The importance of being just: speaking up at work

October 2019  |  FEATURE  |  LABOUR & EMPLOYMENT

Financier Worldwide Magazine

October 2019 Issue

The courage to speak up for what is right is a virtue that the majority of us like to believe we possess. When push comes to shove, however, many people end up looking the other way.

Moreover, when a call to righteousness is made in a workplace context, the pressure on individuals to speak up is particularly acute, with the fear of retribution the main preventer. Even so, encouraging staff to share their workplace concerns – and putting the right channels in place to enable this – are critical steps in developing a more open culture.

“The freedom to raise concerns is a core component of a supportive, ethical business culture, where employees are confident they will be supported to ‘do the right thing’,” says Katherine Bradshaw, head of communications at the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE). “With regard to financial institutions, in the UK, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) made it a requirement in 2015 for financial services firms to appoint a whistleblower champion on the board.”

An inconsistent landscape, according to IBE’s 2018 ‘European Ethics at Work’ survey, an average of 43 percent of employees across Europe said that their organisation provides a confidential means of reporting misconduct – ranging from 33 percent in France to 64 percent in the UK.

“Having effective arrangements in place has a number of benefits, such as helping detect wrongdoing at an earlier stage, allowing an organisation to act to reduce harm and financial losses,” adds Jon Cunningham, development director at Protect. “If harm is prevented or stopped at an early stage, this can benefit all stakeholders, including wider society.”

Freedom to speak

The IBE’s ‘Good Practice Guide: Encouraging a Speak Up Culture’ suggests that an effective speak up policy can help organisations to: (i) promote robust risk management; (ii) maintain and improve performance; (iii) protect staff, customers and the public; (iv) protect an organisation from fraud and reduce financial losses; (v) improve staff morale and reduce staff turnover; (vi) attract potential recruits; and (vii) increase investor confidence.

“Effective speak up arrangements reassure employees that their concerns are important and will encourage them to bring problems to the attention of senior management, rather than publicising them on social media,” says Ms Bradshaw. “It makes for a happier workforce if staff believe and can see that mutual trust exists.”

The courage to speak up for what is right is a virtue that the majority of us like to believe we possess. When push comes to shove, however, many people end up looking the other way.

That said, employee awareness of company policies is often an issue. “Our research shows that 93 percent of organisations have whistleblowing arrangements in place, but only 43 percent of workers were aware of a policy,” explains Mr Cunningham. “In addition, one in three managers said that they felt their whistleblowing arrangements were ineffective. We also know that many of the staff and managers who deal with whistleblowing concerns are not all well-equipped to handle these concerns.”

According to the IBE, areas to consider before setting up a speak up policy include deciding ownership and oversight of the process, what issues are to be covered or excluded, whether to use internal or external channels for reporting, how the effectiveness of the policy should be communicated to the board, and how concerns will be kept confidential.

“Protecting those who raise concerns is key to embedding a policy,” asserts Ms Bradshaw. “Most organisations state that they will not tolerate retaliation, but employee experience may tell a different story. “After an investigation is concluded, it is good practice to ask the reporter how they felt about the process and whether they would speak up again. This feedback can be an invaluable indicator as to how well the process is working.”

Culture central

Looking ahead, the challenge is for organisations to ensure their speak up policy is at the centre of their culture and does not exist solely as a box-ticking exercise.

“Many organisations feel they have ‘covered off’ whistleblowing because somewhere on the intranet or staff induction pack there is policy or page on whistleblowing,” notes Mr Cunningham. “Many organisations need to do more than simply have a policy and there is more to be done to move away from what can appear to be a ‘tick box’ culture.”

However, it is one thing to have a policy asking employees to speak up about wrongdoing, but quite another for leaders to listen to what is being said and act accordingly.

“Employees need to be encouraged to raise concerns and to know that senior management support will be given,” says Ms Bradshaw. “Speak up practices and organisational culture will be viewed cynically if employees repeatedly speak up and do not feel heard. That is why it is so crucial that any concerns are acknowledged, investigated, acted upon and lessons learned and communicated.”

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Fraser Tennant

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