Prevention is better than cure

27 April 2022

Tags: Speak Up, Supportive Environment

Read the latest network blog by Mark Chambers, IBE's Associate Director (Governance).

Building on established whistleblowing procedures to encourage a wider culture of speak up is an essential element of any effective ethics programme. Companies that are committed to creating an open and inclusive environment want colleagues to speak up not just when they see a suspected breach of law or regulation, but whenever something just doesn’t feel right. Get it right, and it’s a vital early warning of things going wrong and an opportunity to avoid a problem spiralling out of control.  

But colleagues will only feel comfortable speaking up if they know their concerns are going to be welcomed, listened to and acted upon. 

Fear and futility remain powerful disincentives. We have highlighted in the past the shocking statistic from our Ethics at Work survey that 43% of employees who had spoken up had experienced retaliation as a consequence. We shared some of the best practices from our practitioner network about how to manage and reduce the risk of retaliation in a previous blog

We met again recently with a group of ethics practitioners from our largest supporters to discuss some of the practical steps that companies can take to embed a speak up culture. The discussion surfaced a wide range of good practice and demonstrated the value of sharing experiences and ideas.

An investment in a speak up programme can generate a significant increase in notifications and questions, all of which have the potential to highlight something going wrong which would not otherwise have been visible to senior management.

Efficiency, consistency and transparency are essential elements of a strong speak up process. Standardising how investigations are carried out allows better management of the process, and using some of the technology solutions that are available can help workflow oversight. Ensuring that colleagues know that issues raised have been dealt with promptly and properly is a necessary part of achieving the required confidence in organisational justice. Speak up cannot be a ‘black box’ process.

But there are challenges:

  • A familiar challenge is workplace grievances being raised through speak up channels. Effective triage mechanisms can help. However, individual concerns about harassment or unfair treatment may hide a broader concern, so it is a best practice to handle what may be a hybrid issue until it is clear that a case can be redirected into the regular grievance procedures
  • External indicators for the level of notifications that should be anticipated are helpful, but every company and every country is different, so external benchmarks for levels of notifications are less insightful than might be expected. More valuable is to try to establish baselines for internal benchmarks that can be tracked over time
  • Measuring only average times for completion of investigations can mask a long tail of difficult cases, with a build up of associated problems as sourcing evidence becomes ever more challenging with the passage of time
  • For international businesses, cultural differences across countries which have different cultural attitudes to speaking up can make it difficult to maintain the integrity of a global programme. Some local nuances in messaging and process will be required. Cultures, where anonymous disclosure is seen as a negative thing to do, are particularly challenging
  • Maintaining a team of trained investigators who will carry out their work to a consistently high standard is not easy. Investigators do not always get the flow of cases needed to maintain familiarity with the process and providing timely reinforcement training can be difficult. Regular train the trainer sessions and refresher training can soak up considerable resource
  • It is always essential to translate the policies and supporting materials into all relevant local languages. Having an investigator available who has the right language skills will also be important; limited resources need to be balanced with the desire to minimise the use of external investigators 
  • Feeding back to assure the individual that their concern has been properly addressed is not always easy. Many concerns are not substantiated on investigation (which may well disappoint the individual who has spoken up) and it is often not appropriate to share information about the disciplinary consequences for others 
  • Speak up notifications provide a good library of real-world scenarios that can be anonymised for training and awareness through case studies, e-learning modules, videos and podcasts. Yet practitioners often find it hard to convince colleagues in internal communications that a high level of openness and transparency is appropriate when sharing the learnings and insights. A desire to keep internal communications channels flowing only with ‘good news’ stories can increase reluctance to talk about something that has gone wrong, particularly if it involves senior people who have not left the organisation
  • The effectiveness of communications in relation to speak up can be significantly enhanced by integrating speak up messages into other internal communication programmes, for example, those reinforcing messaging around declaration of conflicts of interest or recording of gifts and hospitality 
  • Carefully worded employee survey questions are a good way of assessing both levels of trust that the business will take appropriate action when colleagues speak up and the level of fear around potential retaliation, but low participation rates and survey fatigue can make it difficult to be certain that the responses are representative of the workforce as a whole
  • The percentage of notifications made on a named basis is a helpful proxy for levels of trust in the process. A company should want to see a steady increase in the proportion of named notifications, particularly since notifications made on a named basis have a higher substantiation rate than those where the individual speaking up wants to remain anonymous
  • Even the best businesses struggle to have visibility of issues raised with middle management. Often these are dealt with locally and not escalated further. Companies want to encourage and empower their middle managers to actively listen to their teams and to deal with concerns that are raised with them, but establishing a good level of assurance that this is happening to the standards required is hard

Some of the innovations that were raised included:

  • Training the intranet virtual assistant to answer questions about the speak up process
  • Leveraging insights from behavioural psychology to introduce behavioural ‘nudges’ at appropriate moments; for example, on completion of mandatory training to encourage people to reflect on what they have experienced and seen in their roles and to think about speak up. Surprisingly few organisations seem to be experimenting with this, despite its proven effectiveness in other areas
  • Substantiated issues that have been comprehensively investigated will have identified the root cause of the concern and deliver a set of recommendations for improvement. There needs to be robust governance about the business response to those recommendations. Companies that do this well are solving the challenge of ensuring sufficient group-level oversight of the process to ensure that those actions are being properly owned and implemented locally 

The discussion also raised a helpful reminder that the individual who is on the receiving end of an accusation may need support as well as the individual speaking up. Companies owe a duty of care there too. The emotional impact of being accused has led to tragedy in the past.

The group also reflected on the fact that by far the easiest way of getting resource and support for an investment in speak up is for something really bad to happen. Yet the richness and quality of insight that a speak up programme can provide about what is really happening on the front line are immense. Speak up investigations that find the root cause of concern can fix a problem long before it becomes a disaster. Tracking speak up cases over time provides an additional baseline of data that is another triangulation point for senior management to identify an area of the business that needs attention and allows effective early intervention. 

Prevention is better than cure, and speak up is a highly efficient prophylactic. 


Mark Chambers
Mark Chambers

Associate Director - Governance

Mark brings 30 years of experience from a successful career in business to help grow the IBE’s interaction with boards, regulators and policy makers.

After graduating in Zoology from Oxford University, Mark re-trained as a lawyer and spent his early years at Slaughter and May in their London and New York offices before moving into business. During his career, he managed world-class global functions responsible for governance, legal and regulatory risk management in large, complex, regulated businesses. He was General Counsel & Group Company Secretary at RSA Insurance Group and at Worldpay Group, and held senior positions at American Express and GE Capital. He retired as Deputy Group Company Secretary of HSBC in 2018 to pursue a second career, which also includes non-executive and advisory work. 

For many years, Mark has had a successful career as a non-executive director. He is a member of the board of the Care Quality Commission, the independent regulator of health and social care in England, and chairs their Regulatory Governance Committee. He is also a non-trustee member of the Audit and Risk Committee of Maggie’s.

Previous roles included the Chair role at Amref Health Africa and Audit Committee Chair at WWF, where he also led the Committee that oversaw the development of the charity's exemplar new headquarters building. Mark was a finalist in the 2014 Sunday Times Non-Executive of the Year Awards.

The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it. – General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

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