The case of former HR director Helen Marks brings home the importance of studying not just our own behaviour but that of other people, says Dean Royles
We all like to think we do a good job, that we work hard and learn from our mistakes. But do we? How do we know? It’s become something of a truism that we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.
It is certainly true of me that the emotional impact of the mistakes I’ve made stay with me for longer than any successes. It’s the mistakes I’ve made that keep me awake at night toying with what I could have done differently. What could I have said that would have had a different outcome?
But by then of course, it’s often too late. I am also acutely aware that as a director of HR my mistakes generally impact on other people. I may have made a mistake that gives me sleepless nights but they may have lost much more….
I’m sure that this personal reflection, the sleepless nights and the determination to do it differently next time, drives home lessons and builds experiences that impact on how we make decisions. But is it enough to really learn? Can we learn from other people’s mistakes? Is that just as powerful?
Is learning from others a more structured way of learning? I want to be good at my job and want to improve so I always look for new opportunities to learn. Over the years I have sought out people that experience work from a different perspective. Learning from trade union colleagues, from whistleblowers and the experience of patients. They have all been extremely generous with their time. Some have become friends.
I recently met Helen Marks, a former director of HR who lost her job and went on to win an employment tribunal which found “beyond reasonable doubt” that she had been pressurised by the former chair of the trust to have a sexual relationship with him, and that when she refused he orchestrated a disciplinary case against her, and that the men involved in this case, who were all the senior executives of the trust, colluded in covering this matter up and prevented any meaningful investigation into the behaviour.
Some trusts can become arrogant and quite easily allow themselves to believe that they are untouchable. In some cases they can lose sight of the fact that they are playing with individuals’ lives
I wanted to know what I could learn. Could what happened to Helen or something similar happen to someone else?
Helen has had lots of time to reflect and research since losing her job and winning her case. She has explored similar cases and believes there are some common mistakes board directors make.
Helen highlights that once non-executives become embroiled in such cases there are limited checks and balances in place; the lack of objectivity and the closing of ranks has a huge impact on how the cases are handled. Some trusts can become arrogant and quite easily allow themselves to believe that they are untouchable. In some cases they can lose sight of the fact that they are playing with individuals’ lives, careers and the impact on their families.
In her case they failed to follow the trust’s policies and what followed was a costly legal case. In many cases, as with Helen’s this had to be financed personally. Some have access to legal insurance but most don’t. For Helen she felt isolated and it became a question of where could she go when the whole board became involved to have her voice heard?
Helen’s and others experiences that she is aware of is that some trusts do not undertake ‘truly independent investigations’. Investigators, instead of seeking the truth, investigate to find guilt. “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. In Helen’s case the acting chair brought in his friend to conduct what was described by the employment tribunal judge as a “woefully inadequate investigation”. The first time the trust heard Helen’s full version of events was in the court room.
Helen believes that if people are ‘properly’ represented from the beginning it places individuals on a level playing field and can help to ensure a fair outcome to internal processes
As in a number of other cases, she was not represented initially; in fact the tribunal found that she was suspended without her being allowed to be accompanied. Helen had to seek legal representation. She believes that if people are ‘properly’ represented from the beginning it places individuals on a level playing field and can help to ensure a fair outcome to internal processes. She makes the hugely important point that this not only protects the individual, but also the organisation.
When boards get it wrong it can cost the taxpayer financially, the organisation its reputation, some individuals their careers, and through the impacts on staff morale, undermine patient care. In these cases, there is often more than one casualty.
The emotional learning and reflection from our own mistakes is important, but it is also good to see how we can learn from others and understand what we can do differently.
Speaking to Helen (and others in similar circumstances) certainly helps me to connect my emotions and rational responses. I hope by learning from others I will reflect and adjust my practices and that by exposing other board members, non-executives and HR teams to people like Helen that we will be able to make better decisions for ourselves and for the people our decisions impact on so powerfully.
I’ve renewed my commitment to learn from my mistakes and, just as important, the mistakes and experiences of others.