As the situation with COVID-19 evolves, a huge oncoming wave of lawsuits is imminent, and legal and compliance issues could cause yet another crisis if not addressed properly. Vault Platform CEO Neta Meidav discusses what this could mean for the future of work.
In recent years, we have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of high-profile employee complaints directed at employers through external channels such as social media. These public challenges have been launched under the banners of movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter by employees increasingly disillusioned with their organizations as internal shortcomings in internal reporting channels have become apparent.
Scandals such as Cambridge Analytica and the Panama Papers prompted the European Council to establish better protection for those reporting corporate wrongdoing in the public interest. As a result, the European Union’s Directive for the protection of persons reporting on breaches of Union law, otherwise known as the EU Whistleblower Protection Directive, was established.
Now, as the situation with COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests evolves, we expect to see a huge wave of lawsuits resulting from workers focused on legal and compliance issues rooted in organizations’ failure to keep their workforce physically and psychologically safe. A change in attitudes has come about as a result of the pandemic, with personal safety climbing higher on the agenda than even career development, which will in turn result in changing demands on employers as the workplace evolves.
The New “Normal”
The aggregated impact of lockdown, business closures, widespread unemployment and job insecurity has resulted in a significant shift in how individuals view work and what is important to them. For those transitioning back into the physical workplace, employees are demanding a greater sense of safety – especially physical safety. Amazon and Walmart have already faced public backlash as employees reported that not enough safety measures have been put into place to stop the potential spread of the virus. The meat industry has also been put under the microscope after a disproportionately high number of infections.
In the U.S., OSHA has put increased requirements on companies to investigate and document the potential vectors of infection for any employee that contracts COVID-19. Businesses need to have comprehensive safety measures in place so they are not faced with accusations and potential lawsuits if an employee contracts the virus at work. The accountability demanded of employers is set to result in greater leverage for employees, and organizations must be prepared to respond accordingly and have sufficient plans in place to conduct ethical internal procedures.
For a vast majority of businesses that don’t rely on workers being on location, COVID-19 has forced them to shift to online models, and many businesses will look to keep remote working in the future; in fact, Twitter and Facebook are among the large organizations that have already announced permanent plans to implement permanent “work from home” models. This shift to remote working will present different challenges not least because the employee’s physical workplace is changing. It is ethically incumbent on businesses to ensure an employees’ home workplace is as secure and safe as their actual physical workplace, but on top of this, they also need to consider the emotional and mental well-being of their employees as they face working in isolation long term.
As working from home becomes the norm, people’s personal and working worlds have become more intertwined. Primary communication has moved to digital channels, such as Slack and WhatsApp, and as a result, we will now see harassment, discrimination and bullying escalate digitally as vectors shift in tandem with communication choices.
Creating a Speak-Up Culture
Our own research over the last year has found that bullying and discrimination were reported as the most prominent types of misconduct in the workplace (70 percent and 54 percent respectively), so it is therefore essential that businesses adopt new reporting tools that are reflective of the changing working environment.
Businesses seem to understand the requirements of the challenge. Our research also found that 68 percent of key stakeholders in HR, legal and compliance say the best way to tackle workplace misconduct is through a speak-up culture. However, there is currently a huge disconnect with what companies say is being done and what is being done. The challenge became clear when we asked employees why they chose not to speak up about misconduct: 51 percent said they were worried it would affect their job, and 43 percent felt it would not be taken seriously.
The disconnect is between the words and the action. Businesses say they are addressing the issue, but employees aren’t seeing the action. When it comes to digital-first communications at work, many employers are not adequately prepared for handling misconduct claims. Companies need to address this problem or risk facing further legal action from individuals who feel they have fallen through the cracks when it comes to having their voice heard.
It is essential to safeguarding the future of work – in whatever form it might take – that employers implement easily accessible internal “speak-up” tools to create a safe and secure way for employees to voice concerns and have them addressed before they escalate. Whether it’s over discrimination, harassment or health and safety concerns, businesses must make speaking up a fundamental element of their company values and culture.
It has become clear that employees are tired of just hearing words from employers; they want to see action. By practicing what they preach, employers can begin to rebuild trust with their employees. Leadership and management must set the example from the top down and encourage employee relations groups to do the same from the bottom up.
Creating a robust compliance culture protects the business, its directors, staff and shareholders. Companies need to direct employees to internally available resources and ensure easy access to those resources and policies – including digital apps. Implementing a safe and secure way for employees to voice concerns and have these concerns addressed limits the risk of escalation to external channels and regularly reminds employees that their concerns will be heard and addressed. The need for a new approach to combating such issues has been prevalent for some time; legacy tools such as hotlines are simply not suited to the way we live and work today.
We are at a pivotal moment in history. With companies experiencing backlash for their lack of support for employees during the COVID pandemic and now their response to the Black Lives Matter protests, businesses are being held to account more than ever before. We’ve had a glimpse of what can be achieved under a global movement with #MeToo. If companies do not have adequate mechanisms to respond to and resolve these challenges internally, employees will continue to seek out external resources to ensure that their voices are heard.