such organisational grey areas.

If and when we in HR see anything we ourselves consider unethical or improper, let alone illegal, I feel we have a responsibility to speak up. Otherwise, if we don’t, lessons won’t be learnt and the unethical behaviour could continue and intensify.

I’m fairly certain this is why ethics is more prominent in the CIPD Profession Map. It was also at the heart of a talk by John Amaechi at #cipdACE in November which stuck with me, about us in HR being able to change organisations no matter if we are just one lone voice.

I try, in these blogs, on social media and in other work I do, to share my views about what is right and wrong. That doesn’t make me right, but it is me explaining what I think is right. And if that prompts people to consider their own actions, thought processes and behaviours and POSSIBLY make a different judgement call next time, then I consider it worthwhile.

Mark Hendy agrees: “When we think about what is and isn’t ethical, we often relate that to how something feels to us personally. When considering whether we think something might be unethical we consider whether it ‘feels’ right or wrong. And this is important. It is affirming. But we can also be wrong. Intuition can prove to be wrong, and is deeply personal.”

But I’m a micro organisation nowadays and don’t see things happening from inside a big organisation as previously. The examples of unethical behaviour I see are in other organisations and ones which I have no connection with, like Leeds United. All other examples I share are, by their very nature, hypothetical or derived from multiple experiences I’ve had in my career, but it’s right to share them in order to generate debate I think, though I am 100% certain they will have relevance and resonance within some organisations who can see their own behaviour mirrored in examples I share.

And again that’s a good thing if it helps those people review their moral code, and it’s something all of us in HR can do easily – speak out on such things, hold a mirror up to organisations in general and hope that just one person sees it and begins to think differently about how they lead, behave or treat other people. Even if we don’t work for an organisation that we see doing questionable things, we could consider that the people within it are not confident in speaking out, like in Leeds United, and do it for them.

Slowly, surely, we CAN change the world.

Till next time…

Gary

Ps in other news, there have been a lot of gloomy days recently, weather wise. I really hate it when the sun doesn’t come out at all and it never truly goes light in a day. I find this adversely affects my mood. Do you have this too?

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