A speak up culture is an essential element of an effective ethics and compliance program. While the previous sentence is nothing new, we need to rethink and reframe what is meant by a “speak up culture.”
Today, the concept is widely used to mean that employees should speak up when they are aware of some wrongdoing. When used this way, the burden of a speak up culture is put on employees – they need to speak up and if enough people do so regularly, then a speak up culture will follow. But why would any employee think it is safe to speak up if their employer has not first taken real and genuine steps to build trust, demonstrate that employees will be listened to and how they will be treated in the process?
Organizations and their leaders/managers are responsible for building a speak up culture – their actions (or inactions) will determine whether or not employees experience a speak up culture. In order to build the trust, dialogue and transparency needed for employees to reasonably believe a speak up culture exists, organizations and leaders need to consistently and genuinely take various actions and steps to do so. This includes: (1) showing the organization and its leaders genuinely care and will listen to people when they raise concerns, (2) making the reporting process more transparent, including explaining what happens when concerns are raised and sharing data/stories to show that speaking up is safe, commonly done by others and examples of what the organization has done in the past, (3) having leaders, managers and supervisors talk at least monthly about ethics and integrity (this can be a short message, but has to be genuine), and (4) taking other measures to show that the organization values people who speak up (recognitions for people who speak up, training for leaders on what to do if someone raises a concern, proactively asking employees about concerns, and asking candidates about integrity during the interview process as a way to demonstrate this matters and, ideally, supporting the hiring of people who have spoken up in other organizations).
If a speak up culture exists, then employees will feel more comfortable knowing that speaking up is safe and expected within the organization. And once employees believe that a speak up culture exists, the organization and leaders need to keep building trust with employees to keep the culture alive. Speaking up will never be easy for many people, but we don’t have to make it harder by putting the burden on employees to be the ones who will build a speak up culture. Organizations need to own building a speak up culture and once they do, they may benefit from employees speaking up more.