How to Nurture a Speak-Up Culture in the Era of Speak-Up Apps

If ethics and compliance officers ever needed one more reason to embrace a speak-up culture, here it is: thanks to modern technology, employees are already speaking among themselves more loudly than ever before.

Employees are already speaking among themselves more loudly than ever before.

The latest vehicle for all this speaking up is a wave of anonymous online chat apps. They are free, easily installed on a person’s phone or computer, and let employees talk incognito about what’s really happening at their place of business.

The example making the rounds is Blind, available from a Korean technology firm. People first install Blind on their device. Blind then verifies that you work where you claim, by sending a confirmation to your work email address. (Yes, that’s a bone of contention for some people, but for others it isn’t.) Once you are confirmed, Blind deletes identifying personal data and you can join the chat group for your company.

Generally Blind requires a “critical mass” of at least 200 people before it creates a discussion group for a company, to ensure anonymity—but once that threshold is crossed and the group is running, people can talk to their hearts’ content. Blind claims it has active groups for hundreds of companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Korean Air.

Blind gained attention because Amazon employees used it to scorch the company recently after an incident took place on company property. In truth, however, these apps are only the latest incarnation of an old concept. In the 1990s was an early online location to complain about your job; still is. Others have come and gone, all with the same premise: a place for workers to talk about their employers anonymously.

How to Handle Anonymous Apps

From a legal perspective, interfering with employees’ use of these apps is risky, and perhaps not worth the effort.

For example, the National Labor Relations Act (which applies to private companies as well as public ones) protects employees’ right to gather and talk about working conditions. Blocking access to these apps on the company network could be construed as interference, exposing the company to enforcement by the National Labor Relations Board.

On the other hand, if employees are sharing proprietary information, that could be construed as violating non-disclosure clauses in employment contracts. So do companies have an interest in watching these apps and website? Yes.

Right away, then, compliance officers should communicate to managers that these apps are a delicate matter, and only certain executives should take action in response to them. (Just imagine the risk if, say, an operations executive started interrogating employees who were complaining about work conditions in his or her department.)

Still, even if your company could craft a legal reason to thwart employees’ use of these apps—from an ethics & compliance officer’s perspective, why would you want to do that? The message that action would send is clear: the company dislikes criticism. Then employees would simply move to an even more private, anonymous medium.

The real question is how compliance officers can harness anonymous discussion forums to further the cause of an ethical culture. Doing so isn’t easy, since privacy is what the users value. As soon as they know management is present, they behave differently.

Build Your Culture and Stick to It

Keep educating employees about the right way to conduct themselves, and create work environments where they can perform ethically.

Consider what these chat apps are fundamentally about: creating a place for employees to talk that exists away from the eyes of management. That’s not much different than a teenager wanting mom and dad to stay out of his bedroom.

And within that analogy lies one possible strategy. Because if you raise your child so that he or she makes good choices and handles responsibility well, then you generally can stay out of the bedroom except in an emergency. Conversely, if you leave children to their own devices, then by the time they are teenagers, that bedroom is Ground Zero for all sorts of misbehavior.

Those concepts fit here, too. Compliance officers shouldn’t bother to fight the existence of chat apps, since venues for employee gossip will always exist. A much better goal is to prevent the abuse of chat apps, where they become free-fire zones for all manner of conduct that runs counter to the corporate culture you want.

Ultimately these apps let employees create a culture separate from what the compliance function seeks to nurture.

And the best way to do that is to keep educating employees about the right way to conduct themselves, and to create work environments where they can perform ethically. Then, like responsible teenagers, they can generally be trusted to hang out in their room.

That might mean issuing a frank communication to workers, telling them the company knows they use chat apps but won’t seek to control the conversation. It probably should mean reminders that sharing confidential information can be grounds for disciplinary action. And it definitely means constant effort to encourage a speak-up culture within the organization, rather than outside it.

Ultimately these apps let employees create a culture separate from what the compliance function seeks to nurture. You won’t be able to stop that. You can, however, foster a corporate culture strong and respectful enough that employees carry those values and behaviors into those chat rooms. That’s victory.

Chat with a solutions expert to learn how you can take your compliance program to the next level of maturity.

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