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How to Empower Employees to Speak Up When They See Misconducts

More than 50 years after the term “bystander effect” was coined, many of us still witness workplace wrongdoing yet stay stubbornly silent. In motivating employees to speak up, most organisations still rely on traditional compliance-based tools such as codes of conduct, training, and audits. This approach has simply failed — only an estimated 1.4% of employees blow the whistle. Current strategies remain ineffective and are often counterproductive.

This matters because organisational silence perpetuates white-collar crime: It continues to rise despite companies investing millions in misconduct prevention. Scandals have slashed market valuations and ravaged the reputations of Boeing, BP, Barings, and many others. The leading cause of silence is fear of repercussions. One study showed that 82% of whistleblowers suffered harassment, 60% lost their jobs, 17% lost homes, and 10% attempted suicide. Other causes include our unconscious need for belonging, a preference for the status quo, and wilful blindness.

How can organisations motivate employees to speak up and respond to them effectively? The answer lies, of course, in behavioural science.

What Companies Often Do Wrong

Before delving into the solution, we need to understand three common mistakes or assumptions that companies make in combating misconduct.

The wrong tools. Organisations over rely on a narrow set of compliance and control tools to prevent wrongdoing and encourage its disclosure. How effective were codes of conduct, training, or audits when Volkswagen falsified the emissions of its diesel cars? Or safety training and testing when Ford launched the Pinto with a fuel-tank design flaw, saving $137 million but costing dozens of lives? The answer: Not very. Few spoke out. Why? Because sanctioning systems distort our thought process from doing the right thing. When rewards such as promotions, perks, or pay raises are threatened, self-preservation creeps in, and we use a business lens, not a moral lens, to decide what to do.

The wrong communication triggers. When companies design compliance policies and codes of conduct, they hope they will trigger our sense of duty and moral responsibility to speak up if we see bad behaviour. But they don’t inspire many people to speak up. For example, an independent longitudinal analysis concluded that codes of conduct are “insufficient to guide employee behaviour – tension-provoking when implemented across cultures – inward-looking – and dependent on effective communications.”

In many research papers done on this topic, respondents were exposed to a hypothetical situation where a senior executive bullied a junior employee to accelerate launch of a new drug, despite incomplete testing. The emotion triggered was not a feeling of responsibility to speak up, but anger at the offending manager — by a factor of four. But while 91% of respondents indicated they intended to report the incident, only 9% took action, and most associated speaking up not with responsibility but with the courage to report their superiors. Bystanders justify their inaction in what psychologists call diffusion of responsibility: the assumption others will intervene. The bigger the group, the bigger the assumption, and the bigger the problem.

The wrong assumptions about employee types. Assuming that certain populations or personality types — e.g., extroverts, optimists, or leaders — are predisposed to speak up is incorrect. Behavioural science shows that men are no more likely to blow the whistle than women, and extroverts no more likely than introverts, regardless of industry or occupation. There is no magic gender, disposition, age or personality. Anyone can speak up.

An Integrated Solution

Given that codes of conduct, training, and audits alone don’t suffice in getting people to speak up when they witness improper behaviour, other steps must be taken. Risk and compliance departments should engage with communications departments, and compliance-based tools must be supplemented with emotion-based triggers.

Based on decades of behavioural science research there have been discovered numerous strategies which work hand-in-hand with traditional compliance practices.  Managers can apply all the changes or simply cherry-pick a few. The best mix depends on a company’s culture, size, and systems.

1. Get Rid of Your “Zero Tolerance” Policies

You’re probably thinking, “Did I read that right? I thought zero tolerance is important, especially when you are talking about violence, fraud, safety, or harassment.”

To be sure, it is critical to have strongly worded and vigorously enforced policies, especially when dealing with behaviour that is illegal, that threatens employee or public safety, or that jeopardises company assets. But if your policies say (or imply) that an employee will be fired if they violate that policy, without any possibility of a lesser outcome depending on the severity of the behaviour, you may actually be dissuading employees from reporting possible concerns.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has cautioned that using the phrase “zero tolerance” may lead employees to believe that the company will automatically impose the same discipline–termination–regardless of whether misconduct is minor or devastating. But employees often don’t want their co-worker, or even their boss, to get fired over a minor offense. They frequently just want the troubling behaviour to stop, so they may opt to forego reporting and try to deal with the situation on their own, or ignore it. This can cause the behaviour to continue or to escalate, or lead to other workplace conflicts.

2. Prevent Retaliation

This point may seem incredibly intuitive, but if employees see or hear that someone has experienced retaliation after they reported a concern–or even if they simply fear that they will be retaliated against–they are less likely to come forward.

