It's not being a "tattletale." There's a need for employees to speak up when they know wrongdoing has occurred, whether the misconduct impacts them directly or indirectly. But how do employers encourage employees to report serious bad behavior, such as theft, harassment, discrimination or retaliation?
The faded stigma around 'snitching'
Bad behavior is becoming increasingly unacceptable, said Amy Polefrone, CEO of HR Strategy Group. "Since the #MeToo movement emerged in October 2017, we're seeing much more [that] the message in harassment prevention training or respectful workplace training is 'see something, say something,'" she said.
With this movement, employees feel safety in numbers, and the stakes are now higher for bad bosses or bad colleagues, she added. Unaddressed, the behavior only gets worse, Polefrone said. "It emboldens the bad behavior when you don't deal with it head-on."
Unlike members of older generations who may have assumed they had to keep quiet about abusive behavior, the change of attitude may also be attributable to new perspectives of millennials, Polefrone said. Gen X and Baby Boomer parents have told millennials they no longer have to work for the same company for 30 or 40 years, she continued. "If you don't like it, go move. Find another place where you will be valued, where you will be paid equitably, where you're not going to be harassed," she said.
Another impetus to correct bad behavior is the fear of being called out on online platforms, like Glassdoor, Polefrone said. "People are more mindful of how they're viewed online."
As an example, in April, less than a year after 20,000 Google employees walked out in protest of how the company handled sexual harassment complaints, the company announced changes to its procedures. These changes included an internal website for submitting complaints and additional support for employees during and after the complaint process.
Reporting abuse is still difficult
It can be challenging for employees to speak up — particularly for the person who is or was the target of wrongdoing. Responsibility for reporting bad behavior doesn't just lie with the target, said Julie Stickney, vice president, human resources for Cobham, an aerospace manufacturer. Everybody plays a role in making the environment a safe place to work, she said. It helps to invite everyone to be responsible for encouraging that safety, she said. It empowers employees to know they have ways to make the environment better, she added.
New York increased accountability for its employers when it mandated bystander intervention guidance in sexual harassment training, which allows co-workers to get practical advice on harassment, bullying and creating a culture of zero-tolerance in the workplace. The role of the bystander shouldn't be overlooked, Polefrone said. "If I see something going on and I know it's bad and wrong, but I'm hiding it, then I'm allowing it."
Although the employee and colleagues should speak up when they see bad behavior, the ultimate responsibility rests on the organization, said David Moore, employment attorney at Laner Muchin. The employer must create a culture where people feel safe making a complaint, he said. That means that the company takes the complaint seriously, is respectful, investigates promptly, provides thorough corrective action if needed and that the employee has no worries about retaliation, he said.
Encouraging complaints at organizations of all sizes
Organizations, small and large, employ various tactics to encourage employees and colleagues to come forth with troubling issues. Employers could encourage leaders to be present and visible, said Stickney. From her perspective, when leaders walk around and are available and observing, it becomes easier for employees to bring up problems. An open door policy is also useful, she said.
Leaders might also pay attention to data points that can indicate a problem, Stickney added. Examples would be when deadlines get missed, the information flow slows down or processes that were once easy are now demanding. These issues could signal any variety of problems and may indicate a lack of trust that needs investigating.
Larger organizations make use of anonymous tip lines and third-party ethics hotlines, Moore said. These allow employees to share information without the concern of being seen. Employee assistance programs can provide a platform for employees to seek help more comfortably, Polefrone said.
Curb bad behavior with oft-overlooked tips
Even though employees may be trained periodically on anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, they still need regular reminders on available resources, Moore said.
When a leader receives a discrimination complaint, the first call should be to the company's employment attorney, Polefrone said. The stakes are too high for a misstep, she said. Even if an organization decides to handle a complaint internally, it should invovle an attorney, she said.
When a complaint surfaces, HR should investigate it swiftly but without a knee jerk reaction, Stickney said. She advised HR against minimizing a complaint because of the person who lodged it. If someone has a history of complaining about issues, that doesn't make his or her current concern less valid, she said.
Keeping the investigations process consistent can also help. "It will actually build the culture better if [employees] know that we take the report seriously, and we address [complaints] calmly, and we get data that can be validated to the degree possible, and we make a sane decision." Employees need to know to follow procedures, too, and report through the chain of command, Polefrone said.
In the end, curbing bad behavior comes down to creating an environment where people feel comfortable, Moore said. "The best way to do that is repeatedly to have leaders in organizations emphasize the importance of following [these policies and procedures] on a regular basis and building an inclusive and respectful workplace."