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senior executives incompetence

Is it so difficult to assess and address? Senior executive recruiters have also confirmed that there is a significant level of incompetence amongst senior executives. Despite their incompetence, their six-seven figures salaries keep on growing. These recruiters explain that senior executives cover their incompetence asking for a higher salary.Clearly, it is not so illogical, as the message sent to the market is that the executive is very competent, hence, his/her high pay-check. And what happens internally? How can a senior executive cover up his or her incompetence? Well, “Human” Resources (HR) may have something to do. All a senior executive needs to say is that someone in his or her team is underperforming. HR will do the rest. And believe it or not, HR does.

Let’s be clear. I do no think an incompetent senior executive is kept on the role in a simplistic way. The senior executive is kept in his/her role because he/she is of some interest to the company. His/her incompetence may not be the reason why….so? what is it? I have seen cases where the senior executive was covering up a company’s wrongdoing.

And the brave, (or crazy!) people that raised the flag when they saw all this, were ostracised (with “Human” Resources doing their bit too, supporting the senior executive) and not only internally, but externally as well.

Nobody likes a whistleblower,…..yet I hear many voices (e.g : anti-corruption summit in London) asking for anti-corruption measures and other solutions to tackle corruption and create an environment of good governance…..but nobody includes or considers the whistleblowers. Until a safe and encouraging environment  is created, that supports whistleblowers and whistleblowing, good governance will be difficult.

Many corporate scandals have been unveiled by whistleblowers: Olympus by Michael Woodford (he had to defend himself against the charges brought against him by Olympus), Worldcom by Cynthia Cooper, international gold and silver markets prices manipulation by Andrew Maguire, GSK by Cheryl D. Eckard (awarded $96m), UBS AG by Bradley Birkenfeld (awarded $104m),  Astra Zeneca by Jim Wetta, USIS by Blake Percival, HSBC by Everett Stern, Ward Diesel Filter Systems by Ted Siska (received $94,200 in a settlement), PwC by Antoine Deltour (subjected to criminal charges when his revelation prompted discussions on how corporations reduce their tax check), SEC by David Weber (terminated by supposedly unrelated reasons).

This is just a short list.

If interested, see a link below.


From 2010 onwards, the number of whistleblowers has been much reduced, upon this link. Does this mean that corporations, companies, government agencies, behave? I do not think so. They have learned how to better cover up their wrongdoings and how to tackle the whistleblowers. They know that if, instead of reacting immediately against the whistleblowers, they wait some time, to avoid linking the retaliation to the disclosure of information the whistleblower did, it will be difficult for the whistleblower to allege retaliation. Further, if in the meantime, they focus on finding mistakes or poor skills on the whistleblower, then it will be even more difficult for the whistleblower to be trusted in his/her disclosures. If the corporation creates doubts on the whistleblower skills and competence, anything that the whistleblower says will have less weight, as people will not trust someone that has poor skills or is incompetent.

Then, the strategy is clear, a smear campaign against the whistleblower starts as soon as the whistleblower uncovers any wrongdoing (with “Human” Resources full collaboration, against the whistleblower!). This creates a huge stress on the whistleblower, plus it is a threat to him or her on his/her employment. So, the whistleblower faces an internal smear campaign, plus the real threat of losing his/her job, the impact on his/her career and on the chances to find another job (as he/she, will be referred as incompetent or poor performer). Clearly, a whistleblower that is able to cope with all that and still be credible in the wrongdoing he or she is disclosing, is a super hero. How many super heros are there? How many whistleblowers are there? Do we see then a reduction on whistleblowers? Is it any surprising?

Corporations are more savvy now. They are guided by “Human” Resources and legal advisors, who tell them what to do and what not to do.

A whistleblower facing a wrongdoing has never “Human” Resources support, neither a legal advisor.

“Human” Resources role is to secure the company. So they join forces with the senior executive. Besides, in a hierarchical organisation, who is right? The senior executive or the subordinate? It seems positions of power carry out the competency to be always right.

Do not get me wrong. Many positions of power, mainly public positions, are thoroughly scrutinised and any single mistake (nor even a wrongdoing!) is highlighted as if a crime had been committed.

In corporations, internal positions of power are not so scrutinised, rather the opposite. As the senior executive is in a position of power, it is assumed that he/she is always right and doing the right thing. The subordinate, however, is someone to watch carefully in case he/she commits fraud against the company…..for the significant* value of £20 taxi ride.

Once, I was assigned an investigation of an employee that had allegedly claimed undue expenses. This investigation was given the appropriate attention by senior management, HR and all the departments related. Eventually the allegations were true and the employee had claimed undue expenses for an amount equivalent to an average annual salary. The employee had already been terminated.

As a contrast, I was also assigned an investigation on a senior executive that allegedly had colluded with HR and Legal to fabricate documentation to speed up the visa for the spouse of this executive. Eventually, I was told not to do anything on the investigation. The senior executive got promoted. The allegation and investigation vanished from the earth despite the evidence…..

So it seems that having a position of power does help to be considered a honest professional.

How to stop smear campaigns at work? How to ensure that people, irrespective of their position, are protected for raising or flagging wrongdoings? (Be it fraud, corruption, lack of controls…). There are ways. These ways to protect the honest and professional employees indirectly help to highlight the incompetence of others, regardless of the hierarchical level. Watch this space for more information.

Elisa Turullols.

*For the avoidance of doubt, significance in this sentence has an ironic meaning.


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