Three Pieces to the Retaliation Puzzle

A friend recently sent me a blog post advising employees how to diplomatically raise ethical workplace issues. Doing so may help prevent career damage and, in some instances, allow the problem to be investigated and resolved. The same week, I read an article written by a labor and employment lawyer who discussed how to avoid retaliation claims in terms of what is said and documented, including other minefields to avoid. Both made legitimate points, but each failed to address what I see as the most important issue.

Diplomatically raising issues and following some basic rules to avoid retaliation claims are important steps. But ultimately the real focal point is what organizations and leaders do every day to find out about underlying problems that can later serve as the basis for retaliation and whistleblower claims. As I browsed on Amazon recently, I read reviews of No One Would Listen, Harry Markopolos’ account of how he tried for years to alert the Security and Exchange Commission and the investment community of Bernard Madoff’s outrageous fraud. From what I read there and in other reports, he employed every tactic short of skywriting warnings over Manhattan to report Madoff’s crimes. As he writes, no one would listen.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the simple steps that organizations can take to communicate a willingness to find out about issues. Pairing an organizational commitment with appropriate leader responses is the key to finding out about problems, fixing them, and in the process avoiding retaliation. But avoiding retaliation while failing to address the underlying problems is a hollow victory when concerns involve issues such as safety, financial misdeeds, and product defects. It’s important to remember that the purpose of rules prohibiting retaliation is to encourage employees to come forward with problems sooner rather than later, so that they can be fixed sooner rather than later.

Here’s my prescription for what managers can do to make this commitment come alive:

  • Let your team members know you want to know about problems. Do this regularly and informally.
  • When someone wants to tell you about a problem, set aside time to listen. Turn off your phone and BlackBerry.
  • Make sure you fully understand the issue and don’t judge it. This includes what you say and how you say it. Grimaces, head shakes, and eye rolling communicate a lot.
  • Let the person know you appreciate hearing about the problem. Get back to them, either directly or via others, to report back on what’s being done to address the problem.
  • Don’t discuss the issues raised with colleagues or co-workers, unless they have a role in addressing the issues. This needs to be seen as a business not personal problem.

Remember the three pieces to the retaliation puzzle: How complaints are raised, what the organization does to encourage their airing, and how leaders act and respond to the employees bringing them forward should all be part of a strategy to effectively prevent, detect, and correct problems. This is the hallmark of prudent leadership and legality.

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