The revelations this week at Barclays represent the latest peak of a range of mountainous scandals in the banking industry. Each time, we think that all the worst excesses have been revealed, whereupon the clouds part to reveal yet another mountain. The final summit may as yet be hidden. What relevance has this to our industry, one might ask, other than the fact that many of our client base are bankers? There are few parallels. Perhaps the only one is that we, like bankers, operate in an area where the degree of specialist knowledge and skill required means that many aspects of it are beyond most people. But given the specialisation of modern life, that could be argued for most fields – getting your car fixed for example. Well actually, that is quite a good example. There are many reports of malpractice with unscrupulous garages. We have to trust them, we have little way of knowing whether they are taking advantage of us or not. What is more worrying about the Barclays (and other banks) scandals is the sheer scale at which the company culture has resulted in a failure to deliver in the customers’ interests.
These things do not happen by accident. Of course, all acts within an organisation are based on decisions taken by people, many by individuals and these individuals must take responsibility for their actions. But it goes further than this. How individuals behave in organisations depends on the prevailing culture, on what seems to be ‘acceptable’ behaviour. If the directors of a business are regularly seen to have their ‘hands in the till’, then employees will also consider it acceptable to partake in petty fraud and dishonesty. If managers place huge importance on hitting targets and say things like ‘I don’t care how you get there’ then they are sending the message that targets are more important than customers, and damage to customer interest is inevitable.
Many landscape practices and contracting firms are small businesses where the behavioural tone set by the leader/s of the business will have a disproportionate effect on the organisational culture. In the long run, it is pretty obvious that honesty will lead to higher profit levels, that the ‘quick buck’ may be tempting, but the slow bucks will be more numerous. Despite this, there is still a great deal of short-sighted dishonesty in our industry. Business owners treating their firms like an extension of their personal spending, over-charging customers where they can get away with it and bad-mouthing the competition whenever the opportunity arises are just some examples. There are also many cases of opaque charging – commission payments are commonplace. In a post a few months ago called ‘Should garden designers take commission payments’ (http://www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=197), this topic released a flood of comments on LinkedIn, all of them condemning the practice, which would make you think it no longer happens. I know for a fact it is still widespread. this raises a further interesting point. The issue of ethics and culture goes beyond single businesses into the relationships between businesses. In that way it affects all of us, even sole traders.
The same applies in our dealings with clients. We are often a little in awe of them, particualrly if they are rich and famous. We can get nervous when being questioned about our choices. I was listening to that former political bruiser John Reid on the radio this morning talking about what to do when wrong-footed in an interview. “If in doubt, tell the truth. If you’ve changed your mind, say you changed your mind. If you don’t know, say so. If you’ve made a mistake, admit it. If you do that, then you can move on to what you want to talk about.” Good advice indeed.