7 steps to create, maintain & promote a speak up culture at work

The Significance of Speaking Up in Organisations and Strategies for Cultivating, Sustaining, and Enhancing a Culture of Open Communication at the Workplace

People standing in a ring talking

Why is a Speak Up Culture important?

Encouraging employees to maintain workplace ethics and fostering a culture of speaking up are vital aspects of addressing and resolving problems and to create a safe space for team members. Despite the passage of strict laws in some Member States, enforcement agencies in the EU have expressed frustration with the widespread misconduct. European nations have paid the majority of top enforcement fines for non-compliance since 2008, with Airbus (France/Netherlands) being fined $2.09 billion in 2020 and Eriksson (Sweden) fined $1.06 billion in 2019. The EU whistleblowing directive offers an opportunity for businesses to enhance workplace ethics, minimise the risk of misconduct, and mitigate its negative consequences.

A ‘speak up’ culture is characterised by team members feeling comfortable and safe raising concerns about misconduct they witness or experience. The case of Wirecard AG, a German firm, exemplifies the importance of a ‘speak up’ culture. In 2020, the company admitted a $2 billion discrepancy in its accounts, leading to allegations of money laundering, fraud, and corruption. Pav Gill, a former employee, became the whistleblower in this case after his concerns were disregarded by company executives. Gill and his mother alleged harassment and surveillance by the company after he left. This incident illustrates the reasons why many employees hesitate to speak up when witnessing harmful practices. In this article, you’ll learn why people don’t speak up about misconduct, why it’s beneficial to adopt a “speak-up culture, how managers can help promote ethics in the workplace, and seven steps to adopting and maintaining a “speak up” culture

Why People don’t Speak Up about Misconduct

In 2019, the EU published a whistleblower protection directive, but it may not effectively address long-term and serious corporate wrongdoings in countries with existing whistleblower protection laws. These laws often fail to address retaliatory actions, such as career setbacks or firing, which are difficult to prove in court and discourage whistleblowers. To overcome this, businesses should foster a strong speak-up culture, creating psychological safety for employees to disclose information. A study revealed that employees hold back ideas on customer experience, productivity, and process efficiency when there’s no speak-up culture, negatively impacting productivity and innovation. Fear of consequences, like damaging relationships or job loss, also inhibits speaking up.

A recent survey by the European Court of Auditors found that the biggest challenges for harmonising approaches between Member Nations when it comes to ethics are the ability to promote trust and support disclosures of wrongdoing (EUPAN, 2019). In the private industry, a 2018 survey conducted by the UK Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) revealed that 43% of respondents who have been aware of misconduct in the workplace did not raise concerns about the issue.

The two most common reasons private industry employees give for not raising concerns about wrongdoings are that they don’t believe corrective actions will be taken by management and they don’t want to jeopardise their job. The IBE survey found that there are opinion differences across age, gender, and positions within the organisation when it comes to speaking up and feeling heard. For instance, men are more likely than women to believe their organisation will discipline employees who violate ethical standards (56% vs 49%). Older employees and mid-career employees are the most likely to raise concerns about wrongdoings. Interestingly, younger employees are more than mid-career employees (34% vs 24%) likely to say that their manager rewards good results, even when they use questionable practices.

This shows that some employees have the perception that unethical behaviour is rewarded by their company and that speaking up about it won’t make a difference or will come at a great personal cost. A perception that could contribute to maintaining the status quo. Researcher Gerard Sinzdak found that 82% of whistleblowers suffer harassment, 60% lose their jobs, 17% lose their homes, and 10% attempt suicide. He recommends giving more options for reporting channels to avoid retaliation and as a way to address how to encourage whistleblowing. The study found notable differences between EU Member States. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Employees in Portugal (49%) and Italy (50%) are the least likely to report incidents, while workers in the UK (67%) (the study was conducted pre-Brexit) and Switzerland (58%) are most likely to do so.
  • In France, 46% of employees are aware of misconduct but don’t speak up because they think it’s none of their business (25%), they don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker by management (20%), they worry they’ll be putting their job in jeopardising, or they assume managers already know about the problem (17%).
  • Less than a quarter of German employees are aware of their organisation providing advice, information, or a whistleblowing internal channel.
  • In Ireland, 88% of employees believe their organisation always/frequently practises honesty. Even so, 44% of employees who have been aware of misconduct did not speak up about it.
  • Spanish employees are less likely than those in other EU nations to be aware of advice or information and whistleblowing channels. The study found that 40% of employees have been aware of misconduct such as unethical treatment of people (48%), safety violations (35%), and misreporting hours (34%), but chose not to disclose it.
  • In Portugal, 85% of employees feel their organisation always or frequently practises honesty in daily operations, and yet, 49% have been aware of misconduct and decided not to speak up. The most frequent reason given is that they believe no corrective action would be taken (32%).
  • Swiss employees (61%) are the most likely to say their organisation provides written standards for ethical business conduct and guidelines for their job, but only 36% say they have a means of reporting misconduct confidentially.

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 environment in your workspace can be a first step and play a critical role in encouraging 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 organisation, you’re also more likely to identify where your efforts and resources are needed to develop a stronger organisation. 

Managers Can Help Promote Workplace Ethics

Managers play a crucial role in fostering transparency, a workplace culture of speaking up, and ethical behaviour among employees. Compared to non-managers, they are more aware of misconduct in the workplace (34% vs. 29%) and more likely to report it (70% vs. 46%). Managers are often the first in the work environment to hear about employee concerns, and creating an environment that values ethics and supports employees who report wrongdoing enhances positive perceptions and the company’s ability to address such issues. A report by the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) revealed that 90% of employees satisfied with the outcome of reporting misconduct worked in organisations with a supportive ethics culture, while only 15% of whistleblowers felt satisfied in unsupportive organisations. Core support factors identified by employees include emphasising honesty, increasing awareness of misconduct, reducing pressure to compromise ethics, and promoting an open culture where employees can report misconduct without fear of retaliation. Implementing a robust whistleblower program can help organisations ensure these conditions are met. Researcher Nuala Walsh suggests that in addition to training, audits, policies and codes of conduct, compliance-based whistleblowing tools should incorporate emotion-based triggers in their communication strategies to motivate employees to take action. Upgrading reporting mechanisms, educating employees on responding to misconduct, using anonymous reporting tools, and ensuring managers, senior managers and leadership teams respond positively to disclosures are further recommendations by Walsh.

7 Steps to Encourage Employees to Speak Up

The following are suggestions for creating and maintaining a strong speak-up culture in your organisations. 

1. Build an Infrastructure that supports employee confidence and courage

This can be easily achieved 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 whistleblower 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.