Tag Archives: ethical standards

Ethics and competition

EthicsThe report of The Senate Education and Employment References Committee report: A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders; released on the 17th March highlights a major National problem.

The report consolidates and affirms issues raised in some of our earlier posts including:

In a nutshell, the report confirms that large numbers of unethical employers are routinely exploiting 1000s of temporary visa holders to inflate their profits.  The report is worrying reading and hopefully will result in proactive government action to stamp out the worst of the excesses.   It’s in the government’s interest, many of the exploited visa holders in work are preventing an unemployed Australian from obtaining work; this is equally true in the unskilled categories and in skilled categories where skilled, older workers are frequently discriminated against.

What is more worrying, and the focus of this post is the ‘Coalition Senators’ total failure to understand business and competition.  One of the major areas of malfeasance with some of the worst exploitation of temporary workers is the Labour Hire business.  The committee recommendation #32 is that:

9.309 The committee recommends that a licensing regime for labour hire contractors be established with a requirement that a business can only use a licensed labour hire contractor to procure labour. There should be a public register of all labour hire contractors. Labour hire contractors must meet and be able to demonstrate compliance with all workplace, employment, tax, and superannuation laws in order to gain a license. In addition, labour hire contractors that use other labour hire contractors, including those located overseas, should be obliged to ensure that those subcontractors also hold a license.

In an annex to the main report, Coalition Senators state that they do not agree with this recommendation on the basis ‘it would punish those labour hire firms which are already complying with relevant laws’; and that the actions of a ‘minority of labour hire firms which are doing the wrong thing, in most cases, is already illegal’.

No one likes additional ‘red tape’ so superficially the Coalition Senators position is understandable.  What the Coalition Senators ignore is the effect the illegal activity is already having on the honest firms they purport to support!  The owners and operators of the dishonest firms using illegal and exploitative practices do not expect to get caught, and if they are caught expect the profits they make from their activities to significantly outweigh the penalties. Unethical is not synonymous with ‘stupid’ – the people making the decision to act illegally expect to make large profits. However, as a consequence of their illegal actions:

  • Honest labour hire firms cannot compete on price with the dishonest firms exploiting temporary workers and suffer as a consequence. The honest operators either make far less profit or go out of business.
  • The users of ‘hired labour’ from labour hire firms are also in competition and need to minimise input costs. They are incentivised to accept the low-cost offerings from the dishonest firms exploiting temporary workers and not to look too closely at their practices to compete within their market.  The alternative is to pay more for the workers and be at a competitive disadvantage to organisations that ‘turn a blind eye’ to the problem.

A licensing scheme will increase the cost of compliance for all of the businesses in the labour hire market, but if implemented properly, it will have the effect of largely eliminating the unfair competition created by the unethical exploitation of temporary workers.  Which will be hugely beneficial to those ‘honest’ businesses that are acting ethically and already fulfil their legal and moral obligations; both within the labour hire industry and the wider community.

The Coalition Senators do ‘support the prosecution of these illegal operations’ (as does everyone) the problems with implementing a clean up strategy focused on prosecutions alone are:

  1. The damage is done before the prosecution can take place.
  2. No prosecution stops illegal behaviour in the future. In an unlicensed regime the same unethical people can set up other businesses and carry on indefinitely through a series of ‘phoenix companies’.
  3. As suggested above, no criminal expects to get caught – deterrence is highly overrated.

Licences may not be ideal, but they do offer a practical way to support ethical behaviour that ‘prosecutions’ cannot. Good governance at every level is getting the balance between rules and flexibility right – the balance needs to support ethical behaviour without constricting innovation and growth. No one except the criminals benefits from the situation exposed in the Senate report that allows virtually unfettered unethical behaviour.

The art of ‘practical ethics’ is to develop systems that disadvantage unethical behaviour and encourage people to do the right thing. The combination of a beefed up ability to prosecute offenders and a licensing system that will make it difficult for unethical operators to remain in the labour hire business is the best way to drive the culture change needed in this industry, and in the businesses that rely on labour hire firms for their staffing needs.

Practical Ethics 2

EthicsA couple of weeks ago I posted Practical Ethics discussing the undue reliance governments and others  place on other people’s ethics, Through naivety, undue optimism, or laziness, they set up situations based on blind trust in the ethical standards of others which have resulted in deaths, injury and the loss of $billions.

In this post I want to look inside an organisation and discuss reason why Determining the ethics of the organisation is at #2 in my Six Functions of Governance and Creating the culture of the organisation is at #3.  #1 in the list is Determining the objectives of the organisation.

