Monday 2 September 2019 5:34 am

When business partners behave badly: How to rein in a shady coworker

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been a great deal of focus on how to tackle the toxic work culture that exists in some industries and businesses. 

Many companies have been pushing for cultural change, motivated by the desire to create inclusive work environments, and limit the reputational and financial damage that can incur as a result of employee bad behaviour.

Take, for example, the decision by Lloyd’s of London to ban people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs from its premises on Lime Street, as a way of tackling the boozy lunch culture that is rife across the insurance industry. 

Cultural shifts like these are usually dictated from above. However, in the professional services industry – where companies typically operate through a partnership model – implementing cultural change can be more challenging, largely because of the lack of a hierarchical relationship that typically exists between an employer and employee.

The high-profile resignations of two senior female KPMG partners following the firm’s investigation of alleged bullying by a senior male partner illustrates the potential reputational fallout and consequences for firms that do not actively manage partner conduct and hold partners accountable. 

Common forms of partner misconduct include sexual harassment, bullying, diversion of business opportunities, breach of confidentiality, and financial misconduct. 

While no firm can completely inoculate itself from misconduct, there needs to be clear expectations on behaviour – putting in place rules and policies that are applicable and tailored to partners, specifying what the firm regards as appropriate and inappropriate conduct. 

Some high-flying partners who bring in lots of money to a business may feel like they are above the rules and immune from being sacked. So in order for these policies to be effective, partners need to understand that a breach of their obligations can have detrimental consequences on their careers, regardless of their position in the firm.

This is why it’s important for everyone in a business to undergo training on the expectations of their role, so that they understand the consequences of misconduct, both for themselves personally and for the firm. 

Behavioural expectations should also ideally be hard-wired into partner incentivisation and progression. For example, rather than just rewarding partners for hitting financial performance targets, consider giving them an incentive to modify their attitudes and behaviour to align with the firm’s culture.  

And yet, policies, training and incentivisation will only go so far – inevitably, there will be some partners who just do not get the message.  

Dealing with problem behaviour by partners who are resistant to change is an absolute imperative for businesses that genuinely wish to foster an inclusive workplace culture. 

In the not too distant past, there was a tendency by management to turn a blind eye to misbehaviour by high-billing “rainmakers”. In the #MeToo era, that is no longer a luxury that professional services firms can afford. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.