5 Mistakes Businesses Make When Addressing Ethics Complaints

Every company in business today must have some form of corporate ethics involved in the management of their organization. High profile failings in this area, by groups like Wells-Fargo and AIG, underscore this point. Some businesses, like financial services companies, banks, or organizations that routinely handle their customers private information, require significant ethical oversight.

For these organizations a lapse in ethical behavior could mean an adverse outcome for millions of people. People who won’t likely engage that company’s services again. Thus bad ethics can be bad business, too.

Other businesses, though perhaps less obviously vulnerable to a lapse in ethics, must enforce codes of conduct so as to ensure a safe and efficient work space for their employees. In this way, even a lemonade stand is well served to address ethics.

And implementing a code of conduct isn’t enough, ethical goals can only be realized when complaints are taken seriously and acted upon.

But just because instituting a system of corporate ethics has become the norm, does not mean that all businesses are good at handling ethical issues. Today, we’ll look at 5 common mistakes companies can make when dealing with an ethics complaint.

One: Ignoring Complaints

You may think this one is so obvious it needn’t be stated. Unfortunately, that’s not true. The most common cause of long term ethical problems is an organization’s refusal to take those problems seriously at the outset. Unethical behavior is often like an infection. When other employees see that a rule-breaker has gone unpunished, they’ll begin breaking the rules as well. Complaints must be investigated and acted upon quickly to ensure ethical compliance.

Two: Failure to Maintain Objectivity

Sometimes a business may take complaints seriously, but lose the confidence of its employees by “playing favorites.” Management may think that employees won’t notice if a particularly talented producer is given special privileges–but they will. And when they do, they’ll be more likely to take special privileges with their ethical obligations, too.

Three: Discouraging Self-Reporting by Limiting Avenues of Redress

The old adage asks: who watches the watchmen? This is a particularly salient question when it comes to ethics reporting and enforcement. Efficient organizations will develop multiple avenues for employees to police themselves. If a company has a single HR representative or manager that handles all complaints and all types of complaints, that individual suddenly has a tremendous amount of power. If that person begins to show favor or behave unethically, the entire system will break down. Having different methods, avenues of reporting, and/or multiple investigators is the easiest way to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Four: Failure to Complete an Investigation

Ethics investigations require finality. Although accusations are meant to be private, gossip abounds. Accused parties who are cleared of accusations should feel vindicated. Parties that have been found to be in breach of their obligations should face consequences so that other employees will not repeat their mistakes, and the victims of bad behavior will also feel vindicated. All of this creates a better, more stable, work environment.

Five: Failure to Document Appropriately

Finally, one of the most critical mistakes an ethics investigator can make is the failure to properly document their investigation. Often internal investigations may later be depended upon as part of any legal proceeding that may occur, and if serious wrongdoing has taken place, a shoddy investigation could lead to the perpetrator getting away with their misdeeds. When an errant employee gets away with bad behavior, more bad behavior is likely to follow.