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Dr. Pat Harned of the Ethics and Compliance Initiative: “Encourage people to speak up, and thank them when they do”

Encourage people to speak up, and thank them when they do. Reporting suspected wrongdoing is one of the most difficult acts that an employee can undertake. I was once told by an employee who reported wrongdoing that as she came forward to her supervisor to report a suspected problem, the manager took the time to […]

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Encourage people to speak up, and thank them when they do. Reporting suspected wrongdoing is one of the most difficult acts that an employee can undertake. I was once told by an employee who reported wrongdoing that as she came forward to her supervisor to report a suspected problem, the manager took the time to thank her for her courage in coming forward. Later her boss gave her a hand written note thanking her again and inviting her to come forward if ever she had a concern. In the end, the problem that the employee reported was not substantiated, meaning that the company was not able to prove that the misconduct occurred. But for that employee who reported, what mattered most was that she felt valued for her bravery and supported by her boss.


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Pat Harned.

Dr. Pat Harned is the CEO of the Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI). The mission of the ECI is to empower organizations to build and sustain high quality ethics & compliance programs. Dr. Harned is a leading compliance advocate and strategist. The ECI has been at the forefront of developing compliance standards and best practices.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It’s fair to say that I had no plans to pursue the area of ethics & compliance as a career path, and it’s funny that you would ask about a story that led to my current role. For the most part, many of my choices about my professional life stem from a single incident.

I was fresh out of grad school, working on a university campus in a student life office. At the time I had multiple responsibilities, but among them I was in charge of judicial affairs. That meant that any time a student got into trouble — having violated the campus code of conduct or the law — the matter typically made its way to me. My job was to review the situation and to sanction the students (if found responsible for the violation). When problems were more complex or incidents were more severe, I organized a judicial affairs committee, comprised by two students and two faculty members. The group would consider facts during a hearing involving all parties, and ultimately they would make a recommendation about responsibility and sanctions to the dean of student life.

One day on campus, a student group took the initiative to hang posters in the student activities building, advertising that at an upcoming meeting they would be showing a very controversial movie about a particular religious group. A student who was a member of that religious community saw the posters and began tearing them down, in his view as an effort to defend his faith. The student group made a formal complaint, which made its way to me. I, in turn, organized a judicial committee to review the situation. Before long, the fact that the committee would soon convene was somehow made known to the public. Students organized and began protesting and news organizations landed on campus to cover the story as a matter of free speech vs. religious rights.

What struck me was not the facts of the situation, or even the public controversy. I began thinking that at the heart of the situation, the question at hand was a matter of ethics. I realized that no matter the outcome of the judicial process, the university as an organization had a tremendous influence on the way students and other members of the community would think about what is right and what is wrong conduct on campus. I also realized that I wanted to learn more about that dynamic and its impact on people over the course of their lives. That led me to focus on the subject in my doctoral work, which in turn led me to pursue a career in organizational ethics.

Today I lead a nonprofit that helps organizations around the world to establish strong ethical cultures, so that employees can do their jobs with integrity. We help leaders to think about the power they have over their employees’ and stakeholders’ conduct, and we provide resources to help organizations encourage employees to voice their values and raise concerns without fear. As I look back now, I the direct connection between what I do now and that situation that happen many years ago.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I’ve had a lot of fascinating moments in my role as a leader, but one experience has stayed with me for a very long time. My organization was providing consulting services to a company that had been through a significant scandal; our role was to help them strengthen their workplace culture in the aftermath. I was leading a focus group among employees to learn more about what they considered to be the strengths and weaknesses of the organization, especially with regard to the workplace environment.

None of the participants in the focus group had been involved in the incident that led to all the drama. Nevertheless, I asked them to tell me about the impact of the scandal on their jobs and on their colleagues. Their responses surprised me. People shared how proud they used to be to work for their employer, and also how disappointed and ashamed they were to learn that misbehavior had taken place. Some people in the group wept when they started talking about the individuals who had been impacted by the misconduct that took place, and many of the employees talked about how they thought often of leaving the organization. Most of all, I was impressed by the fact that every person in the room wanted to see the organization change and succeed.

That conversation almost always comes to mind whenever I talk with employees and business executives in other organizations. It reminds me that most people come to work with a strong moral compass, and they desire to work in an environment where they are treated with dignity, honesty, and respect. They want to do the right thing, and they expect everyone else in the organization to do the same. It’s also a lesson that when others violate the standards of an organization, the impact is not just legal and financial; there are very real ramifications in the lives of employees.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m most excited about the work that we are doing to help employees around the world voice their concerns and suggest to their leaders what they can do to create stronger values-based work environments. We do that through a project that we call the Global Business Ethics Survey (GBES). Each year we survey employees all over the world, and we ask them about the challenges they face, the steps their organizations are taking to be of assistance, and their thoughts about how their workplace cultures could be improved. We just released the latest update to the study, but we are already starting to think about what the kinds of topics we will explore this coming year in the next round of the study.

