Retaliation: The Feedback Loop that Quiets Company Culture

The employee experience is defined by feedback. You do good work, you get a thumbs up. You do bad work, you get a thumbs down. You do great work and people lift you up on their shoulders and put your picture on the wall. This is the feedback we associate with the work that we do. However, there is another type of feedback that defines the context in which we do that work – company culture.

Cultures are not defined by what companies say, but by the feedback loops corporate actions perpetuate.

Company cultures can be ethical, permissive, encouraging of speaking up or rewarding of silence. These cultures are not defined by what companies say, but by the feedback loops corporate actions perpetuate.

Feedback inside and outside the workplace has several characteristics. It can be quick, slow, forceful or subtle – the mixture of which defines the saliency of the feedback. Quick, forceful feedback provides solid confirmation, whereas slow, subtle feedback is more dubious.

This creates a significant challenge for organizations trying to create strong workplace cultures. Positive corporate feedback must be formulated, accurate and approved and is therefore usually slower and broader. However, negative feedback can be swift and poignant and often only requires one bad actor. This is most evident in the case of workplace retaliation.

According to ECI’s 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey, retaliation happens and it happens fast. Almost three-fourths (72%) of those who experienced retaliation in the workplace said that it took place within three weeks of the initial report. Forty percent said it happened within one week. As far as workplace feedback goes, that is very quick.

Furthermore, “Of those who observed abusive behavior, 63 percent of employees reported that the misconduct they observed was committed by someone in management or a first-line supervisor.” That same group also stated that 67 percent of the wrongdoing happened frequently and was ongoing. Seniority, frequency and duration all contribute to the forcefulness of that feedback.

This makes retaliation one of the strongest feedback loops that can exist within an organization.

Retaliation Happens in the Workplace, but Is Reported Outside

Retaliation in the workplace has doubled. The Global Business Ethics Survey shows that in 2013, 22 percent of employees experienced retaliation after reporting wrongdoing. In 2017, 44 percent did. This simmering problem is brought to a boil by the almost nonexistent practice of reporting retaliation internally through a whistleblower hotline or incident management system. In 2016, only around 1 percent of internal reports were cases of retaliation. And according to the 2018 Hotline and Incident Management Benchmark Report, that number has dropped to a low of 0.66 percent.

Download Report: 2018 Hotline and Incident Management Benchmark Report

So retaliation is happening – and more so than before; and internal reporting of retaliation is not happening – and less so than before. This means that ethics and compliance programs cannot rely on internal reports to weed out instances of retaliation. They can however, create positive feedback loops that support speak-up cultures. Retaliation may still not be regularly reported within every speak-up culture; however, actively listening to employees raising their voices makes retaliation more risky for potential bad actors.

Increasing the Speed & Forcefulness of Positive Feedback Loops

One of the best avenues to provide quick and poignant feedback is in the moment in which an employee reports. The actions the compliance program takes after receiving a report will determine how employees view the internal incident management process, as well as the organization it supports.

Report intake is not only your best opportunity to ensure successful and timely case resolution, but can also be your only chance to make a good impression on the employee.

This requires making the most out of the initial report. Here is where you need to gather all the facts possible and arrange a follow-up plan giving the employee everything they need to check in on their report. Report intake is not only your best opportunity to ensure successful and timely case resolution, but can also be your only chance to make a good impression on the employee. Lastly, thank the employee for having the courage to come forward and helping better the organization.

Closing reports in a timely manner is your next opportunity for positive feedback. Letting cases drag on indicates to employees that their concerns are not a priority. And even is this is not the case, the perception is all an employee needs to make a judgement on the process.

The majority of reports should be closed within 30 days – and that is already a week longer than the time it takes for retaliation to occur. So whenever possible, cases should be resolved more swiftly. Finally, with resolution should come necessary change. This provides the forcefulness positive feedback loops need to take hold.

Timely incident management and workplace change create the counterbalance workplaces need to weed out retaliation.

Download Guide: Definitive Guide to Incident Management

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