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December 17, 2015 / Molly Moseley

The HR lesson you can learn from Bowe Bergdahl

U.S. Army

This week it was announced that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will face charges of desertion and endangering troops after he willingly left his post in Afghanistan in 2009. The Taliban captured and held Bergdahl captive for five years before negotiating with President Obama in 2014 for his release. In exchange for his safe return, President Obama released five Taliban members from Guantanamo. The trade and Bergdahl’s claims have since faced extensive scrutiny.

He’s been called a traitor. Reckless. Deserter. Bergdahl’s motives have been questioned and his story is a mystery that slowly unravels. He claims he left to call attention to alarming conditions in his unit, and he believed his actions would make a statement that couldn’t be ignored. However, whether warranted or not, he endangered the lives of his fellow service members and set a dangerous precedent for future prisoner-of-war negotiations.

Bergdahl’s claims are thought provoking. Here at LinkUp, we’re already addicted to season 2 of the Serial podcast that focuses on his story. Some questions we have asked each other include: Why didn’t he tell his superiors his concerns? Were there no mechanisms available to directly or anonymously raise them? If there were, why didn’t he feel comfortable using them? If he is in fact being truthful, what could have been so bad that he couldn’t report it?

At the very least, this situation should spark a conversation about communication within the military. It’s imperative that any organization provide a system for internal concerns. Failing to do so creates risk and jeopardizes the safety of all employees, and it could also affect the entire organization in question.

So what lessons can businesses learn from this saga in order to create productive systems for employee feedback? It all starts with the company culture. The entire organization from the top down must create an atmosphere of trust and maintain open lines of communication. Leadership must genuinely believe in it and adopt it.

HR is a good place for feedback systems to develop. Mechanisms for providing direct feedback (such as meeting with a manager or human resources rep) should exist alongside those for providing confidential feedback (like submitting concerns via web-based hotlines or an old-fashioned suggestion box). Employees need to feel confident in both systems so they can use them without fear of retribution.

Not only should systems for feedback be established, but so should detailed plans regarding how the company will follow up with each concern submitted. If action isn’t taken, the system is flawed and no one will take it seriously. Employees must have a voice regardless of the organization’s size.

If you are concerned that these systems will become a sounding board for seemingly minor complaints like drippy faucets or bad cafeteria food, remember that what is minor to you may not be to another person — for reasons you may not realize. Whether the concern is big or small, soliciting this feedback is critical to establishing a positive employee-employer relationship. It helps managers stay in touch while building trust and loyalty. Plus, it demonstrates good ethics.

Only time will tell how Bergdahl’s tale unfolds, and hopefully someday we’ll know the truth about his motives. In the meantime, I hope it encourages organizations across the country to both invite and actively respond to feedback.