The past year has been very difficult for nearly every human being, and perhaps no one has felt the impact of the COVID crisis and its accompanying economic downturn more than employees who are working from home while tending to their children, or employees who have had their jobs significantly changed or eliminated altogether. We learned a great deal about that this year through the GBES, but we plan to further explore the impact of the pandemic on employees in workplaces — especially as we transition to a “new normal” — in the days ahead.

We also plan to explore employees’ views about the environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibilities they believe their employers should assume, and their views about the role of companies when it comes to critical social issues. There are impressive movements by shareholders to invest in companies that are morally responsible; we want to look at the impact on employees when companies take their obligations seriously.

To me, what makes all this work so exciting is the impact that the GBES has on business leaders and workplaces. The research is regularly used as a benchmark for organizations all around the world, so we truly know that the views employees express through our survey makes a very big difference.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

It has been my experience — and also the research findings of our organization — that culture is the biggest influence on employee satisfaction and engagement at work. If you think about culture as “the way things get done,” it’s easy to see how it drives decisions about the things mentioned in the article, including whether leaders positively reinforce employees who do good work, how and when employees get included and promoted, and whether employees feel free to take time off. In my view, if an organization focuses on improving its culture, it will ultimately yield happier employees.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

As I’ve already mentioned, unhappy employees change the culture of an organization. When that happens, it also affects whether workers consider that the values of the organization (and its rules) really matter. That puts the organization at great risk.

Our research has shown that when the culture is weakened by unhappy employees, there is a 467% greater likelihood that they will distrust their supervisors, engage in misconduct, fail to report suspected compliance issues, and ultimately leave the organization altogether. Our recent Global Business Ethics Survey revealed that only one in five organizations has a strong ethical culture. That means that the majority of organizations are at great risk. The bottom line is that companies can’t afford unhappy employees.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Recognize your influence. Over the years of my work in my organization, I have seen over and over again that the two biggest drivers of culture in an organization are the tone that senior executives set from the top, and the influence of direct supervisors on their employees. In a recent survey of employees in a large organization, we found that when leaders recognize their influence and commit to displaying a set of ethical behaviors, employees are 8 times less likely to feel pressured to commit violations in order to do their jobs. Employees are also 82% less likely to observe misconduct, 25% more likely to report suspected violations, and 68% less likely to experience retaliation. The exact same patterns appear when supervisors realize their influence and change their behavior, too.
  2. Model the conduct you want to see in your employees. It really is true that employees “do as you do” if you are a supervisor or a business leader. It shows up in simple things — for example, in one organization I noticed that when a CEO changed the way he talked about the purpose of the business, other employees did the same. By contrast, in another organization a supervisor regularly took off early on Friday afternoons during the spring and summer months. It wasn’t long before her direct reports felt they could do the same. Our research has shown that when leaders and managers model the conduct they want to see in their employees, they reap great benefits because employees follow their lead.
  3. Explain how the core values of your organization (or your personal core values) influence your decisions. If your company doesn’t have core values, create them. It has surprised me to see how often leaders and managers announce difficult decisions as though they are edicts, without any explanation as to how or why they made the choice they did. That hardly ever goes over well with the employees who have to live with the outcome of a leadership decision. It is also an important opportunity lost for that leader. Employees today are actively seeking to work in an organization that has a mission, and that operates with a strong set of ethical core values. And while many businesses today have core values, they are often a formality. They appear on company websites, on posters and screen savers, but it’s not obvious to employees how they actually matter in the day-to-day operations of the business. Yet if a leader takes a time to explain how the values of the organization factored into a tough decision — it makes a huge difference in the extent to which employees really feel like the values matter.
  4. Hold people accountable when they violate workplace standards of conduct. Notice that I didn’t use the word “if” they violate workplace standards — I said “when.” That’s because our most recent update to the Global Business Ethics Survey revealed that last year, half of all employees in workplaces around the world observed something that they considered to be wrongdoing. Misconduct will happen, and what matters most is that business executives and managers do something in response to hold wrongdoers accountable. If there is no accountability in an organization, it is not long before more employees start to bend the rules, because they no longer worry about getting caught.
  5. Encourage people to speak up, and thank them when they do. Reporting suspected wrongdoing is one of the most difficult acts that an employee can undertake. I was once told by an employee who reported wrongdoing that as she came forward to her supervisor to report a suspected problem, the manager took the time to thank her for her courage in coming forward. Later her boss gave her a hand written note thanking her again and inviting her to come forward if ever she had a concern. In the end, the problem that the employee reported was not substantiated, meaning that the company was not able to prove that the misconduct occurred. But for that employee who reported, what mattered most was that she felt valued for her bravery and supported by her boss.
    Many organizations today have systems in place to investigate reports of wrongdoing when they occur. But far fewer ensure that the people who come forward to report are positively reinforced for doing so. But it makes a very big difference — employees who feel valued for reporting are far more likely to come forward again if the need arises.

Thank you for these excellent insights!

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