Where a tough decision made for good strategic reasons appears to be at odds with a company’s values, you can be sure that there will be dissent from employees. But if you make sure the decision-making process is transparent, staff will be more likely to understand and respect that decision.

The trouble is that decision-making in business is complex, particularly when times are tough. Do you turn down a project that many people in the firm would prefer not to touch if doing so means you will have to make redundancies? To what extent should you trade your values for short-term security?

Research shows that employees increasingly reject profit as the sole measure of success. They expect their employers to do the ‘right thing’ (albeit that there is inevitably debate about what that means). And if an organisation’s leaders don’t hear their voice, 21st century employees are more prepared than their forebears to look for another job. But what does doing the ‘right thing’ actually mean for a global organisation? How do you consult or seek to reach a consensus?  I suspect the answer is that you can’t, at least not in timescales that work for business leaders.

But all is not lost. First, there are ways in which business leaders can stay in touch with the body of staff. Some firms have forums where staff in the early stages of their careers can make their views known to the leadership. Secondly, I believe that for many difficult decisions the final decision can be less important than the decision-making process and, equally importantly, the extent to which that process is communicated to staff. 

Leaders deciding on a sensitive or controversial project should undertake a careful and balanced analysis of the pros and cons of being involved. They must expect to be accountable upwards (for example to stakeholders and shareholders) and downwards (to staff) for their decision.
A significant negative is the impact on staff of an unpopular decision – we could call this an internal reputation issue. And news of the firm’s involvement in the project will often leak out of the organisation, affecting a firm’s external reputation. That should be factored into the decision too.
Against this must be weighed the pros. These may include retention of staff that, in an extreme case, might otherwise be made redundant. Retaining staff may enable them to be deployed on projects which sit more happily with the body of the firm when business picks up.

Ove Arup was pragmatic. In his key speech, he said that a temporary diversion from the aims of the firm could be justified in some circumstances, provided one did not lose sight of those aims. (The implication is clearly that a permanent diversion is unacceptable).
Most large organisations have a process to review opportunities and threats from a financial and risk perspective. I suggest the decision to proceed with a controversial project needs a similar level of scrutiny and accountability in terms of reputational risk (internal and external). In Arup we are building consideration of reputational risks into our bid review procedures.

The process by which the decision was reached must be clear. And there must be a record that can be shared with staff to show how it was reached. Some people in the firm may still not agree with the decision, but they will be more likely to understand why it was made and respect the reasoning behind it.
Such a process might slow up decision-making. So be it. What is clear is that organisations should not undertake controversial projects lightly and that failure to account to staff will sow the seeds of decline.