Retaliation, or fear of it, can rot a company’s culture to its core. That is why ethics & compliance professionals spend a dizzying amount of resources to prevent it, from managing speaking-up campaigns and creating reporting vehicles to ensuring consistent investigations.
Yet, compliance & ethics programs often fall short here, operating under the assumption that retaliation isn’t an issue if only a few cases get reported. It’s a shortsighted view. What happens when the investigation is over and everyone involved goes back to their lives? What are you doing to ensure all parties have the opportunity to move on and thrive without experiencing retaliation?
Retaliation can be a murky topic, but it’s a very real risk to every organization. Left unchecked, it can slowly suffocate an organization. It affects employee willingness to report misconduct, and fewer reports can mean occurring risks are not being addressed. It can also strangle internal reporting channels, and without a clear path for employees to report retaliation, organizations don’t have the opportunity to respond. Beyond the immediate impact to culture, employee engagement and workplace environment, retaliation can create a deep fracture in an organization’s brand, reputation, and even bottom line. We don’t need to look any further than Wells Fargo’s recent PR crisis that has cost them more than $3.3B in legal fees alone to understand how important monitoring for and responding to retaliation can be for any organization in any industry.
A robust, effective ethics and compliance program is the hallmark of reducing retaliation potential. All ethics & compliance programs worth their salt have anti-retaliation policies like Code of Conduct wording or guidance woven into their leadership training. The problem is that these policies put the onus on the individual to speak up and report retaliation. What if there is a fear to speak up or a fear to speak up again? While company policies make it clear that reporting such issues are required, there can be a fear of losing one’s job, impacting one’s upward mobility, or being perceived as a complainer.
Practical steps for going beyond the investigation
Monitoring for retaliation is an art, not a science. There are different indicators that offer a first glimpse into a potential retribution situation—the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Keep in mind that the suggestions below are starting points in detecting and mitigating potential issues to explore further.
Laying the right foundation is key. The right foundation starts at the top. According to the Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI), only one in 20 employees suffer from retaliation in companies where senior leaders share credit, are perceived as doing the right thing or treat all employees well. Leaders must create an environment where employees feel empowered to report concerns without fear of punishment and, if an act of retaliation goes unchecked, it can erode all goodness from your ethics & compliance program and your culture. All levels of leadership should be consistently communicating to their teams the importance of speaking up and how retaliation will not be tolerated. Lack of trust in the investigation process is detrimental, and visible follow-through on discipline is key. The single most effective way to prevent fear of retaliation is to swiftly take action when it occurs, then publicly discuss it.
In a business environment that increasingly demands authenticity and transparency, ethics & compliance programs are more important to a company’s bottom line than ever before. Leaders have the responsibility to build these ethical components into the bones of an organization and, while policies are critical, they aren’t enough on their own.
Lean on technology. Competing priorities keep the ethics & compliance departments spinning on hyper drive. Once an investigation has closed, you’re on to the next issues, and there is no bandwidth to keep track of past investigations. Use your case management system to build in automatic reminders to check in with reporters and witnesses 90-days and 120-days after case closure. A phone call gives you an opportunity to say, “I just wanted to check in and see how you’re doing.” Most of the time, it will be a quick chat, but it goes far in building trust. If there is a retaliatory situation brewing, however, you have potentially opened the door to a conversation. If the reporter was anonymous, your case management system should have the ability for you to continue to communicate with the anonymous reporter, even after the matter is closed in the system.
Tell real stories. Then, stop and listen. Use examples (sanitized, of course) that demonstrate real ethics issues that have happened in your organization. This is important for building employee trust in the investigation process, but it also shows bad actors that the organization takes ethics issues seriously, and that retaliation will not be tolerated. If posting these stories internally, monitor the online feedback. If retaliation is pervasive in a particular department, group, or team after an investigation, there may be rumblings and vague comments online in internal social media channels. This is valuable intel that can help the ethics & compliance team better address the situation.
Keep a close eye on data. Align with the HR department to identify issues reported to HR partners, in addition to the ethics & compliance team. Retaliation can manifest in multiple ways like engagement, performance, and personnel issues. Monitor changes in responses and engagement scores in the annual culture survey or 360-degree assessments. A downtick in a team’s engagement or NPS could be signs that a problem is brewing. According to ECI, reporters who experienced retaliation are 21 percent less likely to be engaged. If personnel issues crop up among a specific team, HR can use pulse checks to test for uneasiness, unhappiness, and other concerns that may be rooted in a retaliation event.
Track employee movement. It’s important to remember that anyone involved in an investigation can be subject to retaliation, whether it’s the reporter, witness, implicated party, or a member of the investigating party. Pay attention to movement of all employees who were involved in an investigation. An assignment to a new department (whether voluntary or forced) can be an indication that an employee is struggling post-investigation. A change in title or level of responsibility within six months of an investigation can point to an employee who has potentially been adversely impacted. Exit surveys can also be a powerful tool to monitor personnel exits and their outgoing sentiment.
Watch E&C metrics. Take a deeper look at ethics & compliance completion rates and conflict of interest disclosures. If a team is struggling to complete required compliance documents, cross-reference with your case management system. A lack of trust resulting from possible retribution could result in a reluctance to complete ethics training. Likewise, monitor conflict of interest disclosure rates year-over-year. If there is a substantive change within an organization, either increase or decrease, look deeper to identify potential trends.
Look at employee performance through a new lens. One of the simplest ways to monitor for retaliation is to observe changes in employee performance. To ensure the confidentiality of all parties of a past investigation, ask HR to provide a list of all employees whose performance rating has changed significantly. This could be a sign that an employee is experiencing retribution. Likewise, if an employee involved in an investigation is put on a Performance Improvement Plan within six months of the case closure, work with HR and management to understand the clear, specific reasons for it and ensure it’s not a retaliatory act.
Although monitoring for retaliation takes intention and time, creating a healthy culture where employees can speak up without fear is paramount. In a business environment that increasingly demands authenticity and transparency, ethics & compliance programs are more important to a company’s bottom line than ever before. Leaders have the responsibility to build these ethical components into the bones of an organization and, while policies are critical, they aren’t enough on their own. To enhance the effectiveness of an ethics & compliance program, practitioners must begin to think about issues, like retaliation, holistically and proactively. It’s taking one step beyond the investigation to test and adopt policies that are critical to retaliation monitoring success and good for the company’s future. Just one instance of unreported retribution could preserve your culture and make all the effort worthwhile.
Katie Smith is EVP and Chief Compliance Officer of Convercent.