The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Dead Good Culture?

Monday, 1 October 2012

Posted by Simon Smith

What is affecting practices in the funeral industry and how can we improve them?

There has been a deluge of bad publicity for the funeral industry in recent weeks with the two programmes, Dispatches on Channel 4 and Exposure on ITV1. This was at least partly offset by the positive view of funeral directing portrayed in Dead Good Job, but we all cringe to see such awful behaviour and business practices and it is a great shame that the caring and diligent work done by so many is swept aside so easily by things that are wrong within our industry.

It is true that the bad practices were largely exposed in big companies, where the pressures on staff are often greatest to maximise profits and run ‘efficiently’, and where management is further from the daily work being undertaken, but there are lessons that can be learned throughout the sector.

There has been a great deal of sniping and blame within our industry, with funeral staff across the country pointing the finger and being “outraged” and “disgusted” by the behaviour of the staff who were filmed.  And no doubt they have been blamed and dealt with by the companies who employed them, who have been quick to claim these are isolated cases, presumably therefore rendering the management blameless.

I think we need to look at this more constructively and within a broader context. The big companies with outside shareholders and those with external investors such as venture capital companies put tremendous pressure on managers to squeeze the profits, because that is the only thing the investors are interested in. They have no idea what daily work is like and for them the investment is no more than a commodity to be traded in order to yield the highest possible return. Managers get ahead by running the most profitable units and staff, who may want to give families a more caring and time consuming service, fear for their jobs. Those people undertaking too many funerals every week inevitably become de-sensitised and hardened to their work, depersonalise it and protect themselves against the fact of facing your mortality each day, which is an uncomfortable reality of working in funerals. Most are poorly paid and given insufficient support to cope with the pressures and challenges they face. If you are not meeting the families and learning about the person who inhabited the body you are handling, your compassion isn’t being aroused by anything. If you are stressed and under pressure your compassion is supressed.I have worked in corporate culture change, and I have seen how quickly people leave their individual values at the door and take on the corporate ones. I have also worked in venture capital and I know the pressures these investment companies put on the companies to perform financially. The former business owners, who still own a chunk of the shares, stand to lose everything if they don’t meet their targets. They often wish they had remained independent and in charge of their own destinies.

The problems that have been recently highlighted by the TV programmes are systemic and driven by the company culture. Culture is the sum of the beliefs and values of the organisation, which then are translated into systems and behaviour. The beliefs and actions of the top management are followed all the way through the system. When what a manager says is not matched by their actions, staff know this immediately. When we call the company caring and then try and sell the families things they don’t really want, or deny them things that they do want because they aren’t profitable enough, staff feel betrayed. I believe that funeral directing is best suited to small companies because it keeps the work with families close to those making management decisions. At our small funeral directing company we each do everything. So when I am preparing a body, I know the people who love that person, I have heard stories about them. It makes it easy to care and to want to do the job as well as possible. The bigger companies somehow need to keep that ethos.

So in larger companies the management needs to work very hard to foster a genuine caring, compassionate and value-led culture. They need to have a zero tolerance policy not only on the kind of behaviour the programmes have highlighted, but also on the kind of pressure that encourages that behaviour and managers not walking their talk. Managers cannot point at the people below them and say it is their fault. Managers need to walk the floor, get involved in the work and lead by example. This is not just about knowledge and skills, but about attitudes. They need training to develop their own skills and attitudes, thereby passing those onto others. Funeral directing is a very complex and emotionally taxing job, requiring tender skills and an open heart. We are there to help families to create a funeral experience in which they can be involved and which has meaning for them, to provide information and support each family with creativity and improvisation. Each company has to develop a culture that supports these aims, and the systems that support the daily work.

Green Fuse and Chester Pearce Associates have created the Modern Funeral Directing training as a counter culture to the prescriptive style of training and education usually found in this sector. It advocates that attitudes and values are as important as knowledge and skills. It encourages people to think for themselves and to feel valued in their work. Funeral directors in charge of busy funeral homes and branches should consider this type of training and the importance of creating the right culture and attitudes in their companies. It is one way we can change things and avoid a repeat of the kind of behaviour we have seen. The funeral staff are the tip of the iceberg. The underlying problem is much deeper and must be tackled. Just launching an investigation and blaming individuals who have behaved badly is missing the point. Culture is subtle, it is translated into systems and behaviour without fail. What is the culture, the real culture not the nice words in the brochure, of your company? To find that out you need to study your company, what people say and what they do, very carefully.

