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What is a Speak Up Culture? (and Why Your Organization Needs One)

An organizational culture that encourages reporting concerns improves your overall ethics and helps prevent incidents.

Every organization experiences unethical behavior and misconduct. But you might not know the extent of your issues if employees don’t feel safe reporting incidents.

In July 2022, the United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS) came under fire after a speak up campaign revealed a system-wide culture of sexism and sexual harassment in the healthcare industry.

Surviving in Scrubs,” founded by Dr. Becky Cox and Dr. Chelcie Jewitt, asked women and non-binary healthcare workers to share their stories with the aim to “push for change in healthcare to end the culture of misogyny.” Submissions ranged from male doctors touching their staff inappropriately to blaming the victim’s good looks for a patient’s lewd and sexually violent comments.

Senior management at the NHS and even individual facilities might not have known how bad these issues were. However, they might also have discouraged reporting, or at least failed to actively encourage it, leaving the victims feeling helpless. With a speak up culture, though, the NHS could’ve protected their employees, as well as avoided the bad press and potential lawsuits.

If you want to promote a culture where both your employees and your organization are safe and successful, follow this guide.

What is a Speak Up Culture?

In an organization with a speak up culture, employees, as well as external people (e.g. customers, clients, partners, etc.) are encouraged to report concerns about anything from unethical behavior to a compliance lapse. Regardless of the size, scope, or manner of the concern, it will be taken seriously and used to inform internal decisions.

The motto of a speak up culture is “if it feels wrong, report it.”

A speak up culture is:

  • Safe
  • Respectful
  • Open/transparent
  • Unbiased

 

A speak up culture is not:

  • Judgemental
  • Retaliatory
  • Accepting of wrongdoing

 

So, how do you encourage employees to speak up?

If your current company culture doesn’t promote speaking up, determine the reason why. You need to first “identify the source of the silence,” explains Kortney Nordrum, Regulatory Counsel & Chief Compliance Officer, Deluxe Corporation.

Often, “there is a disconnect between the employees on the front line and the senior management,” she says. This causes a lack of trust, making employees feel that reporting is either unsafe or useless.

To establish credibility, Nordrum says, you need to value employee reports made in good faith, as well as punish bad actors in accordance with your internal policies.

Is your speak up policy leaving employees and your company vulnerable?

If employees don't know how to report concerns (or don't feel safe doing so), you might miss minor issues that turn disastrous. Use our free template to write a strong policy that explains how, where, and why to report.

Download the Template

Benefits of a Speak Up Culture

Shifting to a speak up culture can take a lot of time, money, and effort. You have to plan your approach, set up a hotline, and get your employees on board. But all of this work comes with benefits for your organization, both tangible and intangible.

 

Fewer Fines and Lawsuits

Whether you’re a government entity, a big publicly-traded company, or a small private business, bottom line is probably one of your top priorities.

Did you know that a speak up culture can help you save money?

According to a study of internal whistleblowing by professors Kyle Welch and Stephen Stubben, companies with more hotline reports actually experience fewer lawsuits and regulatory fines.

Welch explains, “more reports are a sign of an open feedback culture where companies are actively soliciting employees to provide insight.” He points out that while you’d think more reports means more problems, it instead indicates employees feeling safe reporting concerns.

“Companies getting fewer whistleblower reports don’t have fewer problems, management is just less aware of the problems,” Welch says.

 

Safe, Attractive Culture for Employees

A speak up culture helps employees two-fold.

First, it ensures them that your organization takes concerns seriously, and that if they report something, you’ll actually look into it. This makes them feel safe and like their voices matter to the company.

Second, employees’ reports help mold the culture and influence changes in the organization. “Creating an inclusive environment and a sense of belonging starts with individuals,” says Annette Reavis, chief people officer at Envoy. “How we talk to coworkers, build teams, and decide what to praise or call out—these things matter.”

A speak up culture is self-perpetuating; the more you encourage employees to voice their concerns, the safer they’ll feel doing so, and the more change you can implement.

 

Public Reputation as an Ethical Organization

No one wants to do business with a dishonest company. If you’re known for your speak up culture, though, you’ll attract more customers, clients, partners, and applicants.

More than ever before, people want to see organizations own their mistakes and announce how they’ll change for the better.

If a report leads to a negative story (e.g. a harassment scandal or kickback scheme), don’t try to hide it. Instead, use it as an opportunity to show the pubic positive changes you’ll make to correct the issue.

