Your organization may have defined processes and outlets for employees to share compliance issues with your HR team. If so, you’re already on the right track. Creating a safe outlet for employees to be able to report issues like harassment, threats of harm or violence, potential litigation, procedural violations, etc. is important. Following up on these compliance issues is critical. Being aware of these types of issues can help your organization stay in front of potential legal action, and can help keep your employees safe from danger. What happens when these reported issues come to you either anonymously (no name attached to the reported issue) or confidentially (name is attached, but not reported)? Either way, you may feel like your hands are tied, but I’d like to share some tips that can help you manage these issues that feel difficult to resolve. People Element collects compliance issues that are reported through our employee surveys, and shares them regularly with our client’s HR teams. We’re often consulted on the best ways to manage and follow up on issues that are reported confidentially. Below are my recommendations for how to deal with these issues, which is always better than doing nothing with them.
Tip #1 – Look for identifying information within the comment.
Sometimes, feedback that is submitted confidentially will have some identifiable information within the comment that can help you follow up. For example, a confidential comment may come through that says “When I was working in the Marketing department…” We may not know who submitted the comment, but at least now we know that the issue can be isolated to the Marketing department. If you can read through a comment and narrow down where the issue might have occurred, that can provide some insight into who you can follow up with. When we report compliance issues to our clients, we will break confidentiality only in the most extreme cases – if someone is threatening harm to themselves or others. But we’ve been able to help clients follow up on less severe confidential issues simply by looking for identifiable information within a comment, which can help you keep track of themes in an area.
Tip #2 – Keep track of themes within a location, department, or job title.
We can report confidential red flag issues back to our clients with a location and sometimes even department or job title demographic associated with it. That way, even if a compliance issue comes in without any identifiable information, we can provide some of those identifiers as long as it doesn’t break an employee’s confidentiality. For example, a comment might be reported that says “I was being verbally abused by my coworkers.” The employee doesn’t tell us what department he or she was working in, or even at which location the verbal abuse was coming from. The benefit of working with a third party is that as long as we’re not breaking our strict confidentiality threshold, we can provide demographic information with a comment like that, so a client will know what location and possibly which department the employee was working in when the incident occurred. Right now you might be thinking “Ok great, but what if I’m not working with you and I still need to manage my compliance issues?” I still highly recommend that you keep track of department/job title/location themes as best you can, to identify patterns of complaints or compliance violations. If anonymous comments come in and there is any identifiable info in them, keep track of that. If you start to notice a pattern of complaints from a certain location or group, it is more likely worth further investigation into that group.
Tip #3 – Do not try to find out who said what.
Keep it safe for people to report confidentially or anonymously. If employees feel like it’s not safe to report concerns or complaints without retribution, I can almost guarantee that you’ll stop hearing about these compliance issues altogether. It is important to reiterate this idea with people outside of HR who you may be following up with regarding compliance issues. For instance, if you are following up with a department manager about a reported issue, remind the manager not to go on a “witch hunt,” to try to find out who complained. This can make everyone feel uncomfortable and can make it feel unsafe to report issues to you. I believe it’s more important in the long run to protect the safety and anonymity of the issue-reporting process than to find out who said what just so you can follow up on an issue. Sometimes being aware of an issue is all you can do, which leads me to my last tip…
Tip #4 – Resolve the issue, even if the resolution is “not enough information to pursue”.
If you’ve done all you can to follow up on an issue without harming the reporting process, sometimes all you can do is read the issue and mark it as read or resolved, even if the resolution is “there’s nothing we can do with this, considering the amount of information we have.” I do recommend recording that information somewhere, so that in the future if you need to show that you were aware of an issue, you’ve documented that you’ve done all you can with the information you have.
The process of following up on complaints and compliance issues can be tough, especially when the information you receive is reported confidentially. It can feel like you’re in a helpless situation, and sometimes you really might be. But I hope that these tips can help you manage these issues as much as you can and feel confident that you’ve done everything you can do to follow up on issues effectively while maintaining the integrity of the issue-reporting process.