The Importance of Preventing Retaliation in Your Workplace

Corporations have increased their focus on ethics and compliance in the workplace in recent years, and with a great measure of success. According to the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) Fellows Program, a select group of ethics scholars and professionals devoted to the identification and exploration of ethical challenges in the workplace, the data indicates that the considerable time and resources dedicated to ethics training has had a positive impact on the development of an ethical work culture in many organizations.

One issue that threatens to undermine the progress made in corporate ethics and compliance, however, is retaliation. According to research conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management, retaliation has surpassed discrimination as the leading reason for filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Additionally, the EEOC reports that the number of retaliation claims it has received doubled from 1997 to 2011.

What is retaliation?

ERC Fellows defines retaliation as “retribution exacted by coworkers or managers against an employee who has reported workplace misconduct.” Typical examples of retaliation include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Verbal abuse or threats
  • Physical threats or attacks
  • Ignoring or giving the “cold shoulder”
  • Denying raises or promotions
  • Generally making life at work more difficult or uncomfortable

A closer look at the impact of retaliation on reporters

A few statistics further illustrate the pervasiveness of retaliation in the workplace. According to “Retaliation: When Whistleblowers Become Victims,” a supplemental report to the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey conducted by the ERC, 22% of workers who actually reported an act of misconduct indicated they experienced or perceived retaliation because of their actions, an increase of 15% over 2009. Alarmingly, the same report also points out that 30% of retaliation victims said they experienced physical harm to themselves or their property.

The threat of retaliation reduces the likelihood of reporting

While acts of retaliation are harmful in their own right, the mere threat of retaliation or the perception of management indifference can also prove to be a strong deterrent to reporting in the first place. Consequently, acts of misconduct may continue indefinitely, while the wrongdoers go undetected and unpunished. According to a previous National Business Ethics Survey, 59% of employees who said they witnessed misconduct and decided not to report it did so because they believed no corrective measures would be taken by their superiors. 46% indicated they did not report due to fear of retaliation.

What you can do about retaliation in your organization

The ERC Fellows state that there are a number of steps company management can take to prevent retaliation. Measures should include having polices in place to discourage retaliatory acts, along with strong punitive actions for offenders. Examples include:

  • Addressing retaliatory behavior promptly and resolutely
  • Developing and implementing a process of regular follow-up with employees who report misconduct to ensure they are not experiencing retaliation
  • Training supervisors on how to recognize retaliatory behavior and how to avoid taking actions that could be perceived as retaliation
  • Taking the “retaliation temperature” of your employees by conducting surveys that indicate their willingness, or lack thereof, to report an unethical act
  • Making retaliation and its ramifications a prominent part of your company’s code of conduct and other ethics-related policies and procedures
  • Seeking ways to effectively communicate to the organization as a whole regarding instances where those who have retaliated have been punished, without violating the privacy of the parties involved

For more ideas on how you can create a corporate culture that reduces the potential for retaliatory behavior, view the report “Retaliation in the Workplace: Why It Matters and What Companies Can Do About It” by the ERC Fellows Program.

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