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How to Survive Relational Corruption at the Workplace

 

Favoritism, Cronyism and Nepotism
Chantal Garnier on Unsplash

If not verbatim, this is as close to what I heard from Mark Schaefer, a top-notch marketing guru and an innovative giant in his field, “Where there can be corruption, there will be corruption.”

Mark tells it like it is. There are more people who choose to be politically correct than being honest, holding preciously to “let’s not rock the boat” pseudo-wisdom until they taste the contaminated water.

There is nothing wrong thinking that people are good. It’s dangerous to believe it despite the red flags.

I agree with Mark. Fully. Where there can be corruption, there will be corruption.

Jose told me he cornered one of his better bosses, Tony near the staircase after an announcement of new measures to arrest corruption. This was a month after a series of investigations and a spate of resignations.

“I told Tony that I disagreed with more PowerPoints, more rules. They only provide the covers, guidelines for the crooks to avoid detection,” Jose recalled.

“I mean how fool-proof is the requirement for multiple quotes? Or using more than one contractor after a certain threshold?” Jose continued.

Jose worked for an off-shore subsidiary of a global cooperation. He urged Tony to consider more ethics dialogues, with focus on site reputation and the negative impact of corruption on further expansion.

“Make it clear that all employees’ future will be affected. Make it clear that the site will be less attractive for future investments if ethics is compromised. There is no need for more rules that can be gamed. Just make it personal. Everybody is responsible and accountable for ethical business practice,” Jose went on.

Just make it personal. Make it a non-negotiable. More dialogues and look out for the red flags they teach at the ethics course. The sudden splurges. The fear of being absent, even when obviously sick. Working in isolation and secrecy. Not doing due diligence. Uncorroborated supplier rating.

Jose continued to display his passion for the subject, “They are a crazy company. Cash rich. They don’t mind paying 5 times to engage a global contractor versus a local contractor. They think global contractors are more ethical. Maybe, the big contractors are not interested in $5K. Maybe those making the decisions have not read Siemens, Airbus, Halliburton or Toshiba. Okay, when your gross margins are north of 70%, you can do that.”

Jose’s rambling was about transactional corruption. Bribery, kickbacks and other corrupt incentives to secure a sale or a business contract.

Transactional corruption hits the pocket and steals opportunities. This article talks to relational corruption at the workplace. Relational corruption hits your heart, or rather your mind, and steals joy.

Have I read or heard people being fired for relational corruption? Yes. Those engaged in unholy fraternalization, insinuating sexual activities. Do people get fired for favoritism, cronyism or nepotism?

Maybe there are, but surely not as frequent as the practices are prevalent. They are usually “below the radar,” mainly, because there is no direct immediate material loss.

The unethical but intentional practices are usually dismissed as poor supervision. That is a lazy conclusion for compromising decisions which usually result in widespread detriment to the company and long-term damage to good employees.

  Such practice usually entails abuse of power for personal gain, goodwill or material. With those two elements involved, it is corruption. For the calibration template, let us use the Transparency.org definition of corruption:                

“We define corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” Use this definition to weigh the following case studies:

Case Study 1: Favoritism

Favoritism, Cronyism and Nepotism
Amy Hirschi on Unsplash


It was early March. Jill felt something was coming. Something good. Steven, her supervisor had just told her that he was hiring someone to help with her workload. It was encouraging news for her. Jill had made a name for herself as the go-to person if you needed help with your work.

She was superfast, accurate and always had the bandwidth. Her latest 360 score was a whopping 95%.

Jill was also a quick learner. In the two years with the organization, she had acquired a working knowledge of all areas and had even mastered some areas beyond her scope.

By mid-April, Sara was hired. Jill was chartered to train and pass part of her portfolio to her. Steven indicated that new assignments were coming. Jill need not worry about her shrinking portfolio.

In addition to training Sara, Steven had asked Jill to train John, her peer in areas of her responsibility. Steven assured Jill that she would take on a new role soon.

John was a known laggard. He was a slow learner and was often late with work. There was a whisper that he managed only 45% for his latest 360. There was an even softer whisper that he was surviving because Steven and he “went a long way.” Just last year, John had bought Steven’s old apartment when Steven needed down payment for his new place.

It was mid-June that Jill was dealt a blow to the guts. From their one-on-one, Jill learnt from Steven that the transfer of the new portfolio had not been approved by top management yet.

What compounded the worry was that Jill and her colleagues noticed that Steven and John had been attending most of the management meetings. Even with Steven’s peer managers within the Division. Prior to June the whole team had participated.

On the 1st of July, Jill was dealt a blow she might not recover fully. Steven announced that John was the new Assistant Manager. Jill and Sara would be in the team that reported to him.

