The Human Factor

August 29 2023

In light of recent cases, it is worth exploring why it is hard for people to speak up about concerns and, often, even harder for people to take them seriously. My second column for GRIP below.

How the human factor affects the culture of whistleblowing


Photo by Sammie Chaffin on Unsplash

The only lesson

August 18 2023

7 murdered babies. Attempts to murder 7 more.

A hospital’s reputation in ruins.

(Oh – and another inquiry to report on all the lessons to be learnt. Like the ones not learnt from previous inquiries. Just as these ones won’t be.)

It is not too cynical to say that care for the hospital’s reputation – rather than investigating serious concerns about staff responsible for babies in their care – was almost certainly one of the main reasons why senior NHS managers, many of them trained doctors and nurses, sought over a year to dismiss and disregard repeated concerns and red flags raised by doctors about Lucy Letby, the nurse found guilty of those murders.

They didn’t just ignore them. According to this Panorama report, they warned off the doctors, threatening them with “consequences“, including possible referral to the GMC. A line had apparently been crossed by daring to criticise a nurse described as “nice Lucy“. After two triplets died, duty executive Karen Rees, who refused to take Letby off duty against the wishes of 7 consultant paediatricians, was asked if she would take responsibility for anything that might happen to other babies and replied “yes“. We will learn now, won’t we, what value to place on that “yes“.

Why do senior executives do this? To protect the institution’s reputation is the usual reason. It never works. When you fail to look into concerns when first raised – and it really doesn’t matter which sector you’re in – the NHS, the police, banks, the press, Parliament, the army, the Guides, churches, the Post Office, oh just about anywhere, let’s face it – these are the consequences:

  • A small problem turns into a bloody big crisis.
  • You trash your reputation
  • You lose trust.
  • You’ll be clearing up the mess for years.
  • It will take longer than you can possibly imagine to rebuild that trust. Do not fool yourself into believing that quickly shuffling some people around (even out), some shiny new procedures and training, no matter how brilliant, will do it.

It is not the first time the NHS has got itself into these sorts of difficulties. Its treatment of whistleblowers has long been appalling. Similar events happened – and for many of the same reasons – at the Gosport War Memoral Hospital (see my commentary here on the report issued in June 2018). And that is only one of many. NHS management seems utterly oblivious to The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. The NHS – like the police – is one of those sacred cows that confuses the importance of its function with the importance of the institution and the egos of those running it, focused on their Key Performance Indicators (none of which would have included “murders solved“). This is a fatal flaw, inimical to the establishment of a healthy work culture. Politicians – those available in the foreseeable future anyway – are unwilling or unable to challenge or change this.

There is another reason why senior staff behave like this.


Taking a concern seriously means exercising judgment and taking action. The judgments to be made will be difficult. There is no procedure which can act as a substitute for good judgment. The actions will often be tough. So it is easier – much easier – to do nothing (or the minimum you think you can get away with) and tell those bringing unwelcome news to keep quiet.

Senior staff would do well to remember these words:

All organizations have bad apples but what an organization ….. also has is well paid and exquisitely educated bosses, part of whose job is to spot these bad apples and, if they are spotted, deal with them.”

Who said this? Andy Webb, the BBC journalist, who uncovered the story of how Martin Bashir and Panorama (oh, the irony!) got that interview with Diana, in May 2021. He said about the bosses who failed to do anything about the ethical breach they knew had happened: “It’s my feeling the bosses were not brave enough …. and it prompted the cover up.”

Not brave enough. That’s the only lesson to learn right there.

The Aftermath

August 4 2023

She had to go. You simply cannot have the CEO of a bank unable to understand that if a journalist asks you about a live story involving confidential details about a bank customer, the only possible response is “I can’t talk to you about that.” Especially not when a few days later you will be presenting the bank’s results and, therefore, are currently in possession of price sensitive market information. If you can’t keep quiet about the former, how can you be trusted with the latter?

What is surprising is that despite, according to reports, having two PR firms (one of them with expertise in “crisis management”) advising the CEO and another one advising the bank, this issue appears to have been handled in a somewhat reactive way, lacking in joined-up thinking or any coherent strategy. It might be wise to remember the advice given to intelligence officers: “A matter is of the highest possible importance and so should be handled at the lowest possible level.” This should never have reached the CEO’s desk in the way it did. And once there, handled better, it goes without saying.

