Listen up/speak up

F Building block

Why it matters: Essential key feedback loop on the health of your organisation that protects people and resources

When people feel safe to raise concerns and share their ideas without fear of negative consequences, an organisation gains visibility over what is happening and can respond and make improvements, including preventing and detecting wrongdoing.

Creating a mechanism for people to report concerns is not enough. Management and senior staff need to be seen to be listening and taking action to resolve issues in an appropriate and timely manner. This builds trust in the system. This applies not only to staff but also to people who are accessing the services of the organisation.

What it looks like: When someone speaks up, the organisation listens and responds appropriately

Organisations need to show their commitment to creating an environment that prioritises the safety and well-being of those raising concerns or complaints.

Quote marks I have confidence in the process. If something is raised, it will be addressed appropriately.”
Government department staff member

Raising a concern can leave a person feeling incredibly lonely and vulnerable. Research shows that people are reluctant to raise concerns, mainly because they do not think that they will be protected or that anything will be done.41

For there to be open and honest communication, individuals need to believe that the system will work with them. The following describes the main actions an organisation can take to create a safe environment.42

Understand the source of silence and focus on diversity and inclusion

Low disclosure rates might be because there are no issues. But they might also reflect a lack of trust in the system and a belief that speaking up will not result in change or, worse, will risk reprisal or retaliation against an individual.43

It is critical to also recognise that power is not equally distributed throughout an organisation – hierarchy or unconscious bias can mean that different people or groups bear the "costs" of speaking up differently.

Different organisational structures also play a role. For example, in organisations with a strong culture of command and control, it can be more difficult for staff to raise concerns or speak out against the behaviour or decisions made by their immediate manager or others more senior in the hierarchy.

Quote marks In the past we just did what we were told, that is changing, we are now able to question our manager.”
Crown entity staff member

Have multiple formal and informal avenues to raise concerns

Organisations need to enable people to raise concerns in any circumstance and through any channel they feel most comfortable with, even where they may be uncertain or lack evidence to support their concerns.

It is important that people can raise issues as a group, as well as on an individual complaint basis. Internally at a minimum, the following channels should be available:

  • Informal – ask a question or speak privately to someone trusted in the organisation or raise a question in an open forum, such as a team meeting or staff talk.
  • Through the line – discuss an issue or make a formal complaint to a manager or supervisor.
  • Chief executive – raise any concerns about possible wrongdoing directly with the chief executive.
  • Protected disclosure – talk confidentially to a designated impartial person in the organisation who is independent of the possible wrongdoing, as well as a range of external authorities in certain circumstances.44

Organisations should also consider establishing anonymous reporting. Anonymous reporting can encourage issues to be dealt with internally by providing a safe mechanism for staff who are reluctant to use other channels to raise concerns.

For concerns or complaints from the public or people accessing services, the appropriate mechanism will depend on the role and types of services the public organisation delivers.

Reported concerns are often a combination of issues, so processes should allow individuals to raise a concern that involves a combination of issues without being required to follow separate processes for each.45

Make sure monitoring is in place to ensure that your processes (triage, risk assessment, support, intervention, and remediation), roles, and responsibilities are operating effectively.

Have a high degree of transparency

There needs to be transparency about the system, processes, and actions taken when concerns are raised. A lack of visibility can lead to people making assumptions about what is happening.

Quote marks Allowing all parties to know what the process is has built trust amongst staff that action is being taken against integrity breaches and that the organisation stands firmly by its values.”
Government department manager

Although some issues often require confidential management, it is important to make as much as possible visible, particularly for those who raise concerns or make complaints. This builds trust that action is being taken against integrity breaches and that the organisation stands firmly by its values.

Provide training and support on handling concerns

Have training available for reporting, receiving, and dealing with concerns and formal complaints. Processes need to be robust and well understood to give staff reassurance that their concerns will be treated seriously and in confidence. Staff and managers should be trained in using the processes.

Book iconThe managers who often deal with complaints have had little or no education or training in how to manage these often complex and troubling cases. Processes and policies are not applied in a consistent way throughout the organisation and lack transparency.”
Shaw, Judge Coral (2019), Independent Review of Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s workplace policies, procedures and practices to address bullying and harassment

Have tailored support for staff who speak up

Staff who have raised concerns need to receive individualised support and regular communication. There should be a range of support mechanisms made available that are constantly monitored to ensure that the individual is getting the care and support they need to feel safe.

For public service organisations, the Speaking up model standard sets out minimum expectations to support staff to speak up about wrongdoing.46

41: Brown, A J, et al (2019), Clean as a whistle: A five-step guide to better whistleblowing policy and practice in business and government, Griffith University, Brisbane.

42: Brown, A J, et al (2019), Clean as a whistle: A five-step guide to better whistleblowing policy and practice in business and government, Griffith University, Brisbane.

43: The Clean as a whistle study found that more than 80% of people who raised concerns about workplace wrongdoing reported that they experienced some negative repercussions.

44: Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission, Speaking up in the Public Service.

45: For example, bullying or harassment combined with wrongdoing.

46: Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission, Speaking up in the Public Service.