Speak up culture 101: Everything you should know

'Speak up culture' is more than a phrase. For employees and organisations alike, speaking up can lead to valuable change. But what does a speak up culture really encompass? And what can you do to build it? Learn everything there is to know about it in this blog.

March 26, 2024
5 min read

In an era marked by the #MeToo movement and headline-dominating misconduct scandals, the call for a speak up culture within organisations has never been louder.

At SpeakUp, we understand the importance of creating a safe, valued, and empowered space for dialogue — crucial for a thriving workplace and essential for both personal and organisational success.  

So, we dove into our decades of experience working with compliance and ethics to offer some invaluable insights and strategies on cultivating a speak up culture. Keep reading to find out more.   

What is a speak up culture?

A speak up culture essentially provides an environment in which open and transparent communication is both valued and actively encouraged. In a well-nourished speak up culture, individuals feel safe raising their concerns, voicing their ideas, and providing feedback. In this kind of environment, it is okay to question how things are done and share different opinions, all while keeping trust and respect intact.  

This openness is key for both personal growth and making the organisation better. While we’re talking about the culture, it’s important to touch on what ‘speak up’ means. Speaking up in ethics and compliance is about ensuring that everyone has a voice and that this voice is heard, respected, and acted upon, making organisations stronger, more ethical, and more compliant.

A speak up culture is therefore not only beneficial for employee engagement at large, but for an organisation’s success.  

What are the benefits of building a speak up culture?

We’ve already touched on how speak up culture is far more than a phrase. Let’s find out what benefits it has. Here are a few pivotal ones:

  • Speak up culture detects misconduct early: Employees are more likely to report potential problems, risks, or violations of policies in a culture where this is encouraged. This helps organisations detect issues at an early stage and enables timely intervention and resolution.  
  • Speaking up improves transparency and accountability: When employees feel comfortable sharing concerns or raising ethical issues, it promotes transparency within the organisation and this, in turn, facilitates accountability and ethical behaviour. All this before problems escalate out of control.  
  • Speaking up supports diversity, equity, and inclusion: A well-built speak up culture creates space for underrepresented voices to be heard, which amplifies a broader range of perspectives.  This can lead to more equitable practices as concerns are heard and given value, reduce biases, and increase representation of marginalised groups within the organisation.  
  • Speak up culture retains top talents: When employees know they their organisation truly cares about what they have to say and makes an active effort to help them feel valued, they will have less reasons to leave. In short, a speak up culture can help retain talent and lower your employee turnover due to a sense of loyalty employees feel when their organisations listen.
  • Speaking up culture leads a higher employee engagement: When individuals feel that their voices are heard and valued, they become more engaged in their work. A strong speak-up culture creates a sense of psychological safety, fostering trust and belonging. Employees who feel respected and supported are generally more motivated, leading to increased productivity.
  • Speak up culture provides continuous learning and growth: When employees freely share their knowledge and experiences, it creates opportunities for cross-functional collaboration, mentorship, and knowledge-sharing. This cultivates a learning organisation, where individuals can develop new skills and stay updated with industry trends and best practices.  

Want to hear how internationally known organisations benefit from a speak up culture? You can read more in this case study from Randstad, who has been doing so for over 15 years.  

What are the barriers to speaking up?

While the idea of speaking up is appealing, several barriers can hinder this practice. Inherently, speaking up isn’t easy for most. According to research, only 50% of employees report misconduct. As newer generations join the work force, the number lowers. Therefore, it is important to first recognise what holds employees back.

  • Fear of retaliation is a significant barrier. The anxiety around being labelled as a 'troublemaker' or facing social ostracism can deter individuals from reporting issues.
  • A lack of belief that concerns will be taken seriously can also diminish the likelihood of employees speaking up. If there's a sense that their input won't lead to any action, many will choose silence over speaking out.
  • Language barriers present another challenge, particularly in diverse, multilingual workplaces. Employees may refrain from expressing concerns if they cannot articulate them in their preferred language.
  • Group loyalty can create a conflict of interest; the internal conflict between allegiance to the team and the impulse to report wrongdoing can be paralysing.
  • Inadequate or complex reporting tools can discourage employees from reporting issues. If the process is too complex or antiquated, it can seem like a deterrent rather than a facilitator.

