Retaliation is Flourishing: What You Can Do about It

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New data on workplace retaliation is out from two key sources – the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) and the EEOC.  Despite fewer incidents of witnessed misconduct and fewer overall charges filed with the EEOC in 2013, reports of retaliation remained the same or increased. It was the most common complaint to the EEOC in 2013 – 41.1 percent of all claims, up 1.9 percent over 2012.  In a business environment where the observed misconduct rate has dropped to a “historic low”, retaliation appears to be flourishing. What is going on? Are we just fighting a losing battle against human nature?

Perhaps we can draw some insight from the just published ERC National Business Ethics Survey 2013 report. While this report finds overall misconduct is down, it shows that “a relatively high percentage of misconduct is committed by managers” – 60 percent. I think we can deduce, given their position, that a good chunk of this misconduct is retaliation. Some potential root causes for management retaliation can be found in recent research.  Let’s explore them further.

Causes of Management Retaliation?

Ignorance – Is it possible that managers do not recognize retaliatory behavior when they are doing it? The ERC data tells us that 69 percent of whistleblowers experienced their supervisor intentionally ignoring or treating the whistleblower differently. Perhaps it is not so intentional.

Take away: If mandatory manager training is not offered to communicate their compliance responsibilities – including how to recognize and avoid retaliation against those who raise issues – now is a good time to do it.

Pressure – Pressure is a seismic force that can make otherwise good people do bad things. Could that include retaliation?  Skewed financial incentives or boss pressure may cause a manager to see a whistleblower, not as a responsible employee, but as an obstacle to reaching his or her goals – especially if the issue raised torpedoed some aspect of the supervisor’s financial success.

Take away: Work with HR and management to avoid creating inappropriate incentives. In performance reviews, include not just achievement of goals, but include how goals are achieved. Educate management on the potentially destructive side of pressure and how to recognize it before it leads to retaliation.

Lack of Accountability – We know from conducting thousands of employee focus groups and surveys that employees believe colleagues who meet their goals, but do not live up to company values, are usually promoted or tolerated (rather than coached, disciplined or terminated) at a median rate of 44 percent. This implies a major lack of corrective action for stepping over the line. So it follows that managers who meet their goals, but who also retaliate, have almost a 50 percent chance of escaping the consequences. Those odds may reinforce bad actors to expect no penalties for their actions. 

Take away: Management should be encouraged and supported to consistently discipline subordinates who violate rules and values – even if they are “great performers.”

Self-interest – We all view ourselves as better than we really are. Therefore, anger may flare when a raised issue feels like a personal attack that is clearly unfair in light of our elevated self-image. Retaliation may feel like an appropriate, natural defense.

Take away: Educate management in self-awareness and to be vigilant for the eruption of these noted human tendencies.

The common themes in combating the retaliation trend appear to be education and guts. (Our own research on retaliation revealed similar findings.) Management seems to need further education about their compliance responsibilities and challenges (including recognizing and avoiding retaliation and an over-inflated self-image) to directly address ignorance and self-interest. Executive leaders who expect, support and model courage by holding themselves and others accountable create a sense of duty to do the same within their chains of command.  Taken together, these actions help management create and maintain a “no retaliation” work environment – and better organizational culture.