The underlying approach I’ve taken, founded in stakeholder theory, is the presumption that the best way to achieve an organisation’s objectives is to work with the organisation’s full spectrum of stakeholders so they contribute to the success of the organisation and everyone benefits. This requires a strong ethical foundation and an outwardly focused culture. The role of the governing body is to set the objectives and create the organisation’s culture and ethics, the role of management is to work within this framework to achieve the objectives. Whilst many aspects of governance can be delegated to a degree, setting the ethical standards of the organisation in particular is non-transferable. It starts and stops at the top – with the governing body.

The ethical standards of an organisation are created in two ways:

  • The way the organisation’s leaders act;
  • The ethical standards the leaders are prepared to tolerate in their subordinates.

This post will look at both of these aspects, using the example of the current scandal surrounding Comminsure (the insurance arm of the CBA bank) to highlight their importance – see more on the scandal.

 

Leaders set the standard.

Generally speaking, the top managers in an organisation create a ceiling on ethical behaviours. Leaders at the next level down tend to be rated lower than their managers on every leadership dimension including their honesty and integrity, many may rate equally but it is very rare to find a subordinate acting more ethically than the organisation’s leaders (for more on this see Ethical Leadership).

The key here is the word ‘act’ – leaders set the ethical standards of the organisation by their actions, not their statements. It more than ‘walking-the-talk’, talking is almost irrelevant.

One glaring examples from the Comminsure scandal will serve to demonstrate the issue.  The CBA’s CEO said that he placed a high value on transparency and open communication; this included both encouraging and protecting ‘whistleblowers’ within the bank. A commendable and highly ethical position; and from a practical perspective essential for the minimisation of wrong doing in a workforce of 55,000.

However, actions speak louder than words! In November 2014 the chief medical officer of Comminsure, Dr Benjamin Koh, disclosed his concerns over “an improper state of affairs” concerning aspects of Comminsure’s business to key independent directors at Comminsure including the chairman Geoff Austin. Two months later Comminsure began to investigate Dr Koh and he was sacked by the managing director of Comminsure, Helen Troup, for ‘misconduct’, in August 2015. He is now suing Comminsure and the CBA for unfair dismissal.

The appearance is that the bank’s management won’t fire you for whistle blowing but they will find some other excuse. The bank virtually admits as much, in this statement which states: “Commonwealth Bank encourages all employees to speak up if they see activities or behaviours that are fraudulent, illegal or inconsistent with our values. We provide a number of different safeguards to ensure that there are no negative consequences for raising concerns. We have thanked Dr Koh for raising concerns that led to the CMLA Board conducting a review. Dr Koh’s employment was not terminated for raising concerns. It was terminated primarily for serious and repeated breaches of customers’ privacy and trust involving highly sensitive personal, medical and financial information over a lengthy period of time.”  What they fail to mention was one of major issues raised by Dr. Koh was the manipulation, alteration and loss of information from the records he is accused of mishandling.

The perception may be incorrect, but to anyone looking on from outside of the organisation it would seem the person running Comminsure preferred to sack a whistleblower rather than deal with the problems he raised.

The CEO and the Directors of CBA can talk until they are blue in the face about the ‘ethical standards’ they purport to uphold, their actions speak louder. The person running Comminsure and responsible for the issues raised by Dr. Koh is still in her role, the ‘whistleblower’ is out of a job. If the board really meant what is says, the whistleblower would have been protected and the manager attacking him disciplined. Everyone else in CBA will clearly understand the message.

It really does not matter what the final outcome of all of this is; the actions of CBA and Comminsure management have made it clear to every one of their 55,000 staff that if you raise concerns within the banks ‘whistleblower’ processes you will be fired!

Given this perception, is it any wonder that the leaders of the CBA seem to be continually in the dark about what’s really going on in their organisation……..  Unfortunately for those in governance role not knowing is not an excuse.

 

Tolerating unethical behaviour.

Ethics2The second plank underpinning an ethical organisation is the degree of unethical behaviour it is prepared to tolerate. If an organisation is prepared to tolerate a person increasing his or her bonus by not paying out an insurance claim to a dying person for 3 or 4 years, everyone else in the organisation will understand the acceptable level of behaviour.

Comminsure has been shown to have withheld legitimate payments to claimants for years to boost profits and bonuses (only rectified after the national broadcast was imminent).  As far as I can tell everyone responsible from the managing director down are still in their jobs.

Previously the CBA was shown, courtesy of a Senate enquiry, to have misrepresented information to clients and falsified documents.  Again, most of the people responsible still work for the CBA and the ethical benchmark has been determined by this fact.

