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Comment: I am more important than you

By ACCA regional head of policy for Europe and the Americas Nick Jeffrey


Those of us who visit or work in London recognise it is a busy place. Vehicles - cars, vans, lorries, buses, trains, underground, taxis, helicopters, even boats on the River Thames. People - workers, tourists, students, children at school, pensioners at leisure. And increasingly: cyclists.

Transport, services and facilities all seem to be running at or over capacity.

To help with traffic flow there are signs galore. Green for go, red for stop. Orange for “hold up” or “hurry up” or as I witnessed this morning “rev your engine to see if that person with a heavy bag nearly across the road can move faster because this white van driver is very important and very busy and needs to join the back of that traffic jam 10 yards ahead immediately”.

To help with people flow there are signs too. Green for go, red for stop. At busy junctions a very helpful New York style orange countdown clock telling you how long you have left to reach the far pavement (Ed: For American readers: sidewalk) before you risk indignant horn bleeping for example from busy and important white van drivers.

On the underground (metro) there are signs for passengers too. General convention on the escalators is to stand on the right, and if you wish to gain a few seconds walk down on the left. If you are walking on the underground, general convention is to walk on the left, thereby broadly maintaining a flow of people walking in the same direction.

I say broadly maintain, because this morning at my regular station I witnessed another example of disappointing human behaviour. I and many fellow potential passengers were walking towards the platforms, and at the same time many recently ex passengers were walking away from the platforms towards the escalators. Everyone on the left. Everyone that is except one man. He was taking the admittedly shorter route, walking on the right, against the flow of people. One person called out “please walk on the left” [and in our minds we on the left all added: “…you idiot” - to be fair, the Please Walk on the Left signs are prominent in that station]. But no. No apology. A firm jaw. A steely look. A slightly aggressive stride. The occasional elbow. Forcing his way against the tide, causing us all to push even closer together to allow him to pass. And in our very British way, shake our heads, and get on our way.

Thinking about this man on the tube reminded me of a former work colleague. They had sent a client an engagement letter. A good start. But they had omitted to use the firm’s engagement letter template and had instead used their own cobbled together version. Not good. When during internal control procedures my colleague was asked about it they said:  “the standard letter is too long, my client doesn’t understand it, I am an experienced person, this is better”.

There were all sorts of rules, controls, and training around engagement letters. Those rules were mandatory, written in stone, drummed into staff from induction onwards. Videos of horror stories - when something goes wrong - about the personal and corporate risks and consequences for getting it wrong. Editing standard text had to be pre-approved. Everybody knew this. Everybody.

And yet, in spite of all the professional signs pointing to the left, in spite of his professional background, training, working environment, my former colleague acted as they did anyway and walked on the right. Against the professional flow. Because they knew best. Because their need for a short engagement letter trumped everything the firm said and did on engagement letters.

Think about that for a minute. If they acted this way with the engagement letter, maybe they acted in a similar way when it came to a dispute over a technical issue, a client request to let something pass, or inappropriate behaviour that should have been reported but maybe was ignored.

Writing this I am shaking my head.

Back to white van drivers and tube passengers who act as though their needs or laziness warrant abuse or inconvenience for the rest of us. The old saying seems apt: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Friends, colleagues and family have their own stories where they have witnessed bad behaviour that makes them shake their heads. Like feeding the animals right next to the sign that say: Please don’t feed the animals. I am assured it isn’t just me being grumpy in the mornings. But I am beginning to wonder.

You can put all the controls in place that you like, but ultimately doing the right thing at the right time often comes down to personal behaviour. Ethics starts with me.

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