I’ve heard the terms ‘pub test’ and ‘sniff test’ used quite a bit lately and that had me wondering exactly what these tests are? I know about the COVID-19 test in various formats. What we do know from the latter is that there are false negatives and positives. Do the pub or sniff tests suffer from the same degree of reliability? Of course, the pub test is a political dog whistle suggesting that frequent pub drinkers are casting opinions that if it ain’t good enough for them it just ain’t good enough. The problem with the use of such vox pops is they are pretty blunt. For starters not all people who drink in pubs are of one mind and not all of them have a ‘dog in the manger’ attitude. The most recent outing for the pub test was the departure of Christine Holgate from Australia Post. There’s no better time to conduct my own pub test, especially in the month of November when I’ve decided to have no alcohol in the run up to Christmas!
The other one I’ve heard used lately is a comparison between the public service and the corporate world. The suggestion is that certain behaviours wouldn’t be tolerated any more in the corporate world, so why do they linger in public service? Here I’m referring to the ‘bonk ban’ and most recently the departure of Nine CEO Hugh Marks for having a consensual relationship with someone from his own company.
Here’s why the pressure put on both these individuals was inordinate and why if you don’t deploy nuance to any situation then amplifying the disquiet of the rabble starts to head you in the direction of telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”.
Let’s get to Holgate first. As I understand her situation, she rewarded a small group on her Executive for winning an important contract. Without knowing the particulars of that deal, I do know Holgate has been working hard to ensure Post Offices remain as the lifeblood of smaller communities and a vibrant proposition in larger ones. I know she’s been successful in this by the outpouring of support by hundreds of postmasters who own these small businesses. She didn’t pay her inner circle cash bonuses with the associated super etc. Besides which they are paid pretty well by all accounts anyway. She bought them each a watch. Total cost to the company $19,950 for four watches around $5k each. Not much of a bonus by the scheme of things for top execs. Indeed, had she paid this amount she would probably not have been in trouble with the government but it’s highly likely her executive colleagues would have felt a bit underdone. This was a banking deal where success bonuses are more often in the order of 20 Cartier timepieces by value.
Don’t get me wrong, Holgate has made a few mistakes along the way e.g. the One Nation escapade but I don’t particularly see ‘watchgate’ as one of them. We know from research conducted by Cindy Chan of the University of Toronto that the actual concept of giving a gift rather than the gift itself is what builds relationships. Not only did Holgate not spend much compared to a financial bonus but the gift was accompanied by a handwritten note from Australia Post Chair . Where Holgate could have been a bit more on point was buying an experience rather than a material item. That said if you are going to make it personal a watch, as a piece of utilitarian jewelry, is pretty much as personal as you can get. Next time you are working back late or on weekends when you would rather be with your family and friends when checking what time it is, you get a subtle reminder of just how much you’re doing right now means to your boss. Pretty savvy on the emotional intelligence front but not so politically I guess when the pub test lies in wait.
For me the other issue with ‘watchgate’ is the fact that the Prime Minister intervened in a way that made it inevitable that she would have to leave. The pressure put on her was unedifying. Surely in this day and age, when critical to our nation’s success is the quality of our management, we need to have examples of better practice. Psychological safety is right up there in terms of how we should create positive cultures and mindsets. This means admitting failures, learning and moving on (depends on your prism of course as to whether ‘watchgate’ was a failure or not). Stranger still was the pointed criticism coming from the mouth of Scomo, who did a major mea culpa when his response to the bushfires ravaging Australia was to don an Hawaiian shirt…you know the rest! He was redeemed in much of the public’s eyes and yet Holgate couldn’t enjoy that same generosity of spirit. Scomo’s disastrous handling of the bushfires definitely failed the pub test and was completely tone deaf. He survives, she gets moved on.
And so to the latest scalp of the unforgiving pub test; Hugh Marks. Marks is, or more accurately soon will be, the ex-CEO of Nine which combines Nine media and Fairfax. Two cultures coming together under one media banner. What was not to the liking of those quaffing a VB or XXXX? Well it turns out that Marks started a relationship with one of his colleagues, one Alexi Baker. Of course, nowadays in a more enlightened and transparent corporate climate, such intra-company relationships are more than just frowned upon they are outright employment-ending. The corporate sector has led the way and it’s been said of late that behaviour in Canberra amongst our pollies is unacceptable and that it needs to take a lesson from the Corporate world which had moved on long ago from office trysts. Actually it was America that paved that way and we have almost blindly followed suit. I find an incredible double standard when our public servants are asked to look to the corporate world for moral and ethical leadership. When was the last time a public servant destroyed over 60,000 years of priceless and irreplaceable indigenous heritage a la Rio Tinto and then tried to weasel their way out of it? At least of course there was no bonking after they made that decision! Get a grip sniff testers, the corporate world is not the pantheon of all that is good and righteous.
For Marks, of course as CEO, there are additional factors at play. No asymmetric relationship where there is coercive or just sheer power imbalance in the workplace can be tolerated. Except, and this is where nuance is sadly needed but seldom deployed, this was no such thing. This is no President v intern a la Clinton and Lewinsky, which was surely one of the greatest asymmetric couplings in history. Marks’ love interest, which only commenced after his separation from his wife a year prior, was his fellow C-Suiter, Director of Strategy and Corporate Development Alexi Baker. An immensely capable person by all accounts, it is no surprise that working closely together a special bond was forged. It’s lonely at the top as CEO. With so much time dedicated to the company what other avenues to find a partner are realistically available to Marks? Surely Nine wouldn’t want him bar-hopping or constantly swiping left or right on his mobile phone? Isn’t the happiness and well-being of ourselves and our teams a duty we are increasingly asked to contemplate in the corporate world?
I’m all for ethical and moral approaches in government and corporate corridors but let’s not get spooked by what some faceless people might say could go viral on social media and damage brand. Let’s also acknowledge that a group of people down the pub are not necessarily going to have a ‘chippy’ conversation about what others are benefiting from which they can’t access. It is more likely to be about climate change, how the country might get through in a post COVID world, where we might next go on holiday, when might we be able to go on holiday (even), how to raise the kids to be safe and happy, how to have a good retirement, how to be safe at work and when might (if ever) the Broncos return to their former glory! I’m saying that those who cite the pub test or sniff test rarely set foot inside such establishments. So lets all chill, be less judgmental and leave the sniping to others. Next time you quote the sniff test just be wary it’s not smelling salts! Perhaps in the future we need to be handing out moral compasses rather than worrying about a few Cartier watches…