Codes of ethics and codes of conduct are increasingly part of most businesses’ cultural management strategy. Despite this, they remain ineffective because hotlines simply don’t work. There is now 20 years of field research to show that employees don’t use them. They are often afraid that raising issues will impact negatively on them. Or they believe that nothing will change – so why bother?
This belief leaves companies vulnerable to internal risk or illegal behaviour. It is employees – not the internal or external auditors – who are the first people to see risks. So, if staff don’t speak up, then you can have a PR crisis on your hands.
It pays off big time to invest in promoting speak-up cultures. To achieve such a culture, you must formally recognise the power of the social life of your company. It is here that employees learn what the acceptable ways are of relating to each other. These interactions can undermine formal codes and policies.
Key steps in creating a speak-up culture include:
- Insist that the top team participate in any speak-up initiative. The behaviour of management gives the loudest message around the safety of raising concerns.
- Appeal to personal identity. Most people have a strong self-concept and self-identity that they are ethical. Employees rarely self-identify as part of the problem. That’s why appealing to employees’ sense of personal identity is a powerful lever for behaviour change.
- Build life skills. Values conflicts are inevitable, so forewarn employees to be alert to other stakeholder perspectives. Also, notify them of the contextual pressures surrounding them. These actions will help offset defaulting to an auto-pilot decision-making cultural norm.
- Train managers and employees in speak-up skills. Enabling a shared language around risk is a prerequisite to a speak-up culture.
- Take a systems approach. Organise training in cross-sectional groups to enable employees to hear each other’s concerns. This dynamic will amplify the usually silenced company social life that shapes employees’ assumptions. A whole of business approach shows employees that you are asking everyone to change their behaviour. Speak-up skills draw on the lessons from conflict management, mindfulness, and behaviour science. The book ‘Giving Voice To Values’ – and assertiveness training may also be useful.
- Implement peer to peer accountability. Managers and leaders must hold each other accountable to model the appropriate behaviour. Insist managers at every level develop action plans for what this will look like in their areas.
- Embed in the company. What gets measured and rewarded, gets done. Align the existing reward and recognition systems to support the speak-up cultural change program.
Ideally, speak-up initiatives will be a cornerstone to your company living its stated values. Communicate in positive terms and invite employees to identify additional ways to raise issues that will work for them. These techniques will build trust and restore confidence in the integrity of your code of conduct or code of ethics.
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