Encouraging People To Speak Up With Threats Of “Legal Consequences”

Adam Balfour

by Adam Balfour

I was recently looking at the ethics helpline intake process of another organization. The intake process included the following two sentences:

“You are protected from retaliation if you report in good faith to the best of your knowledge. At the same time, malicious reports are prohibited and may lead to legal consequences.”

Perhaps the organization has had a number of problems involving malicious reports and feels the second sentence is necessary, but I can’t help but wonder what the impact of such a message is on someone who is raising a valid concern in good faith and already worried about what the process will be like and how they will be treated. Such a message is likely to cause people to question whether speaking up is worth the risk or think they are safer speaking up anonymously – neither outcome is beneficial for the individual, the organization or the organizational culture.

Properly conducted and timely investigations can reveal when matters are raised without any real or good faith basis, but I don’t think most organizations have a problem of malicious reports – the bigger and more common problems relate to underreporting, nothing being done once an issue has been raised and the treatment of people who do speak up (they are treated badly and/or they experience other negative consequences).

Rather than making people think the organization will sue them for speaking up, organizations can, and should, recognize that people who speak up are people who care and aim to make the process less painful.

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