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Volume 22, Issue 20;   May 25, 2022: On Reporting Noncompliance

On Reporting Noncompliance


Regulating compliance with process design in organizations requires monitoring process usage. Typically, process monitors depend on reports from process participants. In blame-oriented cultures, fear of retribution can limit what these reports contain.
The lies inside the truth

If your role involves monitoring one or more processes to ensure compliance with standards and the reliability of outcomes, the quality of your information about those processes determines how well you can perform your function. In some organizational cultures, gathering reliable information about noncompliance can be difficult. Some of the organizational cultures most exposed to this risk are those that are oriented around blame (BL cultures), rather than accountability (AC cultures). When something goes awry, BL cultures seek causes so they can punish, while AC cultures seek causes so they can learn and perfect their performance. [Brenner 2005]

To gather the information needed to detect and deal with noncompliance, the process monitor must build a network based on trust and safety, even if the culture is blame-oriented. A foundation for that network of trust is an understanding of the challenges that the people of the organization must confront. This post considers some of the difficulties of monitoring processes for compliance within a BL culture.

The dynamics of witnessing noncompliance

To monitor To monitor a process in which we aren't
direct participants, we must rely on
information from direct participants.
That's where trouble begins.
a process in which we aren't direct participants, we must rely on information from direct participants. That's where trouble begins. Suppose that in a BL culture, a process participant observes an instance of noncompliance. This exposes the observer to the risks associated with a difficult choice. The observer must choose whether (a) to intervene personally, or (b) to do nothing for now, or (c) to pass the information to a process monitor. A process monitor is someone who is bound to act on evidence suggesting noncompliance, and who then can initiate investigation and possibly corrective action. In BL cultures, choosing option (c) is equivalent to "snitching."

Anyone who observes noncompliance can choose option (a), intervening personally, if supported by formal lines of authority. But if not so supported, in a BL culture, the intervention is likely to appear to be a political attack. And because attacks precipitate retribution, personal intervention unsupported by formal authority is rare.

Option (b), doing nothing "for now," is likely the most commonly chosen option in BL cultures, because it seems so safe. The only serious risk arises from a charge of negligence. The basis for such a charge emerges when the observer of the noncompliance is found to have known about the issue and then to have chosen to do nothing. Some observers can manage that risk by carefully avoiding situations in which they can observe incidents or patterns of noncompliance. For some, though, avoidance of all incidents isn't possible.

Option (c), passing the information to a process monitor, is an attractive option for those who cannot avoid (or who couldn't avoid) witnessing incidents of noncompliance. Having reported the incident, the observer is protected from charges of negligence. But in BL cultures the person who receives the report is now in a difficult position, having been converted into a witness by receiving the information from the observer. So let's examine that process monitor's position more closely.

Options for process monitors

For process monitors, option (b), doing nothing for now, is rarely selected, because they have a duty to act. In some cases, the process monitor can intervene directly, investigating and taking corrective action. In other cases, the process monitor can only pass along a report to someone with a greater span of control. But in either case, the process monitor might be required to identify the source of the information.

In BL cultures, identifying the source of the information could subject that source to retribution. And such retribution can jeopardize the future flow of information to the process monitor from that source or any other sources similarly situated.

How to protect the identities of those who report noncompliance

To preserve access to information from process participants, process monitors can take four steps that people in BL cultures understand well.

  1. Forge an agreement between the process monitoring function and senior management that acknowledges the importance of protecting the identities of observers or process participants who report process noncompliance.
  2. Establish a procedure for reporting process violations that enables the process monitor to receive reports confidentially.
  3. Establish a procedure for investigating as a performance issue the unauthorized disclosure of the identity of any observer or process participant reporting process noncompliance.
  4. Conduct irregularly scheduled process audits.

The last item above requires some expansion. Audits are helpful for uncovering noncompliance, but in BL cultures irregularly scheduled audits help to protect the identities of those who provide information about noncompliance. They do so because they can serve as cover for investigations of situations that have been topics of confidential reports of noncompliance. When a process monitor receives a confidential report of noncompliance, the process monitor can conduct an investigation without arousing concern that someone might have reported noncompliance.

Last words

I've suggested above a framework for process monitors in blame-oriented cultures. They can use that framework to help them determine the degree of compliance with standards. It's helpful because it alleviates to some degree the symptoms of the problem. Those symptoms relate to constriction of the flow of information from process participants or observers to process monitors due to fear of retribution.

But that framework doesn't address the root causes of the symptoms. The root causes lie in the culture and its orientation around blaming people for its failures. Converting a blame-oriented culture to an accountability-oriented culture is another task — a task outside the scope of the process monitor role. Go to top Top  Next issue: Mental Accounting and Technical Debt  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Brenner 2005]
Richard Brenner. "Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?," Point Lookout blog, December 21, 2005. Available here. Back

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