Have you ever thought about what might be possible if you empowered employees and other stakeholders to openly communicate their best ideas, observations, and concerns with organizational leadership, without fear of retaliation? Speak-up culture aims to do just that. A healthy speak-up culture fosters an ethos of transparency, honesty, and accountability across your business. It creates a work environment where everyone feels safe bringing their best ideas and best selves to work every day.
Through tools like company helplines, open-door policies, and misconduct case management solutions, organizations are constructing speak-up programs to serve as an early warning system that helps them mitigate the risk of lawsuits, prosecution, and reputational damage. Speak-up culture is therefore fundamental to any ethics and compliance program. However, it doesn’t just protect the company. A thriving speak-up culture also cultivates a feeling of safety and shared responsibility for the ethics of the organization.
We’ve created this 101 guide to help you understand what speak-up culture is, why it’s important, the challenges organizations face in creating such an ethos, and how to build and measure your speak-up culture for maximum benefit.
Download eBook: How to Build a Speak-Up Culture
Speak-up culture is a workplace culture where employees feel safe sharing their ideas and concerns, reporting misconduct, and informing the company about potential ethics violations. In a healthy speak-up culture, employees trust that they can ask questions and raise issues about their work, ethical dilemmas they’re facing, company leadership, policies, and third parties. Not only that, but they have confidence the organization will support them, and they won’t face retaliation for speaking up.
To build a culture of ethics in an organization, everyone needs to be able to safely say something when they see – or think they see – misconduct. Company compliance teams don’t have the knowledge or resources to discover every issue themselves. They rely on workers on the ground to bring problems to their attention so they can proactively address them.
A robust speak-up culture can help you reduce risk in several areas:
More than ever before, customers and employees want to align themselves with companies that have high ethical standards. A healthy speak-up culture cultivates an environment of trust, openness, and shared responsibility – elevating your reputation as an ethical organization.
Speak-up culture offers numerous benefits for your organization. Here are some of the notable ones:
According to research from Gartner, “Only 60% of employees who have observed, or are unsure whether they have observed, misconduct report it.” In other words, many ethical concerns remain hidden and undocumented, putting your organization at greater risk.
There are several reasons why people don’t come forward to report misconduct:
Fear of retaliation looms large for many workers and requires companies to be proactive. Without an observable commitment to preventing retaliation, employees won’t trust the process enough to risk their jobs.
Start by establishing a clear policy of zero tolerance for retaliation. Have leaders regularly communicate and demonstrate the company’s nonretaliation stance. When you investigate issues, remind people of your policy, and follow up afterward to ensure no retaliation occurred.
If retaliation does happen, take action quickly and communicate what you’re doing to respond to it. You can also take advantage of software that automates reminders to follow up with those who report misconduct. Transparency about your commitment to investigating issues can reassure people that you take reports seriously. Share statistics annually about how many cases were reported and how the company responded so that employees can see progress.
To ensure employees understand how to speak up, offer annual or biannual ethics education. Training also teaches stakeholders why speaking up is so important for creating a culture of trust and complying with laws and regulations that guide business conduct. Such reinforcement can assuage worries about getting others in trouble and remind employees that reporting protects the company and its reputation. Finally, to tackle worries about confidentiality, provide multiple avenues for people to speak up, including a means of anonymous reporting for those who prefer it.
Creating a sense of psychological safety requires transparency and authenticity on the part of organizational leaders. Managers can lead by example, being honest about their experiences and creating a safe space for open communication on their teams. Creating a welcoming open-door policy assures people that they’re safe speaking up and that their concerns will be heard.
When you think of speak-up programs, the company helpline might be the first thing that comes to mind. But speak-up culture involves much more than having a whistleblowing hotline. Building a robust speak-up culture to serve as your early warning system requires several practices:
Building a strong speak-up culture takes time. Leaders must commit to the process and invest the resources – time, people, and funds – to create a healthy culture. Making an investment in the right technological tools and staffing enables you to create a thriving speak-up culture and an ethically responsible company.
You need to regularly repeat many of the steps described here to ensure workers understand what’s required of them, how to speak up, and how to provide ongoing feedback about the ethics and compliance program.
To keep growing a strong speak-up culture, you should commit to continuous improvement. We recommend tracking key metrics to systematically evaluate your program and see where you can improve. Some possible KPIs include:
Monitoring your internal progress and benchmarking against similarly sized companies or others in your industry strengthens your speak-up program. If you notice issues like low overall report volume or a high incidence of reports in a particular category, you know exactly what you need to prioritize next.
In a thriving speak-up culture, employees and other stakeholders can confidently raise concerns and bring their best ideas to leadership without fear of retaliation. No matter what size your organization is, or what industry or geographies you work in, building a healthy speak-up culture can reduce your risk, strengthen your reputation, and make your business one that workers and consumers are drawn to.
You can learn more about creating a resilient speak-up culture in your company by downloading our ebook, How to Build a Speak-Up Culture.