Every year, thousands of businesses in the United States are forced into bankruptcy because of issues involving corporate ethics. A failure to enforce your code of conduct may not come to mind as the most serious threat your business is facing–but whether business is good or bad has little to do with combating the threat of abuse in your work space. Put another way, ethics issues are “evergreen,” they can occur at any point and in any circumstance. In fact, some of the worst ethics violations in Wall Street history occurred when the companies in question were posting better than expected numbers and turning record breaking profits.
The best way to protect your organization from losing resources to government audits, regulator imposed fines and fees, legal settlements, and court costs is to implement an effective system of ethics reporting and compliance.
Such a system must identify problems, bad conduct, the potential victims of said bad conduct, and it must protect the identities of the reporting parties so as to encourage the continued use of this system. The worst thing that can happen to an ethics complaint is for it to go unanswered and unattended to. Employees will take note, and unethical behavior may flourish.
To that end, every complaint must be investigated–and for those investigations to be worth your organization’s time and money, they must be conducted professionally and in accordance with the law. And while some of the specific rules and regulations governing internal investigations may change from place to place, the following suggestions are generally applicable to most organizations operating in most industries.
One: Make A Plan
Ethics investigations are often complex undertakings. Even an issue that might seem relatively straightforward can get complicated fast. Allegations of sexual harassment, for instance, might seem simple: did employee x do something inappropriate towards employee y? But when you begin to consider issues of power dynamics, the overlapping authority of different managers and departments, and other complex workplace dynamics, the picture can begin to get somewhat fuzzy.
An unorganized investigation is almost worse than no investigation at all. An inexperienced investigator may, through hamfisted and obvious efforts, cause false rumors and other bad-news to circulate in the workplace. The worst case scenario a company can face is an investigation botched so badly that it ultimately requires another, separate, investigation of its own.
Two: Maintain Anonymity
As we’ve discussed elsewhere here, maintaining the anonymity of complainants is probably the most important aspect of completing an investigation into conduct and ethics violations. If an employee thinks they may be exposed as a potential “rat” or “snitch,” they may fear reprisal from the accused party or their friends in management.
Remember, all business is conducted by people–and people aren’t perfect. An employee has the right to expect anonymity and protection from management. If they see management playing fast and loose with this right, they are far less likely to report bad behavior, or co-operate as a witness after the fact.
Three: Choose A Professional
Finally, many businesses do not have the resources to conduct wide ranging investigations into their own employees and management. That’s why, for many small and middle-sized businesses, hiring an outside legal and/or human resources consultant may be the best route when attempting to tackle an ethics investigation. Experienced ethics professionals can help your organization establish effective reporting protocols (like an anonymous hotline). They can even help you conduct this very kind of inquiry should your company be in the painful, though common, circumstance of having to investigate one of your own.