Culture is king when it comes to speaking up

Business ethics expert and IBE NZ representative Jane Arnott on the challenges of creating a ‘speak up culture’…

Encouraging information flow and being prepared to listen to concerns should be straightforward. It’s one thing however to have a policy along with the expectation of reporting misconduct – it’s another to build the trust and confidence that enables this to be realised.

Promoting a ‘speak up’ culture addresses a key non-financial risk, that is, conduct risk that all companies are vulnerable to.

Of all ethical dilemmas speaking up is probably one of the toughest. If you need evidence of this start by asking your workforce  ‘if you reported misconduct would you trust your manager to do something about it?’

If the answer is no then it’s hardly surprising that turning a blind eye is more often than not the way employees manage down their responsibility to report bad news. Making the decision to be willfully blind can appear a whole lot easier and it fits with our sense of ‘going with the flow,’ and not getting involved.

When companies advise that no-one uses their reporting line they can benefit from scratching below the surface.

Recent research highlights the attitudes and fears in relation to speaking up in New Zealand.

In 2018 the Institute of Business Ethics undertook a survey across a representative sample of New Zealand businesses. The survey, titled Ethics at Work, found that 34% of employees who have been aware of misconduct at work decided not to speak up.

The main reasons given were:

  1. They did not believe corrective action would be taken (35%)
  2. They felt it might jeopardise their job (33%)
  3. They felt it might alienate them from their colleagues (27%)

The findings are positive in the sense that they provide insight into areas that could be strengthened.

Encouraging a speak up culture however isn’t for the faint-hearted.

It requires an open mind and being receptive to hearing things about other people’s behaviour that might initially be hard to believe. There can often be a sense of indignation and a demand to find out who said what especially if the reporter has wished to remain anonymous. Suspending disbelief and refraining from investigating sources is critical if the process is ever to achieve a positive outcome.

The commitment to assess the information in a fair manner so as to prevent any further escalation or fall out is another hallmark of an effective speak up culture. The net effect is that this neutrality will be noticed and will promote ongoing use of the speak up measures and people that have been put in place.

Further, everyone working within a company, no matter how big or small, can benefit from knowing how a reporting line is being used. Communicating the types of incidents that are being reported, how parties are treated, what processes were followed, the timeframes and the subsequent outcomes develops trust and demonstrates transparency.

Once information is circulated, the process of building trust in, for example, corrective action being taken, can occur.

Referring to another finding, in the same Ethics at Work survey, 10% of employees in New Zealand identified that they had felt pressured to compromise ethics. The main pressures were identified as:

  1. Time (39%)
  2. Being under-resourced (36%) and
  3. Following their boss’s orders (29%)

On many levels this can be interpreted as a wakeup call that all may not be well in the workforce and that issues need to be raised in order to be resolved.

Gauging your own response to being made aware of time, resourcing or instructional pressure isn’t easy. But it’s a useful exercise in ‘what if’.

Everyone can relate to the need to meet deadlines, and there are many instances of skill shortages that ultimately impact management and their colleagues irrespective of position. In today’s context however employee experience and perception matters. A company’s reputation may be at stake – as far too many media-torn (and sometimes legislatively lost) companies have discovered. If your culture isn’t working for you then don’t be surprised if stresses surface in ways that are less than ideal.

Enabling and integrating a speak up programme and embedding the culture that supports it is the only sensible alternative.

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