A Culture of Openness Pays Off

When I read the results of a recent survey on helpline calls completed by the two prominent compliance associations, the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) and the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA), I started to think about the organizations I’ve worked for in the past. What made me comfortable telling the organization of a perceived situation requiring change? How was the report received?

As noted in the survey results, employees are mainly reporting through internal means. While a company may not know for years of a whistleblower lawsuit, the survey respondents did not indicate a significant rise in these reports made outside of the organization even with the increased attention being paid to whistleblowers and the incentives involved.

What can we do to create an environment where employees are willing to report to their organization?

Build a culture where it’s safe to ask questions and report issues. I’ve not always worked in such a setting and remember vividly addressing an issue with a former employer with less than successful results. In fact my report was met with screaming. When the behavior I reported continued I left the organization. I understand how much courage it takes to report an issue.

Be a good listener. People will talk if they feel they are being heard. Becoming a compliance officer for another organization a few years following my unsuccessful event provided me with the perspective of those reporting either through the helpline or by picking up the phone to talk with the compliance department. Although not all reports are issues, we need to understand that many people reporting an incident are extremely concerned about how their report will be perceived. The organization’s first steps are to listen, collect as much information as possible, and determine if an investigation is warranted. All of this should take place while putting the anxious person at ease.

Understand that most employees report an issue because they care about the organization.My experience has been that most employees want to make the workplace better and if they perceive a threat to the workplace, they want to report it. That was my motivation during my unsuccessful attempt at reporting an issue. The situation did not impact me personally, but I could see how others were impacted and how it affected the business.

Provide the option for anonymous reporting. The purpose of the helpline is to offer an opportunity to report anonymously. At 3M we teach new employees about our helpline during orientation, we have posters around the office with the website and phone number, and information about our helpline is on the intranet. Our goal is to make sure everyone has the opportunity to report.

Teach managers to be open for a report. Managers are in the best position to hear a report from a worried employee. The report does not have to be formal to be significant. Teaching the managers how to respond when such a report is presented to them creates an atmosphere that will foster questions and reports.

Let employees know you value their questions. I try to end most of my calls from employees with a simple “thank you for asking.” That is my way of letting them know it’s safe to ask questions and that I really do appreciate that they took the time to ask. I also try to understand where we could improve our instructions, training, or communications so that others who have the same questions may benefit from this person’s efforts.

Survey respondents indicated that face-to-face reports are on the rise. I believe that’s an indication that organizations are making strides to listen, answer questions, and address issues once reported by employees. For these companies, it’s their payoff for developing a culture of openness.

Camille Cohen is the Compliance Officer with 3M Health Information Systems.

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