Another week, another report trying to quantify the breadth and cost of workplace misconduct. This one comes from Vault Platform, an internal reporting startup; and the rather gloomy headline here is that roughly half of all office workers in Britain and the United States have experienced some form of misconduct during their careers.
Vault released its report last week, and I’ve been picking through the findings for the last few days. Not only do a majority of the 2,000+ survey respondents say they’ve witnessed or suffered some form of misconduct. A considerable portion of compliance and HR managers agree that their employees are probably right in their dour assessments of workplace misconduct, and roughly 40 percent of compliance and HR managers admit that their organization is unable to prevent at least one form of workplace misconduct.
Oh dear. That’s not good at all.
Let’s begin with the survey itself. Vault polled more than 2,000 office workers in the United States and Britain, asking about the types of misconduct they’ve witnessed or experienced over the years. (See Fig. 1, below.)
Some of the findings were not that surprising if you thought about them for a moment. For example, younger workers (under age 35) reported more encounters with what we might call “personal” misconduct, such as bullying or harassment. Older workers reported more encounters with “professional” misconduct, such as corruption, unethical business practices, or fraud.
That difference might be a function of age. Younger workers haven’t moved high enough into the senior ranks where they might encounter (or participate in) those sketchy business practices; but they are the low ones on the totem pole, more likely to encounter bullying and harassment from jerks in management.
At the least, compliance officers might want to retool any corporate culture or employee satisfaction surveys that your company conducts to see if a similar dynamic exists in your workforce. (Or study whatever internal reporting data you already have, to see if you can tease out similar insights from recent history.) The findings could have implications for your training, policies, and control testing plans; if significant gaps exist in which groups encounter what types of misconduct.
Compliance Officers Agree: It’s Messy
I was more bothered to see those statistics from compliance and HR managers. Forty-one percent of U.K. managers and 38 percent of U.S. managers said their employers are unable to prevent at least one form of workplace misconduct. In both countries, slightly higher percentages also admitted their companies were “incompetent” in capturing data and measuring the prevalence of at least one form of misconduct. (The report didn’t specify which type of misconduct; I assume it varies from one company to the next.)
These numbers suggest a persistent blockage somewhere along the line, because large corporations have been spending oodles of cash on internal reporting and compliance programs for years — and yet, a significant fraction of compliance and HR professionals say that their own efforts are still coming up short.
Vault suggests that the root problem here is employees’ unease with reporting misconduct, and that if reporting channels were easier to use, employees would report misconduct more often.
On one hand, compliance officers should take that conclusion with a grain of salt, since Vault sells anonymous reporting software and has a financial interest in making that argument. On the other hand, that argument does somewhat make sense, too.
Reporting misconduct — and especially personal misconduct, such as harassment or bullying — can be a difficult thing for employees to do. It can feel embarrassing, if lurid details about harassing behavior are involved. It can be scary, if you worry that your reputation among colleagues might be tarnished. So of course a whistleblower channel designed to be as private, safe, and secure as possible would be more attractive.
But no matter how easy and comfortable your internal reporting channels are, compliance officers will always confront the reality that employees will embrace a speak-up culture only if they believe you’re serious about investigating and rooting out misconduct. They need to see a direct connection between the complaints they file and changes subsequently made to workplace policies, compensation plans, training materials, or even who supervises whom. They need to see results.
You get to that ideal state with effective complaint channels, yes; and also with competent investigations, evidence gathering, and disciplinary policies. But the key ingredient — the catalyst that metabolizes all these things into a robust corporate culture — is still going to be executive commitment to ethical conduct, every time.