 

Better Incident Prevention

Finally, a speak up culture can help you catch small problems before they become disastrous.

In toxic work environments, employees won’t report issues until they’re untenable. But when they feel safe, they’ll alert you to problems while there’s still time to correct them.

For instance, a potential supplier sends Brian a bottle of expensive wine. His employee Manpreet knows this is against the company’s gifts policy. In a toxic culture, she might fear retaliation and not report this, allowing corruption to flourish. However, if she speaks up right away, you can nip the situation in the bud before it happens again.

An open culture also lets you use data to take corrective and preventive measures. Are there certain types of incidents that are reported more than others? Is one of your locations a hot spot for issues? 

By analyzing reporting data, you’ll uncover your areas that need improvement so you can stop incidents before they start. You’ll need to do a bit more digging to determine if less-reported areas are already strong in your organization, or if employees don’t yet feel safe speaking up about them.

For example, employees might have no problem reporting fraud, but be nervous to speak up about sexual harassment, even though it’s happening. Your data would show that you have low levels of harassment, but fewer reports don’t always mean fewer incidents.

What good will your speak up hotline do if nobody uses it?

Hotlines can tip you off to issues, but if employees don't know how (or forgot) how to use them, your workplace is at risk. Download, print, and hang this poster in common areas to boost your speak up program.

Get the Poster

How Do You Develop a Speak Up Culture?

First, start with a speak up policy (AKA whistleblower policy). In this policy, you’ll need to include:

  • Who the policy applies to (i.e. full-time, part-time, interns, contractors, etc.)
  • Why you’re writing this policy
  • What types of behavior should be reported (with definitions and practical examples)
  • How and where to report
  • An anti-retaliation statement

 

Next, create a speak up training module. In this training, include similar information to your policy, such as examples of behaviors that should be reported and how/where to speak up. Nordrum also recommends sanitizing real-life examples of ways a report has led to a positive change in your organization as a way to encourage employees to speak up.

When it comes to speak up hotlines, implement a system that’s easy to use and offers multiple reporting options, such as a webform and a phone number. However, Nordrum suggests using hotlines as a “last resort.” Instead, she suggests training middle and senior managers to encourage their employees to bring up their concerns before issues escalate. “Teach people to talk to each other in a less superficial way,” she explains, in order to foster an open culture.

In addition, remember that speaking up isn’t just for employees. Make your reporting mechanisms public and encourage customers, clients, partners, and contractors to voice their concerns. Using both external and internal reporting data, you can tackle issues in all areas of your operations.

How to Maintain Your Speak Up Culture

Once your speak up program is in place, employees might need reminders about the culture shift. To keep up momentum, take these steps:

  • Require annual speak up training
  • Send all-staff emails detailing the benefits of speaking up or reporting instructions
  • Hang eye-catching posters (like this one) in common spaces with reporting information

 

You’ll also need to analyze your speak up program to see which aspects are successful and which should be reworked. To determine the effectiveness of your new measures, Corporate Compliance Insights suggests using these five metrics:

  1. Investigation outcomes: how often a report led to a substantiated investigation
  2. Employee perceptions: Do employees know how to report? Have they done so? Why or why not?
  3. Focus group input: Do employees feel comfortable speaking up? Do they trust their concerns will be taken seriously?
  4. Hotline data: how many reports you’ve received, what they’re regarding, where/who they’re coming from
  5. HR/ER data: number/subjects of reports taken directly to HR/employee relations instead of made through the hotline; “number of concerns raised resulting in employee discipline or termination”

 

“For a speak up culture to last and to be maintained, it has to be a priority,” says Nordrum. “The say/do ratio has to be really, really high.” In other words, consistency and following through with cultural changes you’ve implemented are keys to success.

“People need to feel heard,” she says. “If you’re going to . . . build this engagement, but you don’t listen and take action, then it’s all going to be for nothing.”

How i-Sight Can Help

i-Sight’s powerful case management software helps you investigate, prevent, and protect your company from fraud, bribery, and compliance lapses to lower your organization’s risks.

A whistleblower reporting system combined with i-Sight’s robust platform ensures your organization stays up to date with the latest DOJ guidance for effective compliance programs.

With i-Sight, you can use your complaint and case data to generate insightful reports that pinpoint your internal and external risks. Use this data analysis to monitor incident trends and find opportunities to boost your preventive efforts.

Learn more about how i-Sight can help you investigate and prevent ethics & compliance incidents here.

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