Controversy has engulfed Virgin London Marathon (VLM) senior management over the alleged bullying and harassment of runners in the final wave who took part in the event on Sunday 28 April.

Following the race, Elizabeth Ayers – official pacesetter for the Blue Start wave, with a completion window of seven and a half hours – published a lengthy Facebook post [1] saying: “Before I was even 5k in to the race, I was being told to move to pavements!! The sweeper car had overtaken us at Mile One and were claiming that I was moving at a slower pace than 17-min miles … I contacted Runners World to send me a screenshot of my tracking to prove they were incorrect.”

Ayers noted: “The cleaning crew crept up around us and started cleaning off the blue line right in front of me … We got to Mile Three and there was no sign of a water station, it had all packed up and gone!! We had only left the start less than 50 mins ago. I contacted Runners World again and VLM essentially called me a liar – they said all water stations were open and if they did have to close then water would be left [onsite].”

However, that proved not to be the case.

Ayers went on: “Miles 13 through to 18 were horrendous! We were sprayed with cleaning fluid and water from the clean-up vehicles, who couldn’t make up their minds if they [were spraying] water or chemicals. One eager beaver decided to keep nudging me with his vehicle and spraying me until watching spectators went crazy and started yelling at him to stop, he then pulled back … Remember, I’m an official pacer with a big blue flag!”

Since her post emerged, Ayers’ story has been picked up at The Telegraph, [2] The Guardian [3] and even The New York Times. [4] Appearing on the 2 May edition of the Victoria Derbyshire show, [5] Ayers added that clean-up contractors and officials in VLM-branded blue jackets had bullied and sworn at the runners on her watch – making comments such as, “If you weren’t so fat, you could run faster,” and “If you didn’t eat as much, your t-shirt would fit.” Blue-wave runner Sarah Pringle alleged to the show that she had sustained a chemical burn from a clean-up crew’s jet spray.

VLM event director Hugh Brasher promised a thorough investigation, telling runners in Ayers’ wave: “We’re very sorry to hear that [your] experience was the antithesis of what we try to provide as an experience.”

With that in mind, what sort of lessons does this clash of expectations and reality present for leaders, particularly in the field of customer relationship management?

The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “In their efforts to make the London Marathon more accessible and accommodate people who would prefer to aim for longer completion times, VLM undertook an inclusivity initiative. If you’re going to have inclusivity initiatives in any part of your organisation and act upon them, then the whole organisation must be equipped to deal with the subsequent impacts. However, the culture that this final pack of runners met was one of non-inclusivity: of being made to feel unwelcome, and not part of the organisation’s mainstream – let alone elite – contingent.”

She explains: “In large organisations, culture can often change from office to office, or even from floor to floor. Leaders could recruit somebody for a part of the organisation that has an accepting track record, then place that individual in another part with different norms – with the risk that the employee’s wellbeing could be undermined by the new culture they encounter. The way to address this is for everybody to be made aware of the cultural environment that the senior team expects to see. This may involve leaders effectively challenging their workforce to be welcoming.”

Cooper notes: “This story is incredibly disheartening, conveying a total lack of sensitivity or encouragement. Contrary to the rationale behind VLM’s decision to make room for this wave of runners, these participants were faced with a climate of exclusion that made them feel ‘other’. Yet the London Marathon is supposed to be a fantastic community event – a standout date on the annual sporting calendar that traditionally rings with positivity. So there are lessons here for all of us that you can have a great idea in one part of an organisation that can seriously backfire if another part hasn’t got the message.”

She adds: “One further, interesting factor here is the use of contractors, who were also a key part of creating the customer experience. Amid complex supply chains, and people ‘sticking to their knitting’, as Peters and Waterman exhorted us all to do in the 1980s, [6] we often have many partners and stakeholders involved with our activities – some of whom may be somewhat reluctant to venture outside their comfort zones. So when it comes to the procurement process and selecting the partners who are going to work with you, it’s essential to talk to them: what is your approach to diversity and inclusivity? How do you ensure that your staff are not only familiar with your values, but actually live them?”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on managing customer relationships.

Source refs: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Image of London Marathon runners courtesy of Alan Kean, via Shutterstock.

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