If the behaviours were ethically unacceptable people would be fired or moved into roles where they cannot adversely affect customer’s lives. The fact most people are still in their roles and still have their bonus payments from previous years indicates to everyone the CBA believes these behaviours are ethically acceptable and will continue to reward people for placing profits ahead of customers (see The normalisation of deviant behaviours). Management’s actions speak far louder then PR announcements and so called ‘public apologies’ that only eventuate after adverse national publicity.

 

Culture

Culture is ‘the way we do thing around here’ – one of the key elements of culture is the ethical standards people see as ‘normal’; another is the learned experience of how to behave within the organisation. As outlined above these settings are very different from the rhetoric.

But, ethics and culture are always shades of grey; the CBA’s culture is clearly flawed if the bank claims to be concerned about its customers. However, if the CBA is really only concerned with short-term profits, the culture, ethics and PR spin may be appropriate. In the last 6 months, the CBA achieved a remarkable return on equity of above 17 per cent, and a $4.8 billion half-year profit. And, despite the scandal, its shares have increased in price today. The cost is the damaged lives of some of its customers; the unresolved question is what are the acceptable limits? Maybe a Royal Commission will let everyone know.

Legal implications aside, the challenge facing the CBA is that changing culture and ethical standards is a massively difficult task and the people who created and thrive in the current culture are unlikely to be willing participants in changing it.  There’s no easy answer to this dilemma.

 

Conclusion

The real measure of an organisation’s ethical standards are set by the way people behave when no one is looking on – there will always be mistakes and unethical actions by a few, others within the organisation will correct these deviations and being behaviours back inside the culturally acceptable norms of behaviour of the organisation. This has undoubtedly been occurring within CBA and Comminsure on a daily basis, unacceptable behaviours will have been corrected or sanctioned; desired behaviours rewarded. What’s acceptable and unacceptable is determined by the culture of the organisation and its ethical standards.

The ethical standards of an organisation are set by the actions of its leaders. What they do themselves sets the ceiling and what they tolerate in others the floor. The rest of the people in an organisation will generally find a position between these two limits and the culture of the organisation will adapt to see this level of ethical behaviour as acceptable. The problem the governors and leaders of the CBA face is the simple fact that changing the ethics and culture of an established organisation is extremely difficult.

Comminsure Scandal – just more of the same……

ComminsureThe Directors of the CBA Bank and Comminsure would appear to have a lot to learn about basic ethics.  You do not set the ethical standards for an organisation by:

  • Saying ‘we are focused on ethics’,
  • Confusing ethical intent with outcomes,
  • Meeting with people screwed as a consequence of unethical behaviour within the organisation,
  • Saying sorry and/or making belated payments years too late.

This approach is at best second rate PR and the belated payments may be necessary restitution (but rarely compensates for the pain an suffering caused by the CBA’s unethical behaviours extending over years). But none of these actions has anything to do with setting ethical standards – ethics are about doing the right thing when no one is watching and proactively correcting errors as soon as you are aware of them. Ethical standards have nothing to do with implementing a pathetic PR exercise after your extensive wrong doing has been exposed to the full glare of publicity and then only paying parsimonious compensation to a few of the victims.

The ethical standards of an organisation are set by the minimum standards of behaviour its managers condone.  CBA Directors and managers have condoned highly unethical behaviours and the CBA continues to employ many of the same people who have been responsible for the creation and sustainment of this unethical culture over many years. This is a fundamental failure of organisational governance.

The only real measure of CBA and Comminsure starting to cut out the unethical rot in its management systems will be the number of people in senior management ranks fired or otherwise sanctioned for either:

  • Condoning the behaviours outlined in the previous Senate enquiry and the latest ABC 4 Corners / Fairfax report, or
  • For incompetence in not knowing (or not wanting to know) the unethical practices were on-going.

A number of Comminsure Directors should be resigning for exactly the same reasons!

CrisisThe root cause of the Comminsure scandal highlighted over the last 24 hours is identical to the earlier CBA banking scandal (discussed in several previous posts) – CBA management designed incentive systems that paid its staff bonuses to screw their clients and inflate profits. The consequences may not have been intended but nothing was done to correct obvious problems once they became apparent, probably because the managers responsible for oversighting the behaviours were on exactly the same incentive structure. And, the bank continued to pay for behaviours that focused on short term profits over the needs of distressed clients for years. Simply leaving the same group of people who created the mess to clean it up is stupidity of the highest order.

As defined in our White Paper: The Functions of Governance, two of the most important aspects of governance are establishing (and enforcing) the ethical standards and culture of the organisation. These functions cannot be delegated for reasons outlined in Dr. Bourne’s post from last week Practical Ethics.

The question is what are the CBA Board going to do about the core problem?

Practical Ethics

EthicsA string of disasters over the last couple of years suggest many business and government leaders simply do not understand ‘practical ethics’.  Through naivety, undue optimism, or laziness, they have set up situations based on blind trust in the ethical standards of others resulting in deaths, injury and the loss of $billions.

