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Klaus vom Hofe

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Columbo and the open culture at Deutsche Telekom

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Do you know Inspector Columbo from the TV series of the same name from the sixties and seventies? What's so special about him? He asked critical questions in the most charming manner and almost casually. This blog tells you why this is also important in the day-to-day life of a company.

Inspector Columbo

Frankfurt (Oder) in Brandenburg, Germany, on the border to Poland is one of 45 locations of our Customer Service. This is where I am sitting in a meeting room with nine team leaders and our trainer. We are on first-name terms with each other and, as always, there is a flip chart and a beamer. We joke a lot about our circle of chairs – a rather unusual sitting arrangement at work. The atmosphere is relaxed and easy, which is just as well, given the not so easy topic we are about to discuss. The training is called "Speak Up!" It means that we should talk about things that go wrong in our daily work – whenever we notice someone behaving improperly or breaching rules, whether in Procurement, at a Telekom Shop, at the office, or on the hotline. This applies to anything from nepotism to seeking personal gains and corruption, but also to mobbing or embezzlement. So I think that means any situation where my gut feeling tells me that something is not quite right.  We are not only talking about issues concerning compliance here. Speak Up also applies to situations where a co-worker speaks too loudly on the phone in the open-plan office, or when the new colleague never greets you, or when your pot of yogurt disappears from the office fridge, and so on and so forth.

Big crises can start small

But: speaking up? Discussing awkward issues with colleagues or the boss? That's not always easy. Especially in companies, with their intrinsic hierarchical structure. I know which side my bread is buttered on and I want to stay in this place for a long time to come. I learn that this training is meant to encourage me. It's been held around 120 times in Germany so far – in various places and many different Deutsche Telekom departments. A total of over 2,000 colleagues have attended the workshops already. All this has been organized by our Compliance department . We want to develop an open and transparent corporate culture, so the colleagues from Compliance. Big crises can start small. Therefore: Something like "dieselgate" should never stand a chance – intervene early if something looks like it's going off the rails. Deutsche Telekom must have a clean record, and be known for it. 

The magic word is: "open and transparent corporate culture." Of course, where people are open and honest with each other there is no room for transgression. But the term is vague and difficult to grasp. The same applies to the fictional, but nevertheless realistic scenarios that we discuss. Where and when is Deutsche Telekom's reputation at stake? In Procurement perhaps, where a former employee of company "XYZ" is now negotiating agreements with precisely that company and his team maintains personal contacts with the very same company? Or in the shop, where three iPhones disappeared from the storeroom and, as the shop manager informs us about the incident, a colleague winks tellingly at me? So what should we do?

Two points that offer immediate help for everyone 

Why do we have to talk about such topics in the first place? The answer is simple. Where people work, mistakes are made. Deutsche Telekom has more than 100,000 staff in Germany alone – it's like an entire city. It makes perfect sense then to develop a shared and also preventive understanding.

According to Wolf, our trainer, two things are important here: 

  • Get ready for the worst case! How do I raise the issues? Who may be able to help and who are my allies? Plus: What are the reporting channels? For us employees at Deutsche Telekom, for example, one of the ports of call which we can use – anonymously or not – is the whistleblower portal "Tell me!" And there is also support from Compliance. But most importantly: We should build trust within our own work environment. This is done by giving feedback, both praise and criticism. 

Offering praise is easy, I think. I recently listened to a colleague who explained social media to her co-workers and talked about her experiences with enthusiasm and authenticity in equal measure. I couldn't help but listen to her; and I learned a lot myself. I told her so afterwards. She was happy about my praise. She even posted something about it on her social media channel, which in turn made me happy. I now have an even closer relationship to this colleague, and I am sure that I would find it easier to give her critical feedback as well. This is just an example. I am convinced that praise can help people to be more open and honest with each other in the company.

However, I generally struggle with criticism. I just about manage to talk to someone who, for example, keeps gossiping about a co-worker behind her back. But to go to one's boss because they breached data protection rules? Well, that's a different kettle of fish! Just to give you some examples. 

During the training we all hear about the well-established WWW formula. Perception (German: Wahrnehmung) – Effect (German: Wirkung) – Wish (German: Wunsch). My colleagues from Customer Service are already familiar with it from their work, but for me this second point is new:

  • Finding the right words. Talking promptly and calmly, from the first-person perspective about one's own perception (Wahrnehmung), about the effect (Wirkung) something has on oneself, and about one's whishes (Wünsche). This is how it goes: "I noticed..." – "That had this effect (Wirkung) on me:…" – "What effect (Wirkung) do you think this will have on colleagues/customers?" – "I would wish that…." And all this should be as specific as possible, without generalizations such as "always." Most important here are the questions, which should also be asked from the first-person perspective: "I am not sure, but is this actually allowed?" 

Makes sense to me. We will see how I get on with this in practice. Wolf suggested, by the way, that he would find it even more exciting if I wrote about precisely that. 😉 One thing is clear: The training raises awareness of the repercussions that breaking the rules can have, and it shows us ways in which to make the corporate culture more open. 

Inspector Columbo  is a role model, says the trainer. I love that old TV series. In his role, actor Peter Falk came across as the underdog. He would leave the interview room, only to return a few seconds later: "Just one more thing...". And then – always in the most charming voice – he would come out with the crucial question.

Manuela Mackert, Chief Compliance Officer (CCO), Deutsche Telekom AG

We say no to corruption!

An article by Manuela Mackert, Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) and Head of Group Compliance Management Deutsche Telekom AG.

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