Speak Up is Great – Is Anyone Listening?
Chief compliance officers face a mountain of tasks – it is easy to get overwhelmed. Add to the mix the fact that CCOs are under extraordinary pressure to “prevent and detect” potential violations of the company’s code and any law or regulation. When you think about it, that is quite a heavy responsibility.
In the ebb and flow of ethics and compliance ideas, one constant is the importance of implementing a robust speak up culture. Not to be a naysayer or a “nattering nabob of negativism,” but there is a whole side of the equation missing in the term “speak up culture.”
Maybe it is implicit in the concept but all too often I hear about employees who raise concerns, trust the system, cooperate and provide information, only to be disappointed when the company rejects or turns away from the employee. I am not suggesting that employee concerns are always accurate – but there are times when companies fail; to listen or take the required action. When that happens, it can be devastating to any company effort to build a system of trust.
I know it is trite to say that there is a skill in listening. It requires attention, interpersonal skills, and patience. The same principles apply to a company that listens to employee concerns and responds to those concerns. Sometimes it requires companies to take actions that are not so easy. Sometimes it even requires companies to hold its leaders accountable.
A speak up culture is only as good as its response to an employee concern. It only take a few missteps for a system that depends on trust to collapse.
Putting aside al my general observations, how can we start to get a handle on creating a listening and accountability culture. There are a few easy items to handle –
- first, routine employee concerns have to be resolved in 60 days or less;
- second, employee concerns that raise significant issues have to be elevated to senior management and even the board, if necessary;
- third, company investigators have to contact employees after they raise a concern, and should be kept apprised as to the status of the investigation and the ultimate resolution of the concern; and
- fourth, corporate leaders, managers and investigators have to repeat (over and over again) that the company has a zero-tolerance policy for overt and subtle efforts to retaliate against employees how raise concerns.
These are four basic requirements that have to exist for a speak up and listening culture to thrive. If you do not have these four basic requirements, you have work to do, and the company has to take action.
For all the planning and resources dedicated to a speak up culture, CCOs have to devote the same level of effort to implementing a listening culture – a responsive system where employees are treated with respect, their concerns are taken seriously, and most importantly, where actions are taken to respond and fix concerns that employees raise. This sounds easier than the reality of implementation.
Companies are reluctant to bite the bullet, hold their leaders accountable and take decisive action when legitimate employee concerns are raised. It is almost as if corporate leaders will act only when forced to do so, by the board, shareholders, or the government. A sense of urgency only exists when pressure is put on corporate leaders to act and they are “persuaded” as to the wisdom of such actions.
A company with innovative and ethical leaders will take proactive steps, some of which may be hard to implement, in recognition of doing the right thing and holding colleagues accountable. When that happens, companies have a real chance to encourage employee communications and to turn their employees into valuable sources of information about corporate activities and operations. A listening culture is one which encourages such communications and provides real and meaningful responses to employee concerns.