By Guest Columnist: Donna Boehme
Principal at Compliance Strategists LLC and editor of the weekly CS Newsflash (and former chief compliance and ethics officer at two leading multinationals). Follow her on Twitter @DonnaCBoehme.

“One way or another, I’m gonna find ya’ I’m gonna get ya’, get ya’, get ya’, get ya’ “
– Blondie circa 1978

There’s a reason why that Blondie song is #305 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It appeals to a very basic human emotion: getting even. Retaliation is an ugly thing. In the workplace, it’s also a powerful and complex individual and team-based behavior that is difficult to identify and even harder to stamp out. Typically employed to punish workers who report a problem, challenge the status quo or otherwise “rock the boat,” it goes to the very heart of organizational culture. And that’s why it should be viewed, not as a misdemeanor referenced briefly in the code of conduct, but as a company felony in the arena of compliance and ethical leadership.

It’s relatively easy in the “balloons and barbeques” stage of program rollout for managers to vocally support “doing the right thing,” support employee ethics training, and even throw in an “integrity moment” here and there in team meetings. Bravo, and noted. But calamity is the real test of integrity. It’s the more difficult circumstances – an investigation into misconduct, or a team member questioning modus operandi– that truly test the mettle of supervisors. (This is why more enlightened organizations understand that, with rare exception, ethical managers and supervisors are not born, but trained – and then they reinforce those ethical leadership behaviors with meaningful financial and nonfinancial incentives …. but I digress.) This is the stage where those managers who have not gotten the memo (literally and figuratively) can revert to their basic human instinct to seek and destroy.

Retaliation is a company felony because it works like a cancer on the culture of the organization. It is the opposite of transparency and accountability. It not only punishes those trying to do the right thing, but broadcasts a clear message to others around them that “this is what happens to those who get out of line.” Employees are nothing if not observant to every nuance of their supervisor’s words and action. Every act of direct or indirect retaliation reverberates in the halls and around the water cooler 100 times more loudly than any CEO letter touting integrity. When a company leader retaliates, whatever advances have been made in the “balloons and barbeques” stage of the program in that part of the organization vanish like the wind, and are replaced by fear and blame.

Retaliation is a cancer that also acts like a communicable disease. A leader who sets the tone of fear and retaliation can often count on others within the team to help reinforce the group dynamic against the disfavored team member. [1]   The disease can also move from team to team and spread throughout other areas of the organization, crushing out competing efforts to encourage transparency, accountability and ethical culture. Role modeling can be a powerful force for either good or evil.

At a recent RAND Symposium on ethical culture, David Gebler, author of “The Three Power Values” made some insightful observations about organizational culture, including leadership actions that must be mobilized to stop the slippery slope of bad culture before it becomes the norm. On the flip side, retaliation is a leadership action that actually hastens the slippery slope and enables misconduct, because it fosters fear, silence and acquiescence. That’s the lesson of Enron & WorldCom 101.

One question I ask when evaluating company programs is “How many times have you fired someone for retaliation?” You’d be surprised how many companies have never found an act of retaliation within their ranks, or alternatively, actually fired a manager for the offense. Workplace retaliation isn’t always spelled out in black and white as an outright dismissal or demotion. That would be easy. Often, it manifests more indirectly, such as exclusion from important meetings or discussions, change of workload, lack of cooperation, social ostracism and malicious gossip. These are harder to pinpoint and requires a committed management that condemns it and the vigilance of trained HR, legal and compliance personnel – factors missing in many organizations.

Another useful question is “What is your implementation plan for monitoring and enforcing the nonretaliation policy?” Organizations that are serious about compliance and ethics not only make retaliation a major offense, but actually have protocols and mechanics in place to ensure team leaders understand and comply. Do managers believe they will be disciplined for retaliation against a team member? Do investigators routinely warn supervisors during investigations that the team may be audited for retaliation? How carefully does the company enforce a “need to know” list? Is there a retaliation monitoring program? [2]  Again, the answer to these questions is often …. crickets.

All this suggests that boards and senior management who are quick to proclaim the ethical culture of the company as their priority should pay much closer attention to seeking out and punishing retaliation as the number one force undermining that lofty goal. Retaliation is a company felony and should be treated accordingly, with swift and consistent public punishment for the perpetrators, no matter how senior. That’s also reason #487 why the chief compliance officer and her team must have the independence, positioning and empowerment to address retaliation wherever and however it manifests, and to otherwise implement and oversee the critical elements of an effective compliance program. [3]

A true ethical culture reflects the better instincts of company leadership, and retaliation does the opposite. One way or another, retaliation must be met with purpose and vigor, and eradicated.

[1] See my related column on an ATF official’s warning to agency employees to “respect the chain of command.”

[2] Vicki Sweeney, partner-in-charge of KPMG’s ethics and compliance group, has developed a leading edge retaliation monitoring program.

[3] See RAND Symposium on “Perspectives of Chief Ethics and Compliance Officers on the Detection and Prevention of Corporate Misdeeds” (2009) and “From Enron to Madoff: Why Most Corporate Compliance and Ethics Programs are Positioned for Failure” (2009)