Retaliation against employees involved in reports of workplace misconduct appears to be a growing problem. In its summary of the 2013 “National Business Ethics Survey of the U.S. Workforce,” the Ethics Research Center (ERC) reports an “alarmingly high” rate of retaliation (see “Misconduct is down but retaliation is up” below).
The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission’s (EEOC) 2013 statistics about discrimination and retaliation charges echo the ERC’s findings.
To truly protect employees who report discrimination, harassment, or other misconduct—and to protect your credit union, the alleged perpetrator(s), witnesses, and anyone else involved in such a charge—a prompt, discreet, thorough investigation of the initial complaint isn’t enough.
You must also establish a policy prohibiting retaliation against anyone involved. And you must give employees a clear procedure to follow if they believe they’ve been victims of retaliation.
Retaliating against an employee involved in a misconduct investigation can have at least two dangerous consequences:
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1. Your credit union is exposed to further damages and penalties even if the original report of wrongdoing is found to be untrue.
2. You create a workplace environment that discourages employees from coming forward to report harassment, discrimination, fraud, and other unethical behavior.
Think about public relations disasters you’ve seen in the news involving corporate wrongdoing. Often, it isn’t the original breach of ethics that caused the most damage to the company’s reputation. It’s how management reacted—or failed to react—to the breach.
Trust is critical to the credit union brand. You can’t afford to be seen as an employer who retaliates against aggrieved employees by firing or otherwise mistreating them.
Guard against retaliation
Protecting employees from retaliation is a balancing act. When an employee reports wrongdoing the employer’s due diligence includes investigating the charges quickly and discreetly.
At the same time, the employer must communicate to everyone who may know about the complaint that retaliation won’t be tolerated.
And, of course, the employer must follow through on its anti-retaliation message or no one will take it seriously in the future.
Here are three initial steps you can take to protect employees from retaliation while protecting their privacy:
1. Prohibit retaliation specifically in your employment policies and spell out what it means.
For example, an employee who reports misconduct such as theft, fraud, discrimination, or harassment may not be fired, demoted, denied benefits or promotions, deliberately intimidated, or otherwise mistreated as a result of the complaint.
2. Give employees a clear path to report potential retaliation that allows them to circumvent the accused parties or anyone else who could handle the report unfairly.
Include the choice of a neutral third party to receive retaliation complaints, such as a whistleblower hotline, your state’s department of labor, or the EEOC. Clearly post the complaint procedures in your offices, employee manual, and intranet.
3. Train officers and managers regularly in the handling of an employee’s report of retaliation.
Teach them who to notify first, how to initiate a prompt and discreet investigation, and how to treat all parties involved while the matter is resolved.
Misconduct is Down but Retaliation is Up
Statistics from the Ethics Research Center (ERC) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) seem to agree: Fewer employees are reporting misconduct by their employers, while reports of retaliation against those who do file complaints are on the rise.
Charges against employers filed with the EEOC:
While the total number of charges employees filed with the EEOC jumped during 2010 to 2012 and dropped in 2013—a typical cycle for periods of high unemployment—retaliation against employees who filed charges have steadily increased since 2005.
Misconduct observed vs. retaliation against employees who report it:
Source: “National Business Ethics Survey of the U.S. Workforce,” © 2014 Ethics Research Center
Historically, according to the ERC, corporate misconduct increases as the economy improves, so the ERC expected the misconduct observed to increase in 2013.
Instead, it continued to drop. That’s good news.
However, there was no statistically significant corresponding decrease in the percentage of employees who said their employers retaliated against them for reporting misconduct.
The ERC estimates that a 21% retaliation rate represents more than six million private-sector employees.