I am the proud aunt of five nieces and nephews, all under the age of ten, and through that role I’ve honed one important skill: conflict resolution.
Put any group of children in the same room together and conflict is bound to arise. Typically, one “trouble maker” breaks the rules and ruins it for everybody else, while the so-named “tattletale” wants the problem resolved quickly and fairly.
Such situations, I’ve learned, can be quickly diffused in three important steps: hearing all sides of the story; appropriately disciplining the “trouble maker”; and assuring the “tattletale” that the situation has been listened to, considered, and resolved in a manner that’s fair for all parties involved. Failure to handle the situation properly, on the other hand, results in all hell breaking loose.
Conflict resolution concerning how to appropriately respond to an employee who voices a concern about wrongdoing in a work environment operates in the same rudimentary way. At the most basic level, people have a fundamental need to be acknowledged and heard; nobody wants to feel ignored.
Merely implementing rules (an anti-retaliation policy) is not the same as validating that those rules are being followed.
But some companies still don’t seem to get that concept, as indicated in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s 2017 annual report to Congress on the Whistleblower Program. In that report, the SEC noted that 62 percent of whistleblower award recipients, to date, were current or former insiders of the company about which they reported information of wrongdoing to the SEC. Among that group of award recipients, 83 percent “raised their concerns internally to their supervisors, compliance personnel, or through internal reporting mechanisms, or understood that their supervisor or relevant compliance personnel knew of the violations,” before reporting the wrongdoing to the Commission, the SEC stated.
Even among companies that have an anti-retaliation policy in place and an open-door policy that encourages employees to speak up, whistleblower retaliation complaints can continue to pose a legal and compliance risk. Why? Because merely implementing rules (an anti-retaliation policy) is not the same as validating that those rules are being followed.
Preventing retaliation and retaliatory conduct begins with a comprehensive training program, ensuring that managers and supervisors know how to identify retaliatory conduct. Retaliation can take many forms—such as discharging, demoting, suspending, harassing, or in any way discriminate against an employee for reporting potential misconduct.
Managers and supervisors should also be well-versed in recognizing what constitutes a formal complaint; the right and wrong way to respond; and which issues should involve the compliance department, legal department, or human resources.
The moment an employee raises an issue, the company should monitor the treatment of that employee to stop potential retaliatory conduct in its tracks, keeping in mind that each situation is unique and needs to be assessed and evaluated individually. Before jumping to conclusions that an action taken was retaliatory, relevant facts and circumstances need to be considered.
Of utmost importance is that companies have in place a procedure for following up with the employee during the investigation process and after the issue has been resolved. Let the employee know what actions were taken—or not taken—and why, and further document the reasoning behind those decisions. Not all cases may warrant disciplinary action, but sometimes all employees really want is that assurance that their concerns were listened to, thoroughly considered, and resolved in a manner that’s fair for all parties involved.