Just a few examples:

  • The ‘Home insulation program’ of 2008/9 resulted in 4 deaths, numerous house fires and many well established businesses being destroyed. The naive assumption by the Government seemed to be that with $millions of government funding easily accessed, businesses would still act ethically, train staff and comply with occupational health and welfare standards. The failure by businesses to meet this expectation has resulted in numerous prosecutions after the damage was done.
  • The outsourcing of technical and further education training (TAFE) to the private sector. Private providers under the VET Fee-Help scheme are paid for students signed up to courses, not for students qualified from courses – the naive assumption by the Government seemed to be that with $millions of government funding easily accessed, businesses would still act ethically and only sign up students that could benefit from the courses and would deliver good training outcomes. $hundreds of millions of public funds have been wasted – most of which can never be recovered.
  • Downer EDI’s Board of Directors appear to have blindly trusted their management to run the disastrous $3 billion Waratah train project. Normal governance feedback seemed to have been ignored to the point where the Directors were unable to get information on the project when needed, blowing a $20 million loss into a $200 million loss.

In each of these cases the government and business leaders seemed to have either assumed everyone would act ethically or relied on Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible hand’ (a flawed theory much loved by the rabid right, particularly in the USA). Unfortunately ethics is not that simple!  Writing a code of ethics[i] is a relatively simple process; encouraging people to live up to the code is far more difficult. There are several factors needed:

  • First, the organisations leaders need to lead by example. The ethical standards of the organisation and its supply chain are unlikely to exceed the standards set by the leadership (see: Ethical Leadership).
  • Second, the expected standards need to be clearly and unambiguously articulated. Saying you require one standard of behaviour and then paying people to perform differently will inevitably lead to the organisation getting what it has paid for (see: The normalisation of deviant behaviours).
  • Third, the governance and management systems need ‘real-time’ feedback to both encourage the desired standards of behaviour and to detect any ‘slips’ very early in the process so corrective actions can be implemented before there is a major issue (see: Self Correcting Processes).

Unfortunately governments in particular are reasonably good at enforcing standards years after the breach took place and seem to assume that the ‘deterrent effect’ will suffice to maintain ethical standards – this assumption patently does no work!  I doubt the £2.25m fine imposed on UK consultancy Sweett Group[ii] for bribing a prominent United Arab Emirates (UAE) businessman in return for work will have much effect on other unethical business people contemplating paying a bribe – for a start, no one expects to get caught. The ‘pink batt’ prosecutions occurred years after the scheme was closed, prosecutions under the VET Fee-Help scheme are still to eventuate (and rip-offs are still continuing). The simple fact is the fear of a potential prosecution in a few years time compared to the opportunity to make $millions now has very little effect on unethical people.

Conversely, over policing ‘ethics’ and watching every move can be as destructive as ‘blind trust’. If people feel they are not trusted, there is no incentive for them to act ethically.  Micro management is a major de-motivator and will inevitably lead to suboptimal performance with people doing ‘just enough’ and seeing how much they can get away with[iii]. This approach stifles innovation and creativity.

Practical ethics requires pragmatic trust. You need to trust the people you are working with, governing or managing, but have agreed processes that provide feedback and monitoring, that demonstrates your trust is being honoured.

  • In my ‘Six functions of governance’ management control functions are expected to provide feedback to the governing body that allows it to hold its management accountable and ensure conformance by the organisation being governed. Had these functions been implemented effectively EDI-Downer would be in a much better position today.
  • Demand feedback – even if you do not want to hear bad news! The recent announcement by CSIRO that its climate division will be virtually eliminated may be a pragmatic response to government initiatives and cost cutting but serves no one in the long term. Governments and business rely on climate science to make billion-dollar decisions. Without it, they will be relying on guesswork. Shooting the messenger simply means everyone is ‘flying blind’.
  • Build feedback into management systems. In the various government debacles mentioned above (and others) simple changes in process could have reward desirable outcomes rather than rewarding unethical behaviour. The purpose of any TAFE course is to educate a person and demonstrate learning by success in an exam.  Why not pay most of the money on completion of the course? Then make sure audit processes are in place to validate the exam performance is genuine – these exist and are easily applied.

Pragmatic trust is a graduated process – as people demonstrate their trustworthiness and ethical standards less oversight is needed (but less does not mean no oversight); the challenge is to design systems that reward desirable behaviours and outcomes creating a win-win, people who demonstrate high ethical standards are rewarded.

