If you saw someone behaving inappropriately or unethically at work, would you speak up or do anything about it?

It’s a question that’s gained prominence recently due to the alleged actions of British television personality Russell Brand. Following an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, his treatment of and behaviours towards women – amongst other things – have come under intense scrutiny.

speak out shout

Along with a growing list of serious charges being levelled at the entertainer, his conduct whilst at places of work has also been called into question: with a number of his ex-colleagues describing how he acted inappropriately around them with little regard for any consequences. What makes this even more concerning however, is that much of his toxic behaviour was supposedly either tolerated or simply ignored by his employers.

So, would you speak up or do anything if you saw someone acting inappropriately at work? If the honest answer is ‘no’, it seems you’re not alone…

Turning a blind eye

Although Brand’s alleged behaviours are indeed at the extreme end of the scale, they do raise a serious issue. Mainly, how speaking up against inappropriate, unethical, or simply bad behaviour isn’t something people seem comfortable doing.

For instance, research from Roffey Park suggests that although nearly half of managers have seen acts of misconduct at work, only two-thirds have spoken up. Their research also found that Junior managers were the least likely to report ‘bad’ or inappropriate behaviours, with 43% who spotted wrong-doing keeping quiet. Even at board level, where company cultures ultimately stem from, 17% of directors who saw ‘questionable’ activity failed to take any action.

That inaction, ultimately, stems from people’s reluctance to successfully have difficult conversations at work. Whether they’re about poor performances or unacceptable conduct, many of us just seem averse to speaking up about problems in the workplace – and this issue is incredibly widespread.

For instance, according to a study done by workplace resource company, Bravely, 70% of employees they surveyed are avoiding difficult conversations at work and 53% of employees are handling “toxic” situations by ignoring them. In addition, the Roffey Park survey mentioned earlier 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% simply didn’t want to get involved.

Time to speak up?

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.

Ultimately, a workplace that tolerates or ignores bad or poor behaviours will experience declining employee engagement, plummeting organisational trust and a toxic company culture. 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, as an HR professional, what must you do to ensure difficult conversations take place? And, how can you make it easy and acceptable for staff in your organisation to speak out if they see actions or behaviours that make them feel uncomfortable? Here are some key actions…

Walk the talk

Leaders and managers need to role model the behaviour they wish their people to emulate. For example, Ashridge Business School uses a football analogy in its 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 an HR professional: what message are you sending to your team and others? Could you or your managers do with more support or training around managing difficult conversations or effective leadership? Always keep in mind that, as key business partners and alignment with business leaders, the way you speak, act and go about your work speaks volumes about how you expect others to behave.

If you’re seen to ‘do the right thing’ – for example compensating a customer or supplier who has suffered through no fault of their own – others in your organisation 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 act, plus, it 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 and transparent company 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 must 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 or toxic behaviours 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 – a shared HR portal within your HR software system is an ideal 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 over 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.

Paul Bauer author image

Paul Bauer

Paul Bauer is the Head of Content at Cezanne HR. Based in the Utopia of Milton Keynes (his words, not ours!) he’s worked within the employee benefits, engagement and HR sectors for over four years. He's also earned multiple industry awards for his work - including a coveted Roses Creative Award.

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