The Canary Wharf bosses who avoided quarantining highlight the dangerous tendency of leaders to behave as the exception to their own rules © Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

As early as May, Canary Wharf, the skyscraping hub of London’s financial district, was drafting intricate plans to make the area safe for 125,000 workers to return to their offices.

In July, Howard Dawber, managing director for strategy at Canary Wharf Group, said it was “ready for large numbers to come back”, while following government guidelines.

He and his boss Shobi Khan, the estate’s chief executive, got their comeuppance last week, with the news that they had avoided quarantining after trips overseas last month.

There may be mitigating circumstances. Mr Dawber lives in Spain and may be covered by an odd exemption in government rules for workers commuting regularly to the UK from abroad.

But the executives’ actions speak to a wider problem: the dangerous tendency of leaders to behave as though they are the exception to their own rules.

UK premier Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings set the tone in the depths of lockdown when he broke the spirit, if not the letter, of the government’s strict rules with a family round-trip from London to Durham.

Mr Cummings’ “do what I say, not what I do” attitude was the smirking subtext undermining Mr Johnson’s address to the nation last week, in which the prime minister U-turned on his earlier advice to workers to return to the workplace. He announced tougher penalties, backed by the police and even the military, for breaching the rules, his threats escalating even as his government’s moral authority ebbs.

Britons are not saintly by any means. Between March and August, only 11 per cent of people who had been in contact with a Covid-infected person quarantined, and fewer than a fifth of those who had symptoms self-isolated, according to a new study by King’s College London.

That reflects a heedlessness that also permeates business. The Institute of Business Ethics conducted a survey of eight European countries in 2018 that suggested 19 per cent of managers were happy with a bit of petty fiddling as long as their projects were delivered to deadline and budget, and 13 per cent would tolerate inflating profits as long as no money was stolen.

Such ethical laxity is not new, either. Confronted with dodgy financier Augustus Melmotte’s dishonesty in Anthony Trollope’s timeless 1875 satire The Way We Live Now, an admirer responds: “Such a man rises above honesty, as a great general rises above humanity when he sacrifices an army to conquer a nation. Such greatness is incompatible with small scruples. A pygmy man is stopped by a little ditch, but a giant stalks over the rivers.”

We were already living through an era of truth-shading, corner-cutting and worse when the pandemic hit. Ian Peters, director of the Institute for Business Ethics, links leaders’ demonstrations to scandals such as Volkswagen’s cheating of emissions tests or Enron’s flagrant off-the-books financing, calling it a “societal issue, not just a business issue”.

Others, though, may equate quarantine-dodging with stationery-rustling. They may even respond to Mr Johnson’s dog-whistle to “freedom-loving” Britons by asserting that Canary Wharf’s high-ups were exercising judgment about risks that are hard to assess.

Such a defence is dangerous, though. Apparently trivial rule-bending can signal wider cultural rottenness. Managers’ behaviour amplifies through their teams.

In one study of Fortune 100 companies, Eugene Soltes of Harvard Business School, found that when managers misbehaved, their subordinates were six times more likely to engage in the same violation in the coming year. “What your immediate manager does, whether it aligns with the CEO or not, is what you do,” he says.

As the pandemic drags on, there will be plenty more tests of Covid code compliance. The history of business ethics suggests more companies will face the dilemma of whether they should take action against stars, rainmakers and high-profile executives who chafe against the constraints. Companies should act, if only because the example set by “great generals” is more powerful than any code. Data collected by Gartner shows more than half of misconduct goes unreported by staff.

In that sense, the more worrying part of the Canary Wharf news was the allegation that staff complaints about executives’ quarantine-busting were ignored. As Prof Soltes told me, when violations are allowed to slide by without consequences, staff respect for their leaders can quickly break down. At a time when the cultural ties binding remote-working teams are looser than ever, that mutual trust is something organisations can ill-afford to squander.

Twitter: @andrewtghill

Letter in response to this article:

An old hand’s warning on governance rules / From Professor Jeffrey Ridley, London South Bank University, Lincoln, Lincolnshire, UK

Get alerts on Leadership when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article