110 ambulance call-outs, 38 instances of workers complaining of chest pains, and one worker who gave birth in the toilets because she was too scared to take time off work. Revelations from last month’s parliamentary select committee investigation into working practices at UK retailer Sports Direct make for uncomfortable reading.

In short, it’s a case study in how not to build the kind of healthy, sustainable cultures we always aim for at Tribe, with happy and productive staff.

Other allegations put to Sports Direct include harassment, breaches of minimum wage law as well as other punitive, Victorian-style working conditions. If any of these allegations are true, it’s nothing short of a miracle that Sports Direct hasn’t been in the spotlight sooner for serious health and safety incidents at work.

Yet at the centre of the controversy is Sports Direct’s owner Mike Ashley who said to the select committee: “I can’t be responsible for everything that goes on at Sports Direct. I can’t be.”

So, is it possible for workplace culture to deteriorate so seriously without its leader’s knowledge? And is ignorance or unexpected growth a legitimate defence?

We asked Steve Beswick to reflect on his many years of experience helping organisations reform, and look at the wider issue of how leaders influence safety and engagement in the workplace.

Is it possible for a leader to preside over serious cultural shortcomings without even realising it?

“It’s very unusual for someone to get to CEO level without knowing what signals they send out to staff. Some who work their way up from the bottom might not realise it, but they’re definitely in the minority.

“Ultimately, culture rests with the person at the top and where they put the emphasis. What they stand for sets the tone for the whole organisation.

“Sadly, when what isn’t made clear enough and isn’t challenged, people assume it’s just profit and everything else comes second.”

How do unacceptable, dangerous working practices become the norm?

“A lot of cultural problems come out of fears for job security which hasn’t been helped by the misuse of zero hours contracts over the last decade or so.

“When someone’s under pressure all the time because their work rate’s being monitored, they won’t report near-misses, because that means they might not get any hours next time. So that gets concealed and eventually the near-misses build up to an accident for some poor soul.

“The most extreme example I saw of this was in a mining company where guys were coming back to the surface hiding their missing fingers, because if they reported it they’d lose their job.”

When the bottom-line is what decides whether a company survives or not, isn’t corner-cutting and risk-taking inevitable?

“Some businesses can just be short-sighted. They don’t realise the business benefits of keeping people safe, like less absence and more stable production. You can even lose business if your safety record is poor because clients won’t buy from you.

“Unfortunately, some leaders don’t realise that the cost of injuries comes directly out of profit anyway – investigations, compensation, retrofitting equipment, insurance. It snowballs very quickly.

“Don’t get me wrong though – with the right regulation, a senior management team with a strong moral compass or an understanding of the business case that drives safety, can be world-class.”

Sports Direct surveyed staff satisfaction with 96% positive responses. How can leaders be expected to spot problems if their staff don’t engage honestly with them?

“It depends on how you ask them. When we do culture surveys we prefer to do it face-to-face and look people in the eye and ask them what the real deal is here.

“We’re impartial, a third-party and we never do interviews with supervisors present. But in a culture of fear you can imagine staff still might feel sceptical or pressured to tell you what you want to hear rather than the truth.

“Leaders have got to show commitment to the process of change. Prove there’s no recrimination; just trust, and share the results of what people tell you, however uncomfortable it might be.”

What future is there for a company after what’s alleged to have happened at Sports Direct?

“Well in the short-term a change of leadership would help, and a process of re-education for middle managers. A new sheriff in town has to explain exactly what’s expected from everyone from that point forwards.

“Don’t forget though that behavioural safety, and the kind of engagement work that Tribe does, came out of learning from terrible accidents and shocking working practices in factories handling explosive chemicals and dangerous materials.

“That doesn’t excuse it, but in the long-term, hopefully, people tend to realise that problems like this are just a human issue, and you need people to put their heads together to fix things, with a strong leader showing the way.”