This approach is the antithesis of the current government approach which seems to rely on blind trust, assumes everyone is ethical, and as a consequence directly benefits unethical behaviours (at least in the short term). Not only have the $millions paid out in VET Fees to unethical providers resulted in minimal return to the government; they have actively encouraged unethical standards and have damaged businesses and organisations that do offer quality courses. A lose-lose outcome in which the only winners are the unethical businesses that have ripped off the system – the Pink Batts Royal Commission found a similar effect on the insulation businesses.

Slippery-slopeEthics are by definition based on the standards of behaviour considered acceptable by a group[iv].  When a significant proportion of the groups members start to let standards slip, they will tend to drag the rest of the group with them down the slippery slope – it is very hard to stand out against the normally accepted behaviours of your group. And as with any slippery mountain slope, it is far easier to slide towards the bottom than to keep your footing and climb towards the top.

The role of ethical leaders is first to set the ethical standards, then live up to the standards themselves, and finally require their followers to conform to the standards using pragmatic trust and encouragement rather than after the event punishment.


 

[i] The PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct is a good example: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF/PMICodeofEthics.pdf

[ii] See: http://www.globalconstructionreview.com/news/sweett-group-must-pay-32m-bri7bery-a7bu-dh7abi/

[iii] For more on motivation see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1048_Motivation.pdf

[iv] For more on ethics and leadership see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1001_Ethics.pdf

Governance and ethics

Lost valueBack in June I posted on Governance and Stakeholders focusing on the damage institutions were doing to their stakeholders through on-going governance failures.  Two of the organisations discussed (not for the first time) were the CBA Bank’s ongoing financial advice crisis and FIFA’s corruption, both on-going scandals.

Press articles over the last few days show neither of these problems is being well managed from either the institutions’ perspective or their customers’/stakeholders’ perspectives. The on-going sagas suggest the root cause of the problems is very much a governance failure, but in areas not previously discussed.

The Six Functions of Governance are:

  1. Determining the objectives of the organisation;
  2. Determining the ethics of the organisation;
  3. Creating the culture of the organisation;
  4. Designing and implementing the governance framework for the organisation;
  5. Ensuring accountability by management;
  6. Ensuring compliance by the organisation.

This post will demonstrate the importance of functions 2 and 3.

Starting with FIFA: the stated objective of FIFA is to further the development of soccer (football) world-wide. A noble objective!  However, to a large extent the culture and ethics within FIFA have become focused on individuals obtaining and retaining personal power for the benefit of the ‘powerful person’ – they may believe they are the best possible person for the job, but the evidence suggests otherwise! The use of FIFA’s resources by people in power to achieve this end has already been well documented and whilst of themselves these actions are not necessarily wrong, they have certainly led to a number of high profile prosecutions for corruption. I would suggest the ethical breakdown was driven by the toxic culture focused on achieving and retaining power.

This type of problem is well understood in many similar organisations that I’m familiar with, where there has been a focused effort by the governing body to create a culture of service to the membership / stakeholders.  This has been achieved by placing strict limits on the amount of time any one person can occupy a position of power. Generally there’s a ‘leadership chain’ of one or two ‘vice presidents’ and then the president.  People on this chain have one year terms in each position and move up the ladder progressively (elections are for the lowest ‘rung’ on the ladder).  Similarly, members of the governing body can serve a maximum of two terms of two years and a minimum of 25% of the ‘board’ positions are up for election each year.

This type of governance framework provides both continuity and renewal, and discourages people seeking power for themselves.  Anyone interested in seizing ‘power’ for 10 to 20 years will go elsewhere and find another organisation to participate in. This continual renewal process ensures there are always new ideas and new sets of eyes to ‘see’ any problems that are emerging, balanced by experience to maintain the longer term objective of the organisation. Ethical standards, competency and other matters remain important within a governance framework focused on facilitating the organisation’s objectives.

It will be interesting to see if the inevitable changes in FIFA will move in this direction and then if they use their funding power to drive similar changes through the regional and national organisations. If there’s no structural change, there will be no lasting change in the governance culture and consequently in the culture of the whole organisation.

CBAThe second focus is the CBA bank. Culture is also an issue in the way the CBA bank is treating the people damaged by the toxic culture it encourages in its wealth management division.  The basic rule for dealing with a failure (particularly of this magnitude) is ‘own-up then fix-up’. You need to acknowledge the error and take appropriate actions to rectify the mistake.

The causes of the problems were structural, and are discussed in The normalisation of deviant behaviours, but it took a Senate enquiry to drag a reluctant acknowledgement of the error.  To avoid sanctions, the CBA also agreed to set up a ‘high profile’ unit to compensate the victims of its wealth management advice.  After many months virtually no-one has been compensated and the bank’s approach would appear to be parsimonious at best.

