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Four tips for managing staff misconduct in small business – what can we learn from the VW scandal?
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Car-maker Volkswagen is currently mired in an emissions scandal that many other smaller businesses would not survive. The scandal has nearly destroyed their reputation and caused them significant financial loss, due to breaches of not just moral boundaries but also legal ones too.

If we assume for now that the CEO did not know about and condoned this, then something potentially disastrous happened within his company without his knowledge. Could this, or something like it, happen in your company?

In situations like this, it’s important for any business to have documents like a Code of Conduct, Whistleblowing, and Bribery & Corruption policies – to help their staff know how to effectively report wrongdoing in any form, and understand that they will be protected as far as possible.

VW will have no doubt had policies like these on file, so this doesn’t really answer the question definitively in this case, but it would be a good first port of call for a small business that feels it could encounter a situation like this. And we don’t just mean having them in a drawer somewhere; many people may just see having these documents as a cover, but you need to actually enforce them for it to work. This means communicating with employees clearly what your policies are, and how they work in practice.

Managing staff misconduct in practice

1 – Make clear what you expect from your staff

If you’re the kind of manager that lets people do things however they feel works, then it shouldn’t surprise you when they go about things in a way you didn’t expect. Therefore, ensure that you are clear with staff, from the very start of their employment with you, what their responsibilities and accountabilities are. Use policies and values statements to make it clear what you expect from all your staff. You should then make sure that in your induction you cover the processes you use to help should anything go wrong. Of course, there are implied terms of employment too that do hold up in employment cases, such as there being an element of trust they won’t knowingly break the law whilst in your employment.

2 – Create and maintain a culture of openness

So if somebody at your company does something incompatible with your values or policies, other people should naturally speak up about this before it becomes a problem.

3 – Allow mistakes

Avoiding ‘blame-culture’ is a solid place to start. Don’t just make your people into scapegoats – when something goes wrong, they need to know that if they come to you with a major problem you’ll help them solve it rather than fire them on the spot. Of course, if they have repeatedly caused major issues that’s different, but in general it’s best to avoid strong kneejerk action. No one will come forward until it’s too late if they think they’ll be fired straight away!

4 – Stay close to your people, products, and processes

This is much easier in a small company, if something doesn’t feel right or smell right, there’s a good chance it isn’t right. Ask your key people about it, or even investigate yourself.

Consistency is key, don’t let some staff (or yourself even) ‘wing it’ and get away with it, if you feel they’ve gone about something the wrong way – even if they’ve achieved the desired result – you need to let them know. Being consistent with all staff irrespective of how ‘experienced’ they are will help too.

How employer branding can help

These days people often talk about employer branding and value statements, and getting this right can help you to avoid working with employees that might use shady tactics to achieve results. It’s not a silver bullet, but letting your team know that you expect employees in your business to behave in a certain way – including working with honesty and integrity etc. – really helps. This isn’t just about intentionally breaking the law; you should be clear on your values if you feel there is any opportunity for employees to simply act in a ‘morally grey’ area that could impact on your reputation. If staff inherently understand how they should act from the start, they’ll be able to ‘police’ themselves as they work.

This blog was amended slightly on 14/10/2015.


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