A fundamental challenge for organisations is “how do we get our people to raise issues of concern because they recognise it’s good for them?” The simple answer is – make it safe for them to do so! The harder thing to do, and what most organisations struggle with, is to create and embed “speaking up” behaviour as the hallmark of a trust culture where raising issues is seen to benefit the whole enterprise and so is the natural thing do.
Instead, people must resort to ‘whistleblowing’ and yet whistleblowing systems continue to be poorly designed and embedded in culture reducing them to ‘an avenue of last resort’ for desperate employees witnessing systemic corruption. It is because of the prevalence of poor cultural management practices that regulators insist whistleblowing mechanism form an essential part of good risk management practice today. Where leaders fail to promote a facilitating business culture, managers in turn fail to regularly tune into and respond to ongoing employee feedback. EY’s 2017 Asia-Pacific Fraud Survey found that 49% of respondents think that their senior management would ignore unethical behaviour to achieve corporate revenue targets while 51% of senior management respondents feel under pressure to withhold information about misconduct. This absence of an effective two-way communications avenue between those at the top of organisations and those at the bottom creates the ongoing need for whistleblowing systems (we must find a better way of describing them.) Employees find themselves resorting to “whistleblowing” out of desperation rather than genuine concern to safeguard business standards for all.
Paradoxically, the reasons why they fail are the same reasons they need to exist. They fail because of the absence of leaders’ intent to formally manage organisational culture as it exists and emerges. In its absence, unaddressed barriers to the success of a “speak up” culture emerging prevail. Organisational barriers include dysfunctional power dynamics; information silos; low employee engagement and unrecognised and unmanaged risks. They also fail because of a profound lack of understanding of the incremental nature of how unethical behaviour emerges and flourishes; how it becomes” normalised” and how the barrel itself goes bad.
At their basest, organisations are political entities characterised by asymmetrical power and information biases; politics and self- serving dispositions; poor interpersonal skills and emotional maturity; jostling egos and bullying predispositions; ethical fading and, sometimes, some of the most creative rationalisations imaginable for all sorts of self-interested actions.
Unless the organisation has a purposely designed workplace culture, where behaviour standards are reinforced daily and where employees are encouraged and rewarded for “speaking up”, it can place itself at the lower end of a continuum – away from a sustainable inclusive culture and towards a low trust, power-based culture where employees protect themselves rather than speak out about the unethical behaviour they see around them.
Whistleblowing systems also fail because employees rarely understand or receive timely information about how this essential risk management system works, or “why” it was designed in the first place i.e. to ensure managers, especially middle managers, play their designated roles in building a culture of integrity aligned to their code of conduct accountabilities. EY’s 2017 Asia-Pacific Fraud Survey found that 1 in 4 respondents say their colleagues are aware but do not report fraudulent activities because they do not have confidence in their organisation to protect them if they report misconduct. Perhaps most alarming for corporate leaders is that 1 in 5 respondents would rather take a whistle-blower report direct to law enforcement.
Typically, whistleblowing hotlines are housed within the compliance department where the focus is often about “sign and comply” as opposed to “engage and defend” the organisational values and standards. This compartmentalisation of “speak up” mechanisms often makes it ‘somebody else’s problem. HR functions can safely lock that away, tick that box and only must deal with the outfall when, as often happens, they must manage someone out of the organisation. Sadly, all too often, it’s the whistle-blower themselves.
A dominant organisational “too busy” mindset precludes ongoing reflection on systems that have become outdated, broken or dysfunctional or canvassing what ‘innovation’ in this area might look like. So, too, organisational members are deprived of any opportunity to co-design and collaborate in designing a essentially helpline system that will enable them to provide early warnings of people, processes or systems under stress.
On the positive side, behaviour ethics provides organisational leaders with the tools to forewarn and forearm their employees so they can be alert to the incremental nature of unethical patterns of behaviour and how to spot early warning signals that they may be on the slippery slope. Drawing on the field research from this science encourages an entirely different approach to ethics training. This approach does not depend on the existence of “moral compasses” prevailing in our essentially secular society, but seeks to build the required set of social and psychological skills that employees need to develop to navigate the political nature of modern workplaces.
In an age of hyper-connectivity, where information and data is increasingly beyond the control of most businesses, isn’t it time that we got our own house in order? We need to build a “speak up” culture from the ground floor up. It begins with skilling employees to face the challenges they will inevitably face and build the right attitudes at every level to enable issues and concerns to be heard and, feedback given, on a timely basis. It requires leaders to motivate, reward, manage and measure things that matter – the human footprint on which all business is built; the zeitgeist that is constructed on a minute-by-minute basis. It requires a purposely designed culture that makes it easy for its members to do the right thing even when business pressures necessitate that this becomes “a conscious choice.”
Depending on whistleblowing is too little, too late. If we value our people, our reputations and our the wellbeing of the societies in which we operate, then we need to be measuring the strength of our organisational feedback systems on culture – the employee’s experience of the organisation in both its strong and weak dimensions and then we need to act on it so that a speak up culture can offset the need to resort to anonymous whistleblowing lines. Build a speak up culture, a high trust culture, a culture where people are rewarded for improving performance and highlighting threats to that performance and, we may begin to build a culture of collaboration for excellence instead of one of winners and losers where retaliation, isolation and distrust prevail.