Speak Up dilemma: A question of reputation – the verdict

All is not what it seems when a Marketing Director joins a firm which appears to be highly rated by its customers


Jess worked in the marketing department of a large bank where she was encouraged to join a professional body. After a number of years she was promoted to team manager and played an integral part in managing digital marketing for the bank during turbulent times. Throughout this period she retained her professional body membership as doing so allowed her to keep up to date with changes and developments in the industry.

She recently made the decision to leave the bank and got a new job as Head of Marketing at Farus, a small financial management advisory company.  Before she accepted the job, Jess researched the company online and was pleased to see that customer reviews were overwhelmingly positive. She therefore accepted the role, relieved to have a job where she can build on the existing good reputation of a company rather than ‘fire-fighting’ problems, as she had previously been doing.
Ambitious targets
Jess has been set ambitious targets by the Marketing Director in order to pass her three-month probation, including maintaining the company’s good online reputation. The previous Head of Marketing, Lesley, had left suddenly, so is not available to give a handover to Jess. As a result, she spends time with the team getting to know how things are done at Farus and trying to get up to speed quickly so that she can meet her targets. She notices that incoming customer complaints are much higher than she expected and rumours are circulating within the team that Lesley had left suddenly because the company has such a poor reputation. This does not marry-up with the research that Jess did before accepting the job and she starts to wonder whether there is something going on that she isn’t aware of.

When going over the team’s budget the next week, she sees that money has been put aside for ‘internet reputation management’. She wonders what this could entail, and so looks through previous invoices that have been allocated to this budget. An invoice from Review Wiper for a large sum of money catches her eye. She looks up Review Wiper online and discovers that it is a company that promises to “improve your business’ reputation”. It does this by pushing good online reviews up the Google search result list, meaning that bad reviews are effectively hidden in later pages of the browser’s search results. Jess searches Google for Farus again and, sure enough, finds a large number of bad reviews on the later pages of search results.

"Your predecessor did whatever was needed to keep this company’s reputation clear and I expect you to do the same"
The next day, when Jess meets with the Marketing Director she shows her what she has discovered. The Marketing Director dismisses Jess’s reservations saying:  “Our CEO is very proud of our good online reputation – and this is an issue in which he takes a personal interest. Your predecessor did whatever was needed to keep this company’s reputation clear and I expect you to do the same. I am sure the subject will come up at your probation review.”
Legal but not honest
Jess leaves the meeting feeling very worried. What Review Wiper does isn’t illegal, but Jess feels quite strongly that it is not honest. As a member of her professional body, she is bound to uphold the principles in a Code of Conduct, which refer to acting with integrity and upholding the highest standards at all times.

However, Jess has been considering giving up her professional membership anyway, so perhaps she should just do so, so that there aren’t any unrealistic obligations placed upon her by her professional body. After all, she has to operate in the real world. She also considers continuing with what Lesley had been doing until her probation period has passed, after which she could take a more drastic stand without worrying as much about losing her job. Jess’s initial research into Farus revealed that the company does have a whistleblowing policy, which states that if a suitable answer isn’t given by your line manager you should report your concern to their manager, which in Jess’ case is the CEO. But she wonders whether that might be blowing the matter out of proportion – perhaps it is common practice for companies to use these kinds of tactics to ensure that good reviews appear first? After all, Review Wiper would not exist if there was not a demand for its services.

Jess struggles with deciding what the right thing to do is and identifies the options that are available to her.


    The CISI verdict

    This dilemma was published in June, with members invited to register their favoured response from four options (shown above) and leave supporting comments in a survey on the CISI website.

    Overall the results from this dilemma are very encouraging. They show that CISI members recognise that taking action, or speaking up, is far better than putting off dealing with the issue for another day, or ignoring it all together. It shows an appetite amongst CISI members to do the right thing, even if doing the right thing is the most difficult option available to them.

    One respondent noted: “Option 4 [reporting to the CEO] is the tough option to take”.

    The member is  correct – reporting to the CEO  the company practice of paying ‘Review Wiper’ to bury bad company reviews in the latter pages of online searches, when the Marketing Director has already dismissed Jess’ concern, is a very tough option. It is especially tough as Jess is a new starter, trying to enhance her career in a more senior position with new responsibilities.

    However, overwhelmingly (85% of 62) respondents said that this was the course of action they would advise Jess to take.

    Just 2% of respondents said they would advise Jess to give up her professional membership, and another 2% said they would advise her to resign (one respondent said “resigning doesn’t solve or address the problem”). Furthermore, only 11% of respondents said they would advise Jess to wait until her probation is over before presenting a strategy to improve customer service and reduce complaints in a responsible way. Another respondent gave their reasons for why this was not the best course of action, saying: “This would mean ignoring the potential issue for several months, which seems wrong to me.”

    The comments were generally concerned about the culture of the company Jess is working for, and suggested that if the culture wasn’t right then she should start looking for a new job. One noted: “If it ends up being a company that she shouldn’t be working for, it is better to find out sooner rather than later.” And another noted that Jess “should. . . worry about the ‘tone from the top’. . . If management are happy to pay to get their online reputation enhanced what else would they be comfortable with doing to move the business along”?

    However, within CISI Integrity at Work and Speak Up presentations, we facilitate some very honest discussions with groups about what would happen if the participants were not just advising someone, but if they actually found themselves in this kind of situation. Some people admit that, if that were the case, they would find it much harder to take the tough option, and would be tempted to take an easier path – which might involve ignoring or putting off the issue.  A good demonstration of the need for Moral Courage.

    Finally, one respondent to this scenario gave some sound  advice to ‘Jess’ which can be applied in many scenarios and the key points of which may be summarised as:

    • raise the matter in writing
    • state the established facts
    • provide clear evidence
    • keep contemporaneous notes of meetings during which the issue is discussed
    • make constructive suggestions.

    If you would like further information regarding Speak Up, or any of the other Integrity offerings from the CISI, please click here.

    Speaking up takes moral courage, but it helps your organisation maintain integrity and supports long-term sustainability. The CISI’s Speak Up initiative aims to help employees speak up about problems with confidence.


    Published: 09 Jul 2015
    • Integrity & Ethics
    • The Review
    • Insight
    • Speak Up
    • reputation
    • dilemma

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