How to make it OK to speak out

If you saw someone behaving unethically or inappropriately at work, would you do anything about it? If the honest answer is no, you’re not alone.

Recent research from Roffey Park suggests that although nearly half of managers have seen misconduct at work, only two-thirds have spoken up. Junior managers – not surprisingly – were the least likely to report ‘bad’ behaviour with 43 per cent who spotted wrong-doing keeping quiet. Even at board level, 17 per cent of directors who saw ‘questionable’ activity failed to take any action.

People are often reluctant to have ‘difficult’ conversations at work, whether they are about poor performance (see last week’s blog) or unacceptable conduct. The Roffey Park survey found that half of those questioned kept quiet because they believed nothing would be done as a result, a quarter feared it would lead to action against them and 37 per cent simply didn’t want to get involved.

Of course the trouble is that if a culture of saying nothing prevails – even when people know things are wrong – the rot can quickly spread throughout the whole business. Important issues are left un-tackled, morale dips and bad feeling is allowed to fester. Valuable employees jump ship and sooner or later the fall-out trickles down to clients or customers, often causing irretrievable damage to the business.

So what do you need to do to ensure difficult conversations take place and to make it easy and acceptable for staff to speak out if they see actions or behaviours that make them feel uncomfortable?

Walk the talk

Leaders and managers need to role model the behaviour they wish their people to emulate. Ashridge Business School uses a football analogy in its recent report ‘The Tone from the Top’. “If the executives are sending signals that business is a game where fouling is OK if the referee doesn’t see – or that cutting corners is acceptable to deliver results –no amount of good tone from the rest of the board will have much impact,” say the authors. So think carefully about how you operate as a manager and what message this is sending to your team – the way you speak, act and go about your work speaks volumes about how you expect others to behave. If you are seen to ‘do the right thing’ – for example compensating a customer or supplier who has suffered through no fault of their own – others will follow suit.

Be open

If things go wrong, don’t be tempted to brush them under the carpet. If you’ve had to dismiss someone for misconduct, for example, be up-front about it. It shows that the business won’t tolerate bad behaviour and is prepared to take action – and also makes it more likely that people will report similar instances in the future. Make sure people are crystal clear about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Aim to create an open culture where people know that it’s OK to speak out if they see practices that make them uncomfortable or feel that a colleague is behaving in an inappropriate manner. Emphasise that you want this kind of feedback – and that there will be no negative repercussions for people who speak out.

Be tolerant of mistakes

Mistakes happen, however hard people try to avoid them. But if people are frightened to own up to slip-ups or errors of judgement, what started off as a small problem can soon escalate into a major issue. The key is to create an environment where people understand that they have to be responsible and accountable – but are not in fear of their jobs if things don’t always go perfectly. Tolerance levels will of course vary according to the nature of your industry and the seriousness of the error, but wherever possible, try to treat mistakes as learning experiences rather than major dramas so that staff are not constantly looking over their shoulders.

Nip problems in the bud

If someone is performing poorly, constantly coming in late or suffering from regular ‘Monday-morning-itis’ and getting away with it, resentment will soon build up in the team. People won’t, however, voice their concerns or admit to feeling hard done by if they see colleagues being allowed to get away with murder. They will simply fester silently – or in the worst case scenario, will start to behave badly themselves because they know you are unlikely to do anything about it. Don’t let the rot set in. Let people see that you are not prepared to tolerate poor behaviour. If they know you will deal with problems swiftly, they are much more likely to speak out.

Put the right processes in place

Having clear policies and procedures makes it much easier for people to report dubious practices, unethical behaviour or to highlight areas where there is room for improvement. A code of conduct provides a reference point for people if they are unsure about what is and isn’t acceptable or want to speak out about something they are uncomfortable with. Some industries are of course governed by regulatory bodies – in which case the ‘rules’ are usually abundantly clear – but if your business doesn’t fall into this category it’s still important to have a framework for employees to work to. Clear disciplinary procedures will also make it clear what the consequences of unacceptable behaviour are. Make sure these documents are widely available to all employees – the social portal on your HR software system is a good place to host them. You could also consider providing training to give people the tools they need to handle the ‘difficult’ conversations they may need to have in the course of their working day. If people can learn how to get good results out of difficult conversations it will help to improve performance and create a positive culture in the business.

Do difficult conversations take place regularly in your business – or do managers typically avoid them? How do you make it easy for people to speak out when they need to?

You may be interested in reading our guide to building trust inside your business

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