Watching the watchdog: How comms and HR can hold each other accountable

The fumbled handling of new misconduct allegations at the FDIC offers lessons on collaboration and oversight.

To work effectively in any organization, HR needs to effectively communicate policies to employees with a consistency that makes them enforceable, along with providing a safe mechanism for employees to report potential workplace violations. A recent report by The Wall Street Journal alleges that the FDIC bank regulation agency allowed harassment and negativity to run rampant, partially owing to miscommunication by the HR function itself.

The report found that the issues aren’t anything new—since 2018, complaints were filed against 12 managers in both the HR department and the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion (OMWI) have had complaints levied against them since 2018, and even the director of the OMWI department has been accused of misconduct.

The story claims that many employees didn’t bother filing complaints about their harassment because they felt that nothing would come from it, owing to the chaotic culture within HR and rampant toxic environment.

Additionally, the story describes situations in which employees went to HR or the OMWI departments for help and not only didn’t receive it but got treatment that was antithetical to any sort of healthy work culture.

According to the report:

The dysfunction in OMWI weakened what was already an ineffective office, said Melodee Brooks, a former senior deputy director of OMWI who spent eight years in the office, including a year as its acting director. “It wasn’t capable of doing its job,” she said.

The issue went so far as to result in complaints from members of the HR and OMWI themselves against fellow department members. Many members of the FDIC either left their roles for new ones or in some cases, retired due to the toxicity and lack of accountability.

This report emphasizes why HR needs the support of communicators to drive home the fact that policies and regulations aren’t just words filed away in a handbook somewhere — they’re tangible, actionable rules that need to be consistently reinforced through communication to hold all employees accountable.

How can communicators work with HR to better create that consistent accountability?

Collaboration and oversight

It sounds so simple, but given the news out of the FDIC, it bears repeating —- the people in your organization are what make it what it is. If lapses in either judgment, communication, or collaboration affect cause people to leave the company or change careers, it’s long past time to reevaluate the situation.

That reevaluation should involve a collaborative effort that encourages, codifies, and makes reporting incidents or concerns to HR easier. In a piece last year, we outlined a few steps that HR and comms teams should follow when looking to collaborate effectively. They included:

  • Defining the voice and the process. “Right now, our job in HR is to hear that message and help open the door,” said former DISH Network EVP and Chief Human Resource Officer David Scott.
  • Holding weekly staff meetings and comms meetings.
  • Respecting confidentiality and the right to preview the message. “Trust is a big factor out there today in the workplace, and whether an employee can trust their management team, and the company can do the right thing,” said Scott. “And can the company trust the team member to do the right thing?”
  • Setting the expectations and holding each other mutually accountable.

These are great first steps, but a culture of accountability and oversight needs to exist in order for these best practices to truly take root.

For instance, let’s say HR plans to draft up a new set of policies on workplace harassment. After getting in touch with the comms department, both teams should discuss whether the current guidelines, as written, reflect the unique nuances and working touchpoints of the organization. They should also ask, are they being put in front of the right stakeholders?

Crafting a collaborative Employee Value Proposition (EVP) with HR is another way to ensure accountability.

“Understand that your EVP is, in fact, a promise,” Cat Colella-Graham, a consultant professor at St. Francis College, told Ragan Editorial Director Justin Joffe last year.  “When you put one out there, if the lived experience is not aligned with that promise, you’re going to do more damage to your brand than if you didn’t put one out there.”

Collela-Graham added that focusing on projects like an EVP can close the partnership gap.

“It is the biggest gap to bridge because HR thinks they can communicate when they can’t,” she said. “In most cases, they do not understand that the sole purpose of communicators is to drive behaviors — whether it’s trust, loyalty or whatever it is. HR needs comms to drive the behaviors they are trying to achieve.”

Getting the policies and their rollout may be only half the battle, but doing so in a collaborative process with comms sets the stage to properly allow for mutual oversight.

Watching the watchdog

In an ideal world, comms and HR will do their roles to the best of their ability, raise each other’s efforts up, and serve as a conduit to the success of the overall organization. But since we don’t live in a fantasyland, that doesn’t always happen. That’s why is critical for comms and HR to work hand-in-hand — they don’t just help each other do a job — they can catch one another’s oversights.

Comms can help HR reinforce the policies they’re looking to enforce by choosing the right wording and channel. In an article for Inc., Martin Zwilling, founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, suggested that HR should lead people to the actions they want them to ideally perform.

“As obvious as it may be to you, you can’t afford any misinterpretation of your perspective,” Zwilling said. “I often find large disconnects between your goals and objectives, versus thisose perceived by your team members, due to lack of clear communication, and the personal or situational biases of every individual.”

Communicators should not only ensure that policy wording is clear, but also that there’s an avenue for any issues that arise to be communicated and addressed. Likewise, HR can go to comms to help them tweak messaging as situations change.

This report is a reminder that the situation at the FDIC can’t happen. It’s a massive failure on the part of HR, largely due to a lack of oversight and a poor work culture. When comms and HR work together from the outset to instill clear workplace guidelines and communication protocol, situations like that can be avoided.

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.

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