The National Council of The St Vincent de Paul Society recently placed the NSW State Council of the Society under temporary administration. Mr Syd Tutton the Society’s National President took this decision pointing to what he called “over-corporatisation” in NSW, producing a culture poorly suited to ensure that the Society fulfil its primary mission to support the most marginalised members of the community.
The drastic step was taken by the board in response to accusations of bullying by a number of staff over a long period of time (ABC).
According to Mr Tutton, “This is a move to return the Society in NSW to the grassroots members, out of respect for their magnificent dedication to the Mission on the ground to people on the margins. To leave this problem unattended would be a betrayal of who we are and why we exist as a grassroots movement committed to Social Justice.” (St Vinnies).
Does this amount to a claim that “corporate” models are responsible for organisational cultures that encourage bullying? St Vinnies enjoys corporate support for donations and to help raise awareness of their work through events such as the CEO Sleepout. Others claim that financial support along with the application of business principles to ensure efficient use of scarce resources can make a positive contribution to helping marginalised people. However, the problem is widespread. The financial cost of bullying to business in Australia is between $6 and $13 billion per year, according to the Workplace Bullying Project Team at Griffith University.
The Ambulance Service in NSW is another service-based organisation that has been troubled with bullying. A NSW ICAC investigation found that fundamental structural factors of the organisation such as the service’s hierarchical structure, it’s male domination, and history of promotions by favour not merit, were all significant contributors to the problem with the Ambos and any other measures to address bullying that did not change those would not produce lasting results. (SMH)
Both these stories offer important clues for shaping a good organisation. Vinnies’ boss is suggesting that organisational models –”culture” might be another way of looking at the same thing– need to be properly built from the organisation’s main mission. In other words, “one size fits all” does not work. While it is unclear what Mr. Tutton means by “corporatisation” it would be reasonable to suggest that “making money” is still largely the primary mission of most corporations which tends to construct certain sorts of models of operation, structures and ultimately culture. Applying those models, structures and culture to an organisation where services are provided to those who cannot pay for them produces a dangerously incoherent organisation. Disconnection of the organisation’s culture or personality from its primary goal is essentially an issue of its ethics: it has taken its eyes off its own purpose.
The Ambulance Service’s story might suggest that culture and structures can achieve a life of their own, disconnected not only from the organisation’s mission but also from other ethical principles of how people deserve to be treated. Giving people a “fair go” is just as important as “getting the job done”.
Such observations do not necessarily mean that all corporations promote bullying. But they do suggest that there are connections between primary purposes and culture; that those connections are complex and interdependent and finally that too single-minded a focus on outcomes-driven purposes is likely to produce further ethical problems within the organisation.
Bullying is both an ethical and cultural problem. It is a significant indicator that the connections between purposes and culture are not being well-managed.