Elizabeth Owens Bille, JD, SHRM-SCP

Top performing organizations today are placing a heavier focus on workplace culture, inclusivity, and employee satisfaction to attract and retain top talent. This is essential as many employees prioritize job satisfaction over purely monetary perks.

At the same time, many companies are facing difficult workplace culture issues, including harassment and discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, and workplace violence. In order to effectively address concerns, and promote a great working environment, silence is not golden: organizations must know whether, where, and when problems exist.

So if your organization’s channels for reporting concerns have been quiet for some time, is that good news or bad news? A lack of ethics or safety reports could mean that all is well in the organization, or it could simply mean that no one is reporting what they know. Problems may be hiding in the shadows–or even be out in the open–but employees may be reticent to speak up in the workplace.

87% of EVERFI learners feel better equipped to report harassment and discrimination.

It is crucial to develop a healthy, supportive culture where self-reporting and speaking up are encouraged. Here to help, we’ve provided five ways you can encourage a speak up culture within your organization to get you started.

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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 behavior that is illegal, that threatens employee or public safety, or that jeopardizes 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 behavior, you may actually be dissuading employees from reporting possible concerns.

The 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 coworker, or even their boss, to get fired over a minor offense. They frequently just want the troubling behavior 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 behavior to continue or to escalate, or lead to other workplace conflicts.

For this reason, a good solution is to ensure that your policies:

  1. Clearly and unequivocally convey which behaviors are prohibited
  2. Indicate that violations will result in appropriate and proportionate discipline
  3. Provide examples of appropriate and proportionate action 
  4. Strongly encourage reporting of known or suspected violations
  5. Do not use the phrase “zero tolerance.”

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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 #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 behavior, 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 behavior for a time vis-a-vis the person who complained. Some of these behaviors 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, organizations 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.

I am reminded of a story told by the former CEO of Ford Motor Company, Alan Mulally, during a keynote presentation at an HR conference I attended several years ago. He recounted 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.

One final note: sometimes company reward systems or programs may actually incentivize a lack of reports. For example, teams in a manufacturing or chemical company may receive a bonus or prize for zero safety reports or injuries in a particular time frame. Although well intended, these types of reward programs may simply discourage reporting–and if they do, they may be illegal under OSHA or other laws. A better solution is to reward employees who participate in safety or other prevention-related activities, make suggestions for process improvements, and the like.

4. Gather Data About Reporting

If you find that workers rarely speak up about conduct violations in your organization, 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 organization to correct misperceptions, put anti-retaliation safeguards in place, and find ways to increase transparency about the post-report process (see tip 5 below).

One way to gather this information is to survey your workforce anonymously and ask questions that help you determine:

  • When, where, and how individuals would be willing to report problematic behavior
  • Whether employees are aware of all of the reporting channels available to them
  • How comfortable employees would be reporting via each channel
  • What would make them more likely to report incidents they witness even when they’re not the direct target
  • What barriers may keep them from speaking up
  • Whether they feel that their peers would support them if they spoke up.

Armed with this information, organizations will have a good understanding of company climate and employee attitudes related to speaking up, which is integral for determining where improvements can be made or current efforts can be reinforced.

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.

Beyond one-on-one report-outs, some companies are also taking a broader approach, publishing aggregated or anonymized information about employee reports to showcase that the company takes them seriously. For example, nearly one-third of companies on Ethisphere’s 2020 World’s Most Ethical Companies list indicated that they share information with all employees about the number and type of concerns reported as well as high-level results of reports and investigations.

Others are opting to provide additional information about the reporting follow-up process, sharing infographics to illustrate what happens next when an employee calls the company hotline or publishing the company’s standard investigation procedures.

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 behavior 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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