At Work: Law and Governance - Best practice - It's not really on to spy on your board

Tesse Akpeki, an independent governance consultant

A recent corporate scandal at board level holds valuable lessons for voluntary organisations.

In the post-Enron era, when boards are being held more accountable and face intense scrutiny and increased pressure, another governance soap opera has emerged in the corporate world.

The recent events at the computer and printer manufacturer HP happened in another sector, but could still hold valuable lessons for charities and voluntary organisations. The storyline centres on HP's board of directors allegedly spying on its own members in an attempt to find the source of damaging leaks to the media.

An investigation to find the person responsible for the leaks allegedly involved tracing the phone records of HP staff and journalists without their permission.

The fracas resulted in the resignation of chairwoman Patricia Dunn. She will face charges of identity theft, conspiracy and unauthorised access to computer data at a hearing in California in November. She denies the allegations, saying she was unaware of the tactics used by the investigators.

One of the company's non-executive directors, George Keyworth, has been banned from renewing his position on the board after the investigation identified him as the source of the leaks.

As a result, Mike Hurd will become both chief executive and chair of the company. According to an Associated Press report, governance experts are wondering about the wisdom of consolidating so much power in the hands of one person.

So what, if any, are the parallels for the voluntary and community sector?

Chair and chief executive succession are very difficult issues to address, but succession planning is needed to attract talent and to develop sound governance and good leadership.

Don't let sores fester

Difficulties in this area need to be addressed openly because sores fester.

Whatever the intentions, underhand techniques can backfire. The end does not always justify the means.

Tensions often exist between the new and old brigades on most boards. A good board climate enables diverse perspectives to be shared through healthy debate and discussion, leading to greater board engagement.

Some board members may feel they are above codes of conduct. An interesting survey indicated that 70 per cent of codes are not implemented. For continued excellence, the implementation of codes is a must.

The spying scandal occurred at a time when HP was enjoying a strong performance, boosted by a gain in market share for computer hardware. It's really unfortunate that this was not the only reason it hit the media spotlight.

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