Will.I. Am says “I will”.

Business ethics expert Jane Arnott on the media storm surrounding Will. I. Am.’s run in with Qantas’ customer service…

Speak up campaigns have never previously been fronted by a multifaceted chart topping rapper. Will. I. Am. may just have changed all that.

Will.I.Am.’s statement “we are supposed to call out wrongdoings so we can have a safer more compassionate world,” is very much on tone.

The background to Will.I.Am’s comment and the subsequent media storm brought into sharp relief the importance of how companies must be effective, authentic even, in how they support calling out or speaking up. Either that, or they pay the price.

Any expectation that customers, in particular, will always have the time and inclination to prepare a written account of what has aggrieved them is not practical. While a time and place for more detailed accounts of what may have happened will, in the right situation be important, in other situations diffusing the grievance and preventing reputational damage should be the first port of call.

Furthermore the days of creating a demarcation line between employees who are encouraged to speak up and customers who call out is now so blurred as to be irrelevant.

As customers become more activist and demand to be heard then there is a major benefit in ensuring they too feel included in any type of speak up programme. The great divide between customers, employees and even suppliers is coming to an end. Some would say it ended a long time ago.

All, under the right circumstances are now more motivated than ever before to speak up. Companies are on notice. If they are not providing for speak up then they are not only cutting off a valuable source of company insight (and growth and improvement) they are also under-utilising a fundamental risk management tool. In the process they are unwittingly allowing themselves to become the friend of a social media that thrives on controversy.

The common ground is that both employees and customers (or passengers, suppliers or patients etc) are equally capable of recognising and calling out wrongdoings or misconduct. And both have expectations about what happens next. Both want to see some proof that they have been heard and that a response (or investigation) is underway. They are less likely to tolerate anything less.

Delays and the perception that nothing will happen only ever work to prevent reporting and often increase the usage of social media. Without reporting the true nature of a company culture , the ‘say do’ gap if you like, will remain hidden.

For example, in New Zealand according to a survey of employees undertaken by the Institute of Business Ethics, the top reason why employees who are aware of misconduct don’t speak up is because they do not believe corrective action will be taken.

This is an almighty risk that warrants attention. Internal speak up lines, along with normalising the use of external speak up lines that are professionally run, well resourced and promoted, is an essential part of building an ethical culture. And, increasingly ethical culture and reporting on culture is a top priority.

Will.I.Am. with his 12.8 million followers only has to be disgruntled for a tweet to reach an army of followers almost 3 x the population of New Zealand. That’s a lot of receptive potential passengers, or investors, or customers who have voted themselves open to influence. How Will.I.Am. chooses and what he chooses to tweet is largely his business. It is unnecessary here to argue the rights and wrongs. He can, and he will. Personally I think, by and large, that’s a good thing.

While the majority of us will not have such significant pulling power the lesson remains.

A business reputation is a fundamental asset and indicator of future trustworthiness – as well as other criteria such as profitability and ease of recruiting top talent etc etc.

Speak up processes feed into preserving that reputation. They will only work if everyone, including the directors who set the tone at the top, accept that being open for feedback that enables continuous improvement never ends – it is actually continuous.

Investors, shareholders, customers (of any sort) increasingly want to know that the company they trust enough to invest in or purchase from is prepared to listen, ready to act and open to any conversation that can contribute, in the words of Will.I.Am, ‘to a safer, more compassionate world’.

If that can ever become a rap song – it has the basis of a global hit in hand.

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