Ethical companies, by definition, have a robust system for internal organizational justice.
A company that suffers from unequal treatment of similarly situated executives, managers, and employees cannot maintain an ethical culture. Unequal justice will undermine employee morale, reporting of misconduct, and overall productivity rapidly. Cynicism breeds contempt, and there is nothing like employee discontent when it comes to the sustainability of corporate productivity.
To ensure a robust system of organizational justice, a company has to maintain five important building blocks:
Senior Executive Commitment to Reporting Problems: A company’s CEO and senior executives have to articulate and demonstrate through actions that the company is committed to responding to complaints and employee concerns. A consistent message is one thing, but consistent actions are quite another. Words can become empty with a failure to act or an incorrect response to a situation.
Effective Avenues for Reporting Concerns: A company has to offer everyone access to an available mechanism for reporting concerns. This should include the ability to communicate anonymous concerns for employees who need such assurances. The mechanism for collecting these concerns has to be responsive, available, and timely in handling and following up on employee concerns.
A Fair, Responsive, and Timely Internal Investigation Protocol: Once a complaint or concern is reported, the company has to adhere to a set of procedures that are internally published and communicated to everyone in the company. Internal investigations have to follow pre-defined procedures and be conducted fairly. Every investigation has to be completed in a timely manner. Routine investigations should be completed in 60 to 90 days. More significant investigations will obviously require more time.
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Consistent and Fair Disciplinary Resolutions: Assuming that a company conducts its investigations fairly and in a timely manner, those that are substantiated have to be resolved consistent without regard to the person’s seniority. In other words, similarly situated offenders have to be treated the same. If a lower-level employee is given harsher discipline than a high-level executive who commits the same infraction, organizational justice will be undermined. Employee perception of the resolution of internal investigations is critical to ensure morale.
One way to ensure consistent resolution of disciplinary cases is to create a committee of representatives from key corporate functions and require them to resolve investigations by imposing appropriate disciplinary actions. A committee often is an important mechanism to ensure consistency and fair treatment.
Protection of Whistleblowers: A company that does not protect its whistleblowers and complainants is doomed to suffer from dysfunctional justice. It is one thing to say that you protect whistleblowers; it is another to take action against someone in the company who retaliated against a whistleblower.
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Perhaps the most effective way to promote organizational justice is to discipline an executive, a manager, or employee who has retaliated against an employee for raising a concern. The company’s message, in disciplining an employee for retaliation, will be seen as a significant commitment by the company to promote reporting of employee concerns.
It is very difficult to identify retaliation in most cases because it can be done very subtly and through a variety of indirect actions (or omissions).