Speak-up culture 101: Why speak-up culture matters and how to build yours

How to build, measure, and grow your speak-up program to foster trust, shared responsibility, and the highest standards of ethical conduct

Gbemi Yusuff
Senior Compliance Counsel, OneTrust
March 2, 2023

Low angle photo of woman on cell phone looking over glass railing

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

What is 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:

  • Avoiding hefty regulatory fines
  • Civil or criminal legal action
  • Reputational damage
  • Loss of customers or suppliers
  • Loss of talent

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.

Benefits of a strong speak-up culture

Speak-up culture offers numerous benefits for your organization. Here are some of the notable ones:

  1. Speak-up culture enables you to detect issues early. As Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote states, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” When it comes to security and compliance, the sooner you can identify a potential problem, the better. When employees and third parties report issues through your company helpline and other channels, they can alert you to problems quickly, before they escalate.
  2. Speak-up culture helps you retain workforce talent. People prefer to work in an environment where they feel valued and have confidence their ideas will be taken seriously. A healthy speak-up culture helps you cultivate greater employee buy-in on your policies and, ultimately, your organizational vision. Empower employees to make suggestions, share ideas, and innovate together to improve your products and services. People stay longer in a workplace where they know leadership appreciates their contributions.
  3. Speak-up culture builds your reputation as an ethical company. Not only will a robust speak-up program drive a more ethically responsible company culture; it will also boost your reputation in the community as a socially responsible organization. Have you seen the online lists of “most ethical companies to work for”? Employees and consumers seek out companies their values align with. Speak-up culture fosters shared values around justice and social responsibility that help you build a strong standing in the community.
  4. Speak-up culture improves your effectiveness and drives greater innovation. Creating a healthy speak-up culture isn’t just about whistleblowing and risk mitigation. It’s also about optimizing your operations, creating better products and services, and innovating more. When workers feel safe identifying both challenges and opportunities, you’ll have a work environment that empowers them – and the company – to reach their potential.

What hinders people from speaking up, and how do you cultivate psychological safety?

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 
  • Skepticism about whether concerns will be properly addressed  
  • Lack of awareness about how to speak up 
  • Reluctance to “snitch” or get other people in trouble 
  • Confidentiality concerns

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. 

How to build a resilient speak-up culture

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: 

  • Education: Offer workshops, annual training for employees and managers, and regular communications to teach staff and third-party stakeholders about ethics and compliance, company policies, and how to report issues.  
  • Listening: Conduct focus groups and employee engagement surveys to better understand how people feel about company culture and what needs to improve. Do exit interviews to gather insights about company culture from departing staff. 
  • Reporting channels: Establish multiple avenues for reporting, including a telephone helpline, written channels such as SMS or an online form, and direct communication with managers, HR, or the compliance team. Open at least some of the channels to third parties, such as partners, suppliers, vendors, and community members. 
  • Case management: Adopt case management software to help you track cases, automate follow-up, and streamline investigations. 
  • Benchmarking: Carry out internal and external benchmarking to understand where you are and how you compare to similar organizations. Share the results with employees and show your progress year over year. 
  • Psychological safety: Cultivate psychological safety through a nonretaliation policy, transparency about reporting outcomes, and by showing employees that their reports have an impact. 
  • Raising awareness: Continue to raise awareness of your speak-up program through regular communications with employees and third parties. Share statistics on your progress and regularly remind stakeholders how much you value their contributions.

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.

How to measure speak-up culture

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: 

  • Visits to your internal speak-up webpages 
  • Training completion rates and test results 
  • Quantitative and qualitative data from employee engagement surveys  
  • Number of incident reports by category and reporting channel 
  • Number of anonymous versus known reporters  
  • Number of retaliation reports

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.

Protect your business while cultivating an ethical work environment

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.

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