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Values aren’t like paintings: Inside the NZ Corrections scandal

Values aren’t like paintings: spectacular fallout happens when companies, corporations or government departments hang their values up and admire them from a distance. Along with such passive engagement comes a total lack of employee guidance and negligible referencing by management.

It opens the gate for ‘just getting the job done’ at the expense of how the job is done. The difference is critical.

Values influence decisions and translate into behavior. And behaviour matters.

Questioning whether an action measures up to societal, business or operational values is a simple test that too few employee are supported in asking.

Take the Department of Corrections most recent crash landing.

‘Gassed in their cells, ‘begging’ for food at Auckland Women’s Prison,’ read the headline. Hardly an example of best practice for a government department charged with keeping communities safe and changing lives.

It seems that Corrections staff, those at the front line at least, knew the practice as cell buster extraction aimed at incapacitating troublesome prisoners and enabling prison guards to bring them out of their cells without fear of resistance.

The practice was part of the culture. It wasn’t questioned nor was it reported. Instead it came to light during the relative protection of a court hearing and a judicious media.

This blog isn’t however about bad behavior in prisons and the prison guard tactics applied to exert control and compliance. It is though, about setting a tone from the top and having the integrity – guts even – to front up and be held accountable against the professional values that are on display.

The Department of Corrections has an integrity unit. It has an internal phone line for reporting. It also has a set of values that start with respect and care.

The disconnect is obvious.

To be clear, the ethical building blocks of values and leadership can ill afford to be lost on New Zealand’s public sector.

Further review of the Department of Corrections values includes ‘Whanau’ and developing supportive relationships , ‘Rangitira ‘ demonstrating leadership and accountability’ the value of ‘Wairua’ spirituality and being unified along with ‘Kaitiaki’ guardianship – being responsive and responsible.

Against these values, the behaviour of the six prison guards equipped with multiple canisters of pepper spray, masks, shields and helmets is a fail.

Corrections, as in many public sector organisations, offers no training to senior or front line staff on what ethics or values mean in practice. There should be.

Corrections provides no dedicated external speak up line. There should be.

External speak up lines such as the New Zealand-owned and operated Report it Now would better enable the concerns of even the most junior prison guard to be heard away from the clearly violent tendencies of the existing hierarchy.

In particularly toxic environments, where power and control can still support ugly backroom punishments, external speak up opportunities and practical workshops that encourages people to tap into their conscience and beliefs – hopefully for a better and fairer society- are essential.

On the other hand, in a different way, some companies have made massive strides in how their values are selected and embedded in the everyday. Choosing language that relates to their employees and patterns of everyday usage offers a freshness and liveliness.

Trade me is an example of this with values that include ‘Hunger like Ed Hilary’, ‘There’s no I in Trade Me,’ – qualified by ‘we get a kick out of achieving things together. We’re united but not afraid to challenge each other’.

But ethical lapses can still occur when least expected and once they are ingrained they can take on a life of their own.

And so it was for the Department of Corrections when some very bad behavior grabbed the headlines.

Lets all hope that Corrections and other companies who are aware of their own stinking examples of poor employee behavior get the message.

Or, perhaps, allow Trade Me’s values to have the final say: ‘Don’t be a dick. After all, your stakeholders are watching and we won’t accept bad behaviour we see’.

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