In a recent Case IQ webinar, 85 professionals of various industries and organisation sizes were asked if they felt their workplace had an effective speak up culture. Only around 30 percent of respondents said yes. While we don’t know the details of their employers’ speak up efforts, these respondents don’t feel safe raising concerns at work or, if they do, they’re not confident that the issues will be addressed sufficiently.

Shifting to a speak up culture can take a lot of time, money, and effort. You have to plan your approach, set up a hotline, and get your employees on board. But all of this work comes with benefits for your organisation, both tangible and intangible.

Why Invest in Speak Up?

  • A speak up culture assures employees that your organisation takes concerns seriously, and that if they report something, you’ll actually look into it. This makes them feel safe and like their voices matter to the company.
  • Employees’ reports help mould the culture and influence changes in the organisation. A speak up culture is self-perpetuating; the more you encourage employees to voice their concerns, the safer they’ll feel doing so, and the more change you can implement.
  • A speak up culture can help you catch small problems before they become disastrous. In toxic work environments, employees won’t report issues until they’re untenable. But when they feel safe, they’ll alert you to problems while there’s still time to correct them.
  • Analysing reporting data uncovers the areas that need improvement specific to your organisation so you can stop accidents before they start. You’ll need to do a bit more digging to determine if less-reported areas are already strong in your organisation or if employees don’t yet feel safe speaking up about them.

The Policy Is the Center of the Program

We know the first natural step of a solid speak up culture is a whistleblowing policy. But without a clear purpose, employees might look at your speak up policy as just more rules. Here are some key steps to follow:

  1. Let employees know that it’s in place for their safety, and that it’s in their best interest to follow the reporting procedures you outline.
  2. Define the scope of your whistleblower policy, or who it applies to. Policies and procedures often differ in who they apply to and when in the business relationship they apply, so make this part clear. For instance, some policies might only apply to full-time employees, while others cover everyone from contractors and business partners to tenured employees. For example, employees might not report on someone because they don’t think the policy covers the person. Without a clear scope, your whistleblower system might not be used to its potential.
  3. Outline how and where they can submit allegations of wrongdoing. Describe how to use all your channels in detail so whistleblowers know their options. Omnichannel reporting options are key with today’s tech-savvy workers – from apps to two-way chat to multilingual support, it all needs to be available. Reporting channels that are hard to find or use put your company and employees in danger. Employees might try to report and get frustrated, or not even attempt to report if the systems are too complicated.

Focus on Big Picture Training

To promote your speak up culture, training should give employees a big-picture view of your organisation’s ethical standards, outline real-life scenarios they might encounter and offer them a chance to ask questions. Ethics training shouldn’t be your only approach to creating an ethical culture, but it should be a robust, regular part of your strategy. Here are some tips for training implementation around new reporting systems:

  • Expand your training program to include information on the types of situations where people are most likely to go astray and the types of justifications that are commonly used when committing infractions.
  • Share complex scenarios and ways to address each one to guide employees’ behaviour. Each industry (and even job function) has its own unique situations that require employees to make ethics-related choices.
    • For example, a wealth manager must decide what risks to take with a client’s money.
    • Or, at the team level, a manager must decide if she will take credit for a successful project that was her employee’s idea.

Whether they work in customer-facing roles or behind the scenes, employees will absorb and understand better if you illustrate your organisation’s ethical standards using examples they’ll really encounter.

Anti-Retaliation is Key to Speak Up Culture

One primary reason employees don’t speak up is fear of retaliation. In extreme cases, retaliation can mean the reporter is demoted, moved to a different team, or even terminated. However, retaliation can also take the form of smaller behaviours that are also unethical and illegal, including:

  • Not inviting the employee to meetings
  • Micromanaging them
  • Criticising work that meets a previously acceptable standard
  • Spreading rumours

The primary reason for keeping retaliation out of your organisation is to protect your employees. Everyone deserves to feel safe at work. Moreover, employees who work in positive environments have better physical and mental health, which means they can innovate and do their best in the workplace. This applies not only to the reporter, but to other employees as well. Additionally, failing to comply with these employment laws that prohibit retaliation puts your organisation at risk of fines and penalties by regulators and increased negative press coverage, which can harm your reputation with customers and business partners. Make sure that every time you investigate and discipline employees, you follow consistent processes laid out in your company policies. Creating a speak up culture in your company can’t be a one-time effort. Build ethics reporting into your training modules and internal policies to prevent risk and protect employees most effectively.

About the Author

Shannon Walker is the executive VP of Strategy at Case IQ, a workplace investigation tool that provides comprehensive risk management features for businesses around the world. Shannon frequently speaks around the world to a diverse group of industry professionals on case management, HR, and workplace ethics. She also has a B. A from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and an M.A. from Pepperdine University in California, and is passionate about creating speak up cultures in organizations.

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