Simon Smith is a director of Green Fuse Funerals, an independent funeral director and provider of training for Funeral Celebrants and Funeral Directors. Green Fuse was recently jointly awarded Funeral Director Of The Year 2012 by the Good Funeral Guide. He is author of Inner Leadership, and co-author of We Need To Talk About The Funeral. Previous to his funeral career Simon worked in venture capital with Charterhouse and then in leadership development and culture change, working with organisations including AstraZeneca, Parcelforce and parts of the NHS. He holds the Foundation Degree In Funeral Services from Bath University. Green Fuse runs a professional Funeral Celebrant Training and the ground breaking programme Modern Funeral Directing.

For more information visit www.greenfuse.co.uk  or call us on  01803 840779.

7 comments on “Dead Good Culture?

  1. Wednesday 13th March 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Simon,
    Straight to the point Simon, and very true, I have worked for the big corporates, this is to the point and very relavent.

  2. Ken Davis

    Wednesday 10th October 2012 at 12:01 am

    Simon,
    I found your blog very interesting but have to ask how you can be so certain of your description of how larger companies operate ? It seems to me that there are many contributors who are confident in their assertions that managers in big companies do this or that the shareholders demand that.
    Humour me over this but I have said before that i have among my client s some of the big, corporate, co-oppy, Yew holdings, Dignity locations. As the bumbly embalmer who has been around forever, I am often privy to snippets of conversation where people let their guard down,and am sort of accepted as part of the furniture.
    I have to say that I cannot remember any instance where staff may have been pressurised to focus on sales or profit or anything remotely commercial. All I hear from the “Workers”, is a real desire to give good service.
    Simon do you speak with such authority from personal experience of working as a manager in the big companies or are you just speculating ?

  3. Wednesday 3rd October 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Simon, I agree with the sentiment in your blog and training is very important. However the culture of a business big and small can be set and altered by a few strong personalities. To prevent the sort of disrespectful behaviour seen on the programme a zero tolerance or very firm hand should be applied by the managers/team leaders. As for sexist and rascist behaviour – it cannot be allowed to happen in the workplace – if you turn a blind eye you are just as guilty. Low salaries and work pressure do not excuse inappropriate behaviour like that and to suggest it can be dealt with by training alone is too simplistic. It’s a great industry, we can afford and should seek to rid ourselves of biggoted idiots>

  4. Tuesday 2nd October 2012 at 1:17 pm

    Excellent blog Simon. I agree, it is not difficult to lose sight of the business heart and fall into complacency under pressure.

    I am very passionate about producing Life Story video tributes for families and feel it is my duty to employ the same working ethics in every aspect of what I do, showing a little sensitivity and respect.

    The funeral industry is moving on, as documented in Dead Good Job, but posibly it is leaving an ever growing devide between the good and the bad.

    You are absolutely right, something needs to be done through proper training and education, and that is eveyones responsibility.

  5. Tuesday 2nd October 2012 at 11:35 am

    ‘What is the culture, the real culture not the nice words in the brochure, of your company?’
    There are a LOT of lovely people out there working for the big chains and many have maintained a culture of caring despite the pressures placed upon them from above.

  6. Tuesday 2nd October 2012 at 1:35 am

    Brilliant essay. Considered and absolutely spot on. ‘I couldn’t agree more’ which by a quirk of our wonderful language sounds so much more positive than ‘I agree’!
    I hope this post opens up intelligent discussion about what we can actually do to promote consistently higher cultural standards for the profession (because it is a profession) rather than the finger pointing ‘you’re worse than us’ kind of exchanges seen recently aboard the good ship GFG blog, in which we all try to weather the storms of exposure. Let’s pull together then – not sure if we’re the pirates or not…..but, heave ho m’hearties!!

  7. Ed

    Monday 1st October 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Really enjoyed reading that Simon. Excellent insight imo.

Leave a Comment