Damien Venuto: The section in the MediaWorks report that will make executives squirm

OPINION

The entire report from Maria Dew on MediaWorks offers a harrowing look at the cultural issues that have plagued that business, but I think one section, in particular, will make executives feel particularly uncomfortable no matter where they’re sitting now.

Writing in the context of an allegation of sexual misconduct at a promotional event, Dew says the company’s response was “poorly managed, with serious consequences for the young female”.

The lack of host responsibility, communication around behaviour beforehand, the way the complaint was handled, the lack of expertise of the MediaWorks People and Culture team, and the lack of support for the complainant were all cited as examples.

“The failings … are not of just one individual but a collective responsibility of the senior management team involved,” Dew says.

“The CEO and ultimately the Board at the time, all had some involvement in the decision making.

“The poor management of this incident, in the face of staff knowledge of the issues has damaged trust and confidence in the leadership of MediaWorks.”

None of the current or former executives apart from Cam Wallace have publicly made their views on the matter heard thus far.

Wallace has rightly been praised for being an executive who had the guts to conduct an in-depth analysis of the culture that enabled the level of wrongdoing.

But the scrutiny shouldn’t stop with him. And, in my opinion, he shouldn’t be the last person to front up and give a formal apology.

Wallace has done the right thing, ethically, to commission the report, but it was also a smart political decision.

As the new boss, Wallace knows that his entire reputation as a corporate leader hangs on what he does now. He could never be blamed for what came before, given that none of it happened under his watch.

As a corollary, executives who have been serving at MediaWorks for a number of years are essentially firmly in the spotlight of an independent review.

This perhaps explains why these types of extensive internal reviews are so rare. Perhaps if this sort of review was done sooner, these sorts of issues may have come to light much earlier and could have been dealt with internally.

The implications of Dew’s stark criticism should reverberate across corporate New Zealand, sending a warning to executives.

The risk, however, is that it may cause those executives to put up walls in an ongoing attempt to conceal the rot that festers within. Or that they fall victim to the old self-deception that things like that could never happen under their watch.

The thing with cultural problems within businesses is that they rarely manifest as random acts. Instead, there’s incremental acceptance of behaviour over time.

Radio personalities, in particular, are often encouraged to spark controversy. Outrageous antics have long been seen as key to achieving ratings success.

So, what you have over years is a little concession here and a little concession there. Someone pushes the bounds and it’s just another case of “boys will be boys”.

Behaving with impunity is learned behaviour that takes years and years to shape. And this makes it all the more difficult to change. I think it also stretches the impact of the potential wrongdoing far further than the confines of any internal cultural report.

The slow growth of this cultural rot is then perpetuated by hiring practices that empower the creators of culture to hire applicants “who are a cultural fit” for the business.

What does it even mean in organisations like those described in Dew’s report? And what does that mean for young workers desperate to get a foot in the door in highly competitive industries? To be a cultural fit, what might you have to endure?

Dew’s report might mark the beginning of the end for cultural rot at MediaWorks, but it should also be the start of a serious conversation across the rest of corporate New Zealand.

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