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Hashtag or Hotline? How Sexual Misconduct Changed Whistleblowing

Social media has changed the way a generation communicates, shares information and breaks news. Will it change the way our workforce reports misconduct and blows the whistle on unethical behavior? 

Hashtag or hotline?

Can a hashtag replace a hotline? If you've never considered that question before, one look at the #MeToo movement and sexual misconduct scandals should demonstrate that it's time to start, because in 2017, the traditional approach of speaking up and reporting misconduct has changed and social networks might be at the root. 

The traditional approach of reporting through hotlines, HR, and legal often yields mixed results based on the corporate culture of an organization. The consequences of speaking up through these internal channels, including potential retaliation, reputational damage, or being flat-out ignored, can be scary enough to keep people quiet altogether.

In cultures where high levels of trust and transparency are encouraged and demonstrated from the top-down, people may feel more comfortable speaking up and going through this process. Yet, this year demonstrates that when that culture is not fostered, employees may take matters in their own hands in ways that can destroy reputations and brands. 

The new approach to reporting incidents, most recently through social media channels and news outlets, is likely frowned upon by those in ethics and compliance roles as it skips internal procedures and ignores the organizational policies. The ability to silence or sweep matters under the rug is almost impossible; everyone, regardless of rank or role, now has a megaphone with unlimited volume in the palm of their hand. 

For companies, this trend may seem microscopic in the grand scheme of incident reporting volume. But, it does signal the growing need to find new ways to facilitate incident reporting. And, most importantly, reinforces the importance of creating a culture where employees can trust that their concerns will be taken seriously and addressed promptly. When people feel isolated or alienated by the processes put in place within their organization they find ways to band together through new platforms, created in real-time, outside of their organization.

Here's an example of what this looks like in reality and how effective it can be as an alternative to traditional internal reporting processes. 

In October 2017, Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the Hollywood powerhouse Weinstein Company, was exposed by the New York Times for his long history of assault, harassment, and egregious misconduct. The story, and subsequent response, led to a resurgence of the long-dormant #MeToo movement on October 15th; it has served as a platform for men and women around the world to collectively speak-up on their own terms by rallying against the aggressors of sexual misconduct. 

Within days, #MeToo was the #1 trending topic globally on Twitter and had been applied to 1.7 million tweets across 85 countries with an additional 12 million references on Facebook. The image below demonstrates the sheer volume of conversations happening around the world using this hashtag. 

The story on Weinstein and the #MeToo movement have led to increased media attention on reports of misconduct across industries, an escalated response from the organizations employing these professionals, and even self-reporting of misconduct by those who want to apologize and try to control how the stories of their illicit behavior reach the masses. 

As a response to the wave of news surrounding high profile cases of misconduct and harassment, we've seen prominent publications such as The Washington PostThe New York Times, and BBC write articles with headlines including Why Sexual Harassment Training Doesn't Stop Harassment and Sexual Harassment Training Doesn't WorkBut Some Things Do. In December 2017, Time Magazine named “The Silence Breakers” as their Person of the Year, giving their highest honor and most prominent story to those who spoke up and reported misconduct. 

Social media will never replace hotlines as an organizationally approved method for internally reporting misconduct, compliance failures, or unethical behavior but, the lesson learned globally is that if corporate culture ignores individual reports, there is quantifiable proof that leveraging social media drives results and delivers change through disruption. 

Our Prediction

In 2018 and beyond, employees will feel more empowered to speak up and blow the whistle on unethical behavior, as they count on support from the global community, the media and the collective voice of millions to protect them from retaliation. The increased dialogue around harassment outside of the office will force organizations to look beyond training programs focused on these topics to a more comprehensive and culture-centric approach to changing the behavior at the root: within the individual. 

Those in leadership positions will be faced with even more pressure to set the tone and example for the rest of their organization and move beyond the mission/vision mantra statements by taking an active role in building a culture of respect for the individual. 

Reflecting on our 2017 Predictions

In January 2017, we predicted that employees would become more empowered in speaking up and blowing the whistle in the face of unethical behavior. We also predicted that shifting demographics would emphasize the importance of corporate culture and values, and that this year we would see “ethics and compliance news” featured in the mainstream.

Considering the recent coverage of sexual misconduct, and the criticisms of the ineffectiveness of training focused on this behavior; one thing is certain, conversations regarding ethics and compliance today are more front-and-center than ever before.