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Speaking up at work

I often reflect on why it is important for employees to be able to speak up at work. Employees should be able to speak up about anything, from sharing feedback and ideas around innovation, to calling out unacceptable and toxic behaviours. The ability to speak up and speak out is actually a fundamental human right.

In my experience, the innate ability to speak up depends on our individual degree of courage and introspection. It is not about speaking for the sake of hearing one's voice, but about speaking up in order to add value and contribute to improvement at work. It is about experiencing inclusion and belonging, through the simple act of being heard. It is about being of value, of knowing that my opinion at work counts. It is about knowing that when I speak I am heard and what I say may also be acted on. Unfortunately, it is also very easy for individual courage and introspection to fail us, particularly if the work environment and culture is not conducive to listening.

In my case, some years ago, I experienced (as a leader in my organisation) being unheard. I experienced being silenced, being told by a person in authority to "hold it right there, you have wound yourself up". I experienced shock followed by silence. It took me some time to fully appreciate the impact and the meaning of those words. I really did not at that time have the tools to deal with that experience. In fact, my imposter syndrome kicked in, with thoughts of 'what I have to say is not of value', 'I am not good enough', 'I have no contribution to make here' and for quite some time after I felt quite angry, upset, I would go as far as saying I experienced a sense of betrayal - that all my hard work accounted for nothing.

My experience is not an isolated incident - many people, both men and women around the world feel unappreciated in their workplace. It happens unchecked and for many has become a normal working experience. What happens when people feel unappreciated? They are more likely to experience low mental health, low feelings of wellbeing, they become unhappy, and they may also leave - when asked about feeling valued, 66% of employees said they would quit if they feel unappreciated, that means two out of three people. If you are still reading this blog chances are you are one of the 66%, or had at least one experience where you stopped yourself or were stopped from speaking up.

And, what if you experience harassment in the workplace? The recently published All Parliamentary Party Group Report for UN Women said that 52% of women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. One of the report conclusions suggests that women don't speak up about their experience of sexual harassment because they don't have confidence or trust in the system of reporting.

I have been, for some time now, thinking about how a culture of silence is supported by ways of working, how employees are not heard, and the systems and processes that are needed to help employees feel valued and enable their voices to be heard.

Traditional models rely on reporting to line management; this could be reporting on observed wrongdoing at work or even to feed ideas on innovation and how to do work better. But most people who feel unappreciated at work are unlikely to speak up about ideas on how to innovate let alone speak up about wrongdoing - if you feel unappreciated and under valued at work, why would you speak up? Your voice is not valued after all and leadership rarely act on what is heard.

Then there are formal whistleblowing policies, but these are rarely used. When they are used, you hear about the 'whistleblowers', the ones that are protected by legislation, the ones that hit the 6pm news. The truth is most employees don't really understand or are not shown how or when to use whistleblowing, or think that it is solely for the 'big ticket items', like reporting on fraud. Most people don't really understand how whistleblowing should be used in the context of values, culture, micro aggressions, harassment, bullying, and so on, which are all 'big ticket items'.

In my humble opinion, what is missing in a modern workplace is a system and cultural capability that makes it easy for employees to speak up and for leadership to listen. In fact, a simple technological solution supported by a culture of speak up, that integrates speaking up and listening as two core workplace competencies would go a long way to supporting a best practices employer. ClearView Connects does exactly this, it enables everyone to speak up without the fear of reprisal. With the right ways of working to support the technology, the system has the ability to create trust in reporting systems and act as a conduit for employees who wish to share their ideas around innovation as well as speak out about their experiences of unacceptable behaviours.

There is only one question. How do you help your employees speak up at work?

[This blog was originally written for Belonging Pioneers, a partner company to Culture Lab Consultancy.]

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