Shooting the Messenger

02 December 2021

Tags: Speak Up, Supportive Environment

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

A core part of every mature ethics programme is having an effective mechanism for colleagues to speak up when things don’t feel right. Individuals must be confident that they will be listened to and that their concerns will be acted upon. Employers should be nourishing speak up channels since they provide powerful insight into what is really happening at the front line and a vital early warning of things going wrong. 

Yet the IBE’s recent survey of 10,000 employees across 13 countries shows that fear and futility remain powerful barriers to speaking up. Futility can be addressed by active communication programmes, demonstrating to colleagues that the organisation is actively listening and acting on the concerns that are raised. Fear is a more powerful problem to overcome, requiring high levels of trust in the business and considerable courage on the part of the individual choosing to speak up. 

So are companies doing enough to address the fears of employees?

The IBE’s research suggests not. Many colleagues are afraid to speak up because they believe it will harm their careers. Depressingly, our research suggests that their fear is not without foundation. One of the most shocking statistics from our survey was that a staggering 43% of employees who had spoken up felt that they had experienced retaliation as a consequence. 

Even the largest employers are not doing enough to protect those speaking up from retaliation. In the IBE’s survey of the codes of ethics of the component companies of the FTSE100 earlier this year, we highlighted that only half of the codes had a clear, explicit commitment to non-retaliation for those speaking up.

So why is this so hard? We talked with a group of ethics practitioners from our largest supporters to discuss the challenges and share suggestions and successes. 

Some of the challenges we discussed were:

  • Bad things happen even in good companies, so every organisation needs to be conscious of the risk of retaliation
  • An obvious challenge with retaliation is that it can be subtle and insidious, with the impacts playing out long after the initial speak up event. Some of those impacts can be hard to evidence, such as a gradual exclusion from the social fabric of the team (not being invited to social events, being excluded from chat groups) and will be even harder to track in a hybrid work environment
  • Employees fear a backlash through their own performance management, but how do you establish that a lower subsequent performance rating for an employee is due to retaliation? It would be surprising, for example, if the emotional impact of speaking up, the investigation and its impact within the team did not have some effect on the future motivation and performance of the individual speaking up
  • If an individual decides to apply for another role in the organisation after speaking up, how do you ensure that their application is handled objectively and fairly?
  • For groups operating in multiple jurisdictions, even with global codes of ethics, the influence of local cultural attitudes to loyalty and what is the right thing to do can be very powerful. Local business leaders and ethics champions can have huge influence and impact. Balancing the desire to empower and engage the local business in ethics against the need for consistent global standards is not always straightforward 
  • There is no single magic bullet that can be deployed; for example, using reward as a direct encouragement to speak up can lead to a flood of unsubstantiated allegations
  • Having the right tone from the top is crucial, and senior leadership demonstrating a commitment to speak up and anti-retaliation is vital. When selecting contact points for speak up concerns, however, having only senior individuals on the list may have negative, unintended consequences as they may be unable to immediately react to reporters’ concerns. 

Some of the successes that were highlighted:

  • A programme of ‘aftercare’ surveys of those speaking up, starting immediately after a concern is raised and continuing until well after the investigation is complete, can help maintain high levels of trust amongst those speaking up and surface specific concerns about retaliation 
  • Carrying out a detriment/retaliation risk assessment at the time that a report is received works really well 
  • Long term monitoring of whether those speaking up face retaliation through performance management is challenging. It requires additional benchmarking of the individuals against the norms in their area and follow up investigation of any red flags 
  • Adding questions in all-employee surveys around trust and confidence in speaking up provides a good assessment of the levels and drivers of reluctance and where the problematic pockets are in the business 
  • Exit interviews are another opportunity to ask departing colleagues about issues or concerns, how those were escalated or reported, and to probe for suggestions of retaliation 
  • Linking the commitment to speak up into other programmes across the business, such as initiatives on mental health, can be particularly effective
  • Managers have a particular responsibility to create the right atmosphere. Most issues will be raised first with the individual’s line manager. If that initial response is unsupportive or hostile, the employee may choose to keep quiet but still experience retaliation. Managers need training on listening skills and the clear support of senior leadership when issues are raised that go beyond their areas of responsibility
  • Senior leaders have to walk the talk. Exceptions and allowances for senior executives are hugely damaging for trust in the process.

There is much that can be done to assess levels of confidence and trust in speaking up. The key challenge for protecting individuals is triangulation. Existing data and new data needs to be brought together to provide a sophisticated view of how an individual is treated in the longer term after speaking up. Doing this is not one person’s job, but there is a vital role for the ethics leaders in ensuring that the cross-functional resources are mobilised to do this.

There is much scope for improvement in ensuring that employees are nurtured and protected when raising difficult messages. Too often, the first question that is asked when a concern is raised is around the identity of the individual who has spoken up. Above all, there is a recurring need to ensure that the focus is on the message, not the messenger.


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

Read lessmore