The first step to building a “speak up” culture in the workplace is to make sure everyone is aligned with your organisation’s vision, say legal experts.
So (we hope) you’ve read our last article on the damage that has occurred due to cultures of complicity within the Australian financial sector; brought to light in the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industries. But what are the steps you should take to help build a healthy “see something, say something” culture in your business?
We previously identified three Vs which underpin a business’ culture: vision, values and validation. In this article, we explore the vision that you have for your workplace and business, and how to act on it.
Expressing the vision of what your ideal workplace looks like would seem the most straightforward of the “three Vs”. However, given everything else rests on vision, it’s often the most difficult to get right. Failing to clearly set and then engage all employees with a shared view of your workplace culture can have severe consequences on both the business’ internal operations and external perception.
From an internal perspective, court and tribunal records are littered with examples of employees who have suffered under a cloud of an inconsistent or poorly defined workplace and business culture. An employee who perceives their workplace culture as one in which they must “suffer in silence” (where avenues to speak up are not readily available), may be subjected to protracted unfair treatment in the workplace. This can manifest in workers compensation claims which could have been easily avoided.
On the other side, if expectations and standards of workplace behaviour are not made consistently clear, and there is little to no encouragement for employees to speak up when they see something wrong, a common refrain from employees accused of misconduct is “nobody told me it was wrong!” This is generally echoed if the employee is subjected to disciplinary action for conduct deemed inconsistent with the supposed culture of the workplace.
Both of the above examples represent a failure by businesses to set a clear and consistent tone with respect to workplace culture; that is, vision.
You need look no further than at criticisms of financial institutions arising from the Banking Royal Commission to understand how a business’ internal cultural woes have an external effect on the community’s perception of it.
Who’s meant to have the vision?
The vision for every business’ culture starts at the top, we say this repeatedly to the employers we work with. The leaders of your business are leaders for a reason – they set the tone and direction of workplace culture and should hold themselves to a standard that all employees should model themselves on. Your leaders should be able to provide an aspirational expression of your workplace’s culture.
With regard to a “speak up” culture, a high level expression of the ideal culture for most modern businesses should ensure all employees:
- feel comfortable raising their hand when they see something wrong, without fear of reprimand; and
- have confidence that the perceived wrong raised, will be addressed by the business and handled appropriately; without the need to shout from the rooftop about it.
While the broad vision starts at the top, to be truly effective vision needs to be filtered down and shaped by the voice of all employees. From a “speak-up” perspective, employees should be offered the opportunity to comment, preferably anonymously (or at least confidentially) on:
- What they currently perceive the workplace’s and business’ core culture to be. Is the focus purely profit driven, or do they see something more? It is important to get these views from those at the ground level of your business.
- What they feel the business does well from a “speak-up” perspective. You can’t know what behaviours or areas of your business need to be celebrated unless you know where your employees feel most comfortable.
- Where your employees feel the business falls short. Just as you may champion areas of strength, it’s important to confront areas where improvement is needed. Failure to do so will result in cursory cultural change at best. An example ‘development area’ could include the need for more developed avenues where anonymous or confidential complaints can be made, in circumstances where employees are concerned about reprisals against complainants.
Get everyone onboard
Our business’ leaders and employees have weighed-in and now believe there is a strong vision for an effective “speak-up” culture. How do you make sure the vision is actually being implemented? There are several steps and pitfalls to be aware of:
- Written statements about the business’ core vision should be circulated to everyone in the business. A codified vision gives every employee something to aim for and follow (particularly in times of crisis). Importantly, it also removes the ability of troublesome employees to rely on “I didn’t know” arguments, should they fail to live up to the business’ vision.
- Arrange systematic and ongoing planning and strategy sessions with your employees, with a focus on assessing their views about culture on an ongoing basis. Culture is never a fixed state and can be affected by anything from personnel changes to changing societal norms (eg. #MeToo) and expectations of how a business should act and treat its staff. It’s important to track and reflect these changes to ensure your culture remains relevant.
- Are you a leader of the business? If so, hold both yourself and other leaders to the same (if not higher) standard than that to which you hold your employees. Few things are more destructive to business culture than the perception that senior management are ‘above the law’. The Orwellian rule of thumb that “all of us are equal, but some are more equal than others” is one of the most detrimental inhibitors of developing an effective speak-up culture.
Aaron Goonrey is a Partner and Adam Battagello is a Lawyer in Lander & Rogers’ Workplace Relations & Safety practice. Aaron can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Victor Freitas from Pexels.
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