17 May 2024

Understanding Speak-Up Culture

A lady in a white t-shirt, smiling with her thumbs up.

What is a speak-up culture, and why does it matter? This blog covers everything you need to know about helping your employees to feel safe.

What is a speak-up culture?

If you want to attract the best talent, you need a culture that supports them. A speak-up culture is what a core part of enabling this. Simply put, if you have created a speak-up culture, you’ve made a workplace where employees are able to raise concerns and ideas without stressing about negative consequences. 

That means you need to create a safe space, one where ideas are vocalized, and actively listened to. You need to take the time to hear your employees out, and action what they say wherever you can. 

This takes a lot of work! But it’s well worth creating a speak up culture at work. Let’s look at why. 

Benefits of a speak-up culture

Beyond the ethical considerations of ensuring employees feel safe, speak-up cultures can play a huge part in enhancing employee engagement and satisfaction. If employees feel like they have no voice, they might start looking for an organization that respects them. 

When you actively listen to a wider range of voices, you also end up promoting innovation and problem-solving. People are able to suggest more creative and thoughtful solutions if they’re certain they’re not going to be punished for going against the grain. You create a sense of psychological safety which allows new ideas to flourish. 

There are also some more worrying examples of raising issues. Without a strong speak-up culture, employees might be afraid to report things that happen to them, such as instances of bullying or discrimination. Issues can be left to fester in these conditions, which can cause huge issues, like employees leaving, or even you being liable for legal action. 

What are the barriers?

What stops an employee from speaking up? What causes a speak-up culture to be stifled? 

Speaking up is risky. It can lead to embarrassment, social rejection, career issues, and even retaliation in the worst cases. You have to be pretty certain you’re correct before you speak out. That’s already a lot of barriers in place. 

There are a number of common obstacles that can lead to these issues. 

The absolute biggest that most employees in the US face is a fear of retaliation. The worst part is this might not be your fault as an organization. Many of them will bring baggage from previous employers who did punish them from speaking up.  

Culture also plays a big part. If someone raises a concern casually, and your senior leadership or managers dismiss it (‘that’s just how they are’), they’ll never want to raise concerns more seriously. 

Lacking a space to solicit and receive feedback can also lead to this. If everyone is snowed under by work, eventually ‘that will have to do’ will take over. There’s no space to explore new ideas, which means no one will bother to speak up. 

You need to address these fears and foster some trust if you want the benefits. 

How do you build a speak-up culture

It starts from the top

Leaders set the tone. If they don’t show a willingness to take on board feedback, and to put themselves out there with speaking up, then why should anyone else? Leaders build up confidence in the system by being open and engaged, so when problems do arise, people feel safe. 

More channels, fewer problems

There should be specific communication channels where employees can provide any relevant feedback. These channels should ideally be specific and to a purpose. They can include things like suggestion boxes, check-ins, and even reporting hotlines. How and when to use these channels can get covered in onboarding. 

Listen, listen, listen

If you get feedback, the worst thing you can do is ignore it. Always try to acknowledge and respond as quickly as possible. This will ensure that people feel heard, even if you can’t action everything.  

Act on feedback

If nothing ever changes, what’s the point of putting yourself out there? Wherever possible, you should show employees you’re making changes. This will give your culture more authenticity. You can’t shout about listening if you don’t action it! 

Measuring the Effectiveness of Speak-Up Culture

Once you’ve put all these measures in play, how can you make sure everything is working as intended? 

There are several key metrics and indicators to assess the strength of your speak-up culture. Some of these are qualitive and include things like: 

  • Q&A forums 
  • Focus groups 
  • Check-in notes 
  • Anonymous reviews (through places like Glassdoor) 

There are also some quantitative metrics, which can include: 

  • How many reports you receive 
  • Culture surveys 
  • Engagement metrics 
  • How often your feedback channels are reviewed 

Creating a healthy speak-up culture is rarely a one and done thing. You need to be constantly evaluating and making improvements or changes as they’re needed. This has the added bonus of showing employees you’re proactive. 

Promoting an Ethical Work Environment

One of the most important things you can do is implement privacy measures to protect employees. 

Let’s take a mundane example. If you send out an employee engagement survey that asks for feedback on the company, but doesn’t ask for a name, then you’d think that’s anonymous. But a lot of these surveys ask for what department you work in. What if they’re the only person in their department, as is often the case in a lot of SMEs. That’s not truly anonymous, is it? Things like this cast doubt on these processes and leave employees reluctant to engage. 

Ensuring ethics are maintained across your organization is vital for a healthy speak-up culture. Integrate ethical values into your organization from the ground up, and ensure you respond swiftly to any issues of misconduct.  

The amazing thing about a speak-up culture is that they compound on themselves. The more you put in, the easier it gets to maintain over the long term. You can’t rest on your laurels, but by adapting to the needs of your employees you can create a culture that will make everyone proud. 

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Emma Reid

Content writer at MHR

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