Notwithstanding that many business organisations use tools such as codes of conduct, training and audits, research constantly shows that only very few employees ever speak up or report wrongdoing. This matters, because such silence creates a fertile ground for white-collar crime.

Why is this?

The leading cause of silence is fear of repercussions. Research after research indicates that as far as 82% of whistle blowers end up suffering harassment or lose their jobs and some went as far as attempting suicide. Other causes include our unconscious need for belonging, a preference for the status quo, and willful blindness. So the question remains. How can business organisations motivate employees to speak up and respond effectively to any report?

Research in this area points towards various possible solutions, which are mainly rooted in behavioral science.

What Companies Often Do Wrong
However, before delving into the solution, we need to understand three common mistakes or assumptions that companies make in combating misconduct.

  • They are using wrong tools. Organisations over rely on a narrow set of compliance and control tools to prevent wrongdoing and encourage its disclosure. How effective were codes of conduct, training or audits when Volkswagen falsified the emissions of its diesel cars? Zilch. Research in behavioural science indicates that penalties or sanctioning systems distort our thought process from doing the right thing. When rewards such as promotions, perks or pay raises are threatened, self-preservation creeps in and we use a business lens, not a moral lens, to decide what to do.
  • They are using the wrong communication triggers. When companies design compliance policies and codes of conduct, they hope they will trigger our sense of duty and moral responsibility to speak up if we see bad behavior. But they don’t inspire many people to speak up. Interestingly a recent research studied the response to a hypothetical situation where a senior executive bullied a junior employee to accelerate the launch of a new drug, despite incomplete testing. The research outlined that the emotion triggered was not a feeling of responsibility to speak up, but anger at the offending manager — by a factor of four. Moreover many justify their inaction in what psychologists call diffusion of responsibility: the assumption others will intervene. Hence, the bigger the group, the bigger the assumption and the bigger the problem.
  • The wrong assumptions about employee types. Assuming that certain populations or personality types — e.g., extroverts, optimists, or leaders — are predisposed to speak up is incorrect. Behavioural science shows that men are no more likely to blow the whistle than women, and extroverts no more likely than introverts, regardless of industry or occupation. There is no magic gender, disposition, age or personality. Anyone can speak up.

The right strategies
Given that codes of conduct, training and audits alone don’t suffice in getting people to speak up when they witness improper behavior, other steps must be taken. If one where to look at decades of of behavioral science research once can observe a number of common strategies to nudge people to speak up. These strategies can be considered as supplements to the traditional compliance strategies which appeal to logic (LOGOS) together with communication strategies that appeal to emotion (PATHOS). They are based on the so called triggers of persuasion.

  • Redesign reporting tools. Organisations should separate the motivation to speak up from the management of issues raised — each of which has different objectives and thought processes. Organisations must review and upgrade the suitability of existing reporting mechanisms. For example, consider investing in training employees to spot and appropriately respond to signs of misconduct that they witness. People don’t always know how to respond: Is the wrongdoing frivolous or fraudulent, accidental or intentional? One other thing. It is trendy to say that you have a zero-tolerance policy against any wrongdoing, but is such a zero tolerance policy unconsciously inhibiting employees from admitting that they have done something wrong or fallen short? One other step, make sure that filing a report is easy and safe i.e. cyber-secure, anonymous and accessible.
  • Don’t blame the messenger. People instinctively reject negative news. Our auto-immune response is to expel them.
  • Embed a culture of safety. Is toxic behaviour in your team tolerated or not? Are questioning voices labeled misfits or heroes? Tolerance and tone from the top matters. Perceived organisational support and culture are among the biggest drivers of disclosure. Adopt non-judgmental dialogue to build employees’ confidence to use their voices. Great leaders sense how teams feel and build relationships rather than rely on audits, rumors or surveys to surface concerns. They hold regular sessions where they encourage employees to express their concerns. Emotional Intelligence teaches us that great leaders also admit mistakes, which shows vulnerability and signals reassurance.
  • Push positive messages. How you frame messages greatly influences the likelihood that people will speak up. While emphasising commercial consequences, the secret is to incorporate messages that appeal to empathy & inclusion and even self-interest. People respond differently, so vary a range of messages. Position silence as “everyone’s problem” to communicate speaking up as a shared goal and collective choice, reinforcing the inclusivity of “in it together.” You might also position decisions to report misconduct as “showing compassion” or “supporting others.” This promotes speaking up in situations where victims of bullying, harassment or discrimination need support from colleagues. Research shows that empathy prompts disclosure and people are happier helping others than themselves. Even self-interested or selfish employees would be motivated to speak up if they knew that working at companies involved in scandals would stigmatize them, affecting their future as they could be shunned upon in the future when their CV shows they worked for such an organisation.
  • Reward with non-monetary incentives. When workers escalate concerns, query practices or highlight risks, do you groan or show appreciation? Deciding to take action is already extremely difficult and requires enormous courage. It deserves recognition, not rebuke. When managers exhibit genuine gratitude, it can stimulate a bandwagon effect, encouraging others to speak up.
  • Amplify messenger voices. As a business leader or manager you could use your influence to reinforce the acceptability of speaking up and accelerate the momentum to do so. Therefore companies could consider highlight employees who have had the courage to expose misconduct. Communicating courage-based stories is a persuasion technique that “pre-suades” future behaviour since it acts subliminally, like advertising. For example, the more we hear a song, brand, or message, the more familiar it becomes, and the more we remember and like it — a phenomenon called the “mere exposure effect.”

Business organisations must continue to protect whistleblowers & victims and to punish wrongdoers, regardless of their seniority or position in the company. By adopting some of the above strategies, organisations can help reduce silence by adopting the right triggers and the right tools.

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