Do no harm


I am belatedly listening to Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive Management, Revised Edition. Drucker is the god of management theory, and really stands head and shoulders above most others writing in this field.

I was struck by his assertion that “a responsibility of a manager is to not knowingly do harm.” He observed that “integrity is the one absolute requirement of managers and leaders.” Character is also an essential attribute – and if a manager is seen by subordinate staff to lack either, or both, the result is always destructive. Drucker is a firm believer that a person who fails in a management role should be assigned to an alternative role, including being restored to a previous one.

It is a near universal feature of writing on Inclusion that the role of leaders and managers in fostering a work culture conducive to Inclusion is critical. Drucker makes a vital distinction about managers and leaders. He says managers are part of a leadership team, rather than being seen as leaders themselves. Leadership to Drucker is a far rarer quality than most contemporary commentators prefer to think. People can be in leadership roles, but that doesn’t make them leaders per se.

There is a risk, I believe, that themes that are popular and trending become prone to unsophisticated hype. There are boosters making a living from selling simple versions of quite complex ideas. I have had to refine my ideas about leadership and leaders as I became aware of this. 

Here I want to reflect on this refinement in the context of Drucker’s assertion that “a responsibility of a manager is to not knowingly do harm.”

Not knowingly do harm

The focus word here is ‘knowingly’. It raises a question about what is reasonable to know in the context of doing a manager’s job. We may also ask what is meant by ‘harm’. In fact, before we get into exploring what is reasonable to know, let’s look at what we can reasonably mean by ‘harm’.

Organizations are not keen on being open about the idea of staff being harmed in other than physical ways – and this is usually covered under the heading of Work Health Safety. Psychological harm, which is far more prevalent, isn’t a comfortable topic. This includes exclusion, discrimination, and bullying. These words do describe actions that are harmful in that they can lead to an individual feeling anything on a spectrum from being mildly upset or offended to significant psychological distress. And physical illness will result from prolonged psychological stress.

Workplaces can be stressful for a variety of reasons – fewer staff and higher workload demands as wage budgets are constrained is the one that I hear most often. This isn’t a complaint so much as an observation. There is always a mismatch between demand and resources in a well-run organization. Such a situation can be exacerbated by less than stellar leadership and management.

But we can’t just think in terms of work-related stressors. We must allow that a staff member’s personal life can have its own burden of stresses. This is not to imply these are the result of any failure to self-manage. Life can just dump monumental challenges upon us without warning, or even a soft “excuse me.”

Staff with disability may also have additional stresses related to living with their disability. In short, the burden of stressors any individual staff member may be carrying could be significant – coming from multiple causes.

This applies to staff at all levels of an organization. The risk of psychological harm is always real and operating with that risk is an inherent aspect of leading and managing.

This is where the idea of knowingly causing harm becomes interesting. It includes intentional acts, and negligent acts. What should a staff member, manager, or leader reasonably be expected to know is a harmful action?

What should be known?

Exclusion, discrimination, and bullying are acts that can be perpetrated unintentionally and unconsciously – as well as being intentional and conscious. A defense offered by intentional and conscious actors is that what they did was unintentional and unconscious.

Drucker observes that knowledge workers own the means of production – knowledge. By that he means that a high percentage of staff in modern organizations are there because of their education – they are knowledge workers, whether in a highly skilled professional area, or in more general roles like policy, project, or program officers.

He observes that maintenance of the capacity to be an effective and efficient knowledge worker is the knowledge worker’s responsibility. This is very much the opposite view to what prevails in many Australian public sector organizations. Here, the organization sets the level of knowledge required, and is expected to also provide the means of its maintenance.

The impact of this situation is that there will be a gap between what a staff member ought to know and what an organization can provide. As a result, leaders and managers may plausibly claim that they have not been provided with the knowledge they need to have to prevent them from causing unintentional harm. If the organization accepts this proposition, it can claim that a lack of resources to be applied to learning and development is a plausible reason for staff being inadvertently harmed through the lack of awareness of what constitutes harmful conduct.

This is, of course, complete nonsense.

Knowing isn’t enough

The NSW Department of Customer Service (DCS) has a very good page on its website setting out the details of its Code of Ethics and Conduct. I think it’s fair to say it is one of the best I have seen. So, it’s interesting to see what is and isn’t there.

Under the heading Why we need a Code, we find: “We are all responsible for our own actions. This Code identifies standards of behaviour and direction for all employees and anyone performing work for DCS no matter where or how we are working. It supports us to ask, ‘What is the right thing to do?’ and then to do it.”

