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Let us begin by reviewing the results of a survey published in the ‘HR Acuity’s 2019 Employee Experience Survey’. One of the objectives of the survey was to understand the employee experience when reporting things that go wrong at work. Below are the summary findings of the survey:

>> 85% of employees know how and where to report employee issues, but 39% aren’t confident issues will be addressed appropriately and nearly half (46%) worry about retaliation for reporting issues

>> 67% of employees favor reporting to managers (their supervisors) over other options such as the human resources office, hotlines, owners, the chief executive officer, the union, lawyer, police or another external agency. This is consistent with other surveys.

>> 36% of the employees who witnessed wrong doing did not report. Of these, 46% didn’t trust the issue would matter or be handled appropriately. 42% were afraid of consequences or retaliation. 33% didn’t feel comfortable or think issue would be taken seriously.

>> Concerns raised by men were 26% more likely to be investigated.

From these survey findings, we can deduce that majority of employees know where to report unethical activity with a high preference to reporting to their managers or supervisors. However, there is a considerable level of mistrust regarding reporting unethical activity.

Why is trust so important? Because in the final analysis, employees’ lack of trust in the reporting process will create an unhealthy work environment and eventually result in organizational issues such as poor employee performance and motivation, employment lawsuits, legal and regulatory actions, loss of assets, external whistle-blower complaints, poor customer perception or brand reputation, and high employee-turnover costs.

A number of independent surveys have validated that employees prefer to report unethical activities to their managers or direct supervisors before turning to ethics hotlines. So how can ethics hotlines maintain the trust and effectiveness to plug the gap where the preferred reporting line fails? Hubbs & Kniesche (2016), in his study trying to understand why no one calls ethics hotlines, propounds the following (my emphasis added);

>> Employees must understand the system

“Who answers the hotline number?” “Will they know that I filed a complaint if I file anonymously?” “Will they tell my boss that I reported a concern?” and “Where does my complaint go? And who reviews it?” Doubt and uncertainty about these questions can impede an employee’s decision to report a concern.

>> Assigning adequate resources in a well designed program

Organizations demonstrate they value the reporting of concerns by spending money on well-designed hotline programs with professionally trained efficient responders and investigators, fully integrated case management systems and all of the necessary support tools and resources. Anything less will engender employee mistrust.

>> Personalization of an employee’s concerns

Reporting a concern can be a very personal experience for an employee. The whistle-blower might be a victim, have witnessed significant wrongdoing or be taking a personal chance by coming forward and doing the right thing. Concerned employees need support and reassurance that they’ve done the right thing, the organization will address their concerns and they’ll be protected from retaliation.

>> Proper case handling

Mishandling of complaints and poor training of hotline call takers and investigators can cause a (1) Type I reporting error, in which the organization conducts an inadequate investigation and rules that wrongdoing occurred when it didn’t or a (2) Type II reporting error in which the organization fails to act or investigate when the concerned employee has credible information.

>> Management non-involvement in the hotline

To ensure transparency, independence and objectivity, often it’s most effective to use a third party to administer the hotline. Local management might be the problem or — at the very least — might be complicit in allowing the concerns to occur or go unaddressed. Local human resources professionals might also appear to employees to be closely aligned with management. They also might be inadequately trained and show bias or favoritism.

>> Limiting the reporting mechanisms

Hotlines should be promoted as the primary entry point for all concerns regardless of who reports them or how organizations identify them. Unfortunately, some organizations who want to ease the process equally encourage employees to also alternatively report through internal email, web portal, in writing or in person to such departments or individuals as compliance, internal audit, legal, employee relations, safety, environmental, human resources, ombudsmen, ethics officers, supervisors and union steward. Confusion can then easily reign.

>> De-emphasize the credibility of allegations

Some organizations might attempt to reduce meritless complaints by communicating that employees should only report “credible” or “good faith” complaints. Other organizations might go a step further by saying that employees could be subject to disciplinary action for fling complaints that aren’t credible. However, tactics like these — regardless of the trust level — might dissuade employees from reporting any concerns. “Credible” and “good faith” are subjective terms that hotline handlers and investigators will evaluate. Organizations’ best approach is to encourage employees to report all issues with no hint of the risk of disciplinary action. If an organization feels a complaint is without merit, it can document and dismiss it after it performs limited diligence.

>> Practically addressing retaliation from reporting

The damage from retaliation can create a devastating silent “do not report” culture. Organizations should communicate they have a zero tolerance policy for retaliation and will deal with it swiftly and publicly. They might need to conduct ongoing communications and awareness campaigns to make programs as transparent and trustworthy as possible especially if employees know about previous retaliations.

>>Consistency of outcomes

Organizations must demonstrate that consistent and fair outcomes are routine regardless of people, relationships or scenarios. Employees will learn through the grapevine if the organization delivers fair and consistent discipline, regardless of how confidential the organization hides investigation outcomes. If employees view outcomes as fair, they’ll feel more compelled to report concerns.

>> Do as I say, not as I do

Employees critique, judge and evaluate what an organization says about its hotline- reporting program by what it does rather than what it says. Does it follow policies and procedures as designed? Does it really have a zero tolerance policy on retaliation? Are outcomes really consistent, fair and proportionate? Does it truly allow employees to report concerns anonymously?

We fully concur with Hubbs & Kniesche (2016) conclusion that most employees want to do the right thing, and organizations need to do what they can to help support and encourage employees to report. Failures in employee reporting today can result in significant operational and reputational hurdles tomorrow. If you use these recommended tips to strengthen your program they could help place your organization in a position where it never has to ask itself the question, “Why didn’t anyone call before?”

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