The ‘fix-up’ part of dealing with a problem requires quick and generous restitution as far as is possible. This is relatively easy where then primary loss is financial but runs counter to the bank’s demonstrated culture of not really admitting error accompanied by short-term monetarism.

A quick and generous solution would be to frame a simple calculation and make an offer. The CBA knows how much money was ‘brought to the table’ by their victims, they can easily calculate what that would be worth now if the bank had advised the people to invest in bank term deposits and  they know the value of the money actually returned to the people. A couple of weeks with a decent spreadsheet and everyone could have received a reasonable offer.  There may be a need to add in some costs incurred in fighting for the victims rights and for other losses and damage but the whole problem could be largely resolved by now.

The cost of this type of option will be insignificant compared to the less obvious but real costs associated with the wages and costs associated with the bureaucratic monster the bank has created, the massive on-going damage to the bank’s reputation and ‘brand capital’ and the contingent liabilities for further legal actions and/or government action driven by the bank’s approach to this problem.

I’m not sure how the logic of the bank’s assessment processes are structured but a report in the press this week that some people had only been offered a fee refund highlights an approach focused on minimising payouts rather then solving the problem.  If advice was so bad a refund of the fees paid for the advice is warranted, the advice was bad and liability for the damage it caused would appear to sit with the bank??

How you change the culture in an institution as big as the CBA from a parsimonious focus on paying out money to maximise short-term profits is a challenge of the CBA Board, but if they fail, sooner or later the CBA will fail because its stakeholder community will decide to do business elsewhere.  Just because you are big does not mean you are invulnerable.

Conclusion.

The first three elements in the six functions of governance are there for a reason.  Obviously the objectives of the organisation are its reason for existing and have to come first. Then the governing body has to do the hard work of developing the right set of ethics and the right culture within the organisation’s (making sure its governance framework supports the desired culture) before anything else can really occur. As FIFA in particular demonstrates, failure in these critical aspects of an organisation tarnish everything else is touches.

It is impossible to achieve a ‘customer centric’, stakeholder aware organisation if the culture is focused on power or short-term profits!

Self Correcting Processes

Ooops1Far too many of the processes set up by business and government are designed to fail, or at best rely on altruism and trust to get the ‘right thing’ done.  A typical example is safety or quality check lists;  its not unusual to see people spending an hour on a Friday afternoon filing in the sheets for the week and then sending them off to be filed. A complete waste of time! The problem is not the people, it’s a system failure; causes of the observed symptom may be:

  • The process is unnecessary (the work was done safely or to standard anyway);
  • The process is excessively bureaucratic forcing people to choose between getting the job done or getting the paperwork done; or
  • Undetected errors occurred.

Regardless of the cause, the system has failed!

The first question to ask comes out of ‘Light’ and ‘Lean’ thinking; is the process needed at all, and if it is needed can it be made easier to do properly?  A key element in this part of the redesign is asking the question does the process add more value than it costs?

Assuming the process is needed the next area of redesign is making the system self-correcting, in other words designing the system so that it is easier to comply with the process than to circumvent it.   This requires some imagination.

A good example is the visiting security guard at some of our local shops. In the ‘old days’ the guard was required to slip a card under the door to let the shop owner know the check had been done – if 2 or 3 checks were scheduled overnight, the equivalent number of cards were to be found in the morning.  The flaw in the system was no one knew if the guard had visited at the designated times or had called once and slipped several cards under the door……..

The new system has a small RIFD tag fixed to the shop wall and the guard as a reader. If this system is exploited fully, not only is the timing of each visit recorded, but the safety of the guards is enhanced because a failure to ‘read’ the tag at the correct time can trigger an alarm in the guard’s organisation that something has gone wrong, a simple phone call can check if he’s held up in traffic or a more serious situation has occurred.

Every situation is different, but one example of a seriously flawed government process that could easily be improved is the issuing of 457 visas.  The Temporary Work (Skilled) visa (subclass 457) allows skilled workers to come to Australia and work for an approved business for up to four years. The key requirements of the scheme include paying Australian wages and complying with the law. It costs about $2,000 for a visa.

The purpose of this class of visa is to overcome temporary skills shortages in the Australian job market whist local workers are trained; a highly desirable purpose. There are significant penalties for defrauding the system but for reasons discussed in Lynda’s post on Making Ethics Effective, far too many people are prepared to ignore the low risk of prosecution to make money. 457 workers are employed as shop assistants and waiting staff in food outlets in cities with 6% unemployment. The system relies on trust and the department is understaffed to adequately enforce the rules.  So how could this defective system be redesigned to make it self -correcting??

Step 1 – look at the fundamental objectives – skilled workers, temporary employment, and the training of permanent Australian workers.  Skilled workers are paid between $50,000 and $100,000 per annum.

