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Covid-19 and NZ’s national State of Emergency brings Speak Up close to home

Business ethics expert Jane Arnott on Speak Up, Covid-19 and leadership challenge of the moment…

As homes become both offices and community watchtowers, speaking up has been elevated as a national and cultural ‘tool for good’ and is being embraced.

The sustained encouragement from our Prime Minister, Finance Minister and the NZ Police for New Zealanders to speak up in relation to a wide range of wrong doing has led to an unequivocally positive response. We have risen to the challenge despite this including wrong doing as we have never before imagined or considered in these terms. Take an example from the current isolation-minded moment: the wrongdoing of surfing on a hot summery day – put simply, this is now a case of ‘report it now!’

Never before have we seen such a tone from the political top.

Employers that aren’t behaving appropriately are now specified and clarified in exact speak up terms. Non-essential businesses must stop trading for 4 weeks, the 90-day rule has been axed, a wage subsidy is available but employers who claim it must pass it on. If anyone thinks this is not happening they are urged to speak up. To reinforce the ethical values of transparency and openness a public register of approved applications has been developed.

With the new landscape being based on a high-trust model, being outed for trying to exploit the model is major reputational damage.  Trust opens the door to ethical assessments of what doing the right thing entails – and in this everyone sees themselves as an expert.

A veritable tidal wave of New Zealanders are reporting the wrongdoing of neighbours or strangers appearing to flout self isolation rules or the stay home, stay safe mantra.

This is a sea change.

No more willful blindness and no more belief that misconduct is none of our business.

The instruction to speak up comes from a political heart but falls onto a nation that is often loathe to speak up at the best of times. And yet the enthusiasm for speaking up is growing exponentially.

Research, such as that conducted by the Institute of Business Ethics, identifies that the reasons people don’t speak up include fear of retaliation, not wanting to become isolated from colleagues and a lack of trust in any meaningful action being taken. But that was yesterday.

From believing that misconduct is ‘nothing to do with them’ (the third most common reason for not speaking up in UK), to now believing that speaking up is vital to our collective health and well being, Bob Dylan’s ‘the times they are a’changing’ is on the money.

As we face extraordinary times – with their extraordinary conditions – we must also change. We must move away from what we used to think and do. There is no looking back.

External Speak Up Lines

External reporting lines should be all ears for this new wave of reporting. And, potentially, there could be new partnerships to be developed while government agencies appear to fall short by only offering hopelessly overloaded phone lines, congested email reporting and an already over worked police force.

The advantage of external reporting and companies such as Report it Now, is that when there is no internal place or person to go to, the external line remains a neutral, and importantly, scaleable, option.

Take the wage subsidy scheme. Once the list of applicants were made transparent Foodstuffs were compelled to ensure the New World stores that had applied for the subsidy would withdraw their application. This inevitably became media news. News that was entirely avoidable.  There could and should have been means to quietly report this breach of trust.

Speak Up Policies and Covid 19

Right now, many businesses could also usefully reassess their speak up policies to see if they are really fit for purpose in this Covid-19 world. The question is, could some of the speak up policies be repurposed to enable and support new attitudes or behaviours?

What are the current inclusions to speaking up and what could now be added? Think about working remotely and any fresh exposure to keyboard bullying or undue pressure to undertake work and make decisions without necessarily following tried and true protocols. How are procurement policies being managed and are suppliers being informed about their contracts?

Can employees trust that any concerns they may have about treatment of everything from suppliers and clients to recruitment candidates or tenants of commercial properties uphold their company values? Are Boards of Directors within earshot of speak up reports? Are they receiving updates across the nature and scope of reporting and are they actively encouraging their leadership team to stay connected with their new fragmented organisational culture?

Speak Up and Well being

And what about well being? Maybe the speak up policy can also be broadened to include, for example, raising concerns about the well being of employees and their immediate circumstance – particularly those trying to work while dealing with new family and financial pressures.

As speak up strays from the domain of reporting largely criminal behavior or conduct risk into a powerful community tool for good we also need to see and learn from examples.


We need leadership in this area – compelling examples of how speaking up has made a difference and led to decisions being challenged and actions reversed.

We need companies to step up and consider how their speak up policy could change to meet the new business landscape. And we need people to share how best practice speak up is contributing towards social cohesion and strong sense of being in it together.

With integrity and trust representing the key reputational values that companies have long wanted to be known for it is in times of crisis, such as this, that meaningful commitment to those values shines forth. Adjusting speak up policies and developing partnerships to improve speak up practices might just be the best way to go.

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