Israel Folau is one of the greatest rugby players to have ever played for Australia. He has been capped 73 times, is a three-times John Eales medallist and this year he set the record for the most tries scored in super rugby history. He was without a doubt Australia’s star player. He also wasn’t selected to play for his country at this year’s rugby world cup in Japan where the Wallabies were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Engl and, their worst performance ever in a rugby world cup. Why wasn’t Israel Folau selected to play?

The story really gets going in 2018 when in an interview he claimed that gay people would go to “Hell… unless they repent of their sins and turn to God,” in reply to a comment on his Instagram account where he has just under 358 000 followers. Interestingly, Rugby Australia chose not to sanction him, however, it’s believed that he was warned that he was in breach of Rugby Australia’s Inclusion Policy, which actively seeks to protect people of minorities in the game.

At the time, he said that he didn’t want to intentionally hurt people or bring hurt to the game. Rugby Australia said they would use this experience as an opportunity to remind all employees of their obligation to use social media in a respectful way.

Fast forward to April of 2019 and again he posts his strong homophobic views in an Instagram post below. As can be imagined it goes viral, where he receives a lot of support for his views and a lot of criticism.

This time he is defiant and refuses to remove the post after being requested to do so after a meeting with Rugby Australia. The organisation offered him 48 hours to respond to formal “high level” code of conduct breach sanctions, citing him as being in violation of rules that players must “use social media appropriately”, “treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation”, and must not “bring you, your team or rugby into disrepute”.

He failed to do so. A week after he made the post, Rugby Australia stood Folau down from his role and announced its intention to terminate his contract. Shortly after, Folau came out of the woodwork to announce he was going to appeal the decision.

After his failed appeal, Raelene Castle, the chief executive officer of Rugby Australia made the following statement. “This has been an extremely challenging period for rugby. This issue has created an unwanted distraction in an important year for the sport and for the Wallabies team.

“But our message for all rugby fans today is that we need to st and by our values and the qualities of inclusion, passion, integrity, discipline, respect and teamwork”

Castle said that she had been in touch with the players to “make it clear that Rugby Australia fully supports their right to their own beliefs, and nothing has happened to change that.

“But when we’re talking about inclusiveness in our game, we’re talking about respecting differences as well. When we say rugby is a game for all, we mean it.

“People need to feel safe and welcomed in our game regardless of their gender, race, background, religion or sexuality. Israel is a great rugby player and we are disappointed and saddened by the fact that he will not see out his four-year contract and commitment to the Wallabies and also with the Waratahs.”

The ultimate accountability

The action of Rugby Australia to terminate Folau’s contract is the ultimate accountability of corporate culture: The decision to terminate a relationship that adds value to the organization but comes at too high a cost in terms of its impact on your culture. Most frequently the relationship is with a key employee, but it could also be with a customer. In this case, it sent out a clear message to all their employees and rugby followers worldwide, that they would not tolerate discrimination in any form and that there was no place for it in the sport.

If you had to think of your own organization, I would be willing to bet money that there is at least one person that the business has been struggling with for years. This person wreaks havoc in the organization; he’s the opposite of everything we say is important to us. They’re talked about at every management meeting, but he’s still there. Typically, most of the time they are salespeople, producing big money for the company, and less frequently they would be finance people or people that possess some unique skill that the business needs.

As leaders we allow ourselves to be held hostage by these people because we’re afraid to lose them. And all the while, we’re sending a loud, clear message that “Our culture is very important here, unless you produce enough business!”.  The best way to really know your culture is to look at the behaviour you are willing to tolerate.

While we are worrying about the potential impact of losing the contributions of one of these people, we often fail to realize that we are making some of our very best people vulnerable. Eventually, these people are going to get fed up watching this behaviour get tolerated, and they may decide to go elsewhere.

Do you have any stories to share with us? We would love to hear about your experiences where you’ve had to make some tough decisions as a leader to preserve the integrity of your culture.

Eddie Botes