FRIDAY 9 FEB 2024 5:15 PM


As the company searches for new leadership in the wake of the Horizon IT scandal, Joanna de Koning, founder of Vera Advisory, argues the Post Office has taught us a lesson on building trusting cultures within organisations.

Many column inches have been written in recent weeks about the Post Office Horizon scandal with discussion ranging from how the crisis has been managed through to why it took a TV drama to catapult the issue into widespread public consciousness.

Considering potential lessons for communicators, I was particularly struck by the Public Inquiry testimony from some of the mid-ranking employees and contractors from the Post Office and Fujitsu. Examples came to light of people being told to carry out certain orders - to look for guilty parties, to find missing money (that didn’t exist) or to put their name to incorrect statements drafted by lawyers - while seemingly failing to think critically about whether that was in fact the right thing to do.

Orders and beliefs about suspected wrongdoing were transmitted down the chain of command and people at the bottom followed them. They were just “doing their job”.

I’m sure many employees, if being completely honest, would admit to ‘drinking the corporate kool-aid’ at their place of work. In organisations with rigid hierarchical and political cultures, people may be more likely to blindly follow dictats from leaders or have their judgement impaired by herd mentality.

The approach to communications in such organisations will often be one-way and broadcast-focused. Leaders might say they listen and engage but that’s often not reflected in their behaviour. You might think, as an enlightened reader of a comms magazine, that this is unusual (surely everyone follows best practice when it comes to being clear about your vision, values and purpose and embedding these from the top down?) but it really isn’t. In my experience, many organisations still choose to be inherently suspicious of their employees, not trust them with important information and assume that they carry out their jobs in ignorance of what’s going on around them, uninterested in the role their job and their organisation plays in our world.

If you’re a CEO or work closely with one, ask yourself where the blame would fall if wrongdoing was identified somewhere in your organisation. What have you done to influence that behaviour? When you set objectives as a business, how many of those are about your financial performance and how many are about the kind of workplace you want to be?

I often despair of the awful American-style compliance videos employees are forced to watch on joining an organisation - bribery and corruption, data protection. Of course, we all need to know the rules but these videos are so uninspiring, unrealistic and also somewhat scare-mongering. Have you felt trusted, empowered and motivated after watching a few of those? I know I haven’t!

Instead of starting with these as part of an onboarding process, how about asking your CEO to give a welcome address to new joiners entitled “Our culture, how we do business and why it matters?”

In creating the content for this session, ask yourself: do all our people really understand our business - how we make money and how we make decisions? Do they have a forum for asking questions and having them answered honestly? Are we transparent about how our business is performing and the challenges we face? Do we welcome ideas and solutions from across the organisation? Are we clear about what it means to us to do the right thing and would our colleagues be empowered to speak up if they thought that wasn’t happening?

Perhaps if those in charge at the Post Office and Fujitsu had asked themselves and their comms and people teams those questions all those years ago, very different corporate cultures may have developed. Perhaps, this decades-old disaster could have been avoided.