Rozlyn Spinks of the Institute of Business Ethics explains how simply changing the terminology from ‘whistleblower’ can be a first step to fostering a more open culture

Is it too much to hope that raising concerns at work could become “business as usual”? I have spoken up at work, raising a concern about a bullying senior manager.

My colleagues were too afraid to, fearful of the consequences and painfully aware that it had been done before, with seemingly no action taken. Instead, they warned against it. “If you report it, your life will be hell,” was the message.

Those fears are all too real for the 43% of employees who have witnessed misconduct but didn’t raise their concerns, according to the Institute of Business Ethics’ (IBE) Ethics at Work survey of employees. More than 27% of European employees fear that speaking up would jeopardise their jobs, 26% didn’t believe that any corrective action would be taken, and 26% worried that speaking up would alienate them from colleagues.

The terms “whistleblowing” and “speak up” are often used interchangeably, and can cover disclosure of a wide range of legal and ethical issues, but the IBE differentiates between the two. Blowing the whistle externally may be considered a last resort, occurring when concerns have not been listened to or acted upon internally.

The term 'speak up' has more positive and constructive connotations for organisations wishing to encourage employees to raise concerns

Speaking up implies raising a concern internally so that it can be remedied, hopefully before it becomes a bigger problem. At the first incidence, that would mean feeling able to have a conversation to challenge something or raise a concern with a manager.

The term “speak up” has more positive and constructive connotations for organisations wishing to encourage employees to raise concerns. This change of language can mark the beginning of fostering an open culture, and there are numerous examples of companies seeing greater engagement by simply changing the name of their procedure and helpline from whistleblowing to something more positive.

Many organisations have switched to this more constructive language, but raising concerns remains a stressful and emotionally complex experience. I know how vulnerable those who make the effort to raise a concern feel; the conflicting emotions and the confusion they experience about a situation and process they are unfamiliar with.

IBE's study found 43% of workers who witnessed misconduct didn’t raise concerns. (Credit: Srijaroen/Shutterstock)

When I finally called the Speak Up helpline, the phoneline which my organisation provided for reporting misconduct, it felt intimidating and serious. But after I hung up, I felt an enormous sense of relief. My expectations were considerable, and I had no one to share them with. At first I felt exhilarated; it was empowering taking action. But as the days went past with nothing more than the original acknowledgement of my call, paranoia began to set in.

Seeking to demystify the speak up process and acknowledge the emotional aspect of raising concerns, has led to the IBE developing the IBE Speak Up Toolkit.

It provides guidance on what to expect, and answers questions about the process – from noticing a problem and having a conversation through to what happens when calling a Speak Up helpline or if a concern is investigated, and the follow-up communications to make sure the process is working. At each stage of the journey, it also helps organisations ensure that they have the right resources, processes and procedures in place to help staff.

According to IBE research, managers themselves can feel unsupported or unsure of how to handle concerns from others as well as their own

The IBE Speak Up Toolkit may assist in empowering employees to raise their concerns, but it is important that we acknowledge the vital role that line managers play in employees’ psychological safety.

According to IBE research, managers themselves can feel unsupported or unsure of how to handle concerns from others as well as their own concerns. It can be difficult for them to manage their own feelings, especially if they perceive the report as undermining them. Managers at all levels need sufficient training in listening attentively and handling concerns appropriately.

The speaking up journey begins with a conversation. Organisations can have great processes in place but the ability to feel confident in raising a concern starts at your line manager’s office.

So how can managers create a psychologically safe environment for their team, one that is free from blame and rich with feedback? Here are some tips:

When handling concerns:

• Be aware of the emotions involved, and how the employee might be feeling
• Find out the facts where you can, but be aware of when to call in specialist help to investigate
• Make an informed decision
• Communicate the decision quickly
• Escalate if required
• Learn the lessons

How to react if a concern involves you:

• Acknowledge the feedback
• Neutralise their feelings and don’t take it personally
• Report back on what action will be taken – don’t ignore it
• Make time for informal discussions and opportunities for challenge

At the IBE, we don’t think “business as usual” is an over-ambitious aim for encouraging a speak-up culture. The increased focus on speaking up is testament to that. It is important that we look beyond the processes, and focus on the people. Ultimately, the greatest barrier to speaking up is fear of the consequences of doing so and, for companies, fear of hearing what those voices are saying. If organisations can alleviate those worries – through training and tools – then we are on the way to making a culture of openess business as usual.

Rozlyn Spinks is head of advisory services, Institute of Business Ethics


IBE  Speak up toolkit  workplace bullying  whistleblowing  Ethics at Work 

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