Culture, crises and complaints: how organisations can improve

Recent investigations into 'toxic workplaces' have brought to light troubling aspects of organisational culture – and employers can expect more scrutiny in future, says Oliver Carlyon

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Following various reports, including the headline-making Sue Gray one, poor organisational behaviour is something many businesses might feel they need to tackle. Employees are increasingly feeling emboldened to report poor conduct, or speak out when they feel uncomfortable. But they do not always use internal channels to do so.

Often, these reports don't just relate to recent events – allegations are emerging all the time about events that took place years ago. Investigations and reports published this year have found organisations with a 'culture of fear' failing to adequately deal with people's concerns and complaints.

In the spotlight

Organisations facing investigations (whether internal or external) can suddenly find themselves the subject of unwelcome attention, equipped neither to respond to it nor reflect on their own actions. For some, it can be the first time they realise the workplace culture they want to portray is inconsistent with the culture people experience every day.

Once these reports emerge, that in itself can begin to impact on organisational culture – affecting employees, damaging the company's reputation and eroding trust. Trust, both internally and externally, can be difficult to restore.

This puts many organisations in a vulnerable position. The immediate white heat of a crisis is not the time to draft, agree and implement new policy and processes. But it is a chance to learn, and creates an opportunity to prevent them in future, by effecting real cultural change. Employers should consider the extent to which they should initiate their own investigations promptly and with a clear purpose.

By identifying problems, acknowledging them, and not only improving but being seen to take conscious steps to improve, an organisation can also repair some of its tarnished reputation.

Top five ways to improve

From the investigations Fieldfisher has been involved with, we've seen similar themes emerge. Staff don't trust that their complaint will be handled properly, and are afraid of what the repercussions might be if they do raise a complaint. This creates a 'closed' organisational culture, where unacceptable conduct is condoned, and a wider culture of fear, insularity and secrecy emerges, which is damaging to anyone working or engaging with the organisation.

Our advice to businesses is:

  1. How complaints are handled is key – if they are not seen to be taken seriously or adequately dealt with then the behaviour being complained about becomes normalised.

  1. Complaints policies must be clear, easy to understand and transparent. They must be signposted and disseminated in a way that creates standards of expected behaviour within the group of individuals they apply to.

  1. Complaints must be dealt with thoroughly and promptly, and communication with those affected must be transparent and consistent. Investigations, if initiated, must be clear in their scope.

  1. Outcomes in response to complaints must be fair, proportionate and consistent.

  1. Organisations should communicate clearly and carefully when handling both internal and external communications – and link messages with the ongoing HR and legal advice being provided. This is especially the case where complaints have become public knowledge.

There is always a difficult balance to be struck when dealing with behaviour outside work hours and premises, but employers have a fundamental duty of care towards their employees. Organisations must be clear about the behaviour they expect from their people – inside and outside the office.

Oliver Carlyon is a regulatory partner at Fieldfisher