Drawing the Line: Organisational Tolerance for Personal Misconduct

The line that separates our personal lives and our professional lives seem to blur further as the years roll on. The workforce of today is a flexible entity that readily brings their work into their home, with many of us responding to emails late at night, at weekends or even on annual leave. This line gets even more undefinable when it comes to personal misconduct, outside of working hours, and the implications it has on employers.

Even drawing the line to quantify what amounts to personal misconduct is not a simple venture. It’s an emotive topic that can be difficult to anticipate and highly visible to the public. The nature of your organisation and the industry in which you operate within can only offer context when establishing what your business is willing to tolerate and what it is not.

Personal misconduct might not factor into an organisation’s crisis management plan, but to ignore the issue would be to ignore a topic that keeps many management teams up at night. As Melissa Agnes discusses in her excellent blog on the topic last year, even the best and the brightest of your employees are not immune to involvement in an accident or lapse of judgement – involvement that can launch your company into the glare of an unflattering spotlight at the drop of a hat.

In a comparable situation of negative press, could your organisation find a way to persevere with minimal loss of reputation?

Navigating a Tricky Subject

Let’s look at a recent example of how personal misconduct can be a tricky subject to navigate for an organisation: one that is perhaps more morally ambiguous than hedge fund managers spending $20m on a weekend pool party, or the alleged sexual misconduct of Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent reports of several other high-profile incidents in a similar vein.

Earlier this month, the BBC wrote a report on a decision to terminate the employment of a residential care home manager in December of 2015 and the aftermath of the decision. The manager, Rachel Burns, was a keen amateur singer who had organised music evenings for the residents and staff on a regular basis. After posting a photograph of herself and some consenting residents at an event on her personal Facebook page, she was disciplined and subsequently dismissed due to four breaches of Surrey County Council policy.

There are several aspects to this crisis that are worth analysing, all of which can be extrapolated beyond the example:

  • Rachel had worked at the care home for 21 years, and this was her first breach of policy. She accepted full responsibility for the incident.

  • She was reportedly a well-liked, established member of the team, who’d helped create a culture and atmosphere of entertainment and fun in a potentially challenging work environment.

  • As a residential home manager, Rachel was likely a public-facing employee who had established a positive rapport with both residents and their families. In addition, as a senior manager in the organisation, her immediate absence may well have caused a drop in output or created capability gaps within the team.

These factors are perhaps not something that your organisation’s ‘line in the sand’ considers in discussions around tolerance for personal misconduct, but highlight the likely emotional challenges of implementing the decision to discipline or terminate an employee in this scenario. The fallout of this decision with regards to output and reputation is something that could – and should – be considered as part of your crisis management and business continuity planning.


So how does an organisation respond effectively to a personal misconduct scenario? What measures can an organisation take to mitigate the damage done to both its output and its reputation in the wake of it?


Through the Crisis Management Lens

From a crisis management perspective, both the example of Rachel Burns vs Surrey County Council and the scenario as a concept offer key considerations surrounding how an organisation could respond, notably surrounding crisis communication. Rachel’s story is now appearing in national press and radio outlets. In this event, it was discovered that Surrey County Council attempted a settlement offer of less than a sixth of Rachel’s salary, which only materialised after approximately 9 months of court proceedings, as well as only allowing her two working days to consider the choice presented to her after her disciplinary hearing. In a comparable situation of negative press, could your organisation find a way to persevere with minimal loss of reputation?

As a further consideration: have the decision makers in your organisation discussed the fallout of a personal misconduct incident at all? Part of effective crisis management is considering every conceivable crisis and constructing plans that are flexible, yet offer a unified, guided approach under stress. Although the number of ways an employee can breach your company’s ethics, policy or expectations are perhaps infinite, considering the event of a summary dismissal and discussing how your intended response works within your current crisis management framework may yield some interesting and valuable insights.

Business Continuity Considerations

From a business continuity perspective, the scenario relates to one of the four key loss scenarios all businesses should consider: a sudden loss of personnel. While a departmental business continuity plan would provide an organisation with an excellent chance of minimising disruption, there is a five-minute fix that can yield positive results.

Consider this: as an employee, have you ever started a job with a clear role description, only for it to morph over time and for you to be given extra responsibilities? Now, can you be sure that your job description was immediately amended to reflect the extra facets of your role?

In many organisations, the job descriptions for each role are only updated in the event of requiring it to advertise for a position. Inevitably, as roles change around organisation demands, individual skillsets and potentially legislative requirements, certain day-to-day tasks could be omitted. It can be as seemingly inconsequential as the responsibility of room booking – or as potentially devastating as a key member of your senior management team, whose responsibilities have changed dramatically after a large-scale merger. In either eventuality, taking five minutes a month to update an employee’s job description can make a massive difference in reducing the disruption a sudden loss of personnel can cause.

Beyond Job Descriptions

As a final thought: beyond updating job descriptions and designing sound business continuity plans, the embedding of company ethos and expectations is a responsibility that lies with the executive leadership team. By effectively informing and integrating a sense of what is expected of the workforce within your employees, you can take a proactive measure to reduce the likelihood of the incident occurring – even if you cannot eliminate it.

While the navigating of an issue as sensitive as personal misconduct can be difficult at best and potentially the death of your business and personal reputation at worst, having at least an understanding of how your organisation can respond could make all the difference. If you want to speak more about how to manage a challenging scenario such as this effectively, please get in touch with us at enquiries@inverroy.com, or follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn for news and updates.