A Speak Up Culture Depends on Follow Through and Accountability

Corporate leaders often talk to the talk when it comes to a Speak Up culture.  In theory, many business leaders can articulate their commitment to a Speak Up culture by emphasizing the importance of employees raising concerns.  It all sounds great and is usually reflected on paper in the form of positive statements in the code of conduct and other communications. 

All too often, however, this is about as far as a so-called Speak Up culture gets.  You can quickly tell how committed a company is to its Speak Up culture when the first significant complaint comes in and the company has to respond.  On many occasions, corporate leaders and managers will quickly seek to disarm the concern, the implications of the concern and lay a predicate for minimizing or dismissing the concern all together.

Corporate leaders with the assistance of legal and sometimes compliance may go through all the right motions.  They will meet with the employee, collect his/her concerns and documentation, say the right words as to a commitment to investigate and respond to the employee’s concerns.  But soon after this, the combined (conscious or unconscious) effort to off-ramp and minimize the concern may begin.

Unfortunately, many employees that seek to report concerns believing in the system slowly learn that the commitment to investigate is tempered by an unwillingness to challenge a corporate system or leadership.  In these situations, a commitment to a “happy talk culture” outweighs any effort to uncover the truth and address what could be a significant problem.

The cost to the company is substantial.  A company that undermines trust with its employees is bound to suffer problems – misconduct rates may increase, productivity may decline and overall employee morale is likely to decline.  

Just as important, the company may suffer significant wrongdoing without any likelihood that it may e prevented or even detected.  Many companies have a record of poor performance in this area and have suffered dearly.

BP’s disasters in the past occurred in an environment in which employees were unwilling to raise concerns for fear of reprisal.  As a result, BP suffered the Texas refinery explosion and later the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.  At one point, BP implemented an independent ombudsman to remediate the situation and appointed former Judge Stanley Sporkin as the ombudsman.

All of this is to make an obvious point – promising a Speak Up culture requires serious commitment to acknowledge problems, address them, and reward the employee who raised the issue (not financially but as an exemplary employee for raising the issue).

At the same time, if an employee reports misconduct by others, a failure to hold those employees responsible, including supervisors and even senior managers, is important to demonstrate credibility and a commitment to accountability.  The Justice Department and the SEC have emphasized the importance of holding accountable not only employees who committed misconduct but their supervisors who may have known or should have known about the misconduct.

My point is that a Speak Up culture depends more on actions than the words.  Everyone in the business world knows the right word to use and convince others they understand the importance of a Speak Up culture.  But the real issue is whether a company and its senior leaders demonstrate a commitment to follow these concerns, investigate the concerns, and hold leaders, managers and employees accountable for their actions or failure to supervise.

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