‘Speak up’ culture is a workplace culture where employees are willing and able to raise questions and concerns when they witness or experience misconduct. In June 2020, the German firm Wirecard AG admitted it was missing $2 billion from its accounts. Allegations of money laundering, fraud, and corruption soon followed. Former employee Pav Gill who is now recognized as the whistleblower in this case exposed these wrong-doings to journalists after his concerns were ignored by company executives. These kinds of issues had been happening for nearly a decade. After Gill left the company, he and his mother allege they were followed, and the company harassed him for months. His story represents why many employees don’t feel safe speaking up at work when they witness bad behavior or harmful practices. In this article we discuss 7 different steps to creating & maintaining a ‘speak up’ culture.
‘Speak Up’ Culture: Why People Don’t Speak Up
In 2019, the EU published a whistleblower protection directive. Even so, in many countries with whistleblower protection, the directive is unlikely to offer decisive responses to long-term and serious corporate wrongdoings. Whistleblower protection laws don’t always address retaliatory actions such as career slow-down, transfers to new locations, or firing due to alleged poor performance, all of which are difficult to prove in the courts. This can discourage whistleblowers from coming forward. As a business, you can create and maintain a strong ‘speak up’ culture that will ensure employees feel safe disclosing wrong-doings internally so that any potential issues can be addressed right away.
In their book Courageous Cultures, authors Karin Hurt & David Dye say that creating a ‘speak up’ culture requires implementing psychological safety for employees who disclose information. In their study, middle managers and team leaders were asked why they didn’t feel comfortable speaking up or sharing their opinions at work. The top five reasons they gave were:
- leadership doesn’t want to hear what I have to say.
- no one asked me.
- I don’t feel confident enough to share.
- I’m not skilled enough to share my idea.
- Nothing will happen if I say this.
Why is ‘speak up’ culture so important? The study found that employees were most often holding back ideas about the customer experience, employee productivity and process efficiency, and the employee experience. They also found that not having a ‘speak up’ culture had a negative impact on productivity and innovation. In other words, work cultures that don’t make speaking up a priority are missing out on important data.
Another factor that inhibits speaking up is the fear of consequences. Like Pav Gill and many other whistleblowers, employees worry that disclosing wrong-doings or giving negative feedback could cost them a promotion, friendships with colleagues, their reputation, a future recommendation from their supervisor, or even their job.
Benefits of A ‘Speak Up’ Culture
According to Harvard University Business Professor Amy Edmonson, psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. Maintaining a psychologically safe workspace can encourage more risk-taking and vulnerability from employees. Employees who feel psychologically safe at work also tend to have better mental health and well-being. They are more likely to report when a tool or item is lost, or a report is completed incorrectly, rather than change the data to avoid retribution.
A ‘speak-up’ culture gives employees the freedom to take risks, try, and fail without fear of retaliation. The safer your employees feel, the more likely they are to do something that makes them uncomfortable. They are more likely to share their knowledge and ideas and have stronger feelings of collaboration and community if they feel heard and valued. As an organization, you’re also more likely to identify where your efforts and resources are needed to develop a stronger organization.
7 Steps to Encourage Speaking Up
The following are suggestions for creating and maintaining a strong ‘speak up’ culture in your organizations.
1. Build an Infrastructure that supports employee confidence and courage by aligning internal processes and systems to support speaking up. Ensure employees and third parties are able to report wrong-doings through official channels and you have proper metrics to assess the effectiveness of a speak-up culture. You should capture information about the who, when, what, and why. Who was involved or may have known about the incident? When did it happen? What exactly happened or what went wrong? Why wasn’t it reported?
2. Provide Training. When employees receive training, they are more likely to feel confident about sharing opinions at work, even if what they have to say might be seen as unpopular. Providing robust training will help increase the confidence your employees have in doing their job well and recognizing when things aren’t done properly.
3. Respond with Regard. You should acknowledge and even invite more contributions by employees. Encourage employees to ask questions if they do not understand something. Check-in with them to support their progress. Care about employees by actively listening to them and showing concern for their wellbeing.
4. Increase organizational support. Speaking up can be easier if your employees feel safe and are confident their managers have their back. Making your employees feel supported can help create a sense of responsibility and belonging within the team. Ensure the organization has the proper tools to support whistleblowing and other forms of speaking up when they happen.
5. Give Speaking Up Meaning. Speaking up can be uncomfortable and risky. Businesses can lower that risk by showing they believe in their employees and the work they do. Employees will be more likely to want to protect their workplace if they find value in it.
6. Let employees lead. Employees, project leaders, and team managers that feel heard and taken seriously are more likely to speak up. Ensuring there are opportunities for people to offer comments and feedback during meetings and organizational events.
7. Proactively invite input. Ask questions and refrain from adding input as a leader during discussions to encourage employees to speak up and respond honestly. Give employees the space to contribute to meetings by asking for polite feedback.
The key to creating a psychologically safe workspace is to value the information employees share with the company and deal with serious concerns proactively rather than waiting for issues to be shared on social media or the press. Maintaining a ’speak-up’ culture in your workplace shows that you value your employees and your business, and encourage people to express their concerns, share their feedback, ask questions, and make suggestions without fearing retaliation or being brushed off.