 Case Study 2: Cronyism

Asri was confident he’d get the job. Fresh from taking a separation package, the experienced manager applied for the Operations Manager’s job with the incoming outsourcing contractor.

The interviewing Divisional Manager and the HR Manager of the outsourcing outfit were so impressed with Asri that they almost gave him the job right away. “I’ll make sure my boss; our VP gets to meet you. He’ll love to talk with you, I’m sure,” the Divisional Manager assured.

Asri was always going to be the right candidate. He was an operations manager with the contracting organization. Not only that, he was the go-to person for risk management and emergency preparedness, two strategic expertise required for the new contract.

Service outsourcing was the fad. Asri’s site did not want to be the laggard. With brute management will, they pressed through the major project in record time, allowing the ill prepared contractor to absorb immediately, the staff who they were letting go as justification for the “strategic initiative,” the outsourcing contract.

I know. It takes a few seconds to sink in. Risking everything for FOMO in such a high stakes transformation.

Chit was announced the Operations Manager for the new contract. How did that happen?
Chit was a small-time actor in the organization. Although a peer of Asri, he was never a threat to anyone. Coiled and reserved, he was never a wall you felt you could lean on.

Everyone knew he was carried on the back by Wick, the poker-faced tyrant who was overseeing the contract. Many long serving team members dismissed Chit as snitch and sundry. There was a deep suspicion that he bought trust with betrayal.

People who were intimate with the event shared that Wick intervened, slotting Chit in even though he was not in the shortlist.

Wick, in public was the champion of the contract. He warned all his people not to tell the contractor what to do. Steer clear of the method and process. Don’t talk manpower and frequency. This was an outcome-based contract. Period.

It was a win-WIN arrangement. For the contractor, as long as Wick was the contract master and as long as Chit was with them, nothing could go wrong.

Favoritism, Cronyism and Nepotism
Julian Schultz on Unsplash


Case Study 3: Nepotism

Shan was on the familiarization tour of the sprawling complex. This was his first week as the Operations Manager of the complex. Leading the tour was the bubbly prosperous looking Ahmad, the team leader.

Ahmad had been the right-hand man for six Operations Managers. Shan, the seventh, looked like a seasoned veteran. He had been toughened in a multinational corporation. He’ll be different, thought Ahmad.

Shan looked highly concerned as they were passing the trash depot. “What’s that?” Shan asked.

“Rubbish collection centre,” Ahmad was glad to be of service.

“Why is it so messy? And who’s the guy smoking there? Unacceptable,” Shan was annoyed. “Let’s give them a written warning. They’ll have their contract reviewed if they do not buck up,” Shan was getting angrier.

“Sir. Better not do anything. Just talk nicely to them. Chairman brought in one…” Ahmad advised.

Shan was taken aback. After his "system two" took over, he understood.

Turning the corner, Shan and Ahmad approached the Operations Centre. “They are all waiting there for you sir,” Ahmad offered.

Opening the door, they were greeted by the team. “Hi, before I formally introduce myself, I would like to shake your hands," Shan seemed to have recovered from the trash depot incident.

“Everyone here?” asked Shan.

“Yes, sir except Jason,” Mike, Ahmad’s assistant answered.

“Oh, attending to a customer?” Shan was curious.

“No sir. His smoking time,” Mike answered like it was a mandatory know.

“Chairman’s nephew,” Ahmad clarified.

Walking back to his office, Shan inquired whether the consultants had called back. “No sir. They usually take a long time to respond unless you can get the Chairman to call them. Chairman’s friends,” Ahmad again shared his insight.

At his office, after thanking and praising Ahmad, Shan sat down at his desk. He rubbed his palm across his forehead twice and proceeded to write a resignation letter.

       All the three cases; were there abuse of power? Were there personal gains, material or goodwill? If there were, they should be considered as corruption.

       The deterrent should be equitable to that the company would apply to corruption.

       There are many researches on the issue of favoritism, cronyism and nepotism. My issue with the researches is that the adverse impacts they present only point to employee dissatisfaction, poor performance and, distrust of management and the company.

       Do the companies hurt enough from these adversities? Dissatisfaction from relational corruption would be only confined to those impacted. At most, including other bad management practices, the material loss is about 16%.

Poor performance falls into the performance management cleansing tub. Distrust of management falls into the desired turnover bucket.

What the researchers fail to verify, and I suspect would result, is that those who practice relational corruption will develop the talent and courage to cheat. This acquired capability will spill over to the transactional side.

It is hard to find the emotional balance thinking those who practice favoritism, cronyism and nepotism will steer clear of material corruption, when the opportunities arise.

It is equally hard to dismiss the suggestion that these unethical leaders would be involved in creative engineering or accounting and the massaging of success indicators.

