Embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned after a revolt in his own party. While the political repercussions of Johnson’s tenure, especially how it ended, will be felt mostly within the UK, Miller & Chevalier’s Alejandra Montenegro Almonte and Nicole Gökçebay share what compliance and ethics lessons can be gleaned from the ordeal.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation has certainly caused shockwaves in the UK and around the world, but it also teaches important lessons in compliance and ethics.
His abrupt resignation following a series of scandals left many wondering and speculating over why a man that had, only a few weeks prior, survived a vote of no-confidence would step down. The answer, in the end, is really quite simple: Johnson’s Conservative Party lost confidence in his ability to lead.
Scandals like Partygate, where the prime minister attended parties at 10 Downing Street in contravention of Covid-19 protocols set by his own administration — which he denied — resulted in an internal investigation and criminal fines for the prime minister. Then, in the spring, Johnson faced questions over renovations of his residence at 10 Downing Street, which was partially financed by a donor in his own party and resulted in subsequent issuance of a fine by Britain’s Electoral Commission for failure to properly disclose the contribution.
Most recently, Johnson became embroiled in a scandal related to his appointment of Chris Pincher as the Conservative Party’s deputy chief whip in the House of Commons. According to reports, during his tenure, Pincher made unwanted advances to younger male staffers at a party.
He resigned from his position as deputy chief whip, but this was not the first time Pincher’s faced accusations of sexual misconduct. He had been accused of sexual misconduct at least two times prior. The question then became whether at the time of his appointment to deputy chief, Johnson knew of the allegations and of the questions surrounding Pincher’s character.
Johnson denied having knowledge, but representatives for Johnson provided inconsistent messaging regarding his knowledge of the previous allegations. In short order, confirmations of Johnson’s awareness surfaced; specifically that, prior to the appointment, he had been briefed about a complaint of unwanted touching in 2019. And most tellingly, Johnson’s use of the phrase, “Pincher by name, pincher by nature.”
This saga culminated in a historic week for UK politics in which several government officials resigned, leading Johnson to ultimately step down. It has undoubtedly been a consequential summer for UK politics, but four important compliance lessons can be learned from these events.
Integrity is a necessary component of credible and sustainable governance
The common denominator underlying these was a lack of integrity exhibited by Johnson, who found himself repeatedly implicated in situations that made other members of government and lawmakers call into question his credibility and competency to lead.
Dozens of members of Johnson’s government resigned, signaling that they had lost confidence in his leadership. Conduct that calls into question a leader’s honesty and judgment not only creates reputational concerns for an organization but also contributes to an unsustainable environment for internal stakeholders, particularly those that subscribe to higher principles.
Failure to act on allegations of misconduct erodes culture
When organizations do not act on allegations of misconduct, especially against leaders, in a timely manner, they not only allow the misconduct to continue but create an accountability void signaling at best indifference to misconduct and at worst a condonation of it. Failure to act delegitimizes leadership, pushes out employees of integrity and potentially silences other victims of misconduct. Over time, culture is eroded, and misconduct is normalized.
Hiring and promoting someone without regard to their past is risky
The Pincher scandal demonstrates the importance of considering a prospective or existing employee’s past when making hiring or other employment decisions with respect to that individual.
Employment decisions will be critically scrutinized when organizations do not account for past actual or alleged misconduct and can signal to employees that their organization tolerates and will even reward misconduct. Johnson’s failure to meaningfully investigate the 2019 complaint against Pincher resulted both in the continuation of the alleged misconduct and delegitimized his appointment to a more senior role.
Where prospective or existing employees are the subject of allegations, organizations should not only appropriately investigate those allegations but document and take into account findings and remediation when making subsequent employment decisions.
Rules apply to leaders, too
Partygate highlights the importance of ensuring that no one is above the rules, no matter the circumstances, especially senior leaders, who should be standard bearers and working to establish a culture of compliance.
Commitment to compliance at the highest levels of an organization and communication of that commitment to more junior employees is key to nurturing positive morale, accountability and a culture where employees at all ranks are subject to the same rules.
The former prime minister’s lack of transparency regarding the nature of the parties at 10 Downing Street and of his participation in various parties that were in violation of Covid protocols established by his own government chipped at the fabric of his leadership.