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Creating a Speak Up Culture Where Raising Concerns Matters

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The Whistleblower Dilemma

It’s a mantra we frequently hear — “if you see something, say something.” Does speaking up about concerns make a difference, or do whistleblowers risk their careers, health, or safety?

We need whistleblowers — ready to voice concerns about questionable conduct. We need people to raise problems. To create a positive and respectful workplace, you must ensure that ethics are a priority. This means behaving properly and treating others with respect. Everyone will be valued and contribute to success.

The “whistleblower dilemma” refers to someone choosing between speaking up about a problem and remaining silent. Speaking up may help the organization, but it may also anger others.

Resistance to Speaking Up

A Gallup study found that only three in ten employees strongly agree that their opinions count at work. The study mentioned earlier found that, for those businesses that are “moving the speak up ratio to six in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 27 percent reduction in employee turnover, a 40 percent reduction in safety incidents, and a 12 percent increase in productivity.”

Employees don’t report ethical violations because the organization hasn’t created a safe and supportive environment. In some organizations, top-down hierarchies foster a culture that pushes employees to remain silent.

Another reason for employees’ unwillingness to voice terrible news may be the prevailing culture, upbringing, and personal experience. People in some cultures favor conformity and loyalty to authority, whether deserved or misplaced. Some groups encourage their members to stay silent about problems within the group and may punish those who speak out. We hear these stories in a range of professions, for example, unions, police departments, and the military.

Syntrio Creating a Speak Up Culture Where Raising Concerns Matters

Benefits of a Speak Up Culture

Businesses work against their interests when ignoring problems and the individuals who raise them. Ample evidence exists regarding the value of a “speak up” culture.

For one, a “speak up” culture is directly related to ethical decision-making across the organization. According to Notre Dame University’s Center for Ethical Leadership, “Employees who make concerns known help organizations thrive by identifying issues and providing opportunities to adapt, innovate, and avoid costly mistakes.” This is especially true for ethical behavior.

Employees who speak up when they observe misconduct help organizations reduce risk. If employees speak up sooner, the organization can act more quickly to prevent potential problems from becoming major scandals.

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Building a Speak Up Culture

Of course, fostering an improved workplace culture is easier said than done. Several factors are essential for a business to build and sustain a “speak up” culture. A “speak up” culture encourages employees to feel comfortable communicating openly with management about issues and concerns. Management should respond appropriately and effectively to create a safe and supportive environment.

Every organization is different, yet, among experts, a consensus emerges about how to create and foster a “speak up” culture. Those organizations and their leaders serious about building and maintaining a “speak up” culture need to consider the following essential factors.

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Leaders as Role Models

A consistent focus on ethics shows that proper and positive behavior is a priority and makes for a civil and respectful workplace where everyone is valued and contributes to success. Ethical improvements begin with leadership and humility. Team leaders and managers need to be open to feedback and constructive criticism about themselves. Further, they must talk openly about ethical issues, discussing positive and negative examples and their related effects.

Training for Employees — and Leaders

Employees should feel comfortable raising concerns and know that their leaders are committed to open communication and doing what is right. Employees should be trained in what constitutes misconduct, how to identify it, and how to prevent, stop, or report it.

Open Communications

Without a spirit of open communication, no one is likely to raise concerns. Managers should let employees know mistakes happen and make them a “learning moment.” Leaders should be open to employee feedback by encouraging them to ask questions and voice their concerns. For example, leaders can begin at the start of meetings by soliciting ethical issues and problems to be shared and discussed.

Avoiding the Leader Bubble

It’s a credible adage that successful managers are “walk-around” managers. They don’t keep to themselves, assuming that employees will only come to them if something is wrong. They don’t rely on formal performance reviews; instead, they give employees regular, consistent feedback. They encourage respectful exchange within the organization, regardless of one’s position or authority.

Developing Your Speak Up Channels 

A high-quality ethics and compliance program has multiple methods for raising concerns. These may include:

  • Helping employees have thoughtful, civil discussions about minor problems that arise. Such problems are inevitable in any workplace. The sooner employees build skills at talking and working with one another to resolve them, the more productive the workplace.
  • Providing employees with multiple ways to raise concerns is essential. Some shared resources include managers, human resources, compliance, health and safety, legal, and internal audit.
  • Assuring employees that any issue or misconduct report is treated seriously and confidentially by management or other appropriate representatives.
  • Offering employees using a reporting “hotline” or reporting websites. Hotlines and reporting websites can go a long way toward encouraging employees who are most comfortable reporting anonymously.

The 4 P’s

  • Promote –  thoughtful and Civil Discussion
  • Put Forward multiple ways to raise more severe concerns
  • Promise that reports are treated seriously
  • Provide employees with reporting channels.

Making a Difference Through “Speak Up”

An organization can have an exceptionally designed ethics and compliance program. It can have a highly supportive Board of Directors and CEO. It can empower employees who care about solving business problems.

But if it lacks a culture where employees are not only encouraged to discuss complex issues and raise concerns but also feel it their duty to do so, the rest doesn’t matter. And that’s because the organization cannot count on problems surfacing before they metastasize into major scandals that can severely hobble a business — if not bring it down for good.

The most important thing for a company’s success is not its products or services but its culture. A company needs to have a culture where employees feel comfortable discussing complex issues and raising concerns.

3 Speak Up and Listen Up Samples

Listen Up! Listening for Silent Speak Up

Listen Up! Listening for the Silent “Speak Up”

This introduces ways managers can listen and observe carefully to identify an individual with an unexpressed concern.

Speak Up! Raising Workplace Concerns

Speak Up! Raising Workplace Concerns

A strong ethical culture requires that all staff are comfortable with raising concerns and managers are skilled with effectively receiving and responding to these concerns. This module covers the importance of a “speak up” workplace culture where everyone is committed and encouraged to raise concerns about questionable conduct.

Syntrio - Assisting with Investigations for Managers

Assisting in Investigations for Managers

This microlearning course emphasizes managers’ importance in addressing concerns and assisting during workplace investigations. This ensures all parties are treated with respect and fairness while protecting the organization, its people, and its assets. Investigations provide feedback about how an organization can remain compliant with the law and policies and improve operations, safety, and performance. Helping the individuals charged with investigations respond quickly and responsibly to reported issues aids in identifying and addressing problems to maintain a healthy workplace culture.

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