The End of Being Servile: The Savile Inquiry & The Lessons for All of Us

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The extent to which rumour, gossip and speculation can rise within an organisation, from those on the ‘frontline’ to those in the C-suite, was one of the fundamental questions posed by Dame Janet Smith’s Savile Inquiry.

One of the others, perhaps the most pressing, the most legitimate as Lord Hall, I thought very eloquently, put it, is “How could people not have known?”

Having read the report (and I do take a breath here to praise Dame Janet Smith on creating a document uncluttered by jargon, ‘speak’ or laboured sentence structures – its clarity and accessibility is a good benchmark for such things), it leaves you incredulous as to how Savile and Hall got away with it and yet, at the same time, for someone of my generation (born in the mid-Seventies), with a strange sense of eery recognition, like deja vu.

I remember the world Dame Janet describes in her smart contextualising sections. I remember those light entertainment shows, all smut and innuendo and end-of-the-pier.

Though unimaginable now, it’s not hard to understand how different the sexual mores of the time were when you think that Benny Hill chasing around after scantily clad girls with his tongue hanging out was early evening entertainment for all the family (by the Nineties, you had to stay up until after the pubs closed for Eurotrash to get pretty much the same thing). 

Even as a child I can kind of remember feeling all a bit unsavoury about it. I would have hated to have gone on Jim’ll Fix It; I thought he was a creep and probably would have made me cry. He was scary and strange and unreadable, as it turned out, a way of being he’d effected and perfected in order to enable him to hide in plain sight.

But people adored him (just as they adored other really creepy, lecherous guys like Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris). There’s an interesting section in the report, where Andrew Neill comments on trying to pin Savile down to some facts about his personal life in an interview with an audience present, and sensing how quickly the audience were turning on him (Neill) for pursuing the line of questioning.

It seemed to say something nice about us at the time – that we could accept oddities, people who didn’t live to societal norms and wouldn’t answer to society’s conventional romantic expectations.

The English Eccentric. There were certainly more of them about in the Seventies than now. Now, of course, we know just how unfathomable, and warped, dangerous and damaging, some of those eccentrics’ proclivities were.

Now it just begs the question “How could we not have known?”

What the report also shows is that, though we’ve come no where near as far as we should, we have come quite a way. Or have we just gone a different way? It’s hard to tell.

I think women’s treatment in the workplace is a world away from the ‘pat your behind and make the tea’ attitudes expressed in the report (I’m sure there are pitiful exceptions).

I think the overall safeguarding of children, and our awareness of even the potential of abuse, is significantly improved. This report can, hopefully, only do more to improve on that.

But in one area, depressingly, and most notably for me, was the identification of something that hasn’t really changed at all since the Savile era, clearly within the BBC and, in fact, in the majority of organisations in either the public or private sectors: ‘cultural factors stopped reporting upwards’.

In other words, people are too frightened to speak out about anything at work to the powers that be, for fear of being seen as “radioactive”.

Speak out and there’s the potential you could do more harm to yourself than to rectify a troubling situation of harassment, bullying or misconduct.

You could be seen as anything on a scale from the relatively mild labels of worrier, tattle-tail or gossipmonger, to the more concerning sh*t-stirrer, trouble-maker or whistle-blower (with, now, it’s alarming connotations of Julian Assange and having to hole yourself up in the Ecuadorian Embassy with no sunlight for years at a stretch).

Even if the whistle you’re blowing isn’t loud enough to be heard around the world, you could still end up losing your job, being held back from a promotion, ignored, sidelined or simply shut down.

As the report puts it:

The sense of insecurity which inhibits staff from whistle-blowing is a widespread, longstanding and intractable problem.

But, surely, isn’t it for exactly these kinds of things that we have HR? Aren’t HR there to make sure it isn’t an intractable problem?

Ah, well, therein really hangs the tale – and the lessons to be learned.

As the report puts it:

HR worked for management.

Far from being seen as the department you go to when the ‘human’ dynamics of work become problematic, HR is seen as the department management go to when they either want to get rid of you or chastise you for your behaviour. HR is there to protect management from laying the organisation open to litigation, rather than being there to open up the organisation (or conversation with management) to protect the people.

This is the real shift the BBC can lead on in the aftermath of this damning report. This is the real lesson all organisations can learn from a ‘corporately-enabled’ human tragedy of this scale (and let’s not forget, that is what this is for the victims of these abuses).

People at work need a voice, and HR needs to be the safe place they can go to to express it. I’m not even sure it isn’t time to change the naming, and therefore emphasis, of HR altogether.

For starters, people aren’t just a resource to an organisation, they’re not just the inert bodies Human Resources implies. Every ‘body’, performing as it should, should be an asset. How many times do we hear that – “People are our greatest asset,” – so let’s start thinking about them that way.

You protect your assets. You invest in them. You enhance them. People management is asset management. And, in all of the organisations that have it, asset management is a skill in itself, a function in itself; it isn’t left to other less experienced or qualified people to do it, it’s left to the Asset Managers.

So why do we push people into people management roles as a matter of course without any certainly of their experience or qualification to do it. Time served isn’t a qualification in itself. That’s not to say people with no prior people management experience can’t be great bosses, but, when more people leave their job down to their boss over any other reason, we could draw the conclusion that these people are, indeed, a rare breed.

HR shouldn’t be there to only add value – it should be front and centre, total value, and of value to everyone – to all the people – within an organisation.

In large teams, in large organisations (possibly in small teams in small organisations too), isn’t there an argument to have, on hand, on tap, a ‘people’ expert – someone who can provide wise counsel to individuals, relationship counselling to colleagues at odds, in-function team coaching and cross-functional understanding and collaboration.

Relationship managers, if you will, there to look after the people and promote and protect the culture and to let the (servant?) leaders know what’s really going on – and how close the cultural promise is to the experienced reality.

Wouldn’t that be slicker? Wouldn’t that be more productive? Cost-effective? Take the people management aspects away from middle and senior managers, and let them be ‘task’ managers as befitting their specialist skills.

In most service and creative industries (those most likely to be thriving in the UK), the talent is the only asset (and everyone keeps lamenting it’s impossible to find), so why not look after it? Why continue to let it get cracked and battered about, demotivated and depleted?

Can you really do the best you can do when you’re living each day in fear?

I would surmise that a lot of the time, when people bring their managers a people-related problem, the manager’s seeming, or actual, reluctance to deal with it is because they don’t know how to deal with it. They just want the problem to go away. They want you to go away.

Imagine the difference it would make if you were able to go to someone whose job it was to know how to deal with it? Who, rather than wanting you to go anyway, invited you in?

No talent, however large, luminous or looming, has a licence to abuse those around them. Where is that ever part of the job description?

The BBC has an opportunity to be creative and imaginative, radical, in response to this report. So do others. Policy and procedure can be clearer. Management training and cultural communications can be stronger.

But, to really put people’s best interests centre stage (which is also, as it happens, putting your future commercial sustainability centre stage too), reassessing the role of the people function would be the wisest thing to do.

Failing that, from now on, just give everyone a whistle with their welcome pack.

One thought on “The End of Being Servile: The Savile Inquiry & The Lessons for All of Us

  1. “No talent, however large, luminous or looming, has a licence to abuse those around them. Where is that ever part of the job description?”
    This needs a graphic text so we can pin it & share as a quote.
    Truth right there .


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