The concept of speak up culture is well known in compliance circles. But what happens when the listen up culture is lacking? As a recent Senate hearing shows, engendering a culture of compliance requires a two-way street.
As ethics and compliance professionals, we’re always looking for real-world scenarios to demonstrate to our stakeholders the consequences of failing to follow our mission, values, code of conduct, policies and procedures.
The recent Senate hearing in which U.S. gymnasts recounted their experiences with the FBI in the Larry Nassar case is one of those cases. Above all else, it highlights the importance of compliance culture.
But it is also a good example for organizations with a “speak up” and investigation culture to see if they are living up to expectations and performing as they should:
- How confident are we that our employees will speak up or know where to go if they see something?
- How confident are we that our managers will know what to do if one of their employees comes to them with a concern?
- How confident are we that reporters are being listened to and not brushed off?
- How confident are we that all investigations are treated the same way?
- How confident are we in transparency throughout the investigation process?
After hearing the accounts of the four gymnasts who spoke up with their stories only to be ignored by the FBI, I wonder how we can be sure that our own employees will be willing to do the same.
They Spoke, But Nobody Listened
Allegations against Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor, go back decades. But the FBI was aware of alleged incidents of abuse for months before any actions were taken to initiate criminal proceedings against him.
The women who spoke up about Nassar took a brave first step, and they are owed a huge thank-you for doing so. However, the fact that the FBI was aware of some allegations against Nassar in July 2015 but did not act for more than a year is indicative of a huge breakdown in speak up culture. We have been asking this of our employees for years — if you see something, say something. But if this part of speak up culture worked, why, how and when did a breakdown occur?
We can turn to the FBI Inspector General’s (IG) report for answers to these questions. In the report, the IG says that the FBI repeatedly failed to act. One of the agents may have lied to cover up that inaction. The report also showed that the FBI interviewed only one of the three victims who came forward and did nothing for eight months.
Another interesting tidbit shared in the report was that the agent running the FBI field office in Indianapolis at the time of the investigation was in talks with the U.S. Olympic Committee for a position as chief security officer. He even met with the CEO of USA Gymnastics for beers to discuss the public relations strategy over the investigations. Can anyone say red flag warning?
Not only was there an obvious conflict of interest, but no one took the report seriously. No one listened to what the gymnasts were saying, going so far as to treat the women as adversaries instead of victims, gymnast Aly Raisman told the Senate committee. The FBI, she said, “made me feel my abuse didn’t count.” She said an agent sat with her, “trying to convince me that it wasn’t that bad.” Gymnast Simone Biles said, “I cried, and there was just silence” when she recounted the abuse to an FBI agent.
How to Build a Listen Up Culture
Having a speak up culture may only be part of the puzzle to protect our organizations and our employees. The other part of the puzzle we need to solve is the creation and fostering of a listen up culture.
We need to invest in a listen up culture to ensure that we’re training and monitoring anyone who intakes an employee’s concern to ensure they know how to properly handle that concern and that they follow through. Who falls into this category? Managers, human resources, compliance teams, senior leaders — anyone an employee may reach out to when they’re ready to speak up.
What does a listen up culture look like?
- An atmosphere where employees feel comfortable and safe going to someone with their concerns, because they know they will be heard.
- Listening with empathy and gathering all the facts from the reporter without making any snap judgment or dismissing the concern.
- Thanking them for coming forward.
- Sharing all the information collected immediately with the compliance team, assisting in the investigation and following up.
- Never taking part in retaliation and being on the lookout for signs of retaliation in others.
There may be a battle brewing over speak up vs. listen up culture. But as the tragic circumstances surrounding the sexual abuse of American gymnasts and the ineffective investigation into their abuser illustrates, both sides of the equation are equally important if organizations want to ensure their policies, procedures and code of conduct are followed.