How You Can Better Respond To Workplace Concerns “In Real Time”
“We’re all fine here, we’re fine”. In our work, this is a phrase that we hear all too commonly. An organisation may mistakenly believe that because it has not received any “formal complaints” about staff misconduct, that the workplace is healthy and productive.
In reality, the majority of organisations may have inappropriate interpersonal or unethical conduct occurring in their workplace at any time. But they may only find out when it’s either too late to fully deal with the problem in-house, and/or when an ex-employee activates an external peak-body complaint procedure.
For example, in a report on whistle blowing in the public sector published by Griffith University  71% of people surveyed had observed at least one example of nominated wrong doing in their organisation. Yet despite this, 28% of these people did not report the wrong doing due to a perception that the organisation would do nothing about it.
Even more disturbing, it appears that for every five employees who have allegedly been bullied in the workplace, only one in five will make a formal complaint about it . Likewise, only approximately 3 out of 10 employees who consider that they have been sexually harassed will complain .
So, a lack of formal complaints received at any one time does not necessarily indicate that everyone is being treated appropriately. On the contrary, it may just mean that your organisation’s complaint reporting procedure is not working as well as it should or an attractive option for your staff to access.
The current landscape for employers, however, is moving. The traditional approach of “waiting for a formal complaint” to happen is not sufficient to manage “people risk”. Now, employers must proactively manage how their staff treat each other, and can no longer afford to “do nothing about it” or only wait for complaints to happen.
Specifically, the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act (2010) imposes a positive obligation on employers to implement “reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment or victimisation as far as possible”. Proposed changes scheduled for all Australian workplaces in the Occupational Health and Safety arena impose similar positive duties on employers to take appropriate steps to respond to risks of inappropriate workplace behaviour.
A sound and effective complaint and concerns reporting procedure should therefore be a high priority for all employers.
The Reasons Why Misconduct Is Not Reported
Inaction by employees in the face of misconduct  is an ongoing problem for many organisations. The reasons why employees do not use an existing complaints reporting system can be complex and varied. A common problem is employees’ perception that a complaints system is not “accessible” – it might be difficult to navigate, perhaps the reporting lines are unclear, maybe it requires contact with people with whom the employee has regular contact and therefore it raises concerns about confidentiality.
Indeed, confidentiality and “trust in the process” are integral to a successful complaints handling procedure.
Employees who fear that their complaint will either be the subject of office gossip or who fear the repercussions of making a complaint are less likely to come forward. Employees need to feel that they can make a complaint, swiftly and efficiently and without fear of reprisal. The ability to make a complaint anonymously may also be important to many complainants, but this may not be offered as part of an internal formal complaint process.
The research from Griffith University confirms the importance of a number of other key elements if a whistle blowing program is to be successful in encouraging reporting. Although the research was in relation to whistle blowing in the public sector, it offers fundamental pointers for any complaints handling context.
In particular, the complaints reporting procedure should make clear what complaints are covered and who is covered – whilst this sounds obvious, in our experience employees are often unsure what they should be reporting to whom. It should also be clear how the organisation will coordinate the handling of the specific complaint. The option of using multiple reporting pathways was also identified as important: from reporting to line managers to alternative reporting points in the organisation and external agencies such as Ombudsman’s offices and anti corruption bodies.
This is particularly relevant when the respondent to the complaint is part of the management team.
Why Employers Should Encourage Reports Of Misconduct
In our April newsletter, we examined the financial cost to employers of not dealing with misconduct in the workplace. There are also moral imperatives for encouraging employees to report misconduct in the workplace. It is well documented that employees who feel their concerns are being heard and addressed are far more productive and happy.
In a study conducted by Mary Rowe, Linda Wilcox and Howard Gadlin,  the authors identified the main reasons that people gave for reporting misconduct – emphasising the moral imperative to act, the tangible and intangible rewards for speaking up, having strong evidence on their side, knowing people will help and the reassurance of knowing they are not acting alone.
Moreover, from an HR risk management perspective, the earlier you learn of an allegation of inappropriate behaviour, the more likely it is that you have a number of options for dealing with both the issue at hand and the root cause of the concerns. On the other hand, learning about multiple allegations of for example bullying, and victimisation, stretching out over a year or more, with a huge roll call of witnesses and documentation, can make it extremely difficult to act quickly, creatively and decisively to solve such matters.
How To Further Encourage Employees To Reports Of Misconduct
Demonstrating to employees that you will take concerns of inappropriate workplace behaviour seriously, and, that these concerns do not have to be a formal complaint, will help build employee trust to report misconduct. Furthermore, some individual staff may only feel comfortable in anonymously reporting matters of particular sensitivity or seriousness.
Establishing a secure and confidential forum for employees to register concerns about behaviour they experience or witness in the workplace demonstrates your priority to be proactive and effective in managing “people risk”.
Having an independent but secure reporting service is of particular relevance in the context of complaints of fraud. In this case, the company’s internal reporting lines may be jeopardised by the presence of people involved in the fraud’s perpetration.
Similarly, an independent hotline can be useful where a high level executive is involved – imagine how differently things might have turned out if David Jones had been able to offer its employees access to an independent complaint handling service.
An independent service can also be attractive to complainants who wish to make a report but fear the repercussions in the workplace or retribution from a colleague. The option of reporting complaints anonymously deals with this scenario.
The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) in the United States considers that hotlines are the most effective method of identifying fraud in the workplace. It has found that organisations without an anonymous hotline suffer median losses from fraud more than twice of that found in organisations with an anonymous reporting mechanism in place.
There are also ongoing benefits to the organisation, including the early intelligence of concerns, and dealing effectively with matters before they escalate. The recent David Jones case also demonstrated the chasm that can exist between what is occurring at “the coal face” and the knowledge of the board. An independent hotline can eradicate this problem. One option is for regular “unfiltered” reporting of all complaints and concerns received by an independent reporting line to be communicated directly to the Board as part of employee risk management.
In addition, the information gleaned by studying the complaints and concerns made provides vital insight into organisational culture and behaviour: “weak spots”, trends, training needs and process improvements are identified.
Employers need to deal proactively with employees behaving badly. Progressive organisations will provide their employees with the means of reporting any complaints and concerns in real time.
This will enable targeted interventions that proactively improve workplace culture and behaviours.
 “Trends in Bullying in the Victorian Public Sector People Matter Survey 2004 – 2010”. www.ssa.vic.gov.au
 See HREOC’s 2008 national telephone survey: www.humanrights.gov.au
 Known as “the bystander effect”
 Mary Rowe, Linda Wilcox @Howard Gadlin “Dealing with – or reporting – “Unacceptable Behaviour, Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, Vol 2, 2009
 Ethic Point White paper