Don’t Encourage Employees to Speak Up if You’re not Ready to Listen

A strong and positive organizational culture is the result of an ongoing dialogue, not a monologue.

For an employee to feel invested, they must feel invested in. This makes me think about how we label and, more importantly, implement one of the more popular practices in our space – a speak-up culture. “Speak-up culture” has been a buzzword in our industry almost as long as ethics and compliance has been a profession.

But the phrasing is anemic: It only identifies half the ingredients for a successful workplace in which employees feel comfortable and compelled to raise their voices. A speak-up culture only exists when it is paired with a true listen-up culture.

“speak-up culture” puts the onus for incident and issue reporting exclusively on employees. “Listen-up culture” brings in the responsibilities of management and senior staff.

If you think about it, “speak-up culture” puts the onus for incident and issue reporting exclusively on employees. “Listen-up culture” brings in the responsibilities of management and senior staff. An effective listen-up culture can be simplified into a three-step process that starts with those at the top of the organization.

Step 1: Tone from the Top

The tone from the top (and the middle) must create a comfortable environment that encourages staff to report incidents and concerns. It also expects staff to be part of the solution, not seen as the problem.  

Step 2: Employees Report Concerns

Employees are expected to report incidents and concerns appropriately.

Step 3: Management Follows Up

Management, guided by a well-run compliance program, takes action to follow up with employee reporters and resolve issues in a timely manner.

Read More: Character from the Top: An Interview with Fred Kiel

This process establishes trust – a term that I am glad to see becoming more than just another corporate buzzword. None of this works without trust.

Asking employees to speak up is assigning a task. It may work in the short term as employees usually come to the table with a modicum of trust for their employer. They believe something will be done in response to their report – things will change, reports will be resolved and misconduct will stop.

However if things do not change, or if employees are not informed about the reasons why things are not changing, trust in the employer and its processes dissipates.

As managers and senior leaders, trust is ours to lose.

Organizational trust and company culture is built on far more than just incident management, but the incident management steps outlined above provide managers a unique opportunity to demonstrate and reinforce a stronger sense of corporate sincerity.

How to Prove You’re Listening

What thoughts would go through your head if you built up the courage to report an incident to your employer and all you got was radio silence for more than a month?

When incidents are reported, and particularly when they are substantiated, case closure time becomes a metric that should be top of mind for anyone interested in changing their speak-up culture into a listen-up culture. There is some encouraging news on this front but more focus is needed. According to our 2017 Hotline & Incident Management Benchmark Report, case closure time is down for employee hotline reports for the first time since 2011 (see 2019 data). Case closure times have dropped to a median of 42 days, down from 46 days in 2016. However, the median case closure rate in 2011 was 32 days, which is a lot closer to the recommended 30-day best practice.

Consider this from an employee reporter’s perspective: What thoughts would go through your head if you built up the courage to report an incident to your employer and all you got was radio silence for more than a month? That’s a lot of time to reevaluate your trust in your management.

Training Course: How to Create a Speak Up Reporting Structure

Put a Keen Focus on HR-related Issues

HR-specific cases provide managers a heightened arena to develop organizational trust through prompt action. These cases include reports of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, inappropriate behavior and compensation disparities – that is, cases that come with a significant amount of personal collateral from employees. Whether or not the issue is ultimately validated can be less important than the manner in which the report is handled by the employer. And, as opposed to reports dealing with corruption, internal controls, fraud and the variety of other report allegation categories, HR-specific cases can often be resolved more quickly.

This year’s analysis showed a significant improvement in the time to resolve HR-specific cases – a median of 41 days down from a median of 47 days last year. But again, our goal should be to reduce closure time as taking more than a month to resolve a local issue of concern damages morale, productivity and trust in the organization’s processes and leadership. Action is a key part of an effective dialogue.

Take a moment to think through your incident intake process. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for employee reporters? Can they tell that you’re listening and responding? If not, it’s time to show employees that you’re as invested in a listen-up culture as you are in creating a speak-up culture. 

Read More: Startup Culture Seems to Be Missing One Key Ingredient—Culture

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