Step 2 – price the visa properly, the 457 visa is an alternative to training, training a worker costs at least $6,000 per annum – price the visa accordingly.  Set the fee for the visa at $6,000 for the first year and allow 4 or 6 extensions of 6 months each at $6,000 per extension. This cost will focus company management on the desirability of training local workers!

Step 3 – price the risk properly, 457 visa holders are supposed to go home at the end of their work, require a $10,000 bond payed at the time of approval (ie, before the worker arrives) that is released once the worker permanently leaves Australia. This sound a lot but reputable businesses can obtain bank guarantees at around 0.75% of the amount guaranteed = $75 per worker per year and all that is needed is a couple of tweaks to the visa control processes to record a permanent departure.

Step 4 – eliminate some of the obvious areas of abuse; eg, make it illegal for a 457 holder to change employers. If the employee is terminated and does not leave the country, the $10,000 bond is forfeit.

Step 5 – compensate the legitimate businesses to help offset these additional costs. Legitimate businesses that comply with the law will pay their superannuation guarantee for most 457 visa holders.  For a worker on $75,000 per annum this is about $7,000 a year.  Temporary workers who are leaving Australia have no need for a statutory superannuation fund – exempt all 457 visa holders from the payment (some are already).  This will offset the cost for most legitimate organisations in the first year. By the second year they should be starting to bring trained workers into play.

What this proposed redesign of the system does is minimise the impact on legitimate businesses that are using 457 visas for their intended purpose and are complying with the obligation contained within the scheme to train people. But the revised system will really hit the dodgy operators who are using the 457 visa to import cheap unskilled labour, particularly if they are underpaying wages and not paying statutory entitlements.

Fixing 457 visas is fairly simple and can be introduced for new applications to minimise complications, the old visas will expire in due course; and as an added bonus the government will have additional revenues to help stamp out malpractice in other classes of visa.

Fixing the other ‘headline making fraud’ of the VET training subsidies will be more difficult, but a shift towards payment on successful completion of the training (backed up by audits) would go a long way towards eliminating the dodgy operators……. VET FEE-HELP is supposed to encourage people to become qualified for work, not enroll in courses!

Enrollment is a key step towards qualifying, but pay for what you want (qualified people in the job market), not an interim step that is of no value in itself. At present 100% of the money is paid on enrollment – driving dodgy course providers to focus on maximising enrollments, no one worries too much if people don’t finish the course,  don’t qualify or don’t get a job.  Why not pay 75% of the money on successful completion and the remaining 25% on the person achieving employment?   This would encourage education providers to only engage people who are capable of completing the course and only provide courses that are likely to lead to employment – the government pays for the results it says it wants.

We’ve looked at some problems that are making headlines locally, now there’s the question of your organisation’s systems – how many rely on trust and goodwill to be implemented properly with the remote possibility of sanctions if someone is caught not complying, and how many have self-correcting checks and balances in a lean and light framework that drive correct behaviour? Good Standard Operating Procedures improve consistency and reduce costs, but only if they are used (see: The value of Standard Operating Procedures).

As Lynda concluded in Making Ethics Effective, achieving ethical and proper behaviours requires more than hoping for a good outcome, intentional design is needed – hope is not a strategy!

Making Ethics Effective

EthicsAn organisation can espouse the highest ethical standards but if these are not supported and enforced they are simply nice statements that look appealing. The challenge is to have the right levels of support and just enough enforcement.

Headline news in Australia over the last couple of weeks (with months to run) is the appalling treatment of franchisees and their staff by the 7-Eleven chain.  To survive (and in some cases profit) many 7-Eleven franchisees resorted to underpaying staff by a standard 50%.  The TV expose and press reports indicate multiple breaches of employment legislation, occupational health and safety legislation, corporations law and taxation legislation.  Most of the focus at the moment is on the students who allowed themselves to be trapped into the wages scam.  This post will suggest these people are not the ‘biggest losers’.

The whole 7-Eleven chain was benefitting from the scam.  Head office made more profit, the franchisees reduced their wage bill by up to 50% (their primary cost under the franchise arrangements) and the students received their reduced pay.  Whilst in some cases there may have been elements of coercion used to keep the students employed, everyone got into the deal voluntarily.

The major losers in this scam were people who rely on the workings of the law and run their businesses honestly.  Two major groups are the corner shop-keepers who paid the lawful minimum wage and saw their businesses destroyed because the 7-Eleven ‘model’ undercut costs illegally and the unemployed people who did not get jobs because they had the audacity to expect to be paid their legal entitlements.

