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Faking it? Conducting a cultural change under the spotlight

There have been a spate of news stories about prominent organisations undertaking large cultural transformations. But are their efforts going to be effective?

When $4 million in funding gets suspended, your culture problem becomes a PR problem, as the leadership of Victoria Police is discovering.

After finding that 1.5 per cent (or more than 258,000) preliminary breath tests (PBTs) over the last five years have been falsified, the Transport Accident Commission has put millions in road safety funding on hold.

In reaction Russell Barrett, the professional standards command assistant commissioner for the Victoria Police, announced what amounts to an HR initiative; a program of directly talking to staff in order to change their behaviour. “We will commence the largest workplace guidance exercise undertaken in the Victoria Police,” he says.

“We’ll be going out to every workplace and speaking to every member and explaining to them why this practice is wrong, what their roles are and why we need the trust and support of the community.”

The cultural impact of quotas

It’s highly unlikely that any member of the force, let alone all of them, need to be told how or why faking PBTs is wrong. The people doing it were covering their tracks, not misusing breathalysers.

Though the investigation into the behaviour is ongoing, there are clues as to the cause. Barrett has signaled that the practice has been widespread, and free of any personal financial gain or criminal behaviour.

“I don’t think we can move away from the fact that it would enhance productivity of certain individuals and it would enhance their reputation if they’re seen to be more productive,” he says.

So this is most likely a discussion about quotas, which wouldn’t be a first. The need to fill KPIs having a negative effect is not isolated to the police. But it’s uncomfortable to think the people who enforce our laws are also trying to hit arbitrary targets.

In 2011 a leaked email obtained by The Advertiser revealed that in South Australia, Holden Hill police had five week benchmarks. They required officers to “make five arrests”, “arrest or report two drink-drivers,” and “make nine traffic contacts, including on-the-spot fines, using mobile breath tests”. This is regardless of whether or not the officers encountered that many crimes, which was and remains alarming.

The email said that those officers who didn’t reach their targets were coasting, and would have performance reviews. And while those involved apologised at the time, this is a recurring issue nationally. The NSW police have been accused of chasing numbers to the detriment of the community, and WA police accused of massaging response time figures.

If this ends up being an issue of quotas, it’s questionable if staff outreach is going to be the answer. It might be better for Victoria Police to look at their management models and performance incentives.

Starbucks and bias training

Earlier this week Starbucks in the US closed down all company-owned stores for an afternoon to conduct a racial-bias education day. This big cultural shakeup was in reaction to the community backlash caused by a Philadelphia store-manager’s decision to call the police to arrest two black men for trespassing (they were waiting for a friend).

But again, is this a real cultural change or just something done to quell a PR crisis? There’s a strong argument that it’s the latter.

First off, does one half-day of training really help a workforce which has a turnover of 60 per cent? While actually decent for the US hospitality industry, 60 per cent still means that this time next year more than half of the employees who’ve been taught the basics of unconscious bias will have moved on.

What’s more, what can truly be accomplished in a single afternoon?

Research suggests training that’s not ongoing or tailored for employees’ situations tends to be a waste. A report from The Conversation written by Assistant Professor Javeed Sukhera speaks specifically to the pitfalls of implicit bias training. It details how merely making people aware of their bias (which is about all you can do in a half-day) wasn’t enough for them. “It led to significant emotional distress and a defensive reaction,” the author writes.

He says that “research on implicit bias training highlights mixed results and suggests that implicit bias training alone will not solve the problem” and that “our training was most effective when it was accompanied with constant discussion and dialogue among people who work together.”

Does the crisis itself have a positive cultural impact?

One of the more intriguing ideas is about the impact on culture of public perception. The training might not benefit employees, but does the negative publicity itself make a difference?

In the Starbucks case, could the desire not to be outed like the original employee, and the message that the company is stridently against such behaviour, have a chance to resonate and transform the coffee giant’s culture?

HRM couldn’t find a specific study on this but history would seem to tell us that internal cultures aren’t changed by public perceptions.

The Global Financial Crisis, which wrecked economies and destroyed lives, was perhaps the most cataclysmic PR disaster of modern times. The reputations of whole industries remain infected by its fallout. Yet a decade later many financial institutions either didn’t fix, or have slid back into, problematic cultures. (You don’t need hyperlinks to prove this point, but here are a few).

What we do in the dark

There’s logic to the proposition that if you read about an organisation’s cultural change in mass media publications, it’s mostly for show. Because if a single incident of your organisation’s behaviour is newsworthy, it’s probably just the visible tip of a much larger problem.

That being said, you can’t fault the organisations. It makes a lot of sense to conduct a splashy community-facing cultural shakeup in order to safeguard the immediate future of the organisation. But whether or not their cultures actually change will be determined by what happens – by what HR and leadership do – when the spotlight fades.

Learn strategies to manage and help your team respond to changing work situations in the AHRI short course ‘Change management’.

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Thank you for this article! I totally agree that a one day training or merely having conversations with employees to change culture is not an answer to the issues listed in the article above. In order to drive change, the management team must re look at their KPIs – set right behavioral expectations, provide training and support to enable staff to display the right behaviors and finally reward the right behaviors and/or correct the negative behaviors. For example recently some banks who have had negative publicity for misselling to customers have now changed KPIs from being sales driven to being… Read more »

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