Politicians and commentators have, predictably, piled in, most of them ignoring why she had to go and drawing the wrong lessons from what has happened, or the one which most comfortably suits their prejudices and obsessions, often filtered through whether they approve or disapprove of Farage.

  • Kemi Badenoch, the Business Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, sought to remind banks that they must remember free speech and not discriminate on the grounds of political belief. She “hoped” banks would remember this. For the Minister for Equalities not to realise that the Equality Act protects “religious or philosophical belief”, political opinions do not automatically come within this category and it is only in Northern Ireland that public sector bodies (not banks) are under a duty to promote equality of opportunity between people with different political opinions is not encouraging.
  • Other Tories have given the impression that they are only bothered about this because it happened to Mr Farage. Unwise. Ms Rose’s actions would have been foolish were it any bank customer.
  • Farage himself has suggested that there should be a rolling back of AML and PEP requirements.

This would be a mistake. There is always a problem with rules such as these in that the amount of detail and checking needed can make the process so bureaucratic that it is easy to lose sight of what they are for, why this matters and why judgment should never be absent from the process. But ensuring that banks (and other professionals) are not used by bad actors to disguise their actions and give them a wholly undeserved veneer of respectability is essential if Britain’s finance sector is not to become a shady place for shady people, a risk for any significant financial centre.

Importantly, this row is not just or even at all an issue about political beliefs. Banks have obligations to “know their customer” – something considerably more than simply recording their name and address. Anti-Money Laundering rules are onerous, as are those for Politically Exposed Persons. Additionally, banks have to comply with equalities legislation. The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 matters too. Quite considerably, given the various criminal offences banks commit if they fail to comply with it. Balancing all these different legal and regulatory requirements requires a proper understanding of all the relevant rules, overlaid with sound judgment.

Knee-jerk reactions rarely lead to good law, as this article explains more fully. Would that lawmakers understood this basic point.

Above all, banks do need to assess reputational risk – both in relation to who they take on as clients, who they do business with and, critically, how and why they exit them, if their risk appetite changes. This all needs careful consideration and even more careful – and consistent – recording and communication. It is not always easy to get it right. But saying that banks should never take into account the reputation of their customers is as absurd as saying that banks should only take on customers whose political beliefs they approve of.

Farage has also raised the “debanking” issue. Ironically, this might also be described as “inclusivity” – not the woolly-headed I’d like to teach the world to sing version so beloved of organisations thinking that the appearance of goodness is all that is needed to demonstrate their “values” – but the tension caused by having private profit-making companies provide vital services without which it is hard to be a fully functioning or contributing member of society: bank accounts / social media / transport / phones / internet access. If everyone needs these, should companies be obliged to provide them regardless of other considerations? And if not, who should?

If only there were a trusted and competent state-owned organisation which could provide such services, something like …. Oooh, I don’t know …. the Post Office? If only.

Darren Jones, the Business Select Committee’s Chair, inadvertently touched on this when he commented on the selectivity of the government’s concerns. He compared its rush to express dismay about NatWest’s behaviour, a company only 38% of which is owned by the government, compared to its silence over the Post Office – 100% owned. The government would do well to heed him on this.

Others (I’m looking at you, Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor) have suggested that Ms Rose was bullied and treated unfavourably because she is a woman. (She did this in an interview in which she admitted not knowing the full story. The irony of saying this when commenting on a CEO talking about a matter on which she had not been fully briefed was apparently lost on her.) It is an easy to make – but ultimately misdirected – point. What do the careers of Cressida Dick and Dido Harding suggest then?

More seriously, it masks a more important point. Even a competent, highly regarded person can make mistakes, sometimes serious and career-ending ones. Even the most effective CEO can panic in a crisis and make elementary and stupid mistakes. One reason for needing strong and effective governance and staff with good judgment at all levels of an organisation is precisely to minimise the risk of this. Or, bluntly, to protect senior managers from their own foolishness. It can seem unfair that one error, even a “serious error of judgment”, should overshadow an otherwise effective career, as if all the achievements are not put – let alone weighed – in the balance. But this is one of the burdens of leadership. And why leaders are paid as well as they are.

It is possible for someone to do a good job overall but still make the sort of mistake that leads to resignation or sacking. That is an important lesson for all of us. No-one is – or should be thought of or think of themselves – as indispensable. That too is an important – if humbling – lesson.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash