News

Hiding in plain sight

July 11 2021

There is always a clue. Sometimes more than one. Often hiding in plain sight, if only others used their eyes.

On Friday, Wayne Couzens, a former Metropolitan Police officer and member of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Squad, authorised to carry a firearm, pleaded guilty to the murder of Sarah Everard earlier this year. He had earlier pleaded guilty to her kidnap and rape. The story of what he did to her is harrowing.

Despite his planning and attempts to cover his tracks, he gave his police mobile number to the firm from which he hired the car he used for the kidnap. That mistake (or arrogance) was what caught him. The number plate was caught on CCTV next to where Sarah was last seen and the telephone numbers were run through the police database. One can only imagine the reaction and shock of those doing that search when they realised that their prime suspect was a serving police officer, moreover one who would have had to go through an enhanced level of vetting for his role and his authority to carry firearms.

Perhaps they should not have been so shocked. Following his arrest, we learnt that a few days earlier he had been caught indecently exposing himself elsewhere in South London. No action was taken and the reasons for this are the subject of a separate police investigation.

This weekend we also learnt that:-

1. He had been accused of indecent exposure six years ago, again with no action being taken.

2. When in the Civil Nuclear Constabulary protecting Sellafield, his nickname among colleagues was “The Rapist” because his behaviour towards women colleagues was so creepy.

It would not be surprising if more were to come out about his behaviour and attitudes. As of now there are 12 police officers in at least two police forces under investigation with regard to what they did or did not do re the investigation and the Everard murder.

There are a number of points worth making, even on the basis of this limited information.

1. It is usually best to avoid hiring wrong’uns into your organization. Or at least try to. An obvious point perhaps but one which is not in practice always taken as seriously as it should be. Keeping someone out is a whole load easier and less time-consuming than trying to get them out later. The refusal to admit a mistake was made, the belief in HR development and appraisals are powerful forces favouring inertia.

2. Checking CVs, due diligence, vetting really matter. Small inconsistencies, missing information, stories which do not add up, which do not correspond with what was said in interview, which are changed are warning signs and should never be ignored. They too often are. Vetting is too often outsourced to juniors far away, too often treated as an administrative step to be completed rather than as a key part of the decision-making process. If someone warns you about a person’s reputation (as happened with a notorious fraudster) don’t ignore it just because you don’t have a procedure to deal with with it. Due diligence is not a paper exercise: it is trying to find out about a person’s character, what they are like when they are not shiny faced and trying to impress you.

Bluntly, if the Met’s enhanced vetting allowed someone like this to hold a firearm and guard Parliamentarians, what is the point of it? Or was it the case that it simply was not done well – or at all?

3. Remember that, whatever sector you are in, you are managing risk. If someone dubious gets past your first line of defence, they’ve learnt that your defences are not great. They’ve learnt how to fool you and get away with it. How seriously do you think they’re going to take your training and your other defence systems? How are you going to manage a risk you don’t even know you have?

4. Don’t ignore the small stuff. Not every person indecently exposing themself goes on to rape and murder. Not every person telling a lie on a CV becomes a fraudster. But can you tell the difference between those who will and those who won’t? And do you want to take the risk of getting it wrong?

Perhaps indecent exposure (a crime) was seen as a bit of a joke? Perhaps creepy behaviour towards women was seen as him simply being a bit of a lad? Maybe the women were seen as unduly sensitive and their concerns downplayed? The police investigations may reveal answers.

But what about the much more common small lie – often handwaved away as “small” and so unimportant, forgetting that it is the fact of lying which matters not what the lie is about? Most of the major fraudsters in recent history lied about seemingly unimportant things at an early stage in their career. Their lies were ignored. They learnt they could lie and get away with it. They did not stop there.

There are always clues. They tell a story. It’s one we should read with care.

 

Photo by Tadas Petrokas on Unsplash

 

The Acid Test

May 30 2021

Who said this, about what and when?

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.”

It could have been said about any number of organizations over the years.

In fact, it was said last week about the BBC. It was said by Andy Webb, the journalist who uncovered the facts about how Martin Bashir got that interview with Diana and the – even worse – scandal of how this was covered up over the years by the BBC.

There is much that is familiar in this story:

  • wrongdoing – in particular, immensely profitable (both financially and reputationally) wrongdoing;
  • a “star” who can seemingly do no wrong and is protected by his bosses;
  • whistleblowers who are ignored or punished;
  • a wholly inadequate initial investigation;
  • an eventual critical external report, continuing reputational and other damage and one hell of a mess to clean up.

As always, it is the response to and cover-up of the initial wrongdoing which causes most problems.

But it was what Andy Webb said next which goes to the heart of the issue of all wrongdoing and the culture change necessary to minimise it and its consequences –

It would have been a huge ask of the Head of a News Division, having recently seen the most famous, the most significant piece of news coverage in the Corporation’s history, having gone round the world, having won prizes and plaudits, how much moral courage do you need to pull the plug on the story …. by saying that it was gained through an egregious ethical breach? Who would have been brave enough to do that? It’s my feeling the bosses were not brave enough to do that and it prompted the cover up.”

This is the acid test. A two-part test, really.

  • When a high earner, a star, a prize winner misbehaves, will the bosses have the moral courage to pull the plug?
  • And are those lower down the pecking order confident that this is what the bosses will always do?

Moral courage is at the heart of professionalism, at the heart of any successful, worthwhile, sustainable culture. It is its absence which so often allows small problems to become big ones. Building, reinforcing and rewarding the courage necessary to take difficult steps, to be open about what you are doing and why are at the heart of any successful culture change programme.

This time the BBC has been found wanting. But how many other organisations can honestly answer yes to both questions?

Photo by Varvara Grabova on Unsplash

Lives Well Lived

September 30 2020

Earlier this year, Richard “Tigger” Hoare died, sadly one of this year’s many Covid fatalities. His Times obituary can be found here. A highly capable banker of the old school, coming from a long-standing banking family who still own the family bank established in 1672, he was proud to state: “I have never minded challenging things, if there is something that needs to be challenged.”  And he meant it too, as the last paragraph of his obituary makes clear –

“When the regulators interviewed the partners 20 years ago, they asked me what I thought was the greatest threat to the bank, and rather foolishly I said, ‘I think you are.’ They were very cross!

Well, even regulators, maybe especially them, need to be challenged now and again.

Sir Harry Evans, journalist and editor of the Sunday Times at a time when investigative journalism rather than clickbait articles was valued, who died last week, was another who understood very well the need to challenge those in authority. During his time as editor he won famous victories over those who tried to stop the publication of diaries by Cabinet Ministers (Richard Crossman) explaining what really goes on in government and those seeking to cover up what was known about the thalidomide drug which caused such misery to so many families.

There is a lovely line in his obituary – “Evans combined technical proficiency with moral passion to an unusual degree.

A combination of technical proficiency, challenge and moral passion: if only we had more people in positions of power and authority of whom this could be said.

 

 

Photo by author.