People in these groups faced a major ethical dilemma, go out of business (or remain unemployed) or ‘bend the law’ to survive in completion with chain that was prepared to allow widespread malpractice.  Not an easy decision!

I would suggest the major failing was not the ethics of the 7-Eleven chain: the erosion of ethical standards is usually slow and insidious. The real problem appears to be the government agencies tasked with enforcing the law.  Over several decades government departments have been steadily stripped of resources and these days can only adequately respond to ‘major issues’ –  they are forced to assume ethical behaviour by most people most of the time and even when advised of blatant breaches will generally ignore the issue if it is considered minor.

One example we confront regularly is breaches of the Australian Competition and Consumer Act 2010 – one of the Act’s primary requirements is honesty in advertising, the advertised price of any goods of services should be the minimum price the consumer has to pay.  We routinely see Google advertisements targeted at our training market in Melbourne offering ultra cheap prices.  Click through to the related web page listing the training courses in Melbourne and the price increases, spend 15 minutes filling in registration forms and you eventually see the price you are required to pay (with all of the taxes and changes now added)!   This is a deliberate strategy by unethical organisations – the low price gets people onto their web site, and inertia keeps them there (particularly after spending effort on filling in the forms) so they end up paying far more than is necessary for an equivalent course.  The practice is so widespread, particularly with overseas based training providers, we regularly find people asking us if our prices are ‘real’ and ‘how much will they actually pay’ – the answer is simple, we conform to the law and charge the advertised price.

However, this was not an easy decision to make! We have had to reduce prices and increase advertising to attempt to off-set the illegal practices of others. Complaints to authorities go unheeded because they simply do not have the resources to deal with a relatively minor issue and business suffers.

When ethical standards start to slip several things tend to happen, ethical people move away to somewhere where their standards are not being challenged, less-ethical people move in and further degrade standards and many other people simply learn to ignore the problem (see The normalisation of deviant behaviours ). And once unethical or corrupt behaviour becomes normalised, reversing the situation is extremely difficult. Press reports suggest that some 7-Eleven franchisees who have been forced to pay proper wages are now using extortion to demand 50% of the money back from the employee (outside of the premises so the extortion is not recorded), or the worker loses his/her job.

At a national level one hopes the 7-Eleven furore when added to the construction of a refuelling wharf in the Tiwi Islands without environmental approval (the government agency did not have the resources to investigate in a timely way), the blatant abuse of the vocational training scheme by some commercial organisations and numerous other failures will cause a re-think of the way business and government approach regulation.

Certainly the removal of unnecessary bureaucracy, regulations and other forms of red tape is to be encouraged. However, if the government decides a regulation is desirable, proper and comprehensive enforcement should be automatically provided. The failure to enforce regulations penalises the honest, ethical organisations who feel obliged to comply; and advantages the dishonest who chose to breach the regulation and balance the low cost of getting ‘caught’ against the additional profits garnered from ignoring the provision. Prosecuting a few ‘rule breakers’ 5 or 6 years after the event is not an appropriate way to govern – the damage is already done.

What does this mean within organisations and projects?  Effective governance sets the ‘rules and objectives’ for the organisation (see: The Functions of Governance). Management and staff operate within those rules to achieve the objectives. A key element in a well designed governance framework is the feedback loop providing assurance of management accountability and compliance.  This loop needs three elements:

  • A clear articulation of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours at all levels of the organisation, with senior leaders ‘walking the talk’.
  • Proactive surveillance to identify issues and opportunities as early as possible backed up by effective improvement processes (see: Proactive Project Surveillance.
  • Rigorous, but fair, enforcement processes to deal with breaches.

The last point is the most difficult to get right.  The system needs to be open and accountable, apply both natural justice and the ‘presumption of innocence’, deal with the root cause of the breach, avoid scapegoating, and be trusted.  One element is ensuring effective reporting and ‘whistle blowing’ processes are available so that people (both internal and external to the organisation) who believe there is an issue can raise the matter safely – its impossible to enforce rules if people in authority don’t know (or don’t want to know) about the breach.

The good news is that if these types of system are in place, the organisation will develop a self-reinforcing ethical culture.  Unethical people will leave to find somewhere easier for them making way for people who want to work in an ethical environment.  Fairly soon, everyone holds both themselves and other accountable.

However, this situation cannot be taken for granted! The presence of the surveillance and enforcement processes underpin these highly desirable behaviours.  If the organisation makes the same mistake the Australian governments have repeatedly made over the last 10 years of deregulation and simply ‘hope’ everyone will do the right thing it won’t take long for the slide into unethical behaviour to start.  Hope is not a strategy, good governance requires assurance that the organisation’s objectives are being achieved, and effective assurance needs both surveillance and enforcement capabilities.