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Retaliation Happens: How To Build A Speak-Up Culture In The Age Of Transparency

Patrick Quinlan, Convercent CEO on Forbes Tech Council

A couple months ago, I sat down with a group of ethics leaders in New York for a roundtable discussion. The cross-industry group spoke freely about challenges and successes, but near the end of our time, someone tentatively brought up retaliation. The conversation stopped. Finally, a woman from a prominent university responded: “Let’s just put it out there: Retaliation happens. If you say it never happens, you don’t understand what it looks like in real life.”

It’s blunt, but it’s true. Workplace retaliation — what I’m broadly defining here as negative consequences directed toward an employee for speaking up about an ethics or compliance issue at work — comes in many forms.

Over the past few years, Silicon Valley, in particular, has been forced to reckon with several high-profile cases of retaliation. From Ellen Pao to Susan Fowler, toxic company culture and a lack of awareness around retaliation have resulted in scandals that are pushing companies to tackle this head-on. Unfortunately, despite the heightened level of discourse, retaliation remains deeply misunderstood, which means the changes that are enacted are often not as effective as they could be.

There’s no easy fix, but I’ve found the more that leaders lean into the subtlety, complexity and subjectivity of retaliation, the more successful they are at preventing it. Based on my work with ethics leaders across industries, here are a few methods for better understanding the causes and effects of retaliation:

Pay Attention To Data

Taking a closer look at your own data is a good first step. In the tech world, we often turn to data to help us do our jobs better, and retaliation is no exception. Even if you don’t have a wealth of in-house data on this yet, benchmark against third-party data. Either way, the objective should be to get a level-set on how you’re doing and identify metrics that can serve as indicators of retaliation at your own company.

First, look at anonymous reporting. Anonymity is a necessary option, but if the vast majority of employees are choosing to stay unnamed, this could point to either a culture of retaliation or a pervasive fear of retaliation at your company. At Convercent, we recently examined sexual harassment reporting data in the wake of #MeToo and found that between 2016 and 2017, the percentage of named (not anonymous) reports increased from 46% to 59%. This potentially indicates that increased dialogue around harassment caused employees to feel more protected and/or legitimized in both speaking up and attaching their name to the report.

Keith Read, a long-time expert on corporate retaliation and Convercent advisor, advocates for a tailored, proactive approach. Specifically, take a sample of 100 named reports from your company and create five “indicators of retaliation” (e.g., pay, bonus, annual review rating, shift and overtime allocation, etc.). Plot how each of those 100 reporters fares in each category. In the past, this process has revealed significant issues and patterns. For example, at one of Keith’s past companies, it identified a propensity for certain senior managers to take retaliatory environments with them as they moved to new roles in the company. Having such data meant Keith and his team were able to proactively address retaliation based on data, rather than relying solely on policy.

Expand Your Definition Of Retaliation

Retaliation doesn’t always take the form of termination or demotion. Sometimes, managers can mistakenly retaliate by doing what they think is right. For example, if an employee reports that a superior insulted them during a heated discussion, moving that employee to a different team, project or desk in the office (without demoting them) might seem like the best course of action for everyone. In reality, those changes could negatively impact their career trajectory or even just their social connections at work.

Despite the inherent difficulty in defining retaliation, more energy and resources are being dedicated to better understanding the pervasiveness and severity of the issue. A recent survey (registration required) from the Ethics and Compliance Initiative, of which Convercent is an Integrity sponsor, found that since 2013 the percentage of employees claiming to have experienced retaliation climbed from 22% to 44%, exceeding the corresponding increase in reports. This could indicate employees have a more nuanced understanding of retaliation and are increasingly able to spot it. Leadership must follow suit.

Be Transparent About The Process

One of the best ways to quell the fear of retaliation is to be completely open about the reporting process. If employees know exactly what to expect — and you deliver on that expectation — they’ll be more likely to speak up. USAA, for example, outlines their entire investigation process in their code of ethics and online to help demystify what happens “behind the curtain” after an employee calls the helpline. Transparency in these matters is especially important because fear is contagious: If one employee sees a colleague facing retaliation, they may be less inclined to speak up themselves. Thankfully, confidence is just as infectious: If you see your colleague treated fairly, that trust spreads.

Beyond transparency, long-term follow-through is just as crucial for building trust. Although data from the Ethics and Compliance Initiative shows that around 76% of retaliation occurs within three weeks of a report, retaliation at the six-month mark is also fairly common and typically uses annual reviews as its vehicle. Check-ins help you monitor for belated signs of retaliation and demonstrate to employees that you’re paying attention. Tech companies actually already have a model for this: customer success teams. The immense value that tech places on trust and communication with customers should be applied to the way they view retaliation monitoring. Just like customers, employees must feel heard and supported.

It’s easy to say retaliation doesn’t exist at your company or that it’s something you can’t control — leaders have more control than they think. Like many pervasive workplace issues, the key to building a “speak-up” culture and reducing the fear of retaliation is recognizing its pervasiveness, creating a proactive plan to combat it and then keeping a close eye on it. Use your data, keep your eyes open and be honest. Trust will come.

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