Next, we find an exploration of the 4 key words that are a kind of motto for the NSW public sector – Integrity, Trust, Service, and Accountability (ITSA).

Are your actions consistent with the ethical framework? Do a quick assessment by answering these questions:

  • Integrity: Would your colleagues say you have considered the views of all stakeholders and customers and acted in the right way when making decisions, even if it was to your disadvantage?
  • Trust: Would your actions, if they became public, build confidence in DCS and the public sector?
  • Service: Would your customers say that your actions improve the quality of the services they receive?
  • Accountability: Would your Leader and the Secretary say that your actions are in the public interest and comply with the law?

This is good stuff for an organisation focused on serving the community – which should be all public sector agencies. We can go to read (and here I have sampled only a few key points):

In addition to the above responsibilities, all Leaders and SEB 1 and above level employees must also:

  • model ethical, efficient and safe work practices required of all public sector employees
  • be open, honest, respectful and comprehensive in your communication with all employees, including about standards of conduct and behaviour in the workplace
  • ensure equity in employment and a workplace free from discrimination, harassment and bullying

I mean no criticism of the DCS when I say that while what it has produced is very good in many respects, it misses a few key elements. It’s articulation of ITSA is entirely externally focused, and for good reason. But I think it is far too often forgotten that members of staff are community members and stakeholders, so an articulation of ITSA must also have an internal focus. Below is an example I have invented for the sake of this argument.

  • Integrity: Would your colleagues say you have considered the views of all internal stakeholders and acted in the right way when making decisions, even if it was to your disadvantage?
  • Trust: Would your actions, if they became known to your colleagues, managers, and leaders, build confidence in you as a person and as a staff member?
  • Service: Would your colleagues, managers, and leaders say that your actions improve the quality of their experience of the workplace?
  • Accountability: Would your colleagues, managers, and leaders say that your actions support the welfare of staff and comply with the law?

Now, it may be argued that the Code of Conduct generally covers behaviour toward staff. The above select example I provided suggests this is the case. Except (and without inferring any failing on behalf of DCS) that the evidence in the 2021 NSW State of the Sector Report makes it clear that managers and leaders not delivering on their obligations, and efforts to hold them to account are not successful.


I think Drucker’s assertion that knowledge workers are responsible for ensuring their knowledge is current is a powerful idea. However, it is one I think will be very unpopular. He noted that knowledge is constantly evolving and keeping up can be difficult. This is true.

An organization has a responsibility to ensure its staff can work as efficiently as possible by having good quality technology, systems, and policies. But whether the work done is effective depends on the knowledge worker’s skills and how well they are managed.  This includes ensuring a workplace is “free from discrimination, harassment and bullying.” That takes knowledge and skill as well as the character and integrity to follow through on the injunction “must ensure”. Saying a staff member “must ensure” leaves no room to quibble – or so you’d hope, and maybe expect.

Codes of conduct are at the heart of an organisation. At their best they can only enjoin those bound by them to do no intentional harm. They are clear on what conduct that causes harm up to a point. The point of a Code of Conduct is that it is a guide to harmless conduct. Here the harm being considered is chiefly concerned with ethical and reputational standing. Causing personal injury is understandably less of a focus. When it comes to psychological injury, we see well-intentioned injunctions. What is absent is an affirmed commitment to monitoring compliance. 

In short there seems to be a missing component – the organisation’s commitment to ensuring compliance as part of the deal. Since staff sign the Code of Conduct, which they are obliged to read it and understand it. Any breach must be intentional, inadvertent, or negligent. Ignorance can’t be a defence. Work cultures normalise behaviours, and in the absence of active engagement with ensuring compliance a complaint-based form of accountability will not, and cannot, be a substitute.

Our workplaces are changing. New values are being articulated. New obligations are being placed on staff at all levels. And those obligations are not being met to the extent desired. Exclusion, discrimination, and bullying remain unacceptably prevalent. 

The question we must ask is whether those obligations are fairly imposed. Is it fair and reasonable to say a manager or executive must ensure a workplace is free from discrimination, harassment, and bullying? If it is not, we must remove that obligation. If we think it is fair, and we think discrimination, harassment, and bullying cause harm, we must insist that there is accountability when that harm is caused.

All staff (but managers and leaders especially) should ask themselves “Would your colleagues, managers, and leaders say that your actions support the welfare of staff and comply with the law?” No? Then what? This is the singular challenge for an organisation’s culture.

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