When Ethics and Values Became Mere Words at the Post Office

Post Office sign

The Post Office Horizon IT scandal, widely regarded as one of the gravest injustices in British legal history, exposed a profound crisis of ethics at the heart of a trusted institution.

The scandal, which ruined the lives of over 700 sub-postmasters over more than two decades, stemmed from faulty accounting software called Horizon from Japanese IT giant Fujitsu, used in post offices throughout the UK, leading to wrongful accusations, prosecutions and convictions of fraud. Some went to jail, some committed suicide, and livelihoods were completely ruined, but a culture of total denial in the Post Office and among its leadership meant no responsibility for this dreadful scandal touched anyone there or at Fujitsu.

Both organisations have recently made public apologies (Post Office, Fujitsu).

This scandal revealed a profound failure of ethical leadership within the Post Office. Had strong ethical principles been in place and adhered to, much of the crisis could have been prevented or mitigated. Instead, the organisation’s approach demonstrated a disregard for long-term reputational consequences.

At the core of this ethical breakdown was a stark misalignment between proclaimed values and actual behaviour. The organisation’s principles of purpose, trust, care, and pride were betrayed by leadership actions prioritising self-preservation over honesty and accountability.

These are among the many revelations emerging from the public inquiry into the scandal, currently underway in London.

An Echo Chamber of Unethical Decisions

In the latest edition of Management Today, Alastair McCapra, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, writes a keen analysis of recent revelations that illustrate what happens when ethics take a back seat and you get the communication completely wrong. The article anchored the discussion Shel and I had about the scandal in episode 415 of our For Immediate Release podcast, published yesterday.

Perhaps the most glaring ethical failure that McCapra highlights in his article was the deliberate misuse of language. By employing euphemisms like “Horizon-related shortfalls” instead of acknowledging bugs and system errors, Post Office leadership and managers engaged in a form of linguistic deception in their behaviour and their communication that shifted blame onto innocent sub-postmasters.

McCapra highlights leadership’s moral vacuum when the scandal laid bare a critical absence of ethical leadership. Those at the helm failed to uphold moral standards, choosing instead to protect the organisation’s image at the cost of human lives and livelihoods.

The Post Office’s steadfast refusal to be transparent about the Horizon system’s problems revealed a deep-seated ethical flaw. This lack of openness eroded public trust and perpetuated injustice against hundreds of individuals.

And by stubbornly refusing to admit mistakes and take responsibility, the Post Office leadership demonstrated a severe lack of moral courage. This ethical shortcoming impacted all communication, prolonged the suffering of victims and deepened the reputational damage.

When Ethics Vanish, Trust Evaporates

While the Post Office Horizon scandal reveals unwelcome realities of what can happen in organisations at times of crisis, it is not a rare example (although in my eyes it is the most egregious).

In our podcast discussion, Shel and I trawled the net on recent scandals where ethical leadership and communication had recused themselves. Companies that prompted discussion include Volkswagen and ‘dieselgate’, Toyota’s acceleration problem, and Boeing’s 737 Max crisis.

In all cases, reputations are damaged and trust is taken away, fleetingly in some cases. Still, these examples emphasise the disconnect between an organisation’s proclaimed principles and its actions, highlighting the risk of ethical breakdown at times of crisis. And, as we pointed out, if there is no ethical and moral compass to guide leadership – a key role of communicators, we argued – then perhaps a Post Office-style scandal is on your horizon.

You can listen to episode 415 of our podcast right here. If you don’t see the embedded player below, listen on the FIR website.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.