A failure of leadership (Editor's notes)

Bad leaders can do a lot of damage to workplace culture
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/02/2013

Ask almost any HR professional about who sets the tone for an organization’s culture and the answer will always come back the same: The CEO.

The top dog at any organization has the ability to influence culture, for better or worse, far more than any other individual.

Yes, this column is going to be about Rob Ford. And no, it’s not about politics. It is still possible to criticize a politician for his behaviour without impugning his politics — despite what some may believe. The two are not inextricably tied.

Ford is Toronto’s mayor — but do I really need to say that? He’s become a global punchline, one of the world’s most notorious politicians and an absolute nightmare from a human resources perspective.

How would you like to be the head of HR at the City of Toronto right now? Or even just a line manager, trying to discipline an employee for breaching the city’s code of conduct when your CEO — and the mayor of a city is undoubtedly the CEO — is making international headlines for buying and using illegal drugs, drinking to excess, using profane language and refusing to come clean until he is caught completely red-handed.

I have never worked at the City of Toronto but I can guarantee one thing: Ford’s actions have damaged the culture. Any idiots among the workforce are undoubtedly emboldened by his behaviour and the lack of accountability.

There is a videotape of Ford smoking crack cocaine, first reported by Gawker and the Toronto Star in May. For months, he repeatedly denied its existence and said he does not smoke crack. It was only after Toronto police revealed they had recovered the video that he finally came clean — and then put the blame on the media for not asking the right question. (Which reporters had in fact done, repeatedly.)

What a great example for the CEO to set. What’s the lesson here for employees? If someone accuses you of serious wrongdoing, just lie and pretend it never happened? And then, when your hand is caught in the cookie jar, just shrug and say, "Oops, well, you didn’t phrase your line of questioning just right."

Do you think a court or arbitrator would accept that answer in a wrongful dismissal case? Zero chance that would happen.

And yet — as of press time — Ford continues to sit in the mayor’s office, thumbing his nose at detractors from his bully pulpit despite being stripped of powers and budget by a city council fed up with his wrongdoing.

Ford’s fiscal track record is a good one. He has done what he pledged to do. But his leadership track record in his role as setting the tone for behaviour is abysmal. He is no different than a manager who gets results through bullying, surrounded by a team of disengaged workers with high turnover. Yes, he’s getting the job done — but at what cost?

I’ve been around quite a few tables recently where the topic of employee engagement has arisen, and it’s frankly disheartening. I’ve heard numerous stories of CEOs openly dismissing falling engagement scores, pointing instead to rises in productivity and profit achieved through cost-cutting and squeezing.

But the benefits of engagement are stronger, and it’s disappointing to hear of executives pushing engagement aside in favour of profits.

At best, that’s a short-term strategy. Sure, you can squeeze more and ignore engagement and, if you’re lucky, see productivity and profit rise for the next quarter or two. But if you take the long view, that strategy will be doomed to failure — every single time.

The bullies of the world, like Rob Ford, who win and succeed through a "victory at any cost, and to hell with the ramifications of my behaviour" attitude can’t be allowed to win.

And no, not because it’s a touchy-feely HR issue. It’s because the future of healthy, profitable organizations rests on it. We can’t let bad leadership and ignorance of HR practices that pay huge dividends go unchecked — this is a war business (not just HR) can’t afford to lose.

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