And there is no such thing as less corrupt like there is no such thing as the circle is less round. A corrupt is surely corrupted. There can not be any mitigating factor for corruption. You may measure the  wanton act as corruption with less impact. But not less corrupt.

There is no less corruption. It’s either you’re corrupt or you’re not.

You may spend millions and, do the good thing of making many people rich as consultants. The human spirit has a flexible construct. It’s hard to eliminate treachery but you can reduce the speed and the spread.

Specifically for Case Study 1, I think the ranking and rating process would help a lot for merit award and promotion. However, I must warn that support services must not be ranked and rated with the core business groups such as manufacturing, engineering and R&D if you are in high tech.

Support services must be decided among peer groups with an external facilitator.

The second program I would strongly recommend is for HR to sponsor a monthly documented one on one discussion process between subordinate and supervisor with focus on performance, improvement, growth and development.

Thirdly, I suggest a bi-annual reinterview program by HR. Of course, it would be mad to suggest that everyone is reinterviewed if you have 10,000 employees. Your professional statistician should be able to help get the right sample size.

With the reinterviews, gauge employee satisfaction, focus on personal development to support organization vision and mission, discuss contributions (not performance) such as pride of association, CSR and the general environment, and personal aspiration. This would lead to a discussion of what’s near and dear to the participating employee.

My experience is that paper and online surveys do not work that well. It’s easier to BS when you don’t have to look into the eyes. I have seen behavior management tactics being used to boost up the scores by managers.

Gifts such as ice-cream and colorful novelties have been dispensed before surveys to sweeten and soften disposition of participants. Classroom/examination mode has been used for written surveys with the managers “invigilating.” With the manager walking around, everyone played safe and rated positively.

Case Study 2 reeks of laissez-faire and lack of due diligence. A meaningful grace period should be enforced before an incumbent can be absorbed by the incoming contractor. If the employee is the area expert, then the employee should remain as a member of the transition team.

It is more likely that employees who are released in a downsizing program, are not the ones managers would die to keep. Thus, allowing the contractor to absorb less than stellar employees is expecting poor to mediocre performance.

The argument for allowing the integration of incumbent employees is that the contractor could hit the ground running with ready built experience and expertise. This argument is blind to the more important factors relating to mindset and motivation.

Shan made a wise decision in Case Study 3. It was a take it or leave situation. Shan made the better decision for his reputation and sanity. He was never going to get the authority and autonomy he needed to perform well.

What are the options available to an employee who is victim to relational corruption at the workplace? Only ones that invoke professionalism, purpose and patience.

Keep on keeping on. Keep doing good work. This is contractual with the company, not just your boss. Do not allow your corrupted boss to justify your removal.

Strengthen your base. Find a mentor from a peer department. Don’t gripe. Find ways to contribute to your mentor’s success. Ask for specific coaching. Track your own progress. Recognize your mentor.

Join an industry group. Present at industry seminars. Write papers. Make yourself known.

Join an internal group. Contribute lavishly. Be a go-to person.

Mentor or coach someone. Be known as a success broker.

Help yourself. Book one on ones with your boss. Tell your boss your modest aspiration. Ask the boss to help develop a plan for your growth. Discuss gaps and action plans. Document and send a copy to your boss for regular mutual reviews.

If your boss is not helpful, work it out with your mentor or your T&D specialist. Let your boss know who you are working with.

Favoritism, Cronyism and Nepotism
Michal Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Play poker. Appear to be unmoved by your boss’s choice for promotion. At least do not appear to oppose it. Stay neutral. Stay below the radar. Be patient. People come and go. Your suffering will pay off one day. Research shows that victims of relational corruption will grow to be better bosses.

Gratitude is great attitude. When you complete a project, be generous. Openly share credit. Compliment Purchasing, Finance or the door boy. Anybody who helped. This is a way to make your accomplishments public.

Research shows that the practice of gratitude and random kindness overcome the pain of rejection. Meditation is also found to be a big help in steadying your inner ship. It also helps to clear your cache of hurt.

Document like your life depends on it. In an easy to refer format. Send monthly accomplishment, gaps and help needed report to your boss, colleagues, associates and mentor. Put a copy in the shared drive. Remember, recognize everyone involved in your success.

Don’t leave and don’t leave a bad taste. Unless on your own terms.You don’t leave unless it is for a better job. Don’t leave because of a corrupted boss. What the boss does to you or say about you should be taken like fake news. They are not virtue based.

Try hard for internal positions. Get your mentor’s help to be a reference. Don’t say a thing bad about your boss. Don’t be looked upon as a bad-mouthier. Chances are, there are more people who know the true color of your boss then you expect.

Above all, good luck. Remember, what you are going through is developing you to be a better boss than your boss. I am not conjuring this to make you feel better. This is a research result.

Thanks for reading this article. If you find it helpful, please pass it along.

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