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The Human Resources Institute of New Zealand

Human Resources Institute of New Zealand (HRINZ) is the professional body for those involved in Human Resource Management and the development of people.

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Accountability – the word does not sit comfortably in today’s society. To some it is felt to be accusatory – associated somehow with a feeling of blame and to which the response will be defensive. Often it is used only in retrospect, looking back to see how and why something went wrong, seeking to find the human causative factors. Perhaps it needs clarification and understanding.

The rationale

A task or responsibility is assigned to an individual or an organisation with the intention that it will be carried out to meet its stated requirements and that the effort of the individual or those involved will be recognised or remunerated appropriately.

Or, to put it another way, responsibility assigned and accepted creates accountability for the resultant action.

But that may immediately create a problem. Purpose requires action, and every action leads to output, and outcomes are the consequence of output.

So, does accountability depend upon predictable outcomes?

Or, should the one who took the action have first taken the precaution to identify the likely consequences of the action proposed? Is this made clear? It does suggest that judgement of resultant possibilities should be a pre-requisite of decision making.

Does this diminish accountability?

It should not.

The person in the organisation responsible for the action has been funded and resourced for this purpose and should be expected to account for the outcome of the expenditure and for the reasons if the outcome was not fulfilled. How else is the position justified? (And, if the fault lay in the originating action this too should be disclosed – not with blame but with justification.)

How then is accountability demonstrated?

One would have thought that the strategic plan of every organisation – large or small, public or private – is dependent upon a continuing assurance that objectives are being met, that all activities are meeting the expectations of their performance, and that sustainability is being maintained by simultaneous focus on the economic, social and environmental elements of the workplace.

This has particular application to both the public and private sectors where concern often tends to be centred on particular issues which generate their own agendas. Individual accountability may be recognised in a general sense but this can be obscured by the depersonalisation of procedures which obscure the handprints of the individuals concerned. And this is seldom picked up in staff appraisal reports, where these are still in use, for these tend to focus on the qualities of the individual input rather than on the outcome of their stewardship.

Who then is accountable?

By traditional definition liability for the outcome of performance is assigned to an individual, not to a group, for otherwise it would be unenforceable.

The categories of action are either

  • direct responsibility where the action and the expected outcome are quite clear, perhaps in terms of quantity, quality, cost or time, or where acceptance of performance is a matter of mutual agreement. Most workplace requirements come into this category or
  • indirect responsibility where the action is part of a wider situation, the outcome is dependent on data from several sources, some of which could be subject to further change – typical of larger organisations. Here each component is expected to meet the required standards of acceptance. But where the situation is multi-faceted there is usually one point of coordination and decision making, with each component meeting the requirements of its composition.

At this point reason steps in.

People in positions of responsibility have already demonstrated their competence, they take quiet pride in their accomplishment and realise, particularly today, that nothing is wholly predictable. They expect the unexpected and are sufficiently resilient to deal with it.

But there must always be a realisation that events have a tendency to be linked, sometimes unexpectedly to other events, perhaps beyond their horizons, that others may already be aware of.

In one organisation the executive responsible for several divisions was conscious of this and said to the leader of each, “You play a significant part in our strategic plan but unexpected change seems inevitable. To keep us all in the picture I’d like to set up a regular ‘state of play’ meeting to share our knowledge and experience and to ensure that nothing is slipping past us. The peer group experience will be valuable to us all.” Greater coordination and effectiveness followed.

Perhaps we need to reinstate accountability in the management vocabulary – to see it as evidence of competency, of accomplishment – for without this how else will talent be recognised and developed? ( and ‘obligation’ is not really an acceptable substitute).

This article was written for HRINZ publication by Gordon Rabey. Gordon Rabey FHRINZ, a foundational member of HRINZ has national and international HR experience with much published material here and overseas.


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