Ethics in the workplace: A guide to ensuring timely, effective staff reporting

Consider the following actual workplace incidents:

  • An employee and her supervisor are taken to dinner and presented with a small gift by a contractor. When opened later, an envelope of cash was found inside. The supervisor “assumed” it was a mistake and decided to keep the money. The coworker who later became aware of the issue chose not to report the incident because they were not sure who to speak with or whether their report of the incident would be anonymous.

  • An anonymous letter is sent to the security officer, alleging computer theft by a named employee, but with little additional detail and no way to follow up directly.

  • A HR officer who learned third-hand that an employee had threatened to take the life of his supervisor because he (the supervisor) was allegedly providing more overtime to his girlfriend than to others. Later it was found the person had brought a gun to work and showed it to others several days before he was notified. When asked why it wasn’t reported earlier, two staff members say they did not want to talk to anyone about it either in person or over the phone; the only two methods then available for reporting workplace concerns.

  • A member of the night staff in a small factory notices consistent problems with a particular machine, but their supervisor fails to report it to senior management. Weeks later, the plant burns to the ground when the machine catches fire.

  • Several members of the staff observe a coworker staying late, making copies and entering offices that belong to others. A relatively small company, nobody shares their observation with management in part because there is no anonymous hotline. Months later, it’s discovered that the research and design specifications for the firm’s main project are being used by an overseas competitor. The company loses millions in investment and potential revenue. Those same employees who failed to share their concerns are now worried about whether their jobs will be eliminated due to cost-cutting requirements.

These are just a few examples of incidents I encountered as a corporate investigator. In every case, staff members knew there was a problem, but existing methods for ensuring timely, effective reporting and resolution of these issues failed. The root of these failures was leadership who didn’t make time to understand why staff chooses whether or not to speak up about ethics in the workplace. The result is that leaders didn’t meet staff on their turf when it comes to (discussing) ethics in the workplace. In their default reactive mode, opportunities to proactively engaging with the voice of the workforce were missed, allowing issues to devolve into costly incidents.

So, how do managers of ethics, compliance and human resources help protect their staff, their company and their professional reputation from incidents that cost significant time and money to investigate and resolve? One way to protect against significant loss is to ensure that the “voice of the workforce neighborhood” is strong and actively contributes to building a safe, secure and trustworthy workplace.

When it comes to ensuring timely, effective discussion on lapses of ethics in the workplace (i.e. safety, security or quality assurance matters) there are a few core issues to keep in mind. What follows is a short guide that will help you evaluate whether your organization has in place the necessary tools to ensure timely, effective staff reporting of workplace concerns ranging from fraud to sexual harassment to threats of violence.

Some of the most important questions to consider:

Is leadership setting the example? A policy that speaks to expectations for ethics in the workplace, as well as expectations for when and how to share concerns about ethics, safety, security or fraud issues in the workplace, is just the start. Senior leaders must set the example by ensuring that expectations for ethical conduct is weaved into employee communication, process and culture. Front-line supervisors must back this up by ensuring they are available, discrete and willing to pass on concerns to senior management.

Does a review of investigations and/or root cause analysis indicate that an increasing number of issues have unnecessarily evolved into incidents? Is this because opportunities to intervene and mitigate or prevent escalation were missed due to lack of reporting, either in person or via a whistle blowing system (more often referred to as an ethics and compliance hotline?) Is it because changes in process or workplace culture have occurred?

Are results of significant investigations or incidents clearly communicated to the workforce and training, policy and/or procedures updated as a result? It’s extremely rare when, for example, a significant incident of fraud or harassment goes unnoticed by the workforce. Making necessary changes to the policy, training and/or procedures and clear communication of first the “why” and then the “how” are critical to maintaining a positive focus on ethics in the workplace.

How does your staff choose to communicate on their own? Increasingly, today’s digital workforce chooses to communicate in an impersonal fashion. Conversations are occurring less and less in person or via telephone calls. This is even truer in the workplace, where timely notification can have significant impacts. This trend is not going away anytime soon. How do your processes and procedures account for this generational change?

Have you updated your approach to methods for training and awareness programs for ethics in the workplace? Just as with an increase in the use of apps and texting instead of calls and in-person discussion, Ethics and Compliance officer must consider changes to how today’s workforce prefers to learn. What was once yearly training consisting of a few handouts and boring slide presentations has necessarily evolved in recent years in favor of dynamic, web-based videos and even virtual reality-based systems.

Does your ethics hotline provider offer a system for tracking and investigating workplace concerns? Does that system place more importance on the response process or on first obtaining timely, relevant and actionable concerns? Like training and awareness programs, case management systems have evolved into robust software solutions and have grown to include just about every feature imaginable to support ethics and compliance managers and investigators with tracking inbound reports, follow-up actions, and investigations. Have you considered how important it is that your ethics hotline provider balances the needs of the investigator with the needs of the general workforce? Put another way, have dashboard features become overgrown, while the number of reports from staff have stayed the same or declined? If so, does more focus need to be given to the “fuel” for your hotline, and less focus and money spent on an overbuilt and underutilized case management system?

Implementing methods for timely, effective staff reporting of workplace ethics concerns:

Neighborhood Watch® for Corporations conducted a survey which asked staff from industries such as manufacturing, government, and utilities about reporting of problematic workplace behaviors. Over one-third of staff responded that they observed, but did not report MULTIPLE concerning issues in the workplace within the last year.

A separate survey, also by Neighborhood Watch® for Corporations, focusing on reporting methods for workplace sexual harassment, was discussed in Corporate Compliance Insights, and had similarly disturbing findings. For example, 35 percent of those who personally experienced sexual harassment on the job were not aware of or had no employer-provided training about how to report it at the time of the incident. With regard to reporting methods preferred by victims of workplace sexual harassment, a third party app-based hotline that allows users the choice of being anonymous was 70 percent more likely to be used to report an incident of sexual harassment than a telephone hotline, 64 percent more likely than a web form and 58 percent more likely than reporting directly to a manager.

If this guide has you worried that your current ethics and compliance hotline is not a good fit we invite you to take our Hotline Selector Quiz by clicking here. The quiz will ask you a short series of questions that help you identify the type of ethics hotline that is best for your organization.

The author is affiliated with Neighborhood Watch® for Corporations (NWFC™), an ethics hotline service that provides users with tailored, adaptable interviews created by a combination of subject matter expertise and machine learning. Offered via mobile app, desktop app as well as via call center operators in multiple languages, offers an easy way to upgrade to a more effective workplace hotline.