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I was invited by the BBC to go on Newsnight last week and be interviewed with Gary Walker, an ex-CEO of a Healthcare Trust in the UK who broke a gagging clause in his compromise agreement to speak out about high death rates. 

The full facts have yet to emerge so I am in no position to judge either Gary or the NHS (for what its worth I found Gary to be very pleasant, thoughtful and articulate) but it raised in my mind a series of questions about organisational environments that force people to take such a courageous step as to talk to the media and risk their severance payment, reputation and future career.

As I have said before, while I believe that whistle blowers are courageous people, I also believe that they are not always right. 

In my career I have been all three parties – the Human Resources professional dealing with the accusation, the line manager being accused and the individual being gagged.  I have seen employees bring spurious claims for revenge (Vicky Pryce went to jail last week as a result of her desire to seek revenge on her ex-husband), to deflect criticism from themselves (“it wasn’t me, it was the system”) and where there has been a genuine difference of opinion about key decisions e.g. strategic direction. 

However, I have also seen instances of employees making serious accusations that have been proved to be correct and have worked in organizations which have been prepared to go to court to support a contractor against a permanent employee. 

I have worked with very few of companies or clients that didn’t foster a culture of encouraging employees to speak up when they saw something was wrong.  Even when they believed that the employee was incorrect, the organisation still treated that claim with the respect that it was due because they understand that it took courage to speak out.  Inevitably, how the organisation responded was not only being judged by the employee, it was also being judged by the employee’s colleagues.

In most cases I have been involved in, simply treating an employee’s concerns with respect led to a satisfactory outcome – whether that was a clarification of a misunderstanding, a change in a process or policy, or even an agreement to disagree.  While I know that this is not always the case, I’m sure that this type of thinking is what led Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt last week to insist that creating a culture of ‘openness and transparency’ across the NHS was vital to prevent a repeat of the events at Gary Walker’s NHS Trust.

So how do you change an organisation like the NHS to create a culture of ‘openness and transparency’? 
This is a big question and one that deserves proper attention.  Over the next few weeks I’ll spend more time exploring how organisations such as the NHS can create a culture of openness and transparency, a culture of courage.  Provided of course that more current events don’t divert my attention!

As a teaser however, I can tell that most organisations fail at the first step when they only invest trying to change the ‘organisation’ and the not people within it.