Needles in Haystacks: Responding to Concerns in Organisations


Once again we read about a scandal, and once again somebody surfaces to say that they alerted people to this problem years ago. Again, we hear about a dossier, about meetings and conversations. Once again, we are shocked. How could they have known and have done nothing and what does this mean for how we both raise concerns in organisations and how we respond to them?

When I worked in the NHS I asked a Chief Executive how he made sure that the employees at his Hospital raised concerns when they had them. In response, he showed me some of the emails he had received that week. Interestingly, they all shared a common pattern and many of them did raise some kind of concern. None of them looked starkly like concerns. They didn’t have subject lines like ‘Worrying issue on Ward 23’ or ‘Concern about patient safety at the community hospital’. The subject lines were very mundane everyday ones. The bodies of the emails too were nothing out of the ordinary either. If you read right to the end though you would find it. It usually began with “I should also add…” Or “Just so you know…” or even “While I’m on I just wanted to mention…” There was the concern. Not hidden, but just a few lines within a longer email, within an inbox of hundreds.

The problem for the Chief Executive wasn’t about getting staff to raise concerns, it was about how and when they were doing it. He explained that most of these issues, when explored, were either very minor or even non-issues. The reason they were being raised directly with him was insurance. The medic or other member of staff wanted to have a copy of the email (perhaps printed out and carefully filed away) just in case. Just in case there ever was a major issue. They would then be able to demonstrate that they had alerted the person at the very top of the chain which would, presumably, exonerate them. Maybe they were right. Maybe if it ever did go wrong the story would simply be that the Chief Executive was aware. There would be no mention of the 35 other “by the way” comments he had received that day. There would be no mention of the 1,000 other harmless concerns that people had raised with him on a “just in case” basis.

In another sector, I saw a very minor concern about a staff member being discussed by HR and a line manager. Both parties were sure there was nothing in the concern (an insinuation that they may have broken the law in a very unlikely way) and were 99% certain that the allegation was in fact a joke. Nevertheless, both sides felt it sensible to record their view that there was nothing in it, but escalate it to the next layer of management ‘just in case’. The next layer of management did the same. So did the next. A few days later two senior officers from the Special Branch of the Police were on site…

We can all see what is happening here. As a young civil servant I was even taught how to do this. My managers at the time called it “Top Cover”. If you are taking a risk, or aren’t sure that something will definitely work out, make sure you put something briefly in writing to somebody senior. There was no consideration that those ‘senior’ people would do the same or, that when you end up as the most senior person in an organisation, this doesn’t seem like such a brilliant idea anymore.

Of course, we want people to raise concerns in the workplace but the current approach clearly isn’t working. Particularly now, where email, SMS and other messaging systems are so prevalent, where thoughts that occur late at night can be shared in seconds, this avalanche of ‘just in case’ emails and clamour for ‘Top Cover’ is making it impossible to separate the ticking bomb from the offloading of everybody’s individual worries.

I don’t know what the answer is yet. To get to it though we need to have honest conversations about blame cultures, management development, whistleblowing, journalism, political footballs and the complexity of organisations. We need to get better at raising and responding to concerns in organisations and we need to do it now.


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