Creating a self-regulating ethical environment

Using an ethics hotline can be daunting for many employees

Creating an ethical workplace needs to address improving ethical behaviour and reducing or preventing unethical conduct. Decreasing misconduct is often the greater focus area, and there are a number of ways organisations can work on realising this goal.

An approach which is increasingly being used is by tapping into employees’ knowledge to uncover unethical behaviour. An ethics hotline or ‘whistle-blowing’ system rests on the assumption that, although there are cases when knowledge of wrongdoing is limited to the perpetrator, in most cases there are other people who know, or at least suspect, that something is not right.

An ethics hotline is intended to provide an anonymous channel for employees to report knowledge of misconduct without threat of retribution. But key to its effectiveness is the question: ‘who will tell?’

The answer to this question should be favourably influenced by the fact that this form of ethics reporting enjoys legislative support. The Protected Disclosures Act, the so-called ‘whistle-blower act’, specifically aims to protect employees from occupational disadvantage for reporting wrongdoing. Adding to that, many companies have their own policy and most hotline services are run by external providers, further entrenching the security of reporting.

However, many people are still reluctant to report unethical conduct as they feel vulnerable to a range of adverse consequences. This is especially the case if the misconduct is happening at senior management level or if it is systemic in the organisation.

To optimize the effectiveness of an ethics reporting system, five factors need to be taken into account:

1. The organisational culture needs to be conducive to reporting misconduct. High levels of ethical awareness and transparency can contribute to such an environment.

2. The culture also has to view this type of ethics reporting positively. Often, instead of being seen as a loyal employee speaking out for the benefit of the organisation, the whistle-blower is treated with hostility as an informer. It can – and has - give rise to a situation where the institution ‘shoots the messenger’ for bringing unwelcome news.

3. The effectiveness of an ethics hotline depends on the action that follows the information. If no constructive action follows, employees are less likely to report anything again.

4. What action is taken – such as an internal audit or revision of procedures – should depend on the nature of the issue and needs to be appropriate for the charge. The action must also balance the importance of the charge with the legal principle of ‘innocent until proved guilty’ relative to the accused.

5. An additional, crucial factor is accurate and truthful reporting. The anonymity that offers protection and security for the honest reporter can also create opportunities for false or malicious reporting. Whoever reviews the ethics reports (senior management or the ethics committee) needs to be aware of the potential for abuse or inaccuracy - but without allowing suspicion to undermine or discredit accurate reports received. Creating a responsible review system, which includes a process for verifying the facts, is essential to protect people from false accusations.

Using this approach to reduce unethical behaviour warrants constantly bearing in mind that it not only takes courage to speak out, but it may also take courage to listen. Those tasked with this job may have to face things they don’t want to hear and believe. It is therefore a system which should be used with wisdom.

By Cynthia Schoeman
Published in The Star & The Pretoria News Workplace
6 June 2012