The number and percentage of retaliation charges filed with the EEOC, for example, indicates that retaliation is a big problem. Since the EEOC’s 2009 fiscal year, retaliation has been the no.1 complaint filed with the EEOC, and by FY 2018, over 50% of all charges alleged retaliation. In fact, the EEOC received 1.5 times more retaliation charges in FY 2018 than the next most frequent type of illegal behaviour, sex discrimination (32% of charges), notwithstanding the significant increase in those claims filed post #MeToo.

The challenge is that retaliation can take many forms, from subtle (a supervisor removing an employee from a lucrative project) to egregious (demotion or firing). Compounding the issue is that it is human nature to feel upset toward or uncomfortable around someone who has complained about you or someone on your team. People may feel betrayed, hurt, or confused–and as a result, may change their behaviour for a time vis-a-vis the person who complained. Some of these behaviours are illegal and some aren’t–but all can damage workplace culture and make employees think twice about coming forward in the future.

For these reasons, it is critical for employers to put safeguards in place to prevent retaliation, such as proactively and periodically checking in with whistleblowers to see how they are doing, or monitoring proposed job changes, performance evaluations, or other data post-complaint to ensure non-retaliatory treatment. Equally important, the employer also should provide coaching on conflict management and how employees can move forward in a collaborative manner post-complaint.

3. Encourage and Reward Speaking Up in the Workplace

In stark contrast to retaliation, organisations who truly want to know about concerns and who understand the value of having an accurate picture of what’s happening on the proverbial factory floor will take steps to encourage and reward speaking up.

This goes beyond simply communicating a “see something, say something” slogan. Company leaders must clearly and repeatedly articulate an authentic desire to know the good, the bad, and the ugly, and reward employees who follow through.

Here we have the example of former CEO of Ford Motor Company, Alan Mulally. He told the story of how when he first became Ford’s CEO, the company had many financial challenges and a rocky road ahead. Yet, at early meetings with his senior executive team, they each presented “all green” status reports indicating that their areas were on target to reach their goals. Mulally knew this couldn’t be right given the company’s struggles, so he encouraged one of his direct reports to ensure that his next report reflected the honest truth about what was going on.

When that subordinate’s next report at the executive team meeting showed several “red status” items, Mulally praised him enthusiastically for his candor and then asked the other executives in the room about what they could all do to help turn the situation around. Then, the following week, other executives’ reports also began to reflect “red” and “yellow” items. And once Mulally had accurate, unfiltered data, it was quickly apparent where the business was struggling–and what they could do to address it.

This two-pronged approach by Mulally–asking to know the truth and then praising the reporter publicly–was a game-changer. It proved to staff they could speak the truth without reprisal and created trust. And as a result, the company’s business was able to improve.

4. Gather Data About Reporting

If you find that workers rarely speak up about conduct violations in your organisation, one of the best steps you can take is to assess why. You may find it is as simple as a lack of awareness of policies or procedures to report incidents, in which case you can develop resources and training to make sure employees know where to go. If you find your workforce is fearful of retaliation or doesn’t feel reports will be addressed, then that information can also help the organisation to correct misperceptions, put anti-retaliation safeguards in place, and find ways to increase transparency about the post-report process.

5. Be Transparent

One of the other oft-reported reasons why employees do not speak up with a concern is because they do not believe that any action will be taken. When employees hear crickets after filing a complaint, a natural assumption is that nothing happened.

Of course, as HR, compliance, safety, and legal professionals are well aware, reported concerns generally set into motion a flurry of activity and often lead to an investigation. The contents and progress of an investigation are usually kept close to the vest to preserve the integrity of the process, and the results are usually confidential for privacy and legal reasons.

However, organizations are increasingly realizing that some degree of transparency about what happened is important to demonstrate accountability, earn trust, preserve culture, and encourage reporting. Thus, organizations should consider having follow-up meetings with the reporter and any witnesses involved in an investigation to thank them for coming forward or participating, noting that an investigation was conducted and concluded, and possibly sharing–often at a very high level and depending on the person who is being spoken to–if some sort of (usually unnamed) action would be taken as a result. Encouraging a speak up culture is a critical component of an organization’s efforts to not only ensure compliance with legal requirements and company policies but also to address inappropriate behaviour before it escalates into a larger issue. It creates a sense of shared responsibility among employees, communicating that we all have a role to play in safeguarding workplace culture. Leaders who encourage employees to speak up in the workplace, and who protect and reward those who do, demonstrate their commitment to an honest, ethical, and respectful workplace. By doing so, all employees–and the company–will thrive.

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