Speak up: The time for sector leadership is now

Business ethics expert Jane Arnott on why the reporting of bad behaviour – and the channels for doing so – are so important for professional associations.

It’s time.

Sector associations, trade groups and professional bodies must actively support their members to tackle conduct risk. It’s not an unreasonable expectation. But it is multi-faceted.

Providing a centralized speak up channel and providing guidance on how and when to use it is one thing that all too frequently falls by the wayside.

Allowing the reporting of bad behavior to be the sole responsibility of individual member companies and assuming this approach to be effective is like still hoping for the tooth fairy after the dentures are installed.

Conduct risk impacts everyone. It sets up later performance failure of products, projects and delivery failure of services. Early reporting of unacceptable or illegal behavior is best enabled by providing multiple channels for doing so. Further, coordinating a safe external means to report bad behavior is proven, time and time again, to increase the type and number of calls.

According to Craig McFarlane, director at Report it Now, a leading New Zealand owned and operated external reporting company, “companies or entities that put in place an independent software enabled external reporting line and actively promote it, experience in excess of 40% more submissions when compared to an internal-only reporting line.”

“It comes down to trust – along with issues of power and control. Trust is built by being seen to let go and enable employees to talk to professionally trained strangers, who have no agenda, as opposed to internal managers who are typically higher up the tree, more imposing  and more likely to have agenda.”

It’s blindingly apparent that people, from career diplomats to panel beaters, junior doctors to construction workers will not speak up using internal measures when they fear retaliation, isolation from colleagues or when they don’t believe their concerns will be acted on.

While codes try to compel with language such as ‘you must report a breach’, the reality is that breaches all too often remain unreported.

Too many managers are untrained in how to receive information and what the subsequent process should be.

Full credit then to Engineering NZ and the Structural Engineering Society for recognizing that there could well be benefit in introducing an independent whistleblowing scheme that encourages the alarm to be raised about dodgy work.

RNZ reporter Phil Pennington states in an article from December, “RNZ has spoken to many engineers who fear losing business or being sued if they speak up about failures or problems on jobs they are associated with”.

Where, for example, does a young graduate structural engineer turn if their new employer is tasking them with designs that only someone with years of experience could competently tackle?

Engineering NZ and the Structural Engineering Society demonstrate both leadership and a commitment to better understanding the value – in professional, public safety, economic and reputational terms – of facilitating early reporting.

Bad behavior, risk taking, unsupervised and inexperienced employees, slave labour, unskilled and under-resourced workers, worker negligence, all of these examples warrant attention before they snowball. A formal and independent reporting channel that can record and prepare notes for a subsequent investigation can prevent disaster.

Sector associations, trade groups and professional bodies have much to lose and more to gain if they enable employees of their member companies to speak up. Operating as an intermediary and guided by a big picture view of industry leadership they are well placed to provide guidance and promote speak up.

New Zealand is awash with small companies, small towns and small professional groupings. Seven degrees of separation has become two. This only intensifies the risk associated with internal reporting.

In contrast, if sector associations, trade groups and professional bodies implemented a centralized external reporting line and communicated how and when to use it a practical safety valve and contribution to maintaining reputations across the board would be unleashed.

In some ways, Engineering NZ’s leadership symbolizes a laying down of the gauntlet. We must hope it is heeded. The spectre of a time ravaged tooth fairy suddenly appearing being unlikely to unfold any time soon.

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