HR Management & Compliance

What Is a Speak-Up Culture?

Employers know that in order to combat problems in the workplace, the first step is to discover those problems. But how can an employer find out about problems if employees aren’t willing to bring them to anyone’s attention?

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This is where workplace culture comes into play. Employers have an incentive to create and foster a culture in which employees feel empowered to “speak up” whenever there is anything that needs to be addressed. Examples include:

  • Harassment
  • Discrimination
  • Bullying
  • Unsafe practices, policies, or behaviors
  • Illegal retaliation
  • Drug or alcohol problems
  • Violence
  • Theft
  • Fraud
  • Other unethical or illegal behaviors
  • Any other form of employee misconduct

How Employers Can Help Foster a Speak-Up Culture

Here are a few ways employers can create a speak-up culture:

  • Start with policy updates. Assess and remove or amend policies that could actually discourage reporting. Examples include zero-tolerance policies or policies that reward zero accidents, etc. Instead, assess each situation as it comes while incentivizing people to speak up if they find issues. Consider rewarding those who find process improvements.
  • Anytime a concern is brought to management or HR, give it proper attention. If it is a complaint, investigate it promptly. Take corrective actions when needed, and follow up on any actions over time to ensure resolutions stay in place and are working.
  • If you witness someone being criticized for giving honest feedback or input, take steps to put a stop to that behavior. Proactively watch for retaliation against people who do bring up issues. Ensure these types of behaviors are addressed, and look out for anything that would discourage people from speaking up.
  • Find ways to incentivize employees to speak up about things that need to be addressed. Be wary of creating a “tattletale” environment, of course, but encourage employee feedback.
  • Praise people who bring important items to leadership’s attention. Don’t punish the messenger when there’s bad news, which includes mistakes and problems. People need to see that it’s OK to bring these things up so they can be addressed and improved.
  • If people are still not speaking up, provide anonymous ways for them to do so until the culture better encourages it.
  • Be sure leadership follows through on not just hearing about but also acting upon things that are brought to their attention. People should feel like they can bring up issues and have faith those issues will be addressed.
  • Ask individuals direct questions when you have the opportunity to do so. Providing the opportunity to speak freely outside of a team meeting may be the needed opening that makes someone feel comfortable saying something.
  • Train management to be emotionally sensitive about what employees may be going through. This will enable anyone hearing feedback to respond to it sensitively and appropriately.

Taking steps to create a workplace where employees feel comfortable expressing new ideas, as well as concerns, can go a long way toward fostering a culture that is productive and makes employees happy. This can discourage many problematic workplace behaviors and can help address issues before they get worse.

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.