Corporate Culture: Speak Up vs. Listen Up

The other week I had the privilege of hosting a webinar on cultivating a speakup corporate culture. Given how important that is for corporate success — and how many organizations either mishandle their speakup culture, or reject the premise that a speakup culture matters entirely — today let’s consider some of the points raised in that excellent discussion.

First, I was surprised at how many attendees challenged the very title of our webinar: “Assessing Corporate Culture & Driving Speak-Up Behaviors.” 

The problem with modern corporate culture isn’t so much about getting employees to speak up, one participant after another wrote into the chat box; it’s about getting management to listen up. Employees won’t bother to participate in that corporate culture you’re trying to nurture, if they believe that speaking up is a waste of time.

I suspect most compliance professionals would agree with that sentiment. Heck, we even have data that supports it. According to research from Ethisphere, the top two reasons that employees don’t report misconduct are fear of retaliation (cited by 54 percent of employees) and belief that the company won’t take any corrective action (cited by 49 percent). 

Those are just more specific ways of an employee saying, “The company won’t listen to what I have to say” — and if the employee doesn’t believe management will listen up, he or she certainly won’t speak up.

OK, but what are compliance officers supposed to do with that pithy turn of phrase? What does a listen-up culture actually entail? 

Responsiveness to worker complaints. That’s what leads employees to believe that management listens to them: a specific, direct response to their complaints; that results in action they can see and accept as legitimate. 

So, um, how does one take that idea and fashion into policies and procedures for a corporate culture?

Where Good Response Comes From

Part of the challenge here is mechanical: you need to respond to complaints that come over the whistleblower hotline, even if only so the reporter knows that his or her complaint has been received. 

Some of that can be automated. Start with a perfunctory, “Thank you for your report, we’ll investigate and get back to you within one week” or something like that. Then have an automated reminder that someone from the compliance team needs to send a follow-up reply, “We’re still looking into your matter, and this takes time, but bear with us,” and so forth and so on. (Professional investigators have written much more incisively than me about how to keep a confidential source engaged, even within the strict limits of good investigation practice.) 

I’m more concerned, however, about mid-level managers, because most employees bring their complaints to managers rather than call the hotline. So compliance officers need to think about how to encourage responsiveness and a listen-up culture there, at the manager-employee relationship.

Even more challenging: managers need to be prepared to listen at any moment. At least when a complaint arrives via the whistleblower hotline, you know that it’s a complaint and you’re prepared to hear it. Managers don’t have the same foreknowledge. They need to be prepared to hear a whistleblower complaint and engage with the employee without advance notice.

That’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of reliance on the manager’s good judgment. An employee’s complaint might be something ridiculous, or something serious and urgent. A manager will need to triage that complaint right there in the moment, and demonstrate to the employee that he or she is being heard. 

If all your middle managers can do that well, both your corporate culture and the company’s regulatory compliance efforts will be in good shape. So if you were ever going to invest in training, invest in training on those issues and at that layer of the corporate organization. It will pay off. 

But don’t shirk on the automated responses and follow-ups for the whistleblower hotline, either.

The Importance of Setting Expectations

Some webinar participants suggested that a compliance officer should ask a whistleblower at the beginning of a complaint, “What sort of discipline do you think would be appropriate if this allegation is true?” 

I think that’s a great idea. It gives compliance officers an opportunity to set expectations with the whistleblower early, before you determine who committed what misconduct and how much evidence you find to support those allegations. It gives you a chance to explain investigative procedure and disciplinary policy at a level that’s still largely hypothetical. (“Well, if it’s true that Larry stole company pens, termination and criminal charges might still be unlikely…”)

This tactic lets you engage in a conversation with the whistleblower. Yes, you still need to stay in a hypothetical realm and stress that you can make no promises about a final resolution right away — but it’s a conversation, nevertheless. That’s what a listen-up culture is all about. 

Setting expectations early is also wise for another reason. When whistleblowers submit a complaint, they want to see that issue resolved to their satisfaction. If their complaint ends up unsubstantiated — the whistleblower didn’t have the full facts; he or she misunderstood company policy; exigent circumstances mean that the violation was permissible — a whistleblower will often take that resolution to mean that the company wasn’t listening to him

That’s a misinterpretation of the facts, of course; but it’s a misinterpretation that can do serious damage to your corporate culture. So steps that can prevent such misinterpretation — like talking to the whistleblower upfront about appropriate discipline if the allegation is true — are certainly worth considering.

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