Addressing these challenges is a crucial step in cultivating a culture where open dialogue is not just encouraged but actively given importance.  

How to build a speak up culture  

Now – let's get to putting the building blocks in place. Creating a speak up culture at work requires a proactive and intentional approach that also keeps in mind the mentioned barriers that keep people from speaking up. Here are key steps you should consider so employees feel comfortable and encouraged to speak up:

Ensure leadership commitment

The journey to cultivating a speak up culture begins with leadership. Leaders must not only endorse but also model the values of open communication and ethical behaviour, setting a precedent for the entire organisation.

Establish clear policies and procedures

For a speak up culture to thrive, employees must understand the mechanisms in place for reporting concerns. This includes clear, accessible policies and procedures that ensure confidentiality and protection from retaliation.

Provide training and awareness

Educating employees about the importance of speaking up and the process for doing so is critical. Regular training sessions can demystify reporting mechanisms and reinforce the organisation's commitment to transparency and accountability.

Encourage anonymous reporting  

To overcome fears of retaliation, organisations should offer anonymous reporting options. These channels can include online or offline platforms that protect the identity of the reporter. The most important thing to remember is that these reporting channels should be simple to use, and not require too much time—the longer reporter is made to wait can create possible risks.

Promote an open-door policy

An open-door policy, where employees feel welcome to approach management with their concerns, can significantly enhance the effectiveness of a speak up culture. It signals that the organisation values direct, open communication.

Regularly communicate and give feedback

Creating forums for dialogue, such as town hall meetings or feedback sessions, encourages a culture of openness. These platforms allow employees to voice their concerns and contribute to organisational decisions, reinforcing their value to the company.  

While these are a few foundational approaches to building a speak up culture at work, you can find more tips straight from ethics and compliance professionals here.  

Things to start doing for an effective speak up culture

Now that we covered how speak up culture is built, we’ll dive straight into best practices you can follow to maximise your efforts. By embracing the principles of open communication, organisations can create an environment where every voice is heard and respected.  

Create a dedicated whistleblowing policy

For this, it is integral to start building a whistleblowing policy that suits your organisation. This not only enhances the workplace but also contributes to the broader goal of becoming an ethical, accountable, and inclusive organisation. To complement your whistleblowing policy, you need to lower the threshold for reporters to voice their concern – which is exactly what internal reporting systems will help you achieve.  

Introduce easy whistleblowing tools for employees

Speaking up is hard as it is. Introducing a whistleblowing tool that makes things harder isn’t the solution. That’s why you should select the best tools that matches your organisation in terms of size, demography, complexity and ethos.

Encourage anonymity when reporting

The importance of anonymity in misconduct reporting cannot be overstated. Today, more than ever, organisations value anonymous reporting systems in meeting their compliance needs. These systems not only provide a safe space for employees, but they also unlock valuable insights that might otherwise remain hidden, especially during investigations.

Ditch traditional whistleblowing approaches

Old-school whistleblowing methods often lean on surveys and long procedures to collect reports of wrongdoing, but this approach can end up making people feel vulnerable and ignored. It turns what should be a straightforward process into something that feels complicated and daunting. Prioritise simplifying the reporting process with a whistleblowing solution that opens dialogue.

How to measure speak up culture

There are ways you can check if your hard work is paying off. To measure a speak up culture effectively, it's crucial to combine quantitative and qualitative insights. Key points include:

  • Monitoring report volume and type to spot trends in customisable case management tool.
  • Using surveys to understand how safe and supported employees feel about speaking up.
  • Checking how engaged people are with ethics training and communication to find any knowledge gaps.
  • Observing improvements and challenges, sharing successes, and when possible, recognising those who contribute to positive changes (anonymously).

Elevate your organisational integrity with an ethical work environment

Misconducts happen, and chances are, they will continue to happen. This doesn’t mean you cannot help manage and address them in a timely manner. A speak up culture is essential for this, while also gaining trust and accountability in any organisation. The guidance shared in this blog aims to help you create an environment where employees speak up without fear, helping you protect your organisation's reputation and reduce misconduct risks.

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