More on the Challenges of Listen-Up Culture

Today we have a disturbing lesson on ethics and compliance from New Hampshire, where police are frantically searching for a seven-year-old girl who apparently has been missing since 2019 — because nobody took the girl’s drug-addled mother seriously while she tried to raise alarms about her daughter for months.

The girl is Harmony Montgomery. She was last seen alive by independent observers in mid-2019. She had been living with her father, Adam Montgomery, a man with a lengthy criminal record that includes shooting a man in the head in 2014 during a drug deal. Police in Manchester, N.H., arrested him in early January on child endangerment charges including second-degree assault, and he reportedly refused to disclose Harmony’s current whereabouts when police picked him up on New Year’s Eve.

Harmony Montgomery

The other crucial character in this nightmare is Harmony’s mother, Crystal Sorey. She has battled with drug addiction. She has been homeless. She has had criminal charges filed against her. Sorey lost custody of Harmony in 2018 because of her various issues, when Massachusetts officials (where Sorey lived at the time) sent Harmony to live with her father. 

According to Sorey, she last saw her daughter on Easter 2019 during a video phone call, when Harmony seemed scared and her father lurked in the background. Soon thereafter, Adam Montgomery and his wife, Kayla, cut off all communication with Sorey and other relatives. By late 2021, Sorey was driving around Manchester, visiting various addresses where Harmony might be; and calling schools that perhaps Harmony was attending. She had no success.

Sorey also says she pleaded with child welfare authorities for months to help her find Harmony, and that those pleas went nowhere. She contacted Manchester police on Nov. 18. They passed the report back to the child welfare agencies, who couldn’t find Harmony at her last known address, so the police opened a formal missing child investigation on Dec. 27. The media began reporting about the case a few days later.

We still don’t know where Harmony is. 

The Difficult Duties of ‘Listen Up’ Culture  

My point here isn’t the rage we should feel for how civil society failed Harmony. That rage is easy. We all can (and should) feel ashamed that so many elements of society — parents, police, social workers, taxpayers, neighbors — let a little girl fall through the cracks, literally to lord knows where. 

The true lesson for ethics and compliance professionals is how civil society failed her mother: the person who tried to speak up, and nobody took her seriously because she came across as a mess. 

Crystal Sorey, speaking at a vigil for her daughter last week.

That’s the haunting subplot within this larger tragedy. It’s a powerful reminder that when people turn a deaf ear, it can inflict awful results on innocent victims — and that the gatekeepers who should have done better, but ignored the would-be whistleblower, share part of the blame. 

We all know this risk getting a whistleblower tip wrong exists in the ethics and compliance world. Hotlines get lots of calls, and plenty of them sound like crackpots, and plenty of those calls that sound like crackpots actually are crackpots. You try to listen to each one dutifully and patiently, even as the caller starts spinning a tale that quickly veers into full crazy. 

A person can only hear so many of those calls before the mental fading starts: the misplaced assurance that we already know where this story will go; and that we don’t need to take it seriously, because we’ve heard these messy, rambling calls a thousand times before. I’ve received many such calls over the years, and I’m just as guilty as the next person for slipping into this bad habit. 

As I think about the disservice done to Sorey, I can’t help but think about a webinar I hosted last fall about how to cultivate a strong speak-up culture. Wrong, so many participants said! The critical issue wasn’t cultivating a speak-up culture among employees, because people do speak up. The critical issue is cultivating a listen-up culture among managers.  

That’s the challenge here: how to support a listen-up culture, even when the allegation sounds so familiar and comes from someone who sounds preposterous. 

How often have organizations screwed up that objective over the years? What would have happened if the Securities and Exchange Commission took Harry Markopolous seriously when he told the agency that Bernie Madoff was actually a fraudster? How many other whistleblowers alleging fraud, corruption, harassment, or violence have been ignored because they sounded somehow unreliable or unbelievable? 

I have no easy solutions for this challenge. I don’t even believe this is a blind spot for corporate compliance officers. On the contrary, I bet plenty of you worry all the time about mishandling an important call because we’re momentarily careless or cavalier. 

It’s more accurate to say this terrible case is just a reminder on the importance of getting the listen-up culture right. We owe it to Harmony Montgomery to keep trying.

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