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Partners are in a class of their own. Sitting at the top of the corporate tree they are invariably looked up to.

In general terms climbing to the top of any ladder requires attributes such as professionalism, expertise and competence – along with the ability to bring in new clients and retain existing ones.

Carving out more work from the existing client base is a peculiar skill requiring trusted relationships and the perception of value – on both sides.

What is lacking in these types of assessments however is ethical judgement and leadership.

In a practical sense, there is reason to be concerned when ethical considerations of ‘who gets admitted to the partnership’ are missing.

That’s because society is noticing an uptick of partners in crime.

Increasingly the tone from the top of the professional partnership tree is being tainted by transgression.

Characterised by poor behaviour, low adherence to values and shocking arrogance, more and more partners appear to face disciplinary committees and regulatory prosecution.

In New Zealand, if we look across legal partnerships, there is ample evidence of toxic, predatory and unsatisfactory behaviour. This is behaviour that could have been intercepted but was ignored.

In one case a law firm partner unsuccessfully argued in the courts that being ‘lovestruck’ justified battering the door of a junior employee’s apartment in the aftermath of a sexually charged yet frowned upon dalliance.

In another example that has global implications, there is the disturbing revelation that PwC partners, some 50 plus of them, orchestrated or benefitted from the leak of confidential government documents. Clients with significant tax exposure were subsequently handpicked and groomed for early insight into pending Australian tax law changes.

This unethical and illegal course of action was undertaken to build PWC’s billing pipeline.

For those who were implicated, confidential and improperly obtained documents became the irresistible dangling carrots of supercharged incentives or bonus payments.

None of this poor behaviour stemmed from middle or junior ranks. Alternatively, no one in the partner ranks said anything. Silence became their ally.

Desperate to cling to their status, power and wealth, and as the Australian Tax Office (ATO) noose began to tighten, PWC issued over fifteen thousand claims of legal professional privilege (claims which the Federal Court of Australia later determined were invalid) to try to avoid providing information that would ultimately incriminate those at the core of the maleficience.

All of this points to the reasonable suggestion that throughout this saga the embedding of a speak up culture would likely have been strenuously avoided.

The reason for this is further clarified in the words of Sir Robert Francis who identifies,

“And probably people at that level – of a certain type – find it difficult to let go of control and one of the things about allowing people to speak up is… you’re not entirely in control.”

The need for control is also evident in why external speak up agencies are rarely favoured by ethically questionable partners. In contrast, greater encouragement is needed for those partners with intact reputations to demand and uphold more stringent speak up measures.

According to Craig McFarlane, founder and director of Report it Now®, makers of EthicsPro®, enterprise case management system for employees wanting to speak up, their client base has an unwavering commitment to developing and sustaining an ethical culture.

“There are many indicators of an ethical culture. We know that the companies who engage us are not those that adopt a ‘winning at all cost’ mantra nor are they entities that operate on bluster and reputations that afford them a self-perpetuating status in the business world.”

“In contrast, our clients are dedicated to ensuring they hear and listen to all employee experiences and concerns. They fully understand the value of supporting their entire organisation to do the right thing while recognising that ethical lapses do occur but are better resolved early rather than under courtroom and media glare.”

The key point is that having control by virtue of being ‘at the top’ also means having the power to dilute or disregard the importance of a speak up culture.

Because of course when the spoils of ‘successful’ corporate behaviour are earned through murky but hidden wrongdoing, the risk of a bright young spark undoing it is to be feared.

So does a speak up culture involve risk? Yes, indisputably. If you have gone rogue, or if you are driven by power, status and wealth at all costs, a speak up culture could be your undoing.

So here is the question – for partners only.

When a speak up programme and external speak up agencies aren’t part of the culture you drive, ask yourself: who amongst you is being served by that fact?

Who benefits most when no one speaks up?

Because, when no one speaks up – partners in crime are circling.

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