Last week, the News of the World suspended one of its reporters after complaints were made about illegal phone hacking. Senior managers at the newspaper claim that this is a one-off incident which they are treating as a potential breach of discipline. That’s the same line the paper took last time this happened. Two employees were sacked and the NoW’s managers claimed that they knew nothing about the use of phone hacking. The sacked journalists were portrayed as rogue employees who overstepped the mark and contravened the paper’s usual ethical standards.
Once again we are being asked to believe in the idea of the rogue operator; the employee who, in furthering the employer’s interests, uses illegal or immoral methods which are not sanctioned by the company.
The banking industry is full of rogue trader stories. Barings’ mangers claimed that Nick Leeson was an out-of-control maverick when he lost the bank £860m. Société Générale said something similar when Jérôme Kerviel blew a €4.9 billion hole in its balance sheet. These men, so we were told, were one-off eccentrics who just didn’t know where to draw the line.
The important difference between so-called rogue traders and workplace fraudsters is that the former use unethical methods to further their employers’ goals. Rogue traders don’t steal from their employers; they simply use immoral or illegal tactics to achieve the objectives they have been set. When this goes wrong and, more importantly, when the wrongdoing becomes public, the employers quickly deny all knowledge, claim that the employees are renegades and insist that such practices are highly unusual in their organisations.
However, these claims are at odds with everything we know about the way organisations work. Most organisations contain employee behaviour within a set of cultural norms. These norms are reinforced, sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly, by the organisations’ leaders. Employees very rarely operate outside these norms. They might push the boundaries a bit but, apart from the criminal or psychopathic few, it is unusual for workers in any organisation to violate these unwritten rules. If they do they are usually punished in some way.
Managers, too, are strongly aware of a company’s ‘way of doing things’ and tend to spot counter-cultural behaviour very quickly. Despite all the talk of employee empowerment and self-managed teams over the past two decades, most organisations are still run using modern variations on the command and control model advocated by F.W. Taylor over a century ago. There are very few organisations where a manager will give his workers an objective but have no interest in how they go about achieving it. Almost all bosses know how their people do their jobs even if they don’t monitor all the specific details. This is especially the case in more demanding environments where managers are under pressure from senior executives. Fearing that they won’t meet their own deadlines, they tend to monitor the progress of their teams very closely and keep a keen eye on the costs.
In truth, then, there is no such thing as a rogue operator. If an employee uses unethical tactics to further an employer’s objectives, the behaviour is almost certainly sanctioned, either explicitly or tacitly, by the management and encouraged by the organisation’s culture. Workers don’t suddenly decide to break the law or take crazy risks with other people’s money. They do it because everyone else is doing it and they are rewarded for it. When they get away with it, they are praised for their performance. It’s only when it goes wrong that they are cast out and treated as pariahs by the very people who encouraged the behaviour in the first place.
The News of the World’s management would have us believe that, in a highly results-focused and hierarchical environment, managers would run stories and sign off expenses without asking how reporters got their information or what the expenses were for. If that is really what happened, the News of the World would be like no other organisation I have ever seen.
As with the banks’ responses to their rogue traders, the News of the World is attempting to individualise what is, in all likelihood, a systemic problem. Employees rarely deviate very far from the behavioural norms that prevail in their organisations. If one person in an organisation is behaving unethically, the chances are that a lot of other people are doing something similar.