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  • Writer's pictureRichard Bistrong

Rewarding Those Who Speak Up – Money or Thanks?

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

The following post is by Katherine Bradshaw, Head of Communications,  Institute of Business Ethics.

Having an 8 year old means there’s a lot of Harry Potter in our house. One of my favourite scenes from Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone is when an unassuming boy called Neville Longbottom, who tried to stop Harry, Ron and Hermione from breaking the school rules, is awarded ten points for his courage, enabling Gryffindor to win the house cup. “There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Indeed, fearing that speaking up would alienate them from colleagues is just one of the reasons employees who witness misconduct don’t speak up about it. Thirty percent feel it might jeopardise their job.

There is much debate about rewarding those who speak up. Monetary rewards may be a distraction as the majority of those who raise concerns are not motivated by financial gain. Despite perceived risks to jobs and careers, employees speak up because what they have witnessed cannot be reconciled with their personal values. They believe they are doing the right thing and they have to trust that the organisation will deal with the issue raised.

Since the SEC set up its Office of the Whistleblower in 2011, awards to whistleblowers have surpassed $154m and resulted in nearly $1bn in fines. However, culture plays a part in whether rewards can be an incentive. The UK independent crime line, Crimestoppers, offers an anonymous reporting service to anyone reporting a crime, including business fraud. It pays cash rewards of up to £1,000 for significant information but less than one percent of people who could claim a reward actually do so.

Monetary incentives have not been readily used in other countries, either. In France, for example, the anti-bribery and corruption legislation, Sapin II, specifically states that a whistleblower cannot receive financial rewards for making a report and must act solely in consideration of the public interest.

How do you encourage employees to speak up when there is little incentive to do so?

Raising awareness of the Speak Up arrangements is a vital aspect of the programme, ensuring that all employees know how to raise a concern and what to expect. The policy may be disseminated organisation-wide with the code of ethics, via intranet sites, by email direct to staff and in training sessions. Posters, pens, key rings and other marketing tools can be used to notify staff of the contact details for raising concerns. And businesses are doing a good job at communicating their policies. According to the IBE’s last survey of employee views of ethics at work – 0% (yes, that’s zero percent!) didn’t know who to contact if they wanted to raise a concern.

A new Good Practice Guide from the Institute of Business Ethics provides examples of what some companies are doing in this area.

Communicating the outcomes of investigated cases will also encourage confidence in the process. But how far can and should companies go in discussing internal failures and describing how raising concerns promptly avoided greater damage occurring?  Lawyers invariably counsel against any form of disclosure.

One of the main barriers to a Speak Up culture is the belief that nothing will be done. In stark contrast to when IBE first asked employees who raised concerns whether they were satisfied with the outcome, the majority now say they are not satisfied – 61% compared with 30% three years previously. Publishing outcomes can begin to reframe this narrative and encourage others to speak up.

If an incident has been resolved which was brought to management’s attention by an employee, a case study (suitably anonymised) could be published. This will reinforce the organisation’s support and commitment to taking employee concerns seriously and valuing those that speak up.

An example from IBE’s Good Practice Guide is that of BT, the communications company.

“We wanted to balance the carrot and the stick, highlighting both positive and negative consequences” says Laura Reid, Head of Ethics and Compliance Learning and Culture at BT. “Because we had always dealt with misconduct discreetly, our people couldn’t see that there was a penalty for misconduct – they didn’t see the action that the organisation had taken. We wanted to show our people that our compliance programme has teeth.”

The company began by talking about the number of disciplinary actions that had been taken and reporting it in the Annual Report. Then they created an article about the data for internal communications. “It was one of our most read articles,” says Reid. “It was evidence of us taking compliance seriously.” As time went on, BT got better at looking at misconduct categories and the data got richer. “This laid the foundation for us to talk about individual, anonymised cases,” says Reid. The challenge was how to handle them sensitively. “The postcard framework makes them quick and easy to read and being brief it allows us to focus on the behaviour and how it relates to our ethics code without going into detail.”

Titled Ethics in action, each postcard outlines two real BT situations and their outcomes – one positive and one negative – where appropriate, what action was taken, what the company has learnt and what The Way We Work (BT’s code) says about the issue. HR and Legal are consulted, but the stripped-back content hasn’t created any problems. They are shared on the intranet and via the company’s newswire. Local leaders are also encouraged to communicate them locally if relevant to their area.

The postcards help to reassure our people and provide positive reinforcement,” concludes Reid. “It’s about transparency, risk mitigation and, most importantly, doing the right thing.”

Communication of a Speak Up policy and procedure alone will not foster trust. That will only come, when employees can begin to see the positive outcomes of raising concerns.

Thanking those who alert the organisation to potential risks encourages others to do the same. Aside from monetary rewards, it could be as simple as a note from the CEO or Chairman, an award nomination or acknowledgement in the staff newsletter. At the very least, employees should be made aware of the positive changes that their report has made.

Adam Jones, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Ethics & Compliance at the global technology company, Smiths Group,  suggests that having open discussions around ethics is a critical engagement tool as it encourages employees to take ownership of acting ethically. “We want employees to understand that speaking up is not just a right, it is a responsibility,”  he says.

In her book Willful Blindness, Margaret Heffernen says “They [whistleblowers] are not cynics, but almost always start as optimists, not non-conformists but true believers. They are not, typically, disgruntled or disappointed; they are not innately rebels but are compelled to speak out when they see organisations or people that they love taking the wrong course.”

It takes a special type of person to speak up; they have an ethical impulse, their personal values cannot allow them to leave the misconduct unsaid. And it is this kind of ethics in decision-making which companies should be encouraging.

Like Dumbledore – we should talk about them, empower others to do the same. They are the guardians of the company’s reputation and its licence to operate.

The complete volume of  “Encouraging a Speak Up Culture” can be found here.

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