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Ruthless and bad behaviour at the top of Royal Dutch Shell

Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 00.04.46The foot soldiers, of whom I was one in Shell, often took their leads from what they saw as ruthless and bad behaviour at the top – and, unsurprisingly, sometimes behaved badly themselves.

(Disgraced Shell Chairman Sir Philip Watts shown right)

Article by retired Royal Dutch Shell executive Paddy Briggs.

I received my first monthly pay check from a Shell company back in October 1964. It was for £200 and I was probably a bit overpaid in truth. I started work at seventeen so the not infrequent visits to pubs and wine bars with my new colleagues during those first couple of months before my 18th Birthday were on reflection a bit dodgy. Paddy 1963067The colleagues paid of course understanding that my lowly status as a dogsbody was matched by an appropriately low wage. They were jolly times and though everyone seemed to play hard, especially at long liquid lunches, they worked together quite effectively as well. The team that played together stayed together – and there was a high level of integrity around. At no point during my “induction” months did anyone read out rules to me – and if you had used the term “Mission Statement” people would have thought that you were a Jehovah’s Witness. The rules that mattered were mostly informal – the dress code was fairly tight – dark suits and ties de rigueur.  But the idea that you needed to be told what to do with some “code of behaviour” booklet would not have occurred. And if you were uncertain someone would put you right – the informal organisation was far more important than the formal.

At a corporate level there were fewer rules as well – and far fewer laws. It was not regulation free – but the very prescriptive Health and Safety and other “conduct at work” laws wouldn’t appear for a decade or so. In business life as elsewhere in society there is always a judgment call for Government as to where to regulate and where not to. The curious irony of the past couple of decades is that the more regulation there has been the worse the behaviour! Writing about modern Britain, post Thatcher,  at the beginning of the new century the late Guardian columnist Hugo Young said:

“There turned out to be no such thing as society, at least in the sense we used to understand it. Whether pushing each other off the road, barging past social rivals, beating up rival soccer fans, or idolising wealth as the only measure of virtue, Brits became more unpleasant to be with.”

The unpleasantness that Young refers to I saw in Business as well. Over the latter half of my career with Shell the geniality I saw when I first joined had disappeared. True many of us still had friendly relations with colleagues – especially the ones that we had known a long time. But the Corporate Culture changed. A friend with nearly 30 years service and one who was able and reliable was called into the office one day told to put his company car keys on his boss’s desk and was informed that, as a consequence of a reorganisation,  he was being made redundant immediately. And a year or so after I retired early in 2002 the Chief Executive of Shell, Philip Watts, was marched out of the office building by security staff – he was subsequently investigated by the authorities for misreporting Shell’s hydrocarbon reserves. These two unconnected events told me that the idea that people would “know how to behave” had long since gone. Thatcher diminished the power of the Unions so my friend had no protection from what was effectively a summary dismissal. Watts saw personal advantages accruing to him from his disingenuousness and mendacity and though the system did catch up with him many others I know behaved almost as badly and got away with it. As the regulations increased so did the rewards at the top. When a moderately capable Board Director earns in seven figures then those a tier or two lower in the hierarchy often understandably aspire to have some of the same for themselves.

Greed increased the greater the potential rewards became – and riding roughshod over colleagues to reach the top became the norm not the exception in business life. And when you do that what do you do when you make it? Well Phil Watts, Tony Hayward of BP, Fred Goodwin of RBS and all too many others will tell you. They did not “Do the Right thing” because they had all much earlier rejected the very idea that there was a “Right thing” anyway. The foot soldiers, of whom I was one in Shell, often took their leads from what they saw as ruthless and bad behaviour at the top – and, unsurprisingly, sometimes behaved badly themselves. And if they didn’t and went further actually to challenge the hierarchy then they would rarely succeed. The men at the top looked after themselves. Believe me I tried!


Paddy Briggs worked for Shell for 37 years during the last fifteen of which he was responsible for Communications and Brand and Reputation management in a number of appointments. He was the winner of the “Shell/Economist” writing prize (internal) in 2001. In October 2009 Paddy was elected by the 33,000 Shell Pensioners in the UK to be one of the two Pensioner elected Trustees of the Shell Contributory Pension Fund. Paddy runs the brand consultancy BrandAware ™ .and writes and speaks on brand and reputation matters. He is active as a director of training courses on brand and reputation management.

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