Nearly a year on from the sexual harassment scandals that rocked Hollywood, the concept of ‘speaking up’ has become part of a global movement.

A debate that first hit the headlines under the #MeToo banner has evolved to encompass abuses of power, exploitation, corruption and business ethics.

Set against this backdrop, you might be forgiven for thinking “speaking up” (or “whistleblowing”) has – almost overnight – become commonplace in workplaces the world over.

Early indications, however, suggest otherwise.

Has greater awareness led to more reporting?

Undoubtedly, the global debate around workplace ethics has encouraged many more organisations to review and improve their own speak up provision and investigation processes.

But while awareness of whistleblowing policies and ‘speak up’ procedures has probably never been greater, employees’ willingness to engage with them remains relatively low.

The Institute of Business Ethics’ (IBE) recently-published Ethics at Work Survey 2018 was conducted in February 2018 and includes responses from over 6,000 employees across Europe. It found that:

  • 30% of employees were aware of misconduct at work, but only 54% of them spoke up about it
  • 28% of people who witnessed misconduct but not reported it, said they had remained silent because they believed nothing would be done

Organisational and leadership cultures to blame?

If organisations want to be confident employees will speak up if they become aware of misconduct at work, the senior team must demonstrate its willingness to listen when employees speak.

It’s equally important to create an environment where employees understand the ethical standards that their company wants to uphold. Otherwise, what one employee may regard as unethical could be interpreted by another as simply “what happens around here”.

IBE Ethics at Work Survey 2018 - Why Ethics Matters

Risk Vs Reward imbalance

Some ethics programmes are (mistakenly) built around the belief that all employees will naturally feel obliged to speak up when they witness illegal or unethical behaviour. After all, it’s the employee’s duty to “do the right thing”, isn’t it?

But this fails to consider how an employee might see things from their own perspective. They will be wondering;

  • Why should I report it?
  • What’s in it for me?
  • Will management care or even listen to me?
  • What will my colleagues think of me?
  • What if I suffer reprisals?
  • Will my career suffer?
  • Can my identity be protected?
  • Who will investigate my concern and how will they do it?

Organisations must work hard at ensuring that employees feel motivated and able to speak up about problems and, crucially, that it’s safe for them to do so.

IBE Ethics at Work Survey 2018 - Why Ethics Matters 8

Poor communication practices persist

Inevitably, colleagues at the coal face know more about the day-to-day workings of a business than the senior team do.

Yet traditional hierarchies do not always encourage a free flow of information. And that’s when we’re talking about the “good stuff”, like new innovations or ideas.

But what about the “bad stuff”?

What happens when someone sees behaviour at work that could seriously harm individuals, reputation or profit? How likely is it then that someone will come forward?

How can this be overcome?

It’s true that building a healthy speak up culture can take time – but it is entirely achievable.

Having helped many hundreds of organisations design and deploy effective speak up programmes, we at Expolink believe there are eight guiding principles that will help set your organisation on the right path:

  1. Start at the beginning. Include business ethics conduct training into the employee induction programme. Not just the company policy and details of how to raise concerns, but also clear examples of what is and what is not acceptable in the workplace. Avoid the assumption that everyone will know what is right and wrong.
  2. Always give timely and relevant feedback to people who speak up about suspected wrongdoing. Proposals for a future EU Directive on Whistleblowing include making the provision of feedback to the whistleblower a legal requirement. Done properly, feedback will fully engage employees with the speak up process, acknowledge their good deed and create advocates.
  3. Make sure that everyone who “speaks up” has a positive experience. Has the senior team phoned its company’s Speak Up hotline recently? If so, how good was their experience? Financial Services companies in the UK are now required by their Regulator (the FCA) to ensure that the whistleblower journey, from first raising a concern to final resolution, is as positive an experience as possible.
  4. De-mystify the investigation process. Give the investigation team a platform to raise awareness of who they are, what they do and how they do it. Talk through some high-profile cases at “meet and greets” across your organisation.
  5. Share information about case numbers and outcomes (where possible) and the proportion of cases found to be unsubstantiated. Ensure key information about the Speak Up programme and any supporting literature is translated and made available in the principal languages spoken across the business.
  6. Incentivise people to behave ethically by recognising colleagues who “do the right thing”, or including ethics metrics in company bonus schemes, annual appraisals and performance reviews.
  7. Find ways to reduce the perceived risks of making a Speak Up disclosure. Those risks are particularly high if the Speak Up line is seen as “to be used only in the event of an emergency” (and therefore not a “business as usual” channel). To counter this, talk about it in team and company briefings and explain that the line is not only there for the “big stuff”. Respecting confidentiality and anonymity requests will also be critical to reducing perceived risks.
  8. A Speak Up line must not standalone. It needs to be part of a comprehensive ethics programme which includes written standards of business conduct, availability of advice about behaving ethically and the provision of training on ethical conduct. The IBE’s Ethics at Work Survey found that 73% of employees in organisations with a comprehensive ethics programme spoke up about misconduct, compared to 42% in organisations without one.Outside of the Speak Up process, build a culture where employees are encouraged to put forward ideas and suggestions aimed at business improvement. Discuss those ideas openly in forums that include the senior team, implement the best ideas and publicly acknowledge the people who came up with them.Because people have been nurtured in an environment where they are encouraged to give feedback, they will be more confident that the senior team will want to hear about and act when serious workplace concerns are raised.

A matter of trust

In the end, it all comes down to trust. The degree of trust an employee has that his or her organisation will act on what they disclose, and act in a way that will not compromise them.

Organisations need to build as much trust as they can. They need to treat their people well, listen to them and give clear guidance on desired behaviours.

If they do, then their people are more likely to help protect the organisation and feel motivated to “do the right thing”.