What Tech Companies Need to Do to Combat Retaliation

Despite some recent signs that the tech sector was beginning to learn from its mistakes, new research shows that too many tech employees still fear backlash after reporting workplace incidents.

Late last month, the anonymous app Blind surveyed nearly 4,400 employees from major tech companies, and 41.4 percent said they had experienced retaliation from management or HR after reporting an incident.

That tracks with EEOC data from 2017, which showed that retaliation was the No. 1 charge, representing nearly half of the reports to the commission.

Complicating the matter (and not just for the tech sector) the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2018 refused to broaden protections for whistleblowers who call out misconduct unless they do so directly to the Securities and Exchange Commission. This has the perverse effect of discouraging employees from speaking up internally.

Some of the biggest names in technology have been lambasted of late in the headlines for compliance failures, notably involving sexual harassment. I wrote earlier this year how the tech sector might be breaking its silence, and noted that prominent whistleblower plaintiff attorney Jordan Thomas has put Silicon Valley on notice. But clearly, the tech sector – like many others – has a long way to go.

The Tech Sector’s Unique Situation

Some of the biggest compliance failures in recent years have involved big-name technology companies. That’s troubling for a part of the economy built around innovation and new ways of thinking – and we can only really speculate as to why it’s happening. But a few possibilities come to mind.

when the right culture and processes weren’t implemented early, they’re sometimes dismissed as unnecessary. 

Many tech companies that get into trouble are companies that have grown fast – sometimes from a handful of programmers in a room to thousands of employees in just a few years. In situations like that, when the right culture and processes weren’t implemented early, they’re sometimes dismissed as unnecessary. Then, a few years go by, and problems start piling up.

There’s also the fact that the tech sector is built around relentless innovation and trying new things. Cast against that mindset, more-established compliance and HR practices can feel stodgy and be shrugged off. Finally, the establishment of organizational culture doesn’t immediately provide a payoff. That’s somewhat antithetical to the tech sector, in which quick payoffs and immediate returns are rewarded.

What Tech Companies Need to Do

The prescription for establishing the right culture within technology companies isn’t that different than what works in other industries. While following established playbooks isn’t exactly Silicon Valley 101, tech leaders should learn from other industries’ success (and failures).

First, they should work to establish a system in which employees can report problems internally in a variety of ways. These mechanisms must be communicated to employees and the results must be scrutinized. For instance, it’s not typically a good sign if a reporting system isn’t producing many results. It could mean that employees don’t trust it or think that using it will do any good.

To bat down cynicism, organizations must effectively check into reports using well thought out investigative protocols – ones that cover an array of incident types.

It’s important that the protocol ensure reporting employees feel comfortable coming forward and not retaliated against.

Finally, frontline managers need to be trained in dealing with whistleblowers. Keep in mind that hotlines are just one way employees come forward. Managers must be equipped with the people skills and knowledge in these situations – and receive training on when and how to investigate a report.  Elusive and evolving concepts like what is “protected activity” require targeted manager training.

Don’t Count on Being Invincible

Considering the Blind findings and headlines surrounding compliance failures, it’s clear that too many companies in the tech sector think they’re invincible because of the strength of their products. That might work for a while, until a major compliance failure shakes an organization to its core.

Tech companies – particularly ones that have grown quickly – ought to consider creating carefully worded employee engagement surveys to gauge how things are within their organizations. Such a survey, conducted anonymously, might provide the motivation to fix long-festering problems.

Otherwise, fines, litigation and reputational damage – to the organization and its leaders – could be right around the corner.

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