How to ensure a speak-up culture

Despite the events of the last year and half, which saw seismic societal issues brought to the fore, there was a decline in internal incident reporting – and a continuing trend of fewer reports of harassment that began after the peak of the #MeToo movement in 2018.

At the same time, with societal issues at the forefront of consumer minds and business agendas, it’s more important than ever that organisations foster a culture where employees feel safe and supported enough to report their concerns.

The question is, what role does HR have to play in order to build a speak-up culture? And how do you go about it?

The importance of encouraging a speak-up culture:

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Global reporting volumes in decline

For the first time in the history of the NAVEX Global’s 2021 Risk and Compliance Incident Management Benchmark study, the median number of internal reports declined from 1.4 reports per 100 employees in 2019 to 1.3 reports in 2020.

This drop included a decline in reports of retaliation, harassment and discrimination which have been declining as a percentage of total reporting since 2018. This is somewhat surprising, especially when considered in the context of recent social justice protests. However, it may also be reflective of the transition to remote working, meaning the reduced visibility of actions of others in an office environment.

Fewer reports doesn’t mean fewer incidents

Often, the default interpretation of declining report volumes is uncritically positive – that fewer reports means fewer incidents.

As new regulatory protections for whistleblowers come into effect, we should expect to see even more external reporting to regulators and the media.

Yet, we know that most organisations would rather address concerns internally rather than doing so under the spotlight of external parties. Given this, it’s important to understand the wider reasons as to why internal reporting rates declined.

We know that the two primary reasons why employees do not report internally are fear of retaliation and the belief that nothing will be done to address their concern. Retaliation reporting rates, in particular, often decline in times of economic stress, as employees’ anxiety about their job security increases.

To tackle this, organisations and their leaders need to keep a strong focus on fostering a speak-up culture and encourage employees to communicate problems and issues they witness or receive.

Creating a speak-up culture

To equip an organisation to identify trends of brewing problems and cultural challenges, and to build a culture where employees feel safe, it’s important to track internal reporting from all sources, and to leverage multi-channel reporting.

It is also important to increase awareness of reporting channels among employees and management, and set out how to use them.

Equally, it’s critical to have the right technology platforms in place to ensure reporting is easy and streamlined both for employees and HR officers. Tracking the methods employees choose can help determine which are preferred or easy to access, and which methods employees may not know are available to them.

To embed a speak-up culture within an organisation, HR and compliance professionals should create data-driven processes that help inform board and executive reporting on trends and issues in the workplace.

Organisations can prevent and mitigate retaliation through training, awareness and demonstrated actions that retaliation in any form will not be tolerated. A key part of this should be the promotion of consistent disciplinary action, especially to high-level violators. Each of these steps will help foster a culture that enables employees to feel they have a safe method to open up.

Communicating about the importance of a speak-up culture isn’t a one-time event. Ongoing communications and demonstrated actions will not only encourage reporting among staff, and aid in building a speak up culture where everyone feels safe, but it will also ensure businesses can perform most effectively.

Carrie Penman is chief risk and compliance officer at NAVEX Global