There’s a startling disconnect between what so many organisations of all sizes say matters and their real-life actions.

Perhaps the most brutal divergence is between the claim to value people in the organisation who speak up and what happens when they do. Whether these people offer creative solutions, point to inefficiencies, or draw attention to ethical concerns.

In far too many organisations, the cost of speaking up is personally excessive. In simple terms, you will be damned if you do. Damned does not just mean you will be persecuted in some way. It can also mean you’ll lose your job, be made a target for harassment or even in some cases, black-listed in the industry and become virtually unemployable.

This can occur even in companies claiming to have systems and procedures to protect those who come forward to draw attention to questionable organisation behaviour. Paul Moore, once head of risk at HBOS for example raised alarms about company practices and was duly sacked. In his own words: “Whistle blowing almost killed me.” [1]

Yet visit any major corporation and you will often encounter an impressive array of codes of practice, training in ethics, and compliance officers ready to hear about divergences from the norm. There may even be a telephone help line run by an independent third party, where concerned employees can raise issues anonymously, in theory avoiding the risk of retaliation.

Yet many managers and leaders would rather not hear bad news. They regard those who express concern about the company’s actions as “difficult people” or as “mavericks”, ones who must be tolerated, rather than rewarded or encouraged.

And when it comes to ethical behaviour, few employees regard their organisation has having ethically-engaged employees. Ethically engaged employees are those who feel able and motivated to act on behalf of their organisation in raising concerns about responsible behaviour.

In a global study for example, only about 3% of some 36,000 employees across 18 countries said they observed what the researchers called “self-governance” or what might be better termed ethical engagement. [2]

It is not as if those with concerns about the company’s behaviour always rush to talk to the press, or write unsolicited articles that embarrass their employer. Many do their best to express their concerns responsibly, even with great tact and care for their colleague’s feelings. Despite this, speaking up in organisations, especially about ethical issues too often carries a high personal price in the form of retaliation, scapegoating and career damage or destruction.

What can be done about this manifestly unsatisfactory state of affairs? How can organisations learn to live with embarrassing or confronting voices that stem from inside, rather than outside the organisation?

Part of the answer lies in changing the culture to be more robust in receiving awkward feedback and in being that cliché—a learning organisation. It is through facing up to challenging voices that an organisation and its leaders grow, and have new information for tackling serious reputational risks sooner, rather than later.

Few sensible leaders or leadership teams welcome or even expect the uncomfortable message that “in your organisation people are frightened to speak up, fear retaliation, or don’t trust they will be respected for their views.” Yet that can and often does emerge from cultural surveys, whether formal in-depth ones based on extensive research, or informal feedback from valued insiders.

Leaders often wonder how to be inspiring. One of the sure ways is to get the message across that those who speak up are truly valued, backing this up with affirmative action.

Another is to create mechanisms in which individuals can feel safe in expressing their concerns, for example creating systems to reward and recognise those who draw attention to potentially damaging organisational or individual behaviour.

As a leader it is not a case of saying “my door is always open”, or promising you will personally respond to all e-mails from anyone in the company. Nor is it about delegating the role of listening for uncomfortable feedback to specialist staff such as compliance or ethics officers.

Instead, it’s far more important to ensure middle managers and supervisors are properly trained to listen out for the bad news. These and not the top leadership in the C-Suite are the most influential in creating the right climate in which essential, if awkward feedback can arise.

A leading leadership expert once claimed “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” He was commenting about individual leader performance. However it also applies in the wider organisational context. If you want an ethical or responsible business, find ways to nurture reward and make safe the whole process of speaking up.

Putting it slightly differently, the message from the leadership needs to be: “Speak up or we’re damned!”

Andrew Leigh is a founding director of Maynard Leigh and author of Ethical Leadership, to be published in October 2013 by Kogan Page.


[1] Medland D, Whistleblowing Almost Killed Me, Financial Times 6th June 2013

[2] The HOW Report New Metrics for a New Reality (2012) Rethinking the Source of Resiliency, Innovation, and Growth, LRN

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