NEW VIDEOS! In this month’s issue we follow two more of the characters from the original annual ethics and compliance training to learn how they responded to Dr. Evans’ behavior. See who called the Helpline, who didn’t, and who cooperated with the ICO during the investigation.

Speak-up Culture 101: The FAQs

Speak-up culture; we talk about it a lot. It’s what we strive for at VCU, and it’s what we in the Integrity and Compliance Office (ICO) work to promote. But for all of our speaking up about speaking up, we find that employees often have questions about what it means to have a speak-up culture, and what it actually looks like to speak up. With that in mind, we decided to focus this month’s blog on the answers to those Frequently Asked Questions about speak-up culture. Read on to see if we’ve answered yours.

FAQ1: Doesn’t a speak-up culture mean that everybody’s always telling on each other all the time?

ICO: No! That would be awful. A speak-up culture means that all employees, both leaders and individual contributors, feel free to speak up about all kinds of things. Sure, this means they could decide to speak up to report something they perceive to be misconduct. But it also means that they feel comfortable asking questions, even when it means that by asking the question they are letting others know that they don’t know or understand something. And sometimes, the well-timed question brings certain things to light that had gone unnoticed, presenting opportunities for improvement. And, in a speak-up culture, people make suggestions and share ideas. This often leads to innovation and new and better ways of doing things. Who doesn’t want that? (See our February blog on why we love questions.)

FAQ2: What if where I work, there are some people who aren’t on-board with speaking up?

ICO: If you work on a team where speaking up is not the norm, it can be hard to get things started. If your leadership has an open-door policy, take advantage of it to bring your questions, ideas and concerns to their attention. Or, find some time to discuss the workplace culture with them. Sometimes, leaders are unaware that members of their team don’t feel safe to speak up, and it takes someone bringing it to their attention to change that.

FAQ3: What if I can’t speak up, because I haven’t been here long enough or I’m too far down in the chain of command? Who would listen to me?

ICO: Sometimes employees feel like their voice doesn’t matter. Or, they don’t know how to find and use their voice. The truth is that we all have some power, whether we realize it or not, no matter where we are on the org chart. In fact, UVA Darden School professor Dr. Mary Gentile teaches that everyone can be effective in finding their voice, based on the power of their position. To learn more about how you can find your voice and use the power of your position, check out the presentation Finding Your Voice in the Resource Library on our webpage

FAQ4: What if I can’t talk to my manager? What if there’s something going on and I think my manager is part of the problem/is biased in some way?

ICO: If you need to speak with someone other than a manager, you can call the ICO to talk things over with a member of our team (804-828-2336). We can explain your options and you can decide what to do. You can also make an anonymous report through the VCU Helpline, and we’ll investigate once they send it our way.

FAQ5: If I make an anonymous report, am I guaranteed that no one will find out who made it?

ICO: When you make an anonymous report through the Helpline, we start an investigation to look into what you reported, even though we won’t have any way to know who you are. When you make a report and identify yourself, we’ll handle it in the same way, but we’ll keep the details of the investigation, including your identity, private (meaning we would only reveal it on a need-to-know basis as part of the investigation). Whether you report anonymously or by name, we’ll interview others who might know about the situation to determine what happened. Sometimes, during the course of an investigation, other people are able to figure out who made the report by the things we discuss, so it’s possible that even though you made an anonymous report, others might guess your identity.

FAQ6: What if my manager or someone else retaliates against me because I spoke up about something?

ICO: This is often a big concern for people considering speaking up, and often what keeps them from doing it (see our March blog entitled, “Snitches Get Stitches,” and other barriers to speak-up culture). The truth is, everyone at VCU is protected against retaliation through the Duty to Report and Protection from Retaliation policy. We feel so strongly about this that after we close an investigation, we reach out to the employee(s) that made the initial report to ensure that no retaliation has taken place. If you’ve spoken up and feel that you’ve become the victim of retaliation, you can contact the ICO at (804) 828-2336 or the VCU Helpline to report that.

#Unacceptable: A Compliance Case Study

This month’s case study was adapted from a Talking the Walk case study from the Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI). It is similar to cases we have investigated over the years.

