How to manage 'activist' employees (Toughest HR Question)

Creating a culture of trust makes it safe for workers to report wrongdoing
By Yaseen Hemeda
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/22/2016

Question: As HR professionals, how can we effectively manage and engage activist employees who have concerns about organizational wrongdoing?


Answer: Activist employees take up causes or issues within their own workplaces that they feel personally affect them or their colleagues. They often become whistleblowers. Whistleblower cases involving companies such as Enron, WorldCom and, most recently, the National Security Agency are reminders that employers must find better ways of managing and engaging with activist-type employees who know of wrongdoing.


What’s alarming is about 42 per cent of working Canadians said they witnessed breaches of ethical conduct in their workplaces and 48 per cent neglected to report it to their employer, according to a 2013 survey by Ipsos Reid.


The vast majority of respondents indicated they did not report wrongdoing because they did not have faith the investigations would be conducted properly. There was also fear of employer retaliation for speaking up.


Similarly, more than one-quarter of employee claims of employer retaliation were substantiated in 2014, compared to only 12 per cent in 2013, according to NAVEX Global’s 2015 Ethics & Compliance Hotline Benchmark Report.


Unfortunately, most whistleblowers face dire consequences for exposing illegal, unethical and underhanded activities. Typical repercussions involve harassment, punitive job transfers, dismissal and even blacklisting within their own professions and industries. Retaliation can be as simple as ostracizing employees.


As a result, these activist employees avoid reporting wrongdoing to HR and decide to blow the whistle externally to media and legal authorities. This is a clear indication HR has failed with its employee engagement and management strategies — but there are best practices HR can follow:


Create whistleblower policies and procedures: Most organizations have a code of conduct and ethics policies; however, it is also important for HR to create specific whistleblower policies and procedures that explain the organization’s stance on whistleblowing, the duty of managers to respond to complaints in a professional and timely manner and, most importantly, protection of employees from reprisals for reporting wrongdoing.


Establish a whistleblower hotline: Many organizations have hotlines for employees to report wrongdoing related to issues such as giving or receiving bribes; however, employers also need to provide hotlines that focus on business ethics, day-to-day employee issues and concerns related to abuse of power by management and even health and safety concerns.


Since employees may not feel comfortable speaking to HR directly, a hotline is a way for them to communicate their concerns confidentially.


Simply having a hotline does not mean it is effective. Employers should evaluate these hotlines in terms of the number of calls received on a monthly and annual basis. And a lack of calls may indicate the whistleblower program and hotline are not functioning effectively.


Sadly, information about an organization’s “hotline” is often hidden within corporate intranets — most employees are not even aware they exist. HR should ensure employees are provided with training and general information explaining its purpose and scope.


Provide training programs: HR professionals should play a leading role in developing whistleblower training programs geared towards senior members of the organization who hold positions of authority, such as directors and managers. Management must understand there will be zero tolerance for any retaliatory measures against employees for voicing their concerns.


Training should also be delivered to lower-level employees to help establish trust in HR and understand their rights and protections from retaliation.


Encourage frequent communication: Effectively managing activist employees also requires managers to have frequent contact and communication with their direct reports. This is where an understanding of employee personality types makes a big difference. For example, some employees prefer face-to-face communication as opposed to email when dealing with issues and concerns.


Managers often feel that because employees are not complaining to them directly, there are no gaps in communication. The worst thing managers can do is ignore or delay responding to that employee as it may cause him to escalate concerns to another source.


HR professionals need to help managers understand that habitually ignoring or ostracizing employees will only make them become stronger activists both internally and externally (which is particularly important given the prevalence of social media).


As a best practice, any member of the organization, from a CEO to a line manager, should make a concerted effort to communicate answers or solutions to employee concerns within one to two weeks maximum. Telling employees “We are still looking into it” over several months is an unacceptable management strategy.


Human resources professionals play a major role in providing the necessary support mechanisms to effectively manage and engage activist employees. Employers and HR professionals should not look at the initiatives as costly, complicated barriers, but see the value in protecting the corporate image and saving the organization potentially millions of dollars in fines or litigation costs or even the potential consequences of a health and safety catastrophe that could have been prevented.


Yaseen Hemeda is a product developer at Carswell in Toronto and co-author of HR Manager’s Guide to Succession Planning. He can be reached at yaseen.hemeda@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.carswell.com.

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