Anonymous Whistleblower Reports Need to Be Part of the Corporate Conversation

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As ethics and compliance officers continue to think about corporate culture, and skillful ways to push corporate culture toward higher ethical standards, we continue to have a fascinating example from perhaps the most high-profile corporate culture in the United States - Uber.

The stresses affecting Uber as it tries to rectify its corporate culture are worth noting; those same forces affect any large organization.

The latest news is that Uber’s head of HR, Liane Hornsey, resigned on July 10 after 18 months on the job. The circumstances around her departure are unclear, but Hornsey left hours after news reports surfaced that employees had been complaining about how she handled allegations of racial animus at the firm. Uber had commissioned an outside investigation, which substantiated at least some of those employee complaints.

Employees have also been complaining that Uber’s chief operating officer, Barney Harford, has made racially insensitive remarks — to the point that Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, spoke to Harford about them. (We don’t know whether complaints about Harford to Hornsey figured in her departure.)

The purpose of this post isn’t to second-guess Uber’s personnel decisions or to speculate on its internal operations. Rather, the stresses affecting Uber as it tries to rectify its corporate culture are worth noting; those same forces affect any large organization. Meanwhile, as we’ve seen from regulators, consumers, and other stakeholders, their attention to corporate culture won’t fade any time soon.

Corporate Culture Is Defined by Corporate Conversations

One force that figured into Hornsey’s departure apparently was an anonymous group of Uber employees of color. They submitted anonymous complaints about Hornsey’s conduct.

I’ve written before about the rise of anonymous employee groups, and how they are a fact of life for ethics and compliance professionals. You may not love the anonymity, but that anonymity encourages candor — so compliance officers should heed those groups and engage with them when possible.

What intrigued me here was how anonymous employee groups tie into another concept: the idea of an organization as a “linguistic entity” — a collection of people having multiple conversations, whether those conversations are verbal, written, a clever meme, or some other format.

That’s a powerful concept, because ethics and compliance officers worry constantly that management’s exhortations for a strong ethical culture don’t reflect the “real” culture employees encounter every day.

Why are the multiple conversations in our corporations happening in parallel, never to meet; rather than overlapping, so senior executives can hear dismay more clearly?

If you suspect that disconnect exists in your organization, ask: Why are the multiple conversations in our corporations happening in parallel, never to meet; rather than overlapping, so senior executives can hear dismay more clearly?

An important point here is that a policy is not a conversation. A policy is something senior management sends to employees. It then often becomes the subject of conversation, which can be a good thing — if senior managers participate in that conversation.

If not, you still have different groups talking past each other. That’s how an organization ends up with senior managers issuing policies (some perhaps quite sensible, such as pay or promotion parity among gender or racial groups), while employees encounter deviations from that policy and start complaining among themselves. Cynicism festers, until crisis hits.

Find Your Unshakable Support for Corporate Culture

I also encountered another piece of social science research that fits here. The theory (developed by researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) is that once 10 percent of a population holds an unshakable view, that view will quickly become majority opinion.

I hesitate to embrace that theory as a law of human behavior. But the idea that a small group of committed people can change the world — well, Margaret Mead said those words decades ago for a reason.

The challenge is for ethics and compliance officers (along with other senior executives) to use all the tools at the organization’s disposal to engage in conversations as we noted above; and then tip that majority opinion away from cynicism and toward a belief in ethical conduct.

 The crucial element is that you take visible, demonstrable action to support your policies, core values, and ethical objectives.

Now, let’s not ignore the obvious: the 10 percent Rule identified above only works when you have an unshakable belief in your idea, and talk to others about it constantly — a point some organizations might overlook. And in corporations’ case, the crucial element is that you take visible, demonstrable action to support your policies, core values, and ethical objectives. After all, the key to gaining trust from employees is that they feel heard when they bring a matter to your attention. They want to see results.

None of this leads to change in corporate culture overnight, as Uber’s travails demonstrate. (As an aside, we can also say Uber’s travails today remind us why startups should embed an ethical culture from their beginnings.)

Still, the tools and practices for compliance leaders to change corporate culture are there. You can wade into those conversations about culture at your organization — which are going to happen, whether senior executives participate in them or not.

Focus on what truly matters to employees (which might not be the latest and greatest policy idea sweeping Corporate America), and you might start to turn the tide.


What do you have to say? Share your thoughts in the comments below or join a discussion group on Compliance Next.

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