Coming Clean With Mistakes

When someone in an organisation makes a serious mistake and then covers it up, if you’re like me then your first thought is ”why?” and the second is ”someone else must have known”. How can something so serious be the work and decision of just one person?

an authentic business would just be honest and not attempt a PR cover up

an authentic business would just be honest and not attempt a PR cover up


From what I have observed, the first thought to cover up is not to protect the company but for that person to protect themselves – their reputation and their job. Even if the overall impact of the decision or action is widespread, the survival mechanism kicks in.

To me the difference between someone who is truly authentic in business and life compared to someone who is just out for themselves, at whatever cost, is the person who thinks all of those things in the first instance but doesn’t act on them. I’d be very surprised if the thought of personal protection, even for the briefest moment, didn’t come to mind since fight or flight is a basic instinct.

I’ve always told my teams that I would back them no matter what mistakes were made as nothing was insurmountable. The department’s reputation might take a knock, but the way in which it is handled – and applying the lessons learned – will make a big difference to the overall impact. And yes, between us – me included – we did make some faux-pas over the years but we always came clean and we always ensured that we reviewed what had happened afterwards, so we could do our best to ensure that a similar event wouldn’t happen again.

I can remember on one occasion, when a very serious error had been made affecting payments to a large number of people and I was told I had to hold a disciplinary for an individual. That came from the group board level and it didn’t sit comfortably with me. I knew that something else was going on and that person had taken their eye off the ball, as well as the fact that we were all working very long hours trying to sort out some significant systems issues.

When the work was being done, I didn’t know they had taken their eye off the ball, but the way they told me about it when they identified the error just a few days later, I just knew. However, they were a very private person and wouldn’t share with me at the time, or at the disciplinary, even when I asked several times in different ways if there had been extenuating circumstances for what had happened. We had no other choice but to carry out that disciplinary which I did with a truly heavy heart.

Some 6 weeks later the person resigned and then told me what had been happening and I knew my gut instinct was right. To this day I am sorry that I didn’t stand my ground with the group level directors; I didn’t have the experience and the wisdom then that I do now. Fortunately, it didn’t impact on that person’s career but it certainly was a lesson for me.

The situation was resolved by writing letters to each of the people affected and yes, the department took a bit of a knock. I’m sorry to say that for some of the senior managers, their acceptance of the situation included being told that the person responsible had been disciplined.

Yes, there are times where there is clear evidence of gross and wanton misconduct,that its necessary to discipline an individual but if someone makes a genuine mistake, even more so where the business is putting significant pressure on that one person, then is it right to discipline them without taking a truly holistic approach and looking at the whole organisation and what was happening? It goes back to the four top reasons for employee burnout we discussed a couple of weeks ago. 

So thinking back to coming clean with mistakes then, why is it that in business we don’t always do that straight away? Why do businesses try to cover up and issue statements that are pointing in a completely different direction until such times as they can cover up no more, or someone blows the whistle? Does that really enhance their reputation, the value of the brand and the customers belief in that brand and the business?

And if its a public organisation what’s the impact on of our perception of that institution? Only yesterday I read of a hospital trust that didn’t tell the parents when mistakes were made during the birth of their child and its care in that first few days resulting in significant health issues which will be with that child, and its parents, for the rest of its life. How does that serve the child and its parents? Instead of all that time put into covering up it could have been used in helping the child and parents and ensuring that safeguards were put in place for the future

At times, there have been very public “falling on their sword” actions from senior executives. Other’s refuse to go and hang on by their fingernails in the face of public opinion. And I don’t know about you, but there are times when I do wonder on the sense of removing someone from the organisation completely – and more importantly immediately – as a lot of skills and knowledge are being lost and making it even harder to rectify the issues.

I’m not suggesting they should necessarily stay in a role or be rewarded for the mistakes that have happened but at the same time, trying to make the changes, solve the problem and repair the issue becomes even harder when certain people are removed immediately. This is something that could be debated at length, however, my personal thinking is that each situation should be treated on its own merit; not to protect or save that person, but the best thing for the business and the situation.

Over the years popular opinion has created cultures of how things are managed and perceived. Businesses have created cultures where we have less and less belief in what we are told when serious issues occur; we treat it as rhetoric and that’s what it often is – PR spin and rhetoric.

However if the innate culture in any business was values based and the business – and the people in the business – were authentic in their actions, words and behaviours, then popular opinion would be very different, as would the way in which businesses work.

Because one thing is for sure, we can’t keep doing business in the way that we are, can we?

If you’d like to find out more about anything I’ve mentioned here, then it may be a great idea to call me on +44 (0) 1296 681094, click here to ping me an email or even leave a comment below.

Until next time …

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