Warning: This case study contains content about sexual harassment in the workplace; some readers may find the content disturbing.

The People:

Heather, an employee in a sales position at an ad agency

Brandon, Heather’s new boss 

Jack, Brandon’s boss 

Crystal, Jack’s assistant

The Setting:

A large advertising agency downtown

The Event:

Tuesday, 11 a.m. I’m not surprised that Brandon got the promotion instead of me, Heather says to herself. He’s got the fancy degree, the charm, and he reels in the big fish. I could do the same, if only someone would give me a shot.

5:30 p.m. Wow, Heather thinks to herself, This meeting is going really well. Brandon is surprisingly interested in my input… Her thought is interrupted.

“Heather, I’m really impressed with you,” Brandon says. “You’ve got great ideas. You’re sharp. I’m sure it’s been hard for you around here. People sometimes just don’t take beautiful women seriously.”

Did I just hear that? Heather thinks. As Brandon walks Heather to the door, he comments on her blouse: “It’s very…attractive. Be careful. You wouldn’t want to give a guy the wrong idea.” Heather can feel his gaze. He opens his office door, then guides her out, his hand on her back. It lingers a few seconds, then slides a hair too low. 

Thursday, 7:00 p.m. I wish I could have avoided it. Heather thinks. But Brandon is my boss; I had to meet with him. I just wish it had been before his assistant, Crystal, left for the day. Still, who asks you to sit on a couch to talk about work? Who sits that close by accident? Never has my boss sat so that his knee was brushing against mine. I also don’t remember any supervisor ever who felt the need to remind me over and over that he’s “over me” now and that I’m “under him.” All I know is that I want to go home, take a shower, and scrub off this feeling. Should I have worn a different outfit? Is this my fault? How in the world am I going to face him across the table at our team meeting tomorrow morning?

Monday, 9:30 a.m. “Heather, are you feeling better?” VP Jack asks Heather as she passes by his office. “We missed you on Friday. How is it working with your new supervisor? Brandon’s got great things to say about you, said he sees some real potential in you. There are some management training slots opening up in the next few months, and he thinks with some extra coaching you’ve got a real shot. Brandon even volunteered to put in extra one-on-one time with you. Isn’t that great?! I’d take advantage of that, if I were you. Heather, are you OK?”

Am I hearing this? Heather asks herself.

 Jack continues, “Heather? Are you OK? You’re white as a sheet.” 

Heather quickly excuses herself from the conversation with Jack and heads to the restroom, running into Crystal. Heather doesn’t know her well, but, before she even has time to think about it, Heather has told her everything. “That JERK!!” Crystal exclaims. “I can’t believe he’s still up to his old tricks! I thought about warning you; this can’t keep happening. Jack needs to know about this”

11 a.m. “Come on now, Heather,” Jack responds after hearing Heather’s story. “I’m sure Brandon didn’t mean anything by it. He’s just trying to give you some advice. He’s really a great guy, and one of our best performers. He pushes everybody to be their best. And he wants you to be your best. That’s all. (Pause) Look,  I know you’re a little freaked-out about this right now, but you’re tough. I think you’re going to have to move past this.” 

The Takeaway:

One of our ethical standards at VCU is respect. This means that we are each entitled to work in an environment where we feel safe and valued for what we contribute. When one colleague treats another in a way that makes them feel unsafe, or that objectifies them based on their body or appearance, it shows a disrespect that is not conducive to a healthy workplace culture. Heather had every right to expect a workplace free from sexual harassment, and she had every right to expect a better response from leadership when she shared what was happening. Most organizations have rules against this type of behavior, but the rules are only as strong as the leaders who do the right thing when they learn that one of their employees is harassing another one, whether or not the harasser is also the top performer.

If you’re a member of leadership who has learned from an employee that there has been an incident of sexual harassment on your team, you may realize that you should never respond like Jack did, but you may not know what to do. We are here to help you navigate this situation in a way that supports the victim of harassment and sends the message to the harasser that their behavior will not fly. 


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