Workplace Communicator Blog

How a Culture of Fear Breeds Dodgy Workplace Practices

Posted by Marie-Claire Ross on Mon, Nov 26, 2012

Jimmy Savile 2Back in the 1970s - 1980s, Jimmy Savile was one of the most famous television presenters on the BBC.  An effervescent, eccentric man he hosted "Top of the Pops", followed by other children's television shows.

He was knighted for his tireless efforts fund-raising millions of pounds for charities.

He died in 2011 at the age of 84.  In his hometown of Leeds, his life was celebrated by thousands in a massive funeral procession.

But a funny thing happened after he died.  Women (and a few men) started to come forward about the sexual abuse they had received from Jimmy when they were teenagers.  And on a staggering scale.  Around 450 victims have come forward with reports of incidents starting from 1959 right up until 2006.  Other 'stars' of the era have also been implicated with Gary Glitter and Dave Lee Travis arrested on suspicion of sexual offences.  Police believe that Jimmy Savile was now one of the worst sex offenders they have ever come across.

The saga has caused a crisis at the BBC (reported as being the worst in 50 years).  Rather disturbingly, BBC leadership decided to drop an investigation by their own show, Newsnight, into alleged abuse by Jimmy Savile (leaving their competitor - IPTV to create a documentary about the case).  Instead, the BBC chose to broadcast a commemorative story on Jimmy after his death.

Poor Culture allows Abuse to Thrive

For years there had been rumours about his sexual proclivities, but they had always been ignored.  According to a BBC newsite interview, when asked why no action had been taken against the TV presenter for almost 50 years, the police commissioner said people had relied too much on Savile's reputation, and his word that he had done nothing.

A lot of people wonder why, the abuse claims have been raised now.

And the sad truth is, that his victims and even those who witnessed his crimes, were frightened of him.  A former fighter, he had friends in high places, lots of money and he created almost an untouchable, angelic aura by donating money to charities and helping sick people at hospitals (it now comes to light that he was molesting patients). 

Who would have ever believed a young girl or a junior employee that Jimmy Savile was a predatory child molester?  His public persona was that of a tireless charity fundraiser with a quirky, fun personality.

While he intimidated some of his victims about telling, the truth was, there was a high possibility that no-one would have believed them (and in fact, Coleen Nolan who refused Jimmy Savile's invitation to visit him in his hotel room when she was a teenager, has recently received abuse from internet trolls about her experience.  While back in 2009, the Crown Prosecution looked through claims made since the 1970's but decided to drop the case, as the victims were unwilling (too scared) to speak up).

Many of these sex offences occurred at the BBC and at the hospitals and schools where Jimmy played the hero to staff by offering time and money (but all he did was target institutions where victims would not be believed or were too ill such as a school for emotionally disturbed girls, a high security psychiatric hospital and a hospital for very sick and disabled children).

Because of his status as a popular presenter, he was allowed to live the child molester's dream with a steady flow of young girls readily available for him to groom and molest, pretty much whenever and wherever, he liked.

A Culture of Fear

In "Candor, Criticism, Teamwork" written by Keith Ferrazzi for Harvard Business Review in January 2012, his research found that high performance teams have high levels of candour among team members.  High candour workplaces have colleagues speaking honestly about the risks involved and other issues, rather than talking behind people's backs.  While it is understandable that people prefer to avoid conflict, it's debilitating for organisations.  Lack of candour signifies a highly politicized workplace where people do what they told and do not question anything.

Any organisation that is lead with a culture of fear, where people are too afraid to speak up, are cultivating an atmosphere where bad behaviour can flourish.

And we're not just talking about child molestation or any other sexual offences for that matter.

It can be anything from unsafe work practices, workplace bullying right through to dodgy financial dealings.

It is critical for companies to allow anyone, at any level to speak up.  This has to include everyone from the most junior to the most senior and everyone in between.  Companies that have exemplary performance allow for two-way feedback where everyone can make comment about another fellow staff's performance whether they are above or below them in the hierarchy.

This also means that mandatory whistle blowing policies are in place that protect employees, and who can rely on their complaints being investigated.  Employers must thoroughly investigate any complaint or allegation both with anonymity and complete confidence.

Open Communication is the Future

When it comes to safety, companies that encourage staff to talk openly about any safety concerns and take action on those concerns, have a healthy workplace culture.

You know your culture is on the right track, when people can bring up issues is meeting, even about other workers, and action is taken that is fair to both parties.

And this is important, because when you boil down all of the bad workplace behaviours that staff exhibit at work, it's the workplace psychopath who's the best at mentally destroying people around them.

Ignoring Abuse means Condoning Abuse

Few workplaces are ever going to have a staff member like Jimmy Savile freely committing such hideous crimes.  But the major and most common risk to workplaces, that can cause so much conflict and pain, are the corporate psychopaths who wield their power and treat those around them with contempt. Technically, psychopaths are rare (1% of the population and more rare are female psychopaths, but as they love power they are attracted to senior positions, so there are 4% of them lurking around in senior positions).

According to Dr John Clarke, "The workplace psychopath is somebody who psychologically destroys the people they work with to feed their need for a sense of power and control and domination over other human beings.  They don't suffer any guilt or remorse, or in fact they enjoy the suffering of other people."

By allowing for open communication at the workplace, organisations will ensure that corporate psychopaths will not destroy the organisation (and staff).  Their behaviour will not be tolerated, therefore disabling them from creating the environment they need to thrive (fear, criticism and more fear and threats)  At the same time, enabling honest communication will ensure that other bad behaviours cannot survive such as ignoring safety issues, bribes, bullying and theft.

As horrific as the crimes Jimmy Savile has allegedly committed, he is the perfect example of how organisations that lack intergrity choose to ignore illegal behaviour when they are profiting from it. Was accepting millions of pounds from a pedophile a fair exchange for the amount of damage he did?

To create safe workplaces, we need to have leaders that can say 'no' to unethical behaviour and do what's right, not what gets the money in. Let's learn a lesson from this and stop bad behaviour from flourishing at workplaces by enabling open, honest communication and having whistle-blower policies in place. 

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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Topics: CEOs and executives, workplace safety communication, workplace culture, culture of fear, Jimmy Savile