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How to build a speak-Up culture

Address common causes for suppressed reporting and increase speak-up program awareness

Kelly Maxwell
Content Marketing Specialist, OneTrust
March 15, 2022

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A strong speak-up culture is the foundation of any ethics and compliance program. When employees see a transparent culture in action, one with a strong sense of organizational justice and accountability, they are more likely to come forward when they witness wrongdoing. Speak-up reporter volume is of paramount importance, because suppressed reporting levels reveal where an organization’s health is in jeopardy. There is a clear correlation between whistleblower report volume and an organization’s commitment to transparency, accountability, and organizational justice.

Common Causes for Suppressed Reporting Includes: 

  • Lack of awareness that a hotline exists and why
  • Fear of retaliation
  • Reluctance to “tattle-tale” or “snitch” on colleagues
  • Skepticism that a report will lead to change

Increase the number of reports you receive and build a stronger speak-up culture across your organization by implementing the strategies and practical initiatives below.

Download the eBook: Learn to raise awareness and overcome reporting reluctance with 6 Key Steps to Raising Hotline Awareness

Work Your Data with Internal and External Benchmarking

Start by conducting a company-wide listening exercise, utilizing both quantitative and qualitative means. Start with internal benchmarking by taking a close look at your current reports, analyzing the data in your helpline and case manager. Zoom in and see what the data tells you, and where there are reporting gaps. Both the visible and invisible data here will help reveal areas for further investigations and communication efforts. Take a critical look at reporting categories and locations or teams where you aren’t receiving any reports, and examine both the possibility that there are genuinely no issues to report and that potential reports are being suppressed.

Start by Asking the Obvious Questions First:  

  • Are there departmental or location-specific hot spots?
  • Are specific teams, titles, or levels generating most of your reports?
  • Where are the pockets of silence?

After you’ve investigated your internal data in your helpline and case manager, you can compare your reporting rates to other peer organizations using a benchmarking tool. This external benchmarking is especially useful for newer ethics and compliance departments or for newer companies. See if your data is on-trend and if your report volume is in line with industry or geographic trends. You’ll first have to understand where these reports are coming from before you can understand and address the why.

If you want a more holistic and comprehensive view of your speak-up culture (and we hope you do!), consider a few more qualitative methods. Although these methods are more time intensive, they will help you gather important information that the pure data cannot. Remember that this listening exercise is equally about the story your data you tell you and the story that the data misses.

Key Qualitative Tools for Success, Beyond Your Data: 

  • Interviews – One-on-one interviews, with leadership and entry-level workers alike, will help get a temperature check on your organizational health.
  • Workshops – If a certain department is generating the bulk of your reports (or no reports at all), focus some attention and time on conducting targeted awareness workshops.
  • Surveys – Surveys, asking questions driven by your data hot spots and gaps, are a fantastic way to home in on why people aren’t speaking up through your hotline.

Raise Awareness and Improve Your Speak-Up Culture 

When it comes to creative ways to increase hotline awareness, the methods are endless. Depending on what your data told you in the listening exercise above, you may need to start with a general hotline awareness campaign or lean into your specific hotspots/silent regions. The goal with any awareness campaign? Reduce the fear that comes with coming forward to make a report. It will all be worth your while, because increased internal reporting levels are linked to fewer subsequent external problems like lawsuits and regulatory fines.

Whatever methods you decide to use, remember that the tone and language you use is paramount. Keep your messaging succinct, friendly, and free from hyperbole or fear tactics. Stumped as to where to start? We’ve generated a few ideas as a jumping-off point for you.

Creative Methods to Increase Speak-Up Program Awareness: 

  • Make your hotline approachable by humanizing it and giving it a friendly brand. For example, “Ask Veronica” or “Talk to Peggy.”
  • Hang posters around the office, in gathering spaces and private spaces alike. Consider adding tear-off strips to the bottom of the poster with the hotline number. Bonus points for tearing off a few strips to start, signaling engagement.
  • Produce a custom reference card, distilling the most important contact information and program components into a small and easy to access format. Think wallet-sized laminated cards or custom mouse pads.
  • Add hotline details to regularly seen materials, already distributed to employees. These can include security badges, company-issued IDs, lanyards, pay slips, and vehicle stickers. Get creative! Where else could you add information about your hotline?
  • Tailor your awareness program to specific audiences within your company. For example, add hotline messaging to lens cloths, ensuring manufacturing or factory workers will see hotline messaging every time they clean their safety glasses.
  • For a remote or distributed workforce, consider adding hotline messaging to pre-existing digital communications, legitimizing your program and raising awareness with every newsletter distribution or departmental update.
  • Build a regular communication cadence and send out campaign-specific emails, highlighting new initiatives or program highlights. Remember to keep things new and fresh with every email send to keep your employees engaged and interested.

Address Common Fears and Barriers to Reporting 

No matter how much energy you pour into your data and awareness efforts, you will need to ensure a constant and visible commitment to reporters by addressing their fears and misperceptions. Remember that coming forward to make a report is an emotional experience. Your job as an ethics and compliance professional, is to lead with empathy, demonstrate commitment to integrity, and meet people where they’re at.

Address the fear of the unknown by embarking on regular awareness campaigns. These campaigns should address whatever issues you’ve uncovered through your listening exercises, and they should support whatever program awareness initiatives you decided on. Design your awareness campaigns with reassuring imagery (cats, dogs, smiling faces, etc.). Define emotionally charged terms (such as confidential and anonymous) in the vernacular, reducing opportunities for confusion.

The fear of retaliation can prevent a whistleblower from coming forward and submitting a report. This is an opportunity to demonstrate your organizational commitment to building trust by emphasizing the absolute protections of anonymity and confidentiality in every related communication. Your employees must believe that your organization treats people fairly, regardless of position or responsibilities.

Key Tools for Speak-Up Culture Success: 

  • Share visibility into some of the checks and balances you monitor for retaliation.
  • Launch workshops where local leaders reinforce commitment to anti-retaliation.
  • Follow up with reporters and the related analytics after a report is made, demonstrating your commitment to anti-retaliation efforts. Make sure to check back in periodically to avoid a reputation for “one-and-done” activity. Remember that some retaliation may occur, or continue occurring, months after a report is made.
  • Reinforce messaging and communicate examples of how and why people speak up, to address any cultural aversions to whistleblowing. Communicate related survey results and hotline metrics to back up your claims with solid and relevant data.
  • Your anonymized annual ethics and compliance report showcases the data supporting your company-wide commitment to investigation and case resolution.

Give voice to your values and mitigate concerns about follow-up by sharing stories about successful investigations and how involved parties were held accountable. Every case is an opportunity to commit to efficient follow-up and communication with reporters. Through this practical repetition, you’ll demonstrate how concerns are taken seriously, and develop a reputation for accountability and trustworthiness.

Download the eBook: Learn to raise awareness and overcome reporting reluctance with 6 Key